Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Everything you wanted to know about Wakanda and urbanism, but were afraid to ask.
If you haven’t seen the Marvel superhero movie Black Panther yet, you must be at least a tiny bit mystified about all of the chatter and story-sharing happening on your timelines, particularly the ones about something called “Wakanda.” If you have seen Black Panther, perhaps the only thing that mystifies you about Wakanda is why we don’t have anything like it today.
The palatial Wakanda serves as the backdrop of the movie and you can get a small taste of its majesty in the movie poster, where its skyline, decked in hieroglyphic graffiti, serves as a scaffold for the cast above it.
As the story goes, Wakanda is the most technologically advanced nation in the world thanks to its heavily-protected stock of vibranium—a metal that’s stronger than steel and can manipulate energy to near-supernatural ends. Designers have been wowed by Wakanda’s mechanical marvels of hyperloop rapid transit, maglev trains, dragonfly-shaped spaceships, hoverbikes, skyscrapers orchestrated from chords of stone, wood, and metal, and other innovative spectacles.
#Wakandaforever but T’challa is really a superhero for getting that zoning change from residential to commercial in Oakland— Caille Millner (@caillemillner) February 19, 2018
Great city planning in Black Panther – but where are the parks in #Wakanda? We volunteer our services to T'Challa to design a central park for the sequel. @NYCParks is ready to help! pic.twitter.com/Ilp7smsE8R— Mitchell Silver (@mitchell_silver) February 21, 2018
There’s not enough time in Black Panther’s two-hour run to explain how each building and mode of transportation was constructed. However, Wakanda’s mysteries present an opportunity to address a number of issues dear to urbanists’ hearts: What the ideal model for equitable development looks like; how to preserve the traditions and culture of a place while embracing innovation and technology; how transit can co-mingle with walkability; and the role of design in facilitating spaces that protect vulnerable populations from oppressive forces.
The Wakandan metropolis also provides a platform for exploring how a city might engage with other cities and nations that may not have its best interests in mind. Fortunately a bevy of explainers have been made available not only from Marvel fanboys and fangirls, but also journalists, academics, and urban practitioners who’ve long been tracking the intersection between graphic novels, urban design, architecture, and Afro-futurism.
Citylab has pulled together a Wakanda Reader, or online bibliography of sorts, to indulge those who are interested in the larger questions around urbanism implicated in Black Panther. We would call it a syllabus, but there are already several syllabi available—this #WakandaSyllabus from Walter Greason, an economic history professor at Monmouth University and founder of the International Center of Metropolitan Growth, is particularly good. This Wakanda curriculum for middle school grades from school teacher Tess Raker has also been making the rounds.
As for what else has been circulating, here’s an exhaustive, still-living-and-growing list of articles that build upon the Wakandan mystique:
For the urbanist nerds
“Wakanda is where every urbanist wants to live”—Alissa Walker, Curbed
“No Cars in Black Panther's Fictional African City—And, Yes, the Film Is a Lot of Fun”— Charles Mudede, The Stranger
This is what makes the city so unfamiliar. It's big but has no suburbs. There is only the city and the country. If you are not downtown, you are in the rural area. If you are not living in a hut, you are living in a downtown apartment. It's one or the other, and either is fine. This is a radical urbanism concept indeed. If this black African capital has anything to share with the world, it's its city planning. — Charles Mudede
“What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther”— Stephen Jorgenson-Murray, City Metric
“The Attainable Wonders of Wakandan Transit”— Laura Bliss, Citylab
“Wakanda, The Chocolatest City”— Brentin Mock, Citylab
“Wauconda, not to be confused with Wakanda, has an accidental association with 'Black Panther'”— Dan Moran, Chicago Tribune
”Wauconda forever? 'Black Panther' fan tease small Illinois village”— Ashley May/KTHV-TV, USA Today
”Black Panther’s Wakanda is a transportation utopia with a dash of reality”— Andrew J. Hawkins, The Verge
“The RevolutionaryPower Of Black Panther”— Jamil Smith, TIME
“Black Panther — on and off-camera — is a woke superhero fantasy set in today’s reality”— Kelley L. Carter, The Undefeated
“The Blackest Place On (Marvel) Earth”— Bryan C. Lee, Medium
It is a step towards envisioning a world where a radical black future has an opportunity to become as normalized as Will Smith lounging in a mansion in Bel Air. — Bryan C. Lee
”Why Wakanda Matters” — Ishaan Tharoor, The Washington Post
“Behind the Scenes of Black Panther’s Afro-Futurism”— Angela Watercutter, Wired
”Space is the Place: The architecture of Afrofuturism”— Patrick Sisson, Curbed
“The Interpretive Matrix of Wakanda (Deeper Still the Mothership Connection)”— Lawrence Brown, Medium
When the Royal Talon descends on the basketball courts of Oakland at the end of the movie, I saw the Mothership descending — that is, I witnessed George Clinton’s Mothership LITERALLY landing in the ghetto in a powerful way. In fact, according to George Clinton, the title of Parliament’s seminal funk opera album Mothership Connection was originally Landing in the Ghetto! — Lawrence Brown
Also, check out these videos from Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Black in Design conference, where they explored issues of “design futuring.” There the architects and creators Mabel O. Wilson, Ingrid LaFleur, and K. Wying Garrett talked to the audience about the real Wakandas African Americans are creating in their communities today.
African and African-American analogues
“’Black Panther’ and the Invention of ‘Africa’”— William Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker
“Why ‘Black Panther’ Is a Defining Moment for Black America”— Carvel Wallace, The New York Times
“How 'Black Panther' Taps Into 500 Years of History”— Nathan D. B. Connolly, Curbed
Dreams of a place like Wakanda began sometime around 1512 in the Caribbean mountains and forested hills above the mines and fields of Spain’s colony, Santo Domingo. Then and there, Africans in the Americas first broke away from slavery to form their own societies with indigenous island people. They did it again in the maroon enclaves of Dutch Surinam and British Jamaica. In villages, town and cities, too, beyond the reach of slave-catchers in the eventual United States, black people carved out spaces and hoped-for futures of their own. — Nathan D. B. Connolly
“Black Panther's Mythical Home May Not Be So Mythical After All”— Winona Dimeo-Ediger, NPR.
“From King To Comic: The Story Behind The Real Black Panther, Mansa Musa”— Xavier Hamilton, VIBE
“Black Panther and the Search for Home”— Zito Madu, GQ
”Wakanda and the Un-Hoteping of Pan-Africanism” — Cherae Robinson, Medium
”Africa’s real Wakanda and the struggle to stay uncolonized”— Paul Schemm, The Washington Post
”Black Panther’s Wakanda has historical roots in nuclear-age Congo”— Thomas F. McDow, Quartz
“‘Black Panther’ and the Real, Lost Wakandas”— Clive Irving, The Daily Beast
“The Liberating Visions of Black Panther”— Jonathan W. Gray, The New Republic
“Black Panther: Why Not Queen Shuri?”— Salamishah Tillet, The Hollywood Reporter
“How do You Solve a Problem Like Wakanda?”— Justin Charity and Micah Peters, The Ringer:
Charity: Wakanda seems to stockpile weapons as if it were the United States. This, despite Wakanda’s extreme isolation and passive interest in global affairs. At the very least, Wakanda means to keep pace with—or rather, stay ahead of—the war-making capabilities of its biggest potential rivals abroad, as a matter of defense. But otherwise, what’s the point of Wakanda’s weapons tech, which the country produces in overabundance? Who is Shuri finna harm with those panther-print Mega Man arms?
Peters: They’re ideally defensive, I’d say. IF YOU DON’T KEEP A POLE HOW YOU READY WHEN IT’S BEEF, CHARITY?
Charity: Wakanda is an isolationist nation of pacifists whose core commercial innovations, outside of medicine, are in warfare and air travel. HOW, SWAY?
Peters: If your country is literally built on mounds of the world’s most powerful and valuable resource, wouldn’t you be prepared to defend it from anyone who would try to take it? What happens when the mad Titan shows up and starts eating anti-tank missiles like graham crackers? I’d bet you’d want those Mega Man arms then.
“In Defense of Erik Killmonger and the Forgotten Children of Wakanda”— Brooke Obie, Shadow and Act
“Black Panther is Not the Movie We Deserve” — Christopher Lebron, Boston Review
“The Tragedy of Erik Killmonger” — Adam Serwer, The Atlantic
“The Provocation and Power of Black Panther” —Vann Newkirk, The Atlantic
”What Black Panther can teach us about international relations”— Zack Beauchamp, Vox
”Are Black Americans Allowed in Wakanda?”— Jolie A. Doggett, Huffington Post
“A Simple Question About ‘Black Panther’: How Does The Wakanda Ruse Work?”— Brian Grubb, UPROXX
There are also several books worth reading to learn more about how writers are thinking about the positions and standings of people of color in the future:
Cities Imagined: The African Diaspora in Media and History, by Walter Greason and Julian Chambliss
A Mouth Is Always Muzzled: Six Dissidents, Five Continents, and the Art of Resistance, by Nathalie Hopkinson; also check Hopkinson’s Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City
Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell
Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness, edited by Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones
Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film, by Adilifu Nama
Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora, by Nadia Ellis
- Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain, by Andrea L. Bell, ed.; Yolanda Molina-Gavilán