Black Paradise

This week, the Library of Congress held a symposium entitled “1619 and the Making of America”, which focused on the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia (a recording of the event should be available from the LOC’s Kluge Center soon). The talks all touched on the interaction and cultural exchanges between this first group of African people with not only their European colonist captors, but with the local Indigenous people. This melding of African and Indigenous culture and knowledge, and their translations into the dominant European matrix of the colony, became the very foundation of the first American culture: everything from food ways (i.e. whatever you think of as “Southern” food is a combination of Native food traditions combining with plants brought over the ocean by this group of enslaved African people) to architecture (European houses were designed to retain heat, so architectural practices in early colonies were changed by African and local Indigenous knowledge to create structures that worked in the heat of Virginia’s summers). As we’ve been discussing this month in the context of DuBois’ “Black Reconstruction”, here again, Black people are as much the founders of this country as the “founding fathers”.

At the reception following, one of your BlackLight co-curators was discussing how the upcoming 400th anniversary of 1619 could provide not only to reflect on history, but also to inform the idea of futures– the African and Indigenous futurism that have been silenced by colonialism and racism during these past centuries. In conversation with theologian Rebecca Parker, who studies the concept of Paradise in Christianity, I learned of an interesting myth that prefigures our modern Wakanda: the Country of Prester John.  

A map of Prester John’s kingdom as Ethiopia

The idea of the Country of Prester John dates back to the early 1100’s, around when the concept of Paradise transitioned from being something present everywhere on Earth, to something that was localized and “lost”. Early Christians imagined a magical, utopian kingdom, presided over by a character named Prester John, who was said to be a descendant of one of the three Magi (Wise Men). Now, the European conception of geography was, shall we say, limited—the Country of Prester John was at first thought to reside somewhere in Asia, and specifically in India… but also Europeans didn’t really know where India was, and sometimes spoke of “three Indias”, of which one was located in Africa. Go figure. Anyway, a lot of Christian colonial exploration over this time was justified by the search for the Country of Prester John, and upon eventually deciding that it hadn’t been found in near Asia, the imagined location eventually crystallized as being in Ethiopia. Ethiopia was widely known then as a nation with a Christian population, and the Crusade hoped to unite forces with this mythic Christian Ethiopian king. By the time the mid 15th century rolled around, the myth was so pervasive that when an Ethiopian delegation visited the Council of Florence in 1441, the councillors insisted upon referring to Ethiopian emperor Zara Yaqob as “Prester John” to the Ethiopian ambassadors, who were a) confused, and b) insistent that their emperor’s many titles did not include “Prester John.” Also, apparently the white nonsense of not getting Black people’s names right is literally centuries old.

It might be tempting to say that the Country of Prester John is a kind of early Wakanda– and in fact, the characters Prester John and Black Panther appear within months of each other in 1966 (both making their first appearances in The Fantastic Four), so we know that Black Panther creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were aware of the myth of Prester John. However, the conception of Prester John’s paradise and the modern Wakanda differ in an important way: one is a European conception of what constitutes an African paradise, and the other is a Black American conception of a Pan-African paradise, in which Europeans do not play a role (one caveat here of course is that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are white people– however I would argue that the modern incarnation of Black Panther owes more to recent Black writers like Ta-Nehesi Coates and Nnedi Okarafor).

This concept of a Pan-African paradise and the historical link between Black and Native Americans highlights the importance of understanding the relationship between enslaved African people, Native people whose land was stolen, and European colonizers, as the underpinning of much modern injustice– without this understanding, it is impossible to conceive of a truly liberatory future that isn’t based in colonialism. Scholar Shay-Akil McLean wrote an excellent introduction to Pan-Africanism here, which elucidates this relationship far better than this writer can. What history tells us is that the idea of African paradise is permissible only when it originates in white (or European) conceptions about what such a paradise might be– that the Country of Prester John is imaginable only because it relates to European Christianity, and might be brought into service of same.

In the modern history of racism in the US, we see time and again that Black prosperity is seen as a threat by white America. As an example, take Greenwood, Oklahoma, which came to be known as ‘Black Wall Street.’ After the Civil War, the lands of the West presented new opportunities by Black and white folks, alike. In 1907, Oklahoma achieved statehood, and then became a destination for many Blacks seeing to start anew after the Civil War and the failed Reconstruction. Just north of Tulsa, the capital, most Black folks settled and worked in what whites called “Little Africa,” which eventually became Greenwood, a thriving hub of Black commerce and culture. There, Black businessmen, doctors, lawyers and others made their homes and created an economy and society driven by Black people for Black people. Segregation laws also starkened the line between Tulsa and Greenwood, which came to be known as Negro Wall Street: Black folks had to shop at their own places, which kept a dollar inside the town for up to a year.

“Little Africa on Fire; Tulsa race riot; 6-1-1921”

Then, on the evening of May 21, 1921, a Black man named Diamond Dick Rowland attempted to enter an elevator, but he lost his balance. To prevent a fall, he braced himself with the first thing at hand, which was the arm of the elevator operator, 17-year-old white girl, Sarah page. After she screamed, a nearby clerk reported the event as an assault. For 16 hours a race riot ensued, in which white people from Tulsa committed race-driven murder, vandalism, and large-scale destruction of property. The city government, law enforcement, and mobs of white people worked together to arrest thousands, kill hundreds, and destroy three dozen blocks of Greenwood businesses and over 1, 200 houses. To justify firebombing of buildings and people, law enforcement claimed they were preventing a Negro Uprising. National Guard troops were called in by the governor to help put out fires and assist in recovering Blacks abducted by the white terrorists.

Within five years, Greenwood was rebuilt, and eventually became an oasis for new cultural innovations, like the Jazz and Blues movements of the early 1920’s.

This was not a rare occurrence: many times across the country, when white folks grew jealous of Black success and feared that it would hurt their cities or their pride, whites found excuses and the slimmest of reasons to obstruct, vilify, and tear down Black progress. You can read more about successful Black cities and neighborhoods (and when they endured attacks) at The Root, BlackThen, and the Atlanta Black Star. This is a more blatant, physically violent, and immediate version of modern-day gentrification.

Below, you can see rare footage Black neighborhood life in 1920’s Oklahoma, courtesy of National Geographic.

It’s amazing to see how the (tired) narrative of which stories “sell” Hollywood and how that was used to deny Black voices and Black actors the chance to make art. I mean, we shouldn’t be surprised given how despite HUGELY different budgets for promotion, movies like Girls Trip outperformed Rough Night, the majority white movie in the same genre, but it maybe the Wakanda Smash Hit will further move the needle away from #moviessowhite.

But perhaps more than that, part of what is so significant about Black Panther is not just how refreshing it is to see a film with a majority of actors and crew hailing from the African diaspora, but to see Wakanda as a vision of a future that was denied by the history of colonialism and subsequent racism– founded in self-determination and in relationship to itself, not the limited and oppressive imaginings of outsiders.

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