Our Invisible Wakandas: A Black Planning Scholar’s Reflections on Black Panther & Saving Historic Black Places

Note: There might be spoilers…and a little rambling.

Black Panther was a visual feast. The film was affirming in many ways, problematic in others. I am sharing reflections on the film less as a review, and more on how the film affected me as a planning scholar and African American woman. The film, for me, made apparent how much African Americans are prepared to engage their communities through the lens of opportunity rather than lack. African Americans are ready to reclaim their Wakandas aboard and here at home.

Dr. Andrea Roberts presentation on Texas Freedom Colonies at Texas A&M University, Center for Heritage Conservation’s 19th Annual Symposium, “Preserving African-American History in Texas.” (2/17/18)

Coincidentally, I along with several others participated in a conference where we talked about the future preservation of African American places this past weekend. Conference participants’ presentations made clear that historical Black places, heritage, land, cultural patrimony and social capital (embedded and embodied in our memories) are inextricably linked to creating and revitalizing our “Black communities.” After facilitating dialogue and presenting my scholarship on grassroots African American preservation and placemaking this weekend, I watched the film. A few big picture ideas emerged, but more thoughts will surely surface overtime in my social media interactions online, “special issues” of academic journals, and my scholarship.

A hopeful depiction of African American governance and place preservation is a welcome change. However, I am even more excited about how planners might use the film to tease out the more nuanced issues around African American identity, agency, and placemaking which complicate Black community building and development.

African American (Diasporic) Identity.

Everything tells African Americans that Wakanda is a fantasy, that we are sentenced to a reality in which planning, building, and development happen to us…not by us. Wakanda is a place African Americans are all jokingly telling each other we are ready to pack our bags and go to, which is funny, but also telling. What makes this place so appealing besides the vibranium, beautiful clothes, and absolute freedom? For me, it was the liberated, beautiful Black women playing a variety of roles in a nation’s governance. While disappointed that some Black women were left out, I was pleased that the screen writers retired that subservient “Black Queen” trope. Also hopeful, was the rejection of toxic masculinity and visualization of a space in which we are not captive by the “white gaze.” Yes. I am here for all of that.

This joy is tempered by the film’s constant reenactment of the trauma of African American’s initial displacement over and over — the door of no return. Almost every pivotal moment of relinquishing, wrestling for, or reclaiming power in the film took place at the edge of a cliff or waterfall, invoking the trauma associated with the “door” in Ghana. The middle passage and the door being invoked, I think, indicate how much African Americans seek or yearn to recreate an authentic homeplace. This film’s depiction of the disconnection from a perceived African paradise is one of the most tangible interpretations of Afropessimism I have ever seen.

Another intellectual movement/concept, Afrofuturism, is conversely about how our identity becomes our ticket to liberation. Embedded in this idea of Blackness is ingenuity, innovation. In the Black Panther, which takes place in the present, we are encouraged to look forward to thinking through, rather than working around tough community-based struggles, like How do we protect the individual and our Black collective(s) at the same time? How do we implicate governments for underinvestment and urban renewal, while exploiting the tax-funded resources they hold? How do reclaim a construction of Black womanhood that’s inclusive of our many sexualities, abilities, shapes, colors, and sizes? The Black Panther’s suit absorbs and re-channels every hit and impact, making him even stronger. The film to some extent tells us we embody these solutions, but still clings to a certain fatalism.

Saving our own communities requires facing these tensions. While watching the film, I noticed each scene wrestling with the burden and gift of African diasporic identity. This African vs. African American tension was the rhino in the middle of the room; the underlying tension throughout the film. While thankful this was given cinematic space; I was troubled by the African American from Oakland, the King’s cousin, being depicted as a violent, aimless malcontent. Moreover, in Oakland…home of the (political) Black Panthers? Really? Disturbing? Yes, for me this construction of American Blackness was troublesome. However, the pain Michael Jordan’s character depicted was palpable and real for so many African Americans struggling to find a home, healing from abandonment, and living in hopeless places surrounded by violence, especially in the 90s. The film, in its awkward and clunky way, made visible the fissures between Africans and African American not given voice in popular culture. Creating space for these discussions is risky but necessary to move beyond the Diasporic tensions depicted to some unpacking of the causes of the fissures.

Agency(Sovereignty)

Resource richness, the CIA, and destabilization. Vibranium… how funny it would be to find out in future films, sequels, that it is all vibration…our energy and not a magical substance after all…I think the name is telling. Equally painful was the CIA operative finding his way into our black imagination…the white gaze seemed to persist even in our dreams. That is very telling and makes me realize how much more work we have to do on translating Black place imaginaries to film and popular audiences. This issue of agency, interracial community building, and trust though tempered with humor was given space. However, I found it troubling to deal with one of the primary reasons for the domestic and international destabilization of Black communities being a punchline. Government control of over land and mineral use in African American communities is one of the biggest roadblocks to amassing collective wealth and agency. The CIA in Africa — not a laughing matter.

Placemaking Heritage.

Just as we are asked to laugh at the CIA, we are often asked to overlook the systematic undermining of local Black control over planning and development in our communities. We as Black people are encouraged to ignore, abandon or overlook our placemaking heritage. It is absent from history books, popular culture, and mainstream media. Media imagery and political debates frame our relationship to place and planning in defeatist or Pollyanna terms: feature stories almost always focus on depressed urban centers in discussions on the future of African Americans, while marginalizing rural and suburban black struggles. Black history month, filled with stories about famous firsts propels us from slavery to emancipation to the modern civil rights movement to the (political) Black Panthers to Obama, with little discussion of the agency we (especially black women) exerted in the moments in between.

What are Freedom Colonies? View the video here: https://youtu.be/Bmcf8JEf1aU

I am hoping the film bridges our current love affair with an imaginary Wakanda to work to revitalize and preserve our remaining historic Black communities. The film, I hope, opens up the possibility that people will want to revisit the technological know-how and innovation informing historic Black settlements’ creation. We can turn to these places, not as paradises, but as sources of our own vibranium — community-based placemaking and preservation strategies. My work is about (critically) mining the wisdom of these places in Texas, places called Freedom Colonies (also known as settlements, freedmen’s towns, black towns) in hopes of reinvigorating not only an imaginary but a set of strategies that served our community development well in the darkest of times. Founded between 1865–1930, 558 freedom colonies, in various states of existence, are scattered across Texas. In partnership with descendants of community founders, I make their placemaking heritage (their vibranium) strategically visible and known to African Americans, planners, policy makers, and scholars. These Freedom Colonies exist in different forms all over the country in various states — populated, unpopulated — they are alive to many African Americans and are our stateside Wakandas. Many historians and scholars are using this Wakanda imaginary in our community-engaged scholarship. Check out their work here and here.

Areas in which Africans and African Americans desperately need to seek praxis — bridging actions and ideals — are exposed in Black Panther in which difficult subjects are broached, including myths about Black American inferiority, the fissures and trauma of the diaspora we can unpack, and the knowledge we can reclaim from our stateside Wakandas. Those working to save Black neighborhoods, settlements, and towns, need help to preserve their heritage and to share the lessons learned through survival with other communities. Bringing the diaspora of descendants of these communities to public showings of the film; remixing the motifs in our community planning processes; and hosting cross-generational dialogues on where our vibranium, our placemaking heritage may be found here in the US (and not just in an imaginary pocket of Africa called Wakanda), are just a few ideas. I am enthusiastic about devising even more ways this film can help scholars facilitate difficult discussions, document our land-based heritage and governance, and replicate the strategies that made our Wakandas, Freedom Colonies, and all of our historic Black settlements possible.

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