I watched the movie Black Panther last night. Relished every moment of the movie. I won’t give away details. I’ll only discuss two things I loved about Wakandan culture.
The superhero was created (by white men) prior to the advent of the Black Panther party, which was an African American political movement that sought to overthrow the US government, to provide basic services to poor communities, and organize people against police brutality. The party gave many people a sense of pride and self-respect, before being dismantled by the CIA. The movie Black Panther is definitely about politics, but it deals more with what to do with power once gained. This is seen in the intricacies of the plot, but also–when you think of it–in the concept of Wakanda itself. What is the best possible kind of society that Black people would be able to build if the shackles of historical and colonial oppression were to disappear, and resources were plenty? Or, put another way, WHAT ultimately were the Black Panthers fighting for? What would it look like to create a prosperous, proud, and advanced African society? Like all good mythology, the movie plunges Black people forward, towards imagining future possibilities.
Afro-punk depicts and celebrates, in art, a complete reinvention of African identity. Stereotypes can be harmful, but mostly they’re just boring. Black Panther offers visuals that are inspiring, but also shatters ideas about Black and African identity that are often tied to colonialism, victimhood, poverty, and backwardness. The imagery and narrative of a scientifically advanced utopia in the heart of Africa, a nest of the best and brightest African scientists and geniuses–together with the embrace of Pan-African authenticity, culture, music, fashion, and tradition–is a potent combination, a manifesto of how art and self-creation go hand-in-hand, of how identity can be reimagined. And so it seems to me that Black Panther uses art the way it’s meant to be used.
The cat Goddess Bast is the patroness and totem of Wakanda, the fictional country where the story takes place. She’s also my favorite Egyptian Goddess, and a great example of a deity with strong Epicurean attributes: she governs, among other things, pleasure, the home, and territoriality / safety. She embodies autarchy, and enjoys such opulent associations as perfumes, oils and ointments, which were used for hygiene, health, and consecration.
Consider the archetype that’s being evoked here as a moral model for Wakandan wanna-bes. Cats are symbols of individualism and independence. They remind me of Lucretius’ Fortress of the Wise passage–which puts the individual philosopher and his tranquil pleasure in relief against the ignorance and perturbations suffered by the multitudes, as if watching from a fortress above them.
Cats frequently gravitate towards high places, so that they can watch over their territory, surveying for danger, invasion, pests and rodents–which is why Egyptians revered them. The mutual benefit brought by cats was found in their removal of mice, which endangered the grains and other goods in the pantry that Egyptians relied on for food. Since they were surrounded by desert, there was a real possibility of being unable to import food quickly if their harvest was lost, and of succumbing to famine. By removing the only pests that competed with humans for food, cats saved the Egyptians’ lives, and their adoration was the Egyptians’ way of reciprocating the benefits they brought. The story of the domestication of cats is a story of the mutually beneficial co-evolution of the two species.
Art is deeply spiritual. It literally consists of instances of pressing out and pouring into the world the values, feelings and ideas we have within us: Self-ex-pression. And so the two things I love about Black Panther aren’t really that different from each other: to an atheist, religion can be seen as an art form, and art can take on some of the utility of religion.