With the arrival of Black Panther in theaters the world will witness a cinematic masterpiece, something never seen on the silver screen or even believed possible – a nation governed by Africans commanding the attention of the world and revered as a high-tech ecological paradise.
But we would not need to wait for February 2018 to witness this fantasy brought to life in film. Were it not for European colonization of the continent and US ambitions during the Cold War, the world might know of a real-life Wakanda: An independent and democratic Congo as envisioned by its first prime minister – a leader in every way heroic as T’Challa – Patrice Lumumba, who defended his new-born nation with his life. Had he lived, and his agenda of economic reform executed, the Congo would have been able to realize its potential and be recognized as “one of the richest nations on the planet.” 1 In his independence speech in the presence of their Belgian royal colonizers, Lumumba went off script and spoke passionately of the Congo people’s suffering under the Belgians and their aspirations for a nation that will “eradicate all discrimination, whatever its origin, and we shall ensure for everyone a station in life befitting his human dignity and worthy of his labour and his loyalty to the country.”2
Wakanda’s political and mythical stature in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is based in its treasured and protected resource, vibranium. This vibranium is arguably the most precious metal on the MCU’s Earth as it is only found within Wakanda. Buried in the red clay soil of the Congo lies an assortment of the most sought-after metals and minerals on the planet. Valued at a staggering 24 trillion dollars, enough wealth to solve the problem of poverty throughout the world, let alone in Africa, yet the Congolese people are one of the poorest on the planet.3
This crisis of development does not originate in a lack of initiative on the part of the people. As Walter Rodney clarified, it was a condition of colonialism. “In addition to private companies, the colonial state also engaged directly in the economic exploitation and impoverishment of Africa.”4 He goes on the list three of the primary objectives of the colonial state with the third being, “To guarantee optimum conditions under which private companies could exploit Africans.”5 That exploitation continues today in the Congo enabling multinational corporations to gain access to these minerals at dirt cheap rates in transactions with militias that embolden regimes of rape and terror throughout the country.6
The truth that lies at the heart of that paradox of the Congo’s poverty and wealth is what gives the story of Wakanda its life – Wakanda was never colonized. And it is that fictive fact that enables it to become one of the most advanced nations in the MCU. The story of the Black Panther begs the question: Given its over-abundance of resources, where would Africa be had European colonization never happened?
The Black Panther makes his Marvel debut in 1966.7 Many have speculated if its creator Stan Lee was inspired by The Black Panther Party. Actually, the first appearance of the Panther in Marvel comics occurs months before Bobby Seale and Huey Newton initiated the party in October of that year.8 A better source of inspiration for the African warrior king could very well be the assassination of Patrice Lumumba which occurred six years prior.9
Lee has long acknowledged that he conceived of the X-Men in response to the Civil Rights Movement.10 It is therefore not a stretch to imagine that Lee’s Black Panther might well have been inspired by Lumumba’s short-lived yet heroic leadership and the will of his people to be unfettered by the colonial yoke. But whether Lee had Lumumba in mind or not, there are significant compelling comparisons between the world of Wakanda and the Congo of our own. Some of the main characters in the Black Panther narrative are mirrored in the historical arc that is the Congolese saga in ways that are uncanny.
Of T’Challa’s numerous nemeses, none does he despise as much as the man known as Ulysses Klaw. Klaw is the one man responsible for killing his father T’Chaka, former King of Wakanda, and for stealing a stash of the treasured vibranium. Clearly, a most capable mercenary, what is intriguing about Klaw is that he is Belgian.11 One need not look any further for a clear connection to the Congo. For it was that small European nation that would colonize a territory in Central Africa 77 times its size and rename it Congo Free State.12 First taken in 1885 as his personal possession, King Leopold II would oversee the genocide of ten million Africans.13 In the MCU, Klaw has his arm severed by Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but it was the people of the Congo who had their hands and feet butchered by the Belgians as punishment for not meeting the daily yield on sun-drenched rubber plantations that harvested millions for the Belgian king.14
Klaw as a Belgian mercenary responsible for assassinating T’Chaka follows the actual account of the Belgian mercenaries who were responsible for the execution of Lumumba in the Katagan bush in January 1961.15 In The Assassination of Lumumba, Ludo de Witte recounts the role the Belgian government played in partnership with the United States and British governments to “eliminate” the prime minister of the newly independent Congo.
Klaw’s Belgian identity signifies the imperative of merciless Western imperialists’ continuing role in the looting and pillaging of the Congo and the elimination of its next generation of leaders.16
Eric Killmonger is to the Black Panther as Mobutu was to Lumumba. Killmonger is himself Wakandan just as Mobutu was of the Congo. Killmonger and Mobutu, both despising their rivals’ ascension to power, pursued bloody paths to remove them and take their thrones. In Black Panther #35 (May 2008) Killmonger becomes leader of the neighboring Nigandan army and stages a coup backed by the United States government. This is a similar course of partnership that Mobutu took to power in the DRC.17
Killmonger claimed bitter disagreement with T’Challa’s and T’Chaka’s efforts to make Wakanda into an international nation. He intended to return Wakanda to its isolationist ways in the name of cultural authenticity.18 This cultural nationalist approach was shared by Mobutu who changed his name and the name of his country to fit a culturally African aesthetic and crafted a national agenda that “was an attempt to legitimize his absolute rule by reference to supposedly African political values.”19 That “absolute rule” was granted by a US government that would keep him in power for 30 years as the Congolese people languished in poverty and strife. Mobutu’s rule afforded no wealth for the Congolese people. But it did coin the term kleptocracy.20 In the second trailer for the film we see Killmonger don his version of the Black Panther suit with leopard spots on his mask reminiscent of the leopard print hat that Mobutu was famous for sporting.
More than the personal bodyguards for the King of Wakanda, as the elite security force of Wakanda, the all-women Dora Milaje represent the entire nation’s self-defense. That a nation’s greatest warriors are women is a revolutionary proposition, in and of itself. It turns on its head long-held gender notions that continue to keep women’s status the world over in dangerous conditions. Of all the stories that have been told about the crisis in the Congo over the past decade, no story gained greater visibility than the rape of millions of women throughout the various conflicts. As this article from Al Jazeera clarifies, “The DRC has long been exploited for its resources, from colonial times under King Leopold II of Belgium, and today by US, Chinese and European companies. The land is rich in raw materials such as rubber, ivory, gold, diamonds, uranium, coltan and timber. In return, it has suffered from war, corruption, death, disease, hunger, mercenaries, child soldiers and rape. Rape, sexual violence, and the abuse of women is the tragedy within the tragedy here.”21
The current crisis of women and rape in the Congo represents what happens when a society has been fundamentally destabilized by corporate greed and war and their institutions corrupted. Whereas, the Dora Milaje represent what happens in a nation where women’s equality is woven into the social fabric of every institution. As such, the Dora Milaje, as the Wakandan symbol of women empowered, is the revolutionary counter-vision of what too many women in the Congo know as the brutal face of colonialism’s legacy of underdevelopment and exploitation.
Vibranium is not indigenous to Wakanda. Wakanda’s vibranium supply are the remains of a meteor that buried itself deep within its core.22 It is a finite resource with infinite potential for the Wakandan people. This sole resource and its mindful cultivation is the main reason for Wakanda’s recognition as the most technologically advanced society on the planet. Within the red clay earth of the Congo lies an assortment of precious metals and minerals that are native to the very ground walked on for many millennia by Africans who would be the kings and queens of this world in every respect were they able to industrialize and realize the benefits accrued from the tremendous wealth that lies at their very feet. But this is not speculative fiction or the cinema of idealists. It is the bloodied stage of a drama that has not ended since Lumumba was gunned down. Dictator after despot and coup after coup, the Congo has become a looter’s paradise where multinational corporations and stone-cold capitalists gather at the bowels of the nation’s unprotected borders where Congolese youth dive deep into hand-dug mines and risk their lives for mere shillings to provide the world its laptops, cellphones, electric car batteries and jewelry.23
As an alternate vision of African reality, Marvel’s Black Panther offers a radical critique of European colonialism and the current neo-colonial pillage of Africa. And through the magic of motion picture, it also presents in vivid color the vitality of the African spirit. May it inspire a new generation of would-be heroes to take on the mantle of Lumumba’s unconquerable vision.
- Dan Snow, “DR Congo Cursed by its Natural Wealth,” BBC News, October 9, 2013 < http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24396390>.
- Patrice Lumumba, “Speech at the Ceremony of the Proclamation of the Congo’s Independence,” June30, 1960 < https://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/lumumba/1960/06/independence.htm>.
- Esther Yu His Lee, “The Paradox of Congo: How the World’s Wealthies Country Became Home to the World’s Poorest People,” Think Progress, May 28, 2016 < https://thinkprogress.org/the-paradox-of-congo-how-the-worlds-wealthiest-country-became-home-to-the-world-s-poorest-people-d27cbdd1debd/>.
- Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Cape Town: Pambazuka Press, 2012,) 164.
- Kieron Monks, “Why the Wealth of Africa Does Not Make Africans Wealthy,” CNN International Edition, April 22, 2016 < http://edition.cnn.com/2016/04/18/africa/looting-machine-tom-burgis-africa/index.html>; Alberto Rojas Blanco and Raquel Villaecija, “Blood and Minerals: Who Profits from Conflict in DRC?,” Al Jazeera, January 19, 2016 < http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/01/blood-minerals-profits-conflict-drc-160118124123342.html#ampshare=http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/01/blood-minerals-profits-conflict-drc-160118124123342.html>.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Return of the Black Panther,” The Atlantic, April 2016 < https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-return-of-the-black-panther/471516/>; < http://marvel.com/universe/Black_Panther_(T%27Challa)#axzz52fQqsyGy>.
- Garrett Albert Duncan, “Black Panther Party,” Encyclopedia Britannica < https://www.britannica.com/topic/Black-Panther-Party>; “Black Panther Party Founded,” African American Registry < http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/black-panther-party-founded>.
- Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, “Patrice Lumumba: The Most Important Assassination of the 20th Century,” The Guardian, January 17, 2011 < https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jan/17/patrice-lumumba-50th-anniversary-assassination>.
- Bob Strauss, “Generator X,” The Guardian, August 11, 2000 < https://www.theguardian.com/film/2000/aug/12/features>.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black Panther. No. 166, New York: Marvel Comics, December 2017.
- Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (New York: Houghlin Mifflin, 1998) 3.
- Ibid, 164-166.
- Ludo de Witte, The Assassination of Lumumba (New York: Verso, 2001); Agence France-Presse, “Belgium: Apology for Lumumba Killing,” New York Times, February 6, 2002 < http://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/06/world/world-briefing-europe-belgium-apology-for-lumumba-killing.html>.
- Rory Caroll, “Multinationals in Scramble for Congo’s Wealth,” The Guardian, October 21, 2002 < https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/oct/22/congo.rorycarroll>.
- Stephen R. Weissman, “The CIA, The Murder of Lumumba and the Rise of Mobutu, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2014 < https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/democratic-republic-congo/2014-06-16/what-really-happened-congo>.
- Amy Giardiniere, “Black Panther: Who is Erik Killmonger?,” ScreenRant, July 28, 2016 < https://screenrant.com/black-panther-erik-killmonger-michael-b-jordan/>.
- Howard W. French, “Mobutu Sese Sekou, 66, Longtime Dictator of Zaire,” The New York Times, September 8, 1997 < https://partners.nytimes.com/library/world/090897obit-mobutu.html>.
- Marco Gualazzini, “The Slow Road to Recovery for Rape Survivors in the DRC,” Al Jazeera, June 20, 2017 <http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2017/03/children-violence-rape-recovery-drc-170321085151907.html>.
- Todd C. Frankel, “The Cobalt Pipeline,” The Washington Post, September 30, 2016 < https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/congo-cobalt-mining-for-lithium-ion-battery/>.
Ewuare X. Osayande is a social justice activist, poet, essayist and author of several books including Whose America?: New and Selected Poems and Commemorating King: Speeches in Honor of the Civil Rights Movement. His forthcoming book is entitled Blessed are Black Lives.