Blog by Damien Droney
Marvel’s Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) was released to theaters this weekend, garnering glowing reviews and receiving enthusiastic audience responses around the globe. It is a rich film that encourages debate about Africa and its material and symbolic place in the world. Of the many themes in the film, its representation of science and technology deserves special attention.
Part of the film’s premise is that, while overlooked by outsiders, the fictional African nation of Wakanda is in fact a technological marvel. As the camera follows Black Panther’s flying craft into the Wakandan capital, the illusion of a sparsely populated mountainous landscape peels away to reveal a metropolis with forms of advanced sonic technology unknown to the rest of the world. This industrial society, we are told, was developed through the use of an ore called vibranium.
What can this superhero tale of a fictional nation, with speculative technologies, mystical plants, and powerful minerals, show global viewers about science and technology in Africa?
Inversion: Africa as Site of Technological Innovation
The representation of Black Panther’s Wakanda has always been premised on an inversion of audience expectation. In the first appearance of Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52 (1966), The Thing expresses amazement at Black Panther’s gift of a futuristic flying “quinjet” vehicle. “How does some refugee from a Tarzan movie lay his hands on this kinda gizmo?” asks Thing. As the Fantastic Four approach Wakanda, what appeared to be a dense tropical canopy is revealed as a man-made jungle of mechanisms, wires, and computers.
This inversion, the revelation that Africa is perhaps not as it seems, is based on its own exoticizing logics, but it also speaks certain historical truths. It points to a historical reality in which visitors to Africa have misrecognized, ignored, or disparaged the forms of science and technology upon which they have depended.
Historians of imperialism and technology have described how certain technologies developed through the processes of European imperialism facilitated the eventual colonization of much of Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Technologies like the steamboat, the mass-manufacture of quinine, or new developments in firearms contributed to the eventual construction of European empires on the African continent. These technologies were then used as the “measures of men,” signs of supposed European civilizational superiority.
However, these analyses have been relatively incurious about African forms of science and technology that for so long gave them the upper hand over various European visitors. Imperial forces were only able to exercise political power away from the African coast after the development of mass-manufactured quinine in the nineteenth century. From the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, European visitors to Africa practiced a tradition of dying rapidly and in great numbers, primarily from tropical diseases with which they were unfamiliar. While Europeans found themselves unequipped to survive the environment, African technological knowledge had allowed for the creation of large and wealthy empires in those same spaces. Taking Southern Ghana as an example, while populations of Europeans living on the coasts were periodically wiped out by disease, Ghanaians used their knowledge of medicinal plants to treat cases of malaria, allowing children to survive past the critical early years and develop acquired immunity to the malaria parasite. These plants could be relatively commonplace (like the Khaya senegalensis tree often planted as a shade tree), or relatively esoteric (like the Cryptolepis sanguinolenta plant whose roots are now used in commercialized herbal medicines). This was not a passive, static knowledge of plants that can be relegated to an ossified “tradition.” Rather, Ghanaians quickly experimented with and found new uses for plants introduced in the colonial period like Azadirachta indica and Polyalthia longifolia. Centuries later, Ghanaian laboratory scientists are now testing the efficacy of native plants and verifying their antimalarial or antipyretic effects.
Nor should we oppose “Western,” “modern” science with “African,” “indigenous” modes of knowing. Artifacts like the steamboat (the paddle wheel comes from China), quinine (derived from Andean cinchona bark), or firearms (China again), can only be spoken of as “Western” technologies by ignoring their longer histories. In addition, contemporary forms of laboratory science and commercialized herbal medicine in Ghana have developed out of longer practices of knowing about and using plants.
Black Panther also suggests ways in which visitors to Africa have been dependent upon African science and technology. In fact, scholars of African environmental and medical history have documented how European colonial states came to rely upon African expertise. In practicing agriculture, controlling disease, treating the sick, or managing the environment, European administrators and researchers were dependent on African science and technology. The colonial government of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), for example, was only able to manage tsetse fly populations by employing African hunters with knowledge of the land and its animals. When new technologies did come in, they did not displace African forms of expertise, but were incorporated into technological repertoires.
How, then, could some remain oblivious to African science and technology? Sometimes, this was a result of a misrecognition of African expertise that grew out of, and bolstered, white supremacist political structures. This was evident in the way that Rhodesian and South African archaeologists denied the African origins of the structure known as Great Zimbabwe, instead seeing it as the remains of an ancient Phoenician race. Likewise, planters in the Southern United States obscured the African origins of the expertise in tidal agriculture that was central to building the lucrative rice economy of South Carolina. In both cases, the misrepresentation of African science and technology supported white supremacist rule.
The Technoscientific Symbolism of the Post-Colonial African State
So Black Panther can tell us a lot about those forms of science and technology that were overlooked in the colonial period. But the film is not a colonial period piece and it has even more to say about post-colonial Africa.
Wakanda is the apotheosis of the post-colonial, Pan-Africanist nation-state. In the mid-twentieth century, the political leaders of many of Africa’s newly minted, independent governments sought to make their nations into symbols of Pan-African liberation. Leaders combined symbols of Africa’s cultural diversity with spectacular demonstrations of the power of the centralized state. Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain political independence after colonialism in 1957, again offers a useful example. First-president Nkrumah hoped that Ghana would serve as a symbol of African capacity for self-rule while offering material assistance to other newly independent African states to contest white-supremacist imperialism. The incorporation of iconic cultural forms from across Africa, including clothing, jewelry, language, architecture, and weaponry, make it clear that Wakanda is both a sovereign African nation and a representative of the possibilities of Africa at large.
Independence leaders like Ghana’s Nkrumah looked to science and technology as symbols of modern African emergence. In addition to dramatically expanding scientific and medical infrastructure, Nkrumah built educational laboratories, spectacular hydro-electric dams, and supported research into traditional medicine. These were meant to achieve what Abena Osseo-Asare calls “scientific equity,” using science and technology to build nation-states that were undeniably modern and distinctively African. This was expected to take place through the actions of a centralized state, something not unlike the situation in Wakanda.
As Gabrielle Hecht has pointed out, Wakanda is a realization of the post-colonial dream that African nations could leapfrog development goals by harnessing their natural resources. Indeed, vibranium calls to mind the mining of uranium, and the post-colonial dreams pursued by African states like Madagascar and Gabon that technoscientific development spurred by uranium mining could produce a rupture with the colonial past and launch their nations into a modernized future.
Reviews that criticize the film for being utopian, and therefore unrealistic, seem to miss the point of utopian fiction and the underlying logic of fantasy worlds. Utopias have worked in many contexts, not least in post-colonial African ones, to shape and guide current action. Pointing to formerly colonized nations, whose uranium mines have failed to unearth a desired future, and sighing “’twas ever thus,” is a failure of imagination. Must Africa be forever re-colonized in fictional worlds as well as in this one?
So what does Wakanda tell viewers about science and technology in Africa? The answer is quite a bit.
Seeing the World from Wakanda
Whatever the standpoint from which viewers approach Black Panther, the film has something important to tell us. Black Panther will provoke discussion about topics like the goals and means of leadership, the obligations of collective and individual identity, and the relation between race, class, gender, and nation. Black Panther, as good speculative fiction does, causes a re-examination of actual existing affairs. But the centrality of science and technology to the film should not be ignored. Far from being apolitical technical matters or merely symbolic elements, science and technology are inseparable from the politics of Africa today.
It does not take so much difficult intellectual work to see African scientific and technological innovation obscured by the thin canopy of misrecognition. As Black Panther shows, it’s not very hard to see the world differently. To complete the task, and to see more clearly the world that Wakanda helps us glimpse, we likely need only gently reorient understandings of science and technology. If common understandings of science and technology have led visitors to Africa to miss so much of the world around them, then perhaps they need some mild retooling.♦
Damien Droney is a Postdoctoral Researcher and Instructor at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. He received his PhD in anthropology from Stanford University, where his research focused on the politics of science, technology, and medicine in postcolonial Africa. While at SIFK, he is revising his dissertation as a book manuscript to be titled Weedy Science: The Meaning of Science in Postcolonial Ghana. The book is an ethnographic study of Ghana’s herbal medicine sector, with a focus on political projects of class, race, and nation that shape the vocation of science in West Africa.
 See Headrick.
 See Adas.
 See Osseo-Asare 2014.
 See Mavhunga.
 See Hunt.
 See Kuklick.
 See Carney.
 See Osseo-Asare 2013.
 See Hecht.
 Jim Geraghty. “Why We Can’t Have Wakanda.” National Review, February 2018.
Adas, Michael. Machines as the Measures of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. Cornell University Press, 1989.
Carney, Judith. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Harvard University Press, 2002.
Headrick, Daniel. The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Hecht, Gabrielle. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. MIT Press, 2012.
Hunt, Nancy R. A Colonial Lexicon: Of Birth Ritual, Medicalization, and Mobility in the Congo. Duke, 1999.
Kuklick, Henrika. Contested Monuments: The Politics of Archaeology in Southern Africa. Colonial Situations: Essays on the Contextualization of Ethnographic Knowledge, edited by George Stocking, University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
Mavhunga, Clapperton. Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe. MIT Press, 2014.
Osseo-Asare, Abena D. Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa. University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Osseo-Asare, Abena D. “Scientific Equity: Experiments in Laboratory Education in Africa.” Isis, 104, 4, 2013.