Written by Ángel R. Rodríguez*
In my opinion, Black Panther and the cultural invention of Vibranium is the imperfect exposure to the perfect leap-frog narrative from Africa. But, I would also like to think here about Africa in its totality, and prefer a different animal because frogs are very small and slow creatures. A Panther-leap, perhaps is more fitting.
On April 12, 2018 the communities of Harvard and MIT gathered to examine the afrofuturistic experience and the multiplicity of meanings generated around race, gender, and history of technology. I would like to offer here aspects that motivated us to organize this Black Panther panel around Vibranium as a cultural concept and media object. In doing so, my particular approach sought to make visible nuances of the film that highlight persistent legacies of colonialism and possible futures for braiding university activities around the culture of science and technology.
What is Vibranium? A review of the Marvel comic book series that spawned Black Panther describes the origins of the metallic compound from an extraterrestrial alloy that crash-landed in Africa. The chemical properties fused with the flora and fauna to transform the environment and empower the people, and later nation, of Wakanda. Yet, the term is also a nominative of “Vibration”, a seventeenth-century term referring to the process of shaking, a brandishing, and to set in tremulous motion, so as to produce sound. This intuitive signal is what we can call a Vibe.
The idea for the panel emerged from the Vibe felt after witnessing Black Panther in action. Not once, not twice, but three times at the Dorchester AMC theater. From the film’s debut, an immediate vibration was experienced in the U.S and around the world. The imagery of blackness and the innovation from African people was front and center. We understood that this film would be a significant organizing principle for a dialogue about media and technology along Massachusetts Avenue, but especially given that MIT was part of the film itself! N’Jadaka (Eric Stevens), the Black Panther anti-hero, was an alumnus of MIT where he received a master of science degree before joining the Central Intelligence Agency and branding himself as Killmonger. The Black Panther film empowered a narrative fitting to the recently published edited volume What does Science, Technology, and Innovation mean from Africa? by MIT STS professor Clapperton Mavhunga. In this title, we see that the question is posed using the word “from” rather than “in/to” Africa. These linguistic demarcations make meaning and challenge residues of Africa as a historical territory that depends on external innovation to be delivered or donated. Along with this line of thought, we wanted #VibraniumCulture to be part of ongoing events from MIT Black Student Union, and not merely in the Black Student Lounge at MIT.
Representation and control of our own narrative is where the Vibe vibrates most vibrantly in Black Panther.
The Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie, warns us about the danger of a single story. In her view from Nigeria, as a young writer, the books which filled her library described and revered characters as foreign. The history of stories about Africa from Europe and North America, have deeply ingrained and crafted a cultural narrative of the continent as backward, beastly, and distressed. This narrative only invites intervention, and thus an enduring life of colonial legacy by foreign political systems, economic strategies, and philanthropy almost always without placing at the center the voices and desires of local people. Adichie was convinced of this, at least from the books that by their discursive nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which most people in her world can only imagine, but rarely identify with.
“Ah, don’t frighten me like that, Colonizer,” shouted Shuri (Director of Research and Development for Wakanda) in one of the most revealing scenes of the film. Revealing because it directly engaged with the Wakandan sense of history in which they were not colonized by Europe, but are still aware and must live in a larger world that was, thereby enhancing the guarded relationship with Vibranium.
In the 1940’s, MIT economist Rupert Maclaurin theorized that technological innovation starts in basic research, goes to applied research, development, then production, and then diffusion. That is, marketing, supply, distribution and thereby, productivity. This becomes the measure of progress, and technology the means to achieve it. The economy is summarized to “growth” and not sustainability; as resources dwindle, a post-industrial society then beckons. The Marvel Cinematic Universe also operates with this single story of innovation and technological modernity. Vibranium, on the other hand, invites us to consider an avenue that challenges Western-centric discourse and technological experiences. The Vibe here is to consider that modernity is in truth, a richly multiplicitous concept.
The idea of “alternative modernities” holds that modernity always unfolds within specific cultures or civilizations and that different starting points of the transition to modernity lead to different outcomes. Wakanda’s co-evolution with Vibranium allowed the nation to design and develop an entire territory and built-environment, alternatively and unfettered by a Western formula or design-thinking. The African imagination made possible an aesthetic of the architecture, for instance, fused with cultural meaning and technological prowess to produce a vibrant capital for Wakanda. This built-environment also challenges the single story narrative. That is to say, it is also a physical question of infrastructure. Colonialism was a built-environment that designed infrastructures outward. Integrating areas of resource extraction and shipment. Areas of industrial production outside in Europe or North America. Little to no priorities were incentivized for inter-African integration.
The film’s ending left many unanswered questions and opened up further ethical concerns. Along with this rhetoric, our panel also leaves more questions than answers to continue the rich dialogue generated by this cultural phenomena. We can agree that this comic book invention, and its motionpicture, has transformed our experience with Marvel Universe and offers new ways of organizing race, gender, innovation and history of technology in our increasingly global and connected societies.
*Ángel R. Rodríguez is Prize Fellow PhD candidate in the History of Science and graduate fellow of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard. His research interest includes the ethical and cultural aspects of science, technology, and public health. Rodríguez teaches widely on subjects including Medical Ethics and Global History, Race in Science and Innovation, and History of Communication Technologies and Media at MIT.