One of the better cinematic experiences of recent memory is the newest addition to the Marvel Franchise Black Panther, which has a phenomenal 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The original comic book, published in 1966, is credited to have introduced the first black superhero and the movie has the distinction of being the first mainstream movie starring a black superhero.
Black Panther’s secret identity is King T’Challa of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, a reclusive hermit kingdom that is closed off from the rest of the world. It is a place with advanced technology and refined culture hiding from the rest of the world, allowing almost nobody to come within its borders and few to go out. The most prosperous and advanced area of Wakanda is a closely guarded secret unknown to the rest of the world.
The West has long been fascinated with lost kingdoms of this nature. Atlantis was only briefly mentioned in Plato’s Dialogues and constituted little importance. It was accepted by Plato’s followers to be nothing more than a metaphorical idea since Aristotle’s time, but the very fact that Aristotle had to explain it as such speaks volumes about how much fascination there must have been about its existence. There is no indication in the ancient text that Atlantis was in any way superior in anything other than military power, but Sir Francis Bacon was inspired to write New Atlantis and Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia about a greatly advanced society. No doubt there were many texts written between Greek and Medieval times in which the concept of Atlantis evolved from a mere foil in the tale of political theory to a mysteriously closed off nation with advanced civilization and a unique culture.
Coleridge‘s Zanadu, and Hilton‘s Shangri-la echo the influence of Atlantis in varying degrees. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is all about distant closed off societies. The legend of El Dorado started off as a story of a mythical tribal chief who, as an initiation rite, covered himself in gold dust and submerged himself in a lake. Over time, what was originally El Rey Dorado, the Golden King, changed from being a legend of a man to a legend of a city, then a legend of a kingdom, then finally a legend of an empire. Certainly the many expeditions in search of El Dorado were motivated by greed, but the expansion of the legend of a man into a legend of an unknown fabulous empire seem to be rooted in European heritage.
There is something in the primal soup of European culture that is constantly in search of a lost “Rosebud“. Some may argue that this is a Christian tradition where history begins with the banishment of humans from the Garden of Eden. But Plato’s story of Atlantis precedes the arrival of Christian beliefs in Europe. Plato’s Republic itself depicts forces of Atlantis invading “Ancient Athens”, an ideal Utopian state. It might be impossible to find the true origin of this desire for a secret secluded Utopia hidden in a faraway land. Black Panther’s Wakanda, conceived by two white men, fits snugly into this age old European narrative.
Since the two main characters of the movie Black Panther, T’Challa and Killmonger, are in conflict about how Wakanda should respond to the oppression of the African people, a lot of debate about the movie centered on the pros and cons of Killmonger’s methodology. As a result, it seems that nobody has realized there actually was an isolated country just like Wakanda in actual history. This country, a nation steeped in tradition which worshiped mainly its own homegrown (or at least home-modified) religions, had made it illegal for any of its citizens to leave the country or for any foreigners to enter. It was governed by a loose federation of local warlords, which pledged allegiance to a military leader. Unknown to the rest of the world, this highly advanced nation had built a nearly crime free society with a higher literacy rate than most of Western Europe, performed the world’s first anesthetized surgery, flown the world’s first glider, and operated the world’s first commodities market. It was ruled by a class of fierce warriors, and when finally confronted with the outside world, managed to take booty from the British Royal Navy.
This nation, of course, was Japan. Edo era Japan had many of the elements of Shangli-la, Zanadu, New Atlantis, Middle Earth, and Wakanda, in real life. Once known to the world, its culture had profound impact on Western thought, literature, art, and politics. It modernized quickly. By early 20th century, it had built a constitutional monarchy and became the first non-Caucasian nation to set up a parliament and allow its citizens to vote on their representatives. It defeated Russia in a war and proved to the world that there was one non-Western nation in the world that defied colonization. But then, it was posed with the same question that Killmonger poses Wakanda in the movie: “Two billion people all over the world who look like us whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all. Where was Wakanda?”
Where was Japan? By early 20th century, almost every country populated by people of color, or “coloreds” as they were called at the time, were colonized or taken over by non-indigenous people. Ethiopia and Thailand were independent because they were caught between the power spheres of Britain and France. Nepal was independent by the virtue of sheer remoteness. Japan was the only other country that was still ruled by its natives. And the only “colored” nation in the world that had defeated a white nation in war. There was a great debate in Japan about what course to take. Should it use its new found military power to liberate its neighbors from the clutches of white domination, or keep to itself and live in secluded peace? Killmonger or T’Challa?
After much deliberation, the hardliners won the argument, and the rest is history. Fighting oppression with violence never ends well. Especially when the oppression is not falling on yourself. But it ends most tragically when you are also trying to build your own empire in the process of providing salvation for the oppressed.
After the movie, there was much talk about whether Killmonger was a villain or a hero. In my mind, there is no question that he was a villain, although a complex one. But that is not my main point here. My main point is that Wakanda, the embodiment of the traditional European obsession for a lost paradise, actually did exist at one point. And it followed Killmonger’s path. It’s not just a fairy tale.