Is it possible to think from that silence (the silence created by coloniality of knowledge), to undo the colonial differences that “time” contributed to make and contributes to maintain?1
For well over two weeks, the cyberspace has been in a state of frenzy following the latest release of Marvel comics’ blockbuster superhero movie: Black Panther. What is it that makes this film different from the rest of the Marvel comics series? Well, let’s start with the most obvious: it is probably the first time in contemporary history that a movie of its calibre will feature almost an all-Black cast.2If you’ve seen any of the other superhero instalments, you can already imagine how huge a deal this is. I will not dwell on, or continue the rave about, how the dark days of Black are finally over. The internet it sufficiently littered with much of that. Please, be my guest.
I am particularly interested in a broader question: how a movie that takes Blackness – and by extension Africanness – as a central theme got tangled in what Walter D. Mignolo calls the colonial matrix of power.3And be it as it may, with all its super-hero qualities, might not be able to untangle itself from this.
I return to the question I began with: is it possible to think from that silence, the silence of coloniality? Are we really thinking? What are we thinking? What is the reach of our thinking? To ask if it is possible to think from a place of silence is not the same as asking if we are able to think aloud. It is not to ask if we are able to think along. There is more to this.
For over five centuries, Western hegemony has been tirelessly at work in the construction of modernity as we know it today. This invariably means constructing a world (time and space) whereby the West (Europe/America) is at the centre of its narrative. History as such is linear and so is time and they take their departure point from the Western point of view.4 Again, this means nothing other than negating whatever life, culture, world-knowledge that does not fit into the white man’s (man here as in male) point of view that is in turn inspired by conquest and insatiable desire for accumulation of capital.
Capital! The world changed because of this unbridled desire for accumulation of wealth. Capital became the motivation and therefore the justification for the pillaging, and most grievously, dehumanising of the world. All of that was compacted into one word: civilisation. Since then, the world has continued to change, to become more civilised, according to the whims of those with the greatest spoils in their coffers.
Western hegemony is a shape-shifter. From the Renaissance through the Enlightenment age and all the way to the postcolonial and postmodern era we live in today, Western hegemony has reinvented itself many times over to sit at the forefront of changing times, with the grand aim being the same as always: an insatiable accumulation and control of capital. Thus, the world we live in is constructed in such a way that the West will continue (or will not relinquish its attempt) to co-opt every noble endeavour (and there are indeed plenty of those from all corners of the world – in micro-communities, in the so-called provinces and amongst the silent majority of the world), repacking and reselling them stamped with labels such as Aid, Equality, Recognition of the Disenfranchised, etc.
In the face of all this, there is a semblance of progress. Many middle-class intellectuals and bourgeois of non-Western and African origins have coined and argued in favour of such terms as Afropolitanism, Afrofuturism, Afro-modernism…and the list of Afro-ism keeps growing. Add to all of that, the slogan “Africa is the Future”. But the often-overlooked question is: at whose expense is this future? Africa is only the future as long as every life making up her one-fifth population of the world is measured in Euros, Dollars, Pounds and Chinese Yuan. The other day, a writer-colleague made a passing comment, during a get-together, about how “Lagos is busy becoming a market”. One can say that for every megacity and metropolis of the world, but more so for those of African countries. In the quest for de-westernisation, China, Japan and India have also joined the race towards the African continent. The race to make consumers out of the populace.
To place capital and commodity above human lives and human relationships, or to be more pinpointed, to place human lives and human relationships at the service of capital and commodity is the legacy of modernity, and the Black Panther movie has done nothing to change that. If anything, it has reinforced the undeniability of this reality. At best, we have all been entertained by the gimmicks, along with having the camera focusing so much and for so long on black bodies playing superheroes and sheroes. In that sense, it is a novel accomplishment. However, the fatal flaw of this endeavour lies in, again, what I would call the legacy of modernity: selling entertainment as knowledge. And as many of us are, fair enough, looking for some sort of validation, self-assurance, recognition or respite in a really tough world, we bought tickets to the show – for the wrong reasons. The buzz surrounding this yet-another-Hollywood venture is misplaced. “It’s like looking for something, in the wrong place”, a friend said to me. But, I will go further to argue that it is indicative of our time and its community of “woke” individuals – a buzzword that, to me, finds resonance with what I call “surface-level awareness”.
It is no accident that Raoul Peck’s film I am Not Your Negro, about James Baldwin or Ava DuVernay’s Selmaon Martin Luther King and the many heroes who walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 was not, first produced by a blockbuster studio and as such did not gross some 400 million dollars in their first week, or premiered simultaneously across big cities all over the world including those of Africa. It is no accident that only very few Africans know of the story of the members of the real Black Panther Movement, some of whom are still in exile or in jail.5 It is certainly no accident that very little is known of real-life African (super) heroes and sheroes the likes of Shaka Zulu, King Cetshwayo KaMpande, Queen Amina, the women warriors of Dahomey Amazons, etc., all littered across pivotal points in the histories of Black peoples. And finally, it is no accident that the everyday acts of ingenuity and valour of men, women and children of African origin are overlooked and unvalued by these same Africans (most of them middle-class and those vying to become part of the new middle class) who are now falling over each other for a movie packaged and sold by capitalist institutions. It is all part of the grand design of the world, and we are caught in its force field, in its colonial matrix.
Today, we’ve been gifted a fictitious Wakanda land for which we are literally falling over each other, reinforcing hierarchies and dichotomies in the order and gradation of blackness (The African American versus Continental African versus Diaspora African).6 We’ve all been energised into debates, oblivious to the forces puppeteering from behind the curtains. Make no mistake: the fact that there was only a handful of white actors in front of the camera is at best a cosmetic change, a facelift so to speak, one indicative of a repositioning of the vantage point from which the future is to be co-opted by the same forces.
Perhaps all of this will change something. It will be another “Barack Obama” moment. It will pave the way for more new-blacks whose final destination (rather than a process in a journey)7is the mainstream while they covertly deride and shun the life of “black burden”. But there is more to being human today and even much more to being a black hero.8 It lies in the question: can one think from that silence, the silence created by colonial knowledge? It is the same as asking: can a flower bloom in a dark room?9 Here, we are confronted with a not-so-easy task: to grow through the light emanating from within, as opposed to the illusory, ever-receding one at end of the tunnel. That light dangled from afar by merchants of hope. The task ahead is to inspire a new humanity, to be a symbol of the restitution of justice and the reparation of the world.10 However, his cannot be achieved by following the Euro-American design of the world now largely driven by borderless multinational companies and market speculators whose endgame is to make uncritical consumers and debtors out of humans.11The Black Panther movie falls short in this regard and as such is an archetypal example of the co-optation of noble intentions.
However, there are so many remarkable individuals living and blossoming far away from the light of the mainstream. If the biblical analogy of turning stone to bread has any validity as a miracle, these individuals are experts at making miracles. They live the above arguments on a daily basis more than theorise them on sheets of paper. In times like these, against the backdrop of a Wakanda, a figment of Hegel’s romanticisation12of everywhere beyond the borders of Western hegemony, I think of these people. Here, I do not speak only of those who are deprived of the means to live the ideal lives of their dreams. I also speak of those who deliberately and consciously take on the responsibility to be informed citizens of the world. They would rather dig deep than fly high, for they know that a lot has been buried under thick layers of linear history carefully concealed by the rhetoric of modernity. They are hardly sedated by surface-level awareness and empty aesthetics as is possible with anyone susceptible to postmodernity’s newest illusion: the acceleration of time.13 “Time flies”, “Time waits for no one”. “Time is money”. “I don’t have airtime”. These are expressions by which the cyberspace and everyday lives are animated. Everyone is chasing time – afraid to look back, look closely, look deep, to stop and think.
Is it possible to think in that silence…?
Perhaps the most appalling of ironies is co-opting Gil Scott-Heron’s “This Revolution will not be televised” as one of the soundtracks of the movie. I wonder what he would have made of this was he still alive, given that he spent his life speaking out against the capitalist institutions and policies in the days of Reagan and Thatcher.14
What about now? Would he be rolling in his grave? I would like to play with that thought for a while.
1Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options(Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2011), 172. Chap 4, Kindle.
2Tre Johnson, Black Super Heroes Matter: Why a Black Panther Movie is Revolutionary, Rolling Stone, https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/black-superheroes-matter-why-black-panther-is-revolutionary-w509105
3Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity, Chap 1, kindle.
4Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity, Chap 4, kindle.
5Colour Lines,The 16 Black Panthers Still Behind Bars, https://www.colorlines.com/articles/16-black-panthers-still-behind-bars
6Emeka Okereke, Black Portraitures: Whose Black is it?,2015, Dairy of a Border-being, https://borderbeing.com/2015/06/21/black-portraitures-whose-black-is-it/
7Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2017), 160
8Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, 156 – 159
9Paraphrasing Kendrick Lamar, Poetic Justice(Aftermath/Interscope, 2013)
10Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, 179 – 183
11Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth(New York: Grove Press, 2004) 238-239
12Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, 17
13Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity, chap 4, kindle.
14Brian Gilmore, The Enduring Howl of Gil Scott-Heron’s “B-Movie”, Oyster Boy Review, http://www.oysterboyreview.org/issue/21/reviews/GilmoreB-Heron.html#.Wo_xDS-ZN24
Cover Image: White Screen, Bariga Nights, 2018 © Emeka Okereke.