“Real Wakanda”–Battle of Adwa, Searching for Heroes & Liberators, and The Political Economy of Black Panther


Ethiopian soldiers in the 19th century. Source: “Armies of the Adowa Campaign of 1896” by Sean McLachlan

[Commentary on and Review of Black Panther]

I have major beef with Black Panther but I start my political economy review on a positive note.

As a Pan-African I love the possibilities for mutually beneficial constructive cooperation between Africans on the motherland and Diaspora Africans suggested in Black Panther the movie. It comes towards the very end when T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) travels with his sister (Letitia Wright) from Wakanda to Oakland, California, and tells her of his plans to invest in the Black community.

He had been thinking of the passion and anger that drove Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who is no villain at all; Killmonger raged about his “abandonment” in America but he meant it in a very bigger way. If Africa could realize its power sisters and brothers wouldn’t be victims of police brutality and mass incarceration here and poverty in Africa. It’s not coincidental that in Hollywood in order for a character to be permitted to speak Truth To Power he or she must appear as an evil person.

I’ve always believed that joint projects between the motherland and Diaspora– are the keys to Pan-African empowerment. Can you imagine Africa’s tremendous resources –its 1.2 billion people, its hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of mineral and natural resources, and its possession of two-thirds of the world’s untapped fertile agricultural land– leveraged with the $1 trillion in Black annual purchasing power in the United States?

The Global African world would be second to none. That is the vision that Killmonger had for Africa’s Wakandas.

In our real world, embezzlement of vast fortunes in public funds has stunted development in Africa. Widespread rape of Africa’s resources by multinationals also continues to create Western billionaires. What if instead of being siphoned off to Swiss banks through the decades the $5 billion stolen by Congo’s Mobutu and the nearly $4 billion by Nigeria’s Sani Abacha had been invested in Black-owned banks and businesses and institutions in the United States? This is the question Killmonger –in the real world– would pose.

Black Panther not only suggests Pan-African cooperation, it practices it in the real world. The mega-budget production which cost $200 million to make –and has already grossed $427 million– has a predominantly Black cast that brings together Diaspora African and African actors and actresses. From here, they include Boseman, Wright, Jordan, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya, and Winstone Duke, and others; from Africa, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and Florence Kasumba, and others.

Might this Black Panther template not be used for other collaborative enterprises –in business, science, education, politics and other artistic endeavors? This would make Killmonger smile.

So why hasn’t this strategy –Pan-African collaboration–which has been preached since the era of Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois been put into effective play? The truth is a wedge exists between continental Africans and Africans in Diaspora. This is not surprising given the centuries of demonization of both Africans and Diaspora Africans in Western literature (This is the subject of my book The Hearts of Darkness, How White Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa”).

On the silver screen, Hollywood traditionally caricatured African Americans as non-achievers inclined to a life of leisure or criminality. Africans have been (and are) cast as backward “tribesmen” constantly engaged in senseless wars.

When Africans use the word “tribe” there are no negative connotations; not so, when Western scholars and writers dismiss Africans as “tribal” as the late Ugandan author and educator Okot p’Bitek observed in “African Religions in Western Scholarship.”

Malcolm X, the charismatic Black nationalist and freedom fighter, in “You Can’t Hate the Roots of a Tree without Hating the Tree,” summed the impact of demonizaton:  “…the colonial powers of Europe, having complete control over Africa, they projected the image of Africa negatively. They projected Africa always in a negative light: jungles, savages, cannibals, nothing civilized. Why then naturally it was so negative it was negative to you and me, and you and I began to hate it. We didn’t want anybody to tell us anything about Africa, much less calling us ‘Africans.’ In hating Africa and hating the Africans, we ended up hating ourselves, without even realizing it…”  Malcolm practiced what he preached. He attended an Organization of African Unity meeting in Cairo in 1964 and traveled to several African countries, meeting leaders like Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya, Milton Obote, Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Ture.

While Malcolm discussed the inferiority complexes created in African American communities by demomization, some Africans who were lucky to attain some education during colonial rule also developed similar disorders. Here is Frantz Fannon describing the behavior of Africans and Diaspora Blacks whom he met in Paris, inBlack Skin, White Maskshis classic work: “We have known, and unfortunately still know, comrades from Dahomey or the Congo who say they are Antillean; we have known and still know, Antilleans who get annoyed at being taken for Senegalese…It’s because the Antillean [thinks he] is more ‘evolue’ than the African–meaning he is closer to the White man..”

Black Panther, the movie is the kind of production that contributes towards combating the inferiority complexes that bedevils many Black people all over the world. Many more major productions with empowering storylines are needed.

The timing of Black Panther’s release couldn’t have been better, coming weeks after Donald Trump, America’s most blatantly racist president of the modern era declared Africa to be a collective of “shithole” countries. (In truth, the Orange Racist lies–he knows of Africa’s riches. During the UN General Assembly last September be boasted that his friends were making money in Africa).

In fact Africa continues to sustain and build the wealth in the Western world — as it did during the colonial regime, as Walter Rodney showed in “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.” The World Bank’s neo-liberal economic dictate ensures that African countries will never industrialize and compete with the West as China has managed to do. African countries will continue to supply raw materials and consume the much more expensively sold manufactured products from Western –and now Asian–factories. 

Yes, Black Panther presents an idealistic and fantasized Africa, where a monarch with superpowers fights to preserve his kingdom, Wakanda’s, independence. What’s wrong with that? Black Panther does for millions of Black youth what Superman, Spiderman, Batman and other superheroes have done for youth –especially White ones– for decades. It allows them to think big, beyond earthly shackles–this can be psychologically and emotionally transformative.

I myself, like hundreds of millions of Black youth, while growing up was a victim of the White-Hero-Complex. This is because they were the only heroes offered. 

Here’s my own evolution: I first came to the United States around age five when my father was appointed Uganda’s ambassador to the U.S. and to the United Nations.

One day, in 1971, I recall how all the adults at home were speaking in hushed tones. Then one of my relatives told me that there was bad news from Uganda. I was told a “bad guy” named Idi Amin, who commanded the army, had ordered tanks in the streets and said he was now running the country. My first reaction was to imagine superman flying to Uganda, smashing up the tanks and sending Amin fleeing.

It was when my family lived in Tanzania, exiled from Uganda during Amin’s regime, that I developed a Pan-African consciousness. One day, I was about 12, walking in the streets of Dar es Salaam the Tanzanian capital when I saw something shocking — a painting of a Black Jesus Christ on a bookstore display window. How could this be? I wondered. That initial thought quickly turned to why should it be otherwise? The incident sparked my interest in challenging representations of Africans and questioning received or prevailing “truths.”

The National library in Dar es Salaam became my home. I read books, Tanzanian newspapers and publications from around the world. My new heroes included: Tanzania’s President Nyerere; Ghana’s Nkrumah; Congo’s late Patrice Lumumba; Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo; Guinea’s Amilcar Cabral; Mozambique’s Samora Machel; Angola’s Agostino Neto; and of the then-incarcerated South African global icon Nelson Mandela.

Tanzania was home to liberation movements still fighting for independence in African countries still under European rule.

I read magazines, newspapers and books at the United States Information Services (USIS) and the British Council Library. I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

There were no Black comic superheroes — it did help that the Pan-African fighters for liberation were real-life superheroes. I prayed for them to crush Ian Smith in what was then Rhodesia and the racist regime in South Africa.

But young people need superheroes in comics as well. The closest such superhero was Lance Spearman, a crime-fighting Black detective in a South African produced picture-book. I was no longer satisfied with Ian Flemming’s James Bond. So at the age of 12, I wrote my first novel about a Tanzanian super-spy. I don’t know whatever became of that manuscript.

When Amin was overthrown in 1979 my family returned to Uganda and I came to the U.S. the following year. Later, Black Panther became my hero. I read the recent series by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I can totally relate to the euphoria of T’Challa coming to the Big Screen. The potential impact on Black youth –all youth actually because it’s good for Whites to also imagine and accept Black superheroes– can’t be underestimated. Especially in the United States where Black boys are so demonized.

Let me now discuss the major beef I have with Black Panther that I declared upfront.

The storyline about a CIA agent becoming a hero by fighting on behalf of T’Challa and the people of Wakanda is blasphemous to all Pan-Africans. It’s outrageously insensitive. It’s abhorrent.

How is it possible for the director, Ryan Coogler, to permit this storyline even in a film about a fictitious African country given what the CIA did to some of Africa’s heroes, real life T’Challas such as Lumumba, Nkrumah and Mandela?

Congo’s combined mineral riches is estimated at $27 trillion–that’s one African country alone. Congo has what amounts to vibranium–in the form of rich deposits of uranium, gold, diamond, copper, cobalt, and coltan; the latter is used in all cell phones and other electronic products.

Just as with Wakanda the outside world has always coveted Congo’s riches.

In the 19th century King Leopold of the Belgians seized Congo and murdered 10 million Africans while plundering the resources. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 when European powers partitioned Africa in a meeting not attended by a single African the maniacal Belgian king declared his eagerness to get a slice of the “magnificant African cake.”

When Congo won its independence from Belgium in 1960, Lumumba became Prime Minister. All he wanted was for Congo to get a fairer slice of the profits from exports of its riches. The CIA worked with the Belgians to have him deposed in three months. The following year he was murdered and the notorious thief and dictator Mobutu was installed in power and supported by the U.S. for 37 years.

Did Coogler not see Raoul Peck’s “Lumumba” the compelling movie about his brutal murder, and the destruction of Congo and of Africa’s hopes? Lumumba was a spell-binding human being. When Dave Chappelle’s mother Dr. Yvonne Seon heard him speak in Harlem in 1960 when she was only 22 –yes, the Dave Chappelle of comic fame– she volunteered and went to work in Congo. She left soon after Lumumba’s murder.

(Tragically today Congo is still exploited for its riches, including coltan. In recent years as many as 6 million Congolese have been murdered. Western corporations no longer need European colonial governors or armies. They use neo-colonial leaders –Nkrumah warned of sell-outs such as these in “Neo-Colonialism The Last Stage of Imperialism”– like Gen. Yoweri Museveni and Gen. Paul Kagame in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda, respectively. These two basically rent their armies to invade and plunder; they and some Western multi-nationals are beneficiaries of the loot).

One of Lumumba’s mentors was Kwame Nkrumah who led Ghana to become one of Africa’s first countries to win independence from Britain in 1957. During Ghana’s independence celebration he declared: “Today, from now on, there is a new African in the world! Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa. That new African is ready to fight his own battles and show that after all, the black man is capable of managing his own affairs.” Indeed it was Nkrumah’s passion to help liberate the other African countries from colonial rule that contributed to his demise. He also tried to industrialize Ghana –this is the only way for Africa to break dependency from the West and to create prosperity. Nkrumah also was overthrown in 1966 with the involvement of the CIA.

An African hero whom many consider to be Africa’s T’Challa of T’Challas, Nelson Mandela, was also a victim of the CIA.  In 1962, it was the U.S. spy agency that provided the South African intelligence services a tip about Mandela’s hideout when he was underground and fighting the racist regime; this led to his arrest and later trial, conviction and 27 years incarceration. Who knows, with Mandela actively involved in the struggle from outside apartheid may have collapsed earlier.

If these African giants –Lumumba, Nkrumah, and Mandela– were alive today, what do you imagine they would think about a film that transforms a CIA agent into a hero on behalf of Wakanda an African nation, albeit imagined, of culture, high science, technological achievement and wealth?
(This is akin to a fictional account of the FBI as savior of U.S. Black communities. After it’s hounding of Malcolm and Dr. King and the destruction of Black consciousness organizations in the 1960s including the Panthers with COINTELPRO, who would buy this storyline?).

I now close out my commentary on Black Panther on an uplifting note– about a real story that deserves a movie (and yes, I’ve been working on a script for the last few months).

Wakanda takes great pride in its independence and for having never been conquered. In Africa, the real life version of Wakanda was Ethiopia, also referred to as Abyssinia before the 20th century.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia with an army of 17,000 commanded by five Italian generals it was defeated within a matter of hours during the great Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896.

A real life Black Pantheress, Empress Taytu Betul, carrying a sword and rifle, personally commanded an army of 6,000 men and fought for her beloved country.  Her husband, Emperor Menelik II, commanded even much larger armies, together with other Ethiopian generals such as Ras Alula Aba Nega –referred to admiringly because of his skills by contemporary European writers as “Africa’s Garibaldi” after the legendary general who played a key role in Italy’s reunification– Ras Mikael of Wollo, Ras Mengesha, and Ras Makonen.

While in Rome, before heading to Africa, the Italian commander Gen. Oreste Baratieri promised to return with Menelik II in a cage.

But When the dust settled Empress Taytu and Emperor Menelik and their Grand Army were leading about 2,000 captured Italian soldiers as prisoners of war. They were forced to march on foot more than 350 miles back to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa –“little flower”– which had been founded by Taytu herself.

On the battleground Taytu and Menelik left more than 7,000 dead enemy soldiers, including 2,918 Italian non-commissioned officers and men and 261 Italian officers. Two Italian generals, Giuseppe Ellena and Giuseppe Arimondi, were killed and another one, Matteo Albertone was captured. Gen. Baratieri fled with his surviving troops and generals. Baratieri himself was later tried for “cowardice” by a court-martial.

The Ethiopians captured 56 artillery pieces and 11,000 rifles.

Thousands of Eritreans who fought for Italy –which had colonized Eritrea– were also killed. Many of the captured 800 Eritreans were subjected to severe punishment: they had their right hand and left foot amputated. There were even some reports that  some defeated Italian soldiers were castrated. Other accounts suggest that rumors of such punishment were enough to scare Italian soldiers into throwing down their weapons and fleeing.

As Italian prisoners entered Addis Ababa, Ethiopian women lining the streets jeered at them and spit on them for daring to invade their country to kill their sons, brothers, and husbands.

Some prisoners were forced to work like slaves, building Addis Ababa –yes, the tables were turned– for more than one year. Finally, they were released after Ethiopia and Italy signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa and Rome paid several millions of dollars as reparations.

As a result of the Adwa victory Ethiopia was never colonized.

This African victory over imperialism can inform any sequel to Black Panther. It’s a story that all Africans including Diaspora must know.

Allimadi publishes The Black Star News and teaches African History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He’s revising the second edition of his book The Hearts of Darkness, How White Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa. He’s also writing a graphic book (maybe call it “Real Wakanda–Ethiopia’s and Africa’s Triumph“?) about The Battle of Adwa and Empress Taytu’s brilliant role.

The book will be illustrated by his 12 year old niece Alysa Allimadi. Please visit the GoFundMe page and support this graphic book project. https://www.gofundme.com/53mn2-real-wakandaethiopians-crush-italy

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