When a whip and a chain isn’t the black american dream

August 14th, 2008 by | Tags: , , , ,

Gonna go to Ghana!
And when I get there…
Ohh! I’m gonna dance!
Dance! Dance! Dance!

–Killer Mike, “Gonna Go To Ghana”

I find it’s distressin’, there’s never no in-between
We either niggas or Kings,
We either bitches or Queens

–Mos Def, “Thieves in the Night”

Black is
Black is something to laugh about
Black is something to cry about
Black is serious
Black is a feeling
Black is us, the beautiful people

–Mos Def & Talib Kweli, “Yo Yeah”

I happened upon the idea of a black Trinity entirely by accident. I wrote about Luke Cage for the 4th of July and thought the American Dream/Black Reality connection was pretty swift. Then, I wrote the piece on afro futurisim and New Gods. The ensuing conversation, which has sprawled from real life to email to twitter to IRC to AIM and back around again, has been fascinating.

The FBB4l gang, chief among them Pedro, Chris, and David, helped me think this latest step through. Luke is the American Dream/Black Reality. He’s in the thick of it and grinding to make ends meet and make sure his daughter lives a better life than he did (shades of B.I.G.). Mister Miracle, Shilo Norman, is the Black Fantasy. He’s broken the chains of slavery and oppression, and exists to bring everyone else out of it. He’s Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, MLK, and Malcolm X all rolled up into one.

Black Panther is the third part of the trinity. He’s the Black Ideal. Some context first, though.

It’s fair to say that Africa is idealized amongst Americans. You can see it in dead prez’s “I’m A African,” in the niggas/kings dichotomy, or even in those dudes who still wear those corny dashikis in public. Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and other countries are crazy hyped. I’ve personally known a few blacks who have gone to Africa and come back with some kind of epiphany or new outlook on something. Richard Pryor decided to stop saying “nigger” after he went to Africa.

I plan to visit Africa one day. I lived in Spain during high school, so I could have easily made that trip, but I’m kind of glad that I didn’t. I’m older and hopefully wiser now, so when I finally do it, it’ll mean more. It’s like saving yourself for marriage, but way more expensive and you’re more likely to get stung by a fly and die.

Africa is in a special space for a lot of black people. It’s the Motherland. It’s where we all came from, and kind of like growing up and leaving the house, you can’t go back again. Marcus Garvey‘s (birthday next Sunday!) Back to Africa movement got derailed pretty quickly, and that was probably the most organized push. Beyond that is the much-talked about anti-black sentiment on the part of some Africans (“Some Africans don’t like us no way,” Nas) and the reality of how much it costs to visit Africa, not to mention relocation.

(Marcus Garvey looks kinda like Beanie Sigel.)

Even still, Africa is the Motherland. It’s as black as a raised right fist, red and black and green flags, drums, and dancing. You can trace the drums in hip-hop back to the drums of Africa and ciphers to villages. We’ve adopted names, terms, and various rituals into our cultural identity. We’ve even faked it up some with Kwanzaa. I personally don’t like the term, but a lot of people have adopted African-American at least in part because it’s a connection to Africa.

It was something that was common growing up. “In Africa, we weren’t slaves. We were kings and queens. We were equal. We were free.” Putting aside the idea of everyone ever being kings and queens, it’s a great sentiment. It’s another way to build up an identity.

In a curious bit of luck and serendipity, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two old Jewish guys, created the logical endpoint of this idealization of Africa in the Black Panther. The character was ushered further in that state by Don McGregor, Christopher Priest, and Reggie Hudlin, amongst others.

There’s a few good reasons as to why this is so. He’s from a country that’s both technologically advanced and successfully avoided colonization. He’s the king of that country. And he married a Strong Black Woman(tm) and made her the queen of that country. Let’s go through in order.

Wakanda is both isolated and technologically advanced. The important part is that both of these are by choice. They are self-reliant. They didn’t need anyone to bring knowledge to them, because they are a nation of intelligent black people. Panther is smart, to be sure, but he is reaping the benefits of those who came before him. He is standing on the shoulders of giants. He’s learning from the past, in as literal a way as possible. Panther didn’t get to where he is all by himself. His family helped him along that path. He’s part of a legacy.

Wakanda has never been conquered. The clearest way I had this put to me was that “Europe was the worst thing to happen to Africa.” Without that, you’ve got no colonization, or what’s generally thought of when you say ‘colonization,’ at least. You’ve got a nation of black people who stood up against the man and didn’t buckle. They did a lot more than not buckle– they killed kind of a lot of people in the process. Their behavior was kind of like a snake. If you don’t mess with it, it won’t mess with you. “Don’t start none, won’t be none,” to be glib.

Never been conquered. That’s a big deal. That’s the guy who brags about being undefeated, never been knocked out, and can take on all comers. It’s Muhammad Ali in the form of a country. First minute, first round. Hudlin showed this in his first arc. Jason Aaron showed this to great effect in his first issue of Panther’s Secret Invasion tie-in.

When they’re going up against humans, they’re unstoppable. Your guns won’t even work. Don’t even bother. Against super advanced space aliens who planned ahead? They’re going to break down their high technology and reduce the fight to sticks and spears.

Plus, they’ve already got Skrull heads on pikes. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Panther being the king of Wakanda is kind of the easy one, with Storm being his wife a close second. Everyone wants to be the top dog, right? T’Challa being number one counts for a lot here. It’s a sign of not being downtrodden, being beholden to no one, and being able to chart the course of your own destiny.

The Storm and Panther marriage, regardless of your opinion on its execution, fixed that. It simultaneously fixed the problem of the most popular black character in comics ignoring basically every aspect and other member of her race and created a fertile new storytelling ground by instantly turning Wakanda into a superpower.

My favorite part of it, though, is the racial aspect. T’Challa and Ororo have become the king and queen that so many black couples want to be. They run one of the most powerful nations in the world. Wakanda is suddenly interesting again. They have land, a family, and will eventually have a dynasty.

They’re doing all of this free of oppression of any kind. Their royal status means that no authority on earth can lock them down them. No one can touch them. They’re finally at the point where they are free to live life as they wish.

Their relationship forces both of them to elevate their game. T’Challa is used to a) always being right, b) always getting his own way, and c) not being questioned. Now that Storm is there, he’s got somebody who’s going to put him in check vigorously and often. Now that Storm has T’Challa, she can open up and drop that snooty ice queen act she’s been using. She doesn’t have to be aloof and cold any more. Two strong personalities being thrown into the mix forces change.

A couple further points. A big part of Luke Cage’s character is providing for his daughter, and therefore the future. In a similar move, T’Challa has his younger sister Shuri to worry about. He comforts her when she kills her first man, gives her support when she needs it, and trusts her skill. In the future, she’s the Black Panther, so they both must have done something right between now and then. T’Challa keeps an eye on the future, and part of that is being willing to put on someone else and step down.

Panther is confident, powerful, intelligent, and free. That sounds like the Black Ideal to me, yeah?

That’s the Black Trinity there. Reality, Fantasy, and Ideal. That’s a misnomer, though. The word Trinity implies that it’s the full range of experiences, when that is kind of clearly not true. Cheryl Lynn has some interesting ideas on what the female part of the Black Experience involves, including specific takes on Storm and Misty Knight. We’ll see those one day, I’m sure.

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10 comments to “When a whip and a chain isn’t the black american dream”

  1. I don’t agree with the term “African-American” either. We’re not from Africa; most of us were born here in the land of the United States of America, so we should just abolish the term “African-American” because it’s disrespectful to real African’s.

    While we’re the same color, yes, we share virtually nothing in common with our ancestors anymore. We are who we are and they are who they are. While it’s important to know where we came from, we’ve been here too long (and dare I say made too much of an impact culturally?) to identify ourselves with Africa any longer. We’re “Black Americans” and should embrace it, now more so than ever I believe. We’ve accomplished a lot and that’s something to be proud of.

  2. I don’t like Wakanda under Hudlin.

    It didn’t bother when previous writers put Wakanda ahead of the curve, so it wasn’t any more or less special than the place where Inhumans live, Atlantis, or somewhere like that. When it was that Wakanda actually needed to take a step forward, because its historical advantages weren’t sufficient against the high-tech kind of things that Klaw brought, and it was T’Challa who buckled down and modernized his country in ways that no other nation could compare to and dreamed of. That’s how folks tell me it was. That was pretty cool.

    Under Hudlin, it goes beyond that. It goes beyond ideal and into something else. I read the Klaw’s invasion the way Hudlin wrote it, and man, I can’t see that making any kind of sense. Klaw should’ve been whupped just like every other white guy that Wakanda killed, no questions asked. He should’ve died just like every cancer patient who lives outside of Wakanda. It’s just plain ridiculous how good Wakanda is. Everyone else has been through worse and here you’ve got Wakanda being perfect. You’ve got T’Challa saying, “oh yeah. Captain America ain’t shit. He got his ass kicked with his shield and his super-soldier bullshit. My dad just worked out a lot and handed honkey his ass.” Or how Dane’s not getting the Ebony Blade back because some thief used it against Wakanda, even though it’s cursed and he’ll die if someone uses it shed blood.

  3. I admit, I feel that while “Black Ideal” is an appropriate description, Hudlin’s Panther is the Black Ideal at the expense of good storytelling. Christopher Priest’s run was brilliant, but it seems like Hudlin just read a few bulletpoints and then decided to go to town. Wakanda went from a country that was advanced but arrogant and didn’t care much about the countries around it, to a black paradise, with people going “Amandla Awethu” (because it’s an African thing to do, in spite of it being another language). Captain America and the Black Panther went from drawing in their initial encounter, to Black Panther beating Cap (if I recall correctly), the benevolent country of Wakanda having the ability to destroy guns telekinetically (something they’ve been able to do for centuries) and Black Panther marrying the only black female character (other than Monica Rambeau, it seems) in Marvel Comics, with no real buildup, for the sole reason of pairing up the two most well-known black characters in the company.

    Marvel could use more strong, black heroes. Marvel SHOULD have more strong, black heroes (female heroes, especially. Even DC, which has some great black characters, is pretty weak when it comes to the ladies), but not written the Hudlin way. I loved the Priest run, it’s one of my favorite runs in comics, but Hudlin’s Panther is written kind of like a jingoistic and hamfisted 40’s/50’s patriotic hero who fights guys who use the Ebony Blade just because “ebony” is a term sometimes associated with black matters. For God’s sake, he made Martin Luther King and Malcolm X be best friends. In space! Skrulls, but never the less. Maybe that approach appeals to some people (and I’m sure it does), but I’d prefer a black ideal WITH good storytelling, and barring that, a black ideal that didn’t step on Priest’s work.

  4. Black Panther as the ideal makes sense, but as Mr. Eh already stated, Hudlin dropped the ball on the Panther and Wakanda as a whole. As opposed to representing BP/Wakanda/The Storm Marriage as realistic, but still ideal, he represents them as over idealized and bordering on (honestly)racist. While it only makes sense to play up the independence and strength(and mistrust of outsiders) that is inherent in Wakanda as a whole, Hudlin’s portrayal pushes into the realm of extreme paranoia and no matter how “strong” his black characters are, they still seem to interact with the world as victims. And because they interact(under his pen) with the marvel universe as victims, it always seems like Hudlin is trying to over emphasize just how great they are as a nation. What this does, and this may just be me, is make the characters seem incredibly insecure and desperate to be viewed by outsiders as better than they actually are. And this makes them unlikable. What Hudlin has also repeatedly impressed upon the readers that Black Panther and Wakanda are BLACK before they are anything else(as if it weren’t clear). This makes the stories extremely hard to sit through for me. Imagine if I were to begin everything I said with the statement: “As a I black man,” and that’s pretty much how I feel about Hudlin’s mis-handling of the Black Panther and Wakanda. Anyway, I hope all this made sense.

  5. Just how many Black people besides myself, David, and Astro do not like being called “African-American”? My wife is half-Russian half-american and doesn’t like to be called “Russian-American” since she’s never been fully immersed in Russian culture like some of her cousins.
    I had to read this article twice and while I want to keep my comments very brief, new ideas will pop into head over the next few days.
    I enjoyed this piece, but I’m not looking at what Huddlin has done (and this is not a dig at Mr. Eh and Kedd) I’m looking at the character as a whole by all writers who’ve handled the character. His history is rich from the day he appeared and took down all of the FF single-handedly, to seeing more of the “big picture” under Priest…and it’s criminal that more his run isn’t in trade or an omnibus, because Reggie could not do what he’s doing now without Priest.
    Overall, I like the idea of the Black Trinity with two great examples in BP and Cage, whereas I’m not as familiar with Norman. I may pick up the MM trade to find out more about the character. To see and understand what Wakanda is and represents, it would be easy to have the ideal, live the dream, and look to the future. Just imagine living in a place like that.

  6. Yeah, my greater point was about Panther as a whole, rather than just one specific run. Lee/Kirby, McGregor, Priest, and Hudlin have all helped define the Panther, and each one has built upon the foundation laid by those who came before. Lee/Kirby, and later on, Kirby, gave us a fantastic Wakanda and a swashbuckling hero, McGregor gave us some down to earth and grim stories that showed another side, Priest wrote a political thriller, and Hudlin’s got the action movie down.

    I think that you have to look at the Panther from a 360 degree POV. He’s been built up into something great. The seeds were there in the beginning, but it’s grown out from there.

    Keith, I’ll let you hold 7 Soldiers, which has the Mister Miracle story in there. Reading that and the half dozen-odd issues he appeared in in the ’70s should be all the start you need.

  7. Just how many Black people besides myself, David, and Astro do not like being called “African-American”?

    My girlfriend’s not fond of it, either. It seems pretty common.

    I’m looking at the character as a whole by all writers who’ve handled the character.
    Yeah, my greater point was about Panther as a whole, rather than just one specific run.

    Oh! That makes sense. As a whole, I’ll agree that Black Panther has a lot more good stories than bad, in spite of my feelings when it comes to Hudlin. Both the concept and the character are very good and, as a whole, definitely fits as the Ideal in a black Trinity. Very interesting article!

  8. Ah, messed up the formatting… Whoops.

  9. Got you covered! It’s just HTML here.

    And yeah, it’s the entire package that matters, especially in serial fiction. My views on Captain America and Spider-Man work in the same way. I recognize that I’m picking and choosing, but I try to take most things into account.

    Unless it’s just beyond terrible.

  10. I feel where you’re coming from on BP as a character and not just Hudlin’s handling of him. I got side tracked, but I do agree with your post.