by Rev. Yolanda Pierce
Yes, Wakanda is a fictional place and “Black Panther” is “just” a film, but the spiritual imagination that undergirds the movie can be an opportunity for learning, and even a fostering of faith in the idea that we can build a better world, if we are willing. In a real world that has so maligned black peoples and the continent of Africa, and questioned if any good can ever come from this place, director Ryan Coogler reminds his viewers both of the beauty that already exists on the continent, and also what may yet be possible.
The film begins shortly after the death of Wakanda’s King T’Chaka (John Kani). His son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), returns to Wakanda to assume his father’s mantle and the authority and responsibility of serving as both king and Black Panther, protector of Wakanda. What follows is not simply a political process, the passing down of political authority from one monarch to the next, but a richly textured series of spiritual ceremonies.
T’Challa must undergo a rite of passage to assume the throne; he faces physical challenges that attest to his strength, and takes part in religious rituals in which he encounters his ancestors and must seek their wisdom. The newly appointed King T’Challa must be buried; he must die to his old life; and he must be resurrected. This ritual is overseen by the elders, who function as moral authorities for the kingdom of Wakanda, but also as spiritual midwives and griots for its people. This pivotal early scene in the movie engages African cosmology and varieties of African spirituality on many levels. The viewer encounters a vibrant spiritual world from the earliest moments of the film, which draws from the cultural traditions of many real African nations by incorporating customs, clothing, languages, art, architecture, body modification styles, and combat techniques found across the continent.
It is a movie in which African peoples can see the rich diversity of their continent represented, whether in the lip plates worn by the Mursi and Surma peoples of Ethiopia (among others); cast members speaking the African languages of Xhosa and Hausa; the clothing of the Dora Milaje, the Black Panther’s elite bodyguards, modeled after the Masai peoples in Kenya and Tanzania; or in the headdress worn by the character of Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), similar to what is actually worn by Zulu women in South Africa.
And like these other real-world cultural references, the spiritual allusions in the “Black Panther” film reflect a fictional approach to a real-life African cosmology. Cosmology is a way that one perceives, conceives and contemplates the universe; it is the lens, set of beliefs, and religious practices through which one understands reality. Within most African religious worldviews, everything is a part of the spiritual world and so physical combat or clothing or body modification are all infused with sacred resonance. The “Black Panther” movie is rich in African cosmology. Here are but a few examples:
King T’Chaka remains active in the life of his son T’Challa, as guide and touchstone, and even his nemesis, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), must seek ancestral wisdom as part of his spiritual journey. In traditional African worldviews, the ancestors have a functional role in present life and must be honored long after their deaths. The veneration of the ancestors in African cosmology rejects a hard wall of separation between the living and the dead.
In the film, the power of the Black Panther is referred to as the “Panther Spirit.” It references the existence of a pantheon of spirits and deities in traditional African supernatural spirituality, which can endow a believer with certain characteristics, including strength. And while there is generally the affirmation of a singular Creator God, most African cosmology has space for other operative spirits in the lives of believers.
“Black Panther” references the importance of traditional medicine within African cultures. It is the heart-shaped plant that gives superhuman power to the Black Panther, and there is also traditional medicine that removes the Panther Spirit when T’Challa needs to engage in ritual combat without his special powers.
The continued existence of traditional medicine, alongside contemporary Western medicine, remains an important feature of African cosmology. Medicine and the caring for the physical body is spiritual and sacred work. Healing in Wakanda occurs in Princess Shuri’s (Letitia Wright) futuristic lab, with all the latest scientific advances. But medicine is also ritualistically practiced by those who have passed down (and protect) the secret properties of plants and herbs throughout the generations, as is the case with the garden in the film’s Hall of Kings.
Zuri (Forest Whitaker) serves as the holy man whose presence is needed for the legitimate transfer of power from King T’Chaka to King T’Challa, as the spiritual world is intertwined with the political world. The role of shaman, priest, and conjurer, or healer, is critical in African cosmology as these persons may also function as chroniclers and griots — the keepers of history and communal memory. Likewise, Wakanda’s Council of Elders advises on matters of national security, as well as matters of spiritual and moral significance.
Harmony and balance
The film highlights one of the key components of African cosmology: the value of balance and harmony. The ecological balance in Wakanda is maintained because everything is spiritually infused and necessary for harmony. Wakanda’s agricultural practices balance its technological advances.
The high-tech manufacture of vibranium — Wakanda’s powerful natural resource — co-exists with handwoven baskets and handicrafts sold at traditional market stalls. The age-old spear must be mastered by the warriors, along with the more futuristic weapons of war. The dream of Wakanda, a nation untouched by white colonization and white supremacy, is balance, where there is space for the keepers of sheep and the keepers of technology.
But African cosmology also leaves space for an engagement of the African-American religious experience; the faiths and traditions of those whose ancestors were involuntarily brought to other nations in the holds of slave ships.
Killmonger, the American-born character, maintains the revolutionary spirit of his ancestors, those whom he argues would prefer death over bondage. This fictional character references a very real saga: the bones of Africans littered at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, including those who died and whose bodies were tossed overboard, and those who willingly jumped to escape their chains, some believing that they could fly back to Africa.
For Killmonger, there is an existential longing for a place of return, a place to belong, as an African-American who has only known life under the forces of white colonization. Killmonger embarks on a spiritual journey to Wakanda, a place to which he belongs by virtue of his royal blood, but also a place that is foreign to him. There is an otherworldliness to Wakanda for outsiders, not because it is perfect (which it is not), but simply because it exists at all despite almost impossible odds.
The Afrofuturism that underlies the entire “Black Panther” film is deeply spiritual. It speaks to possible worlds, future worlds, like Wakanda, as places of profound hope, joy and possibility for black peoples throughout the African diaspora.
Rev. Yolanda Pierce is professor and dean of the Howard University School of Divinity. She is a scholar of African-American religious history, womanist theology, and religion and literature. Follow her on Twitter at @YNPierce.