Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The new Marvel superhero movie Black Panther shows the benefits and the risks associated with sustaining and protecting a majority-black community.
Marvel Studios’ Black Panther lands amid an intense discussion around what it means for African Americans to have their own safe space, or sanctuary, in a country built on their exploitation, during a time of nativist influenza. The movie also arrives at an epoch wherein the phenom known as the “Chocolate City”—a city where African Americans constitute the majority of residents and are its political and economic leaders—may be in its last days. Washington, D.C. was once the prototype, and indeed the funk pioneers George Clinton and Bernie Worrell deemed the District the “capital” of all Chocolate Cities when they coined the term for a song in 1975. But in 2011, D.C. lost its African-American majority and suddenly it was losing its grip on the Chocolate title.
Nathalie Hopkinson wrote in her 2012 book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City: “When you happen to be born black in a world designed for white people, to live in a Chocolate City is to taste an unquantifiable richness. It gives a unique angle of vision, an alternate lens to see world power.”
This would describe Wakanda, the fictional African nation that is the homeland of Marvel superhero Black Panther, in spades. Wakanda figures prominently in the movie Black Panther, which is based off Marvel’s first black superhero comic book that debuted in 1966. Much of the movie’s action takes place in Wakanda’s capital city of Birnin Zana, “The Golden City,” which is cloaked away from the rest of the world, buried inside a mountain in the country’s otherwise rural topography. This hidden city rings as the apotheosis of a Chocolate City—it’s a kind of black Xanadu that looks plucked out of the wildest, trippiest dreams of Marion Barry, the notorious and heralded former mayor of D.C.
Recent population and policy shifts in cities like D.C. have caused some to pronounce the death of the Chocolate City—Derek Hyra writes that D.C. has become a “cappucino city”—while others like the Brookings Institution’s Andre Perry have been trumpeting long live the Chocolate City. The critical questions for those in the school of Chocolate City preservation are: What does it mean to maintain a Chocolate City in an age of globalization? What is the leadership model for growing a Chocolate City? Can Chocolate Cities sufficiently provide sanctuary for their black inhabitants? And even: Why does it matter whether we have Chocolate Cities in the first place?
Black Panther attempts to answer all of these questions. In the movie, [SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW] the Black Panther—government name T’Challa—is tasked with ruling and protecting Wakanda, which is considered the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. It earned this reputation in large part through the development of its native resource vibranium, which can manipulate sound and energy, is stronger than steel, and is in almost-infinite supply—but only in Wakanda. This precious resource has provided Wakanda immense prosperity and security, as it is used to fortify its architecture and the weapons and armour of its military.
What also keeps Wakanda secure is the fact that it is completely sovereign, accountable only to its own leaders, and it trades and does business exclusively with its own people. Wakanda is not eager to take in foreigners from other countries.
That kind of protectionism should not be conflated with the extreme nativism seen today from the Trump camp. While Wakanda is a fictional place, the story is situated in the real world of the audience. And so, Wakanda’s closed borders are a response to the colonialism and white supremacism that plundered and destroyed the wealth and abundance of natural resources found throughout the rest of the continent of Africa. Wakanda is also aware of the enslavement and terrorization of Africans in the Americas. Its foreign policy is formulated around avoiding similar fates.
In doing that, Wakanda has built the ultimate Chocolate City, or Chocolate Country, if you will—a place where black people can live free of racial humiliation and exploitation, and prosper in the process. Untrammeled by colonialism and unpolluted with anti-black racism, there are no limits on Wakandans’ dreams and aspirations, hence its technological supremacy. Because its resources haven’t been gormandized by outside forces, Wakandans are able to sustain themselves and flourish off their own gross domestic product, driven primarily by the vibranium. (Twitter comedians took it upon themselves to come up with a bunch of other perks and amenities in the #InWakanda meme.)
#InWakanda Mount Rushmore is Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and MLK.— S U N Q U I L 🌍 (@General_ZodQuil) February 13, 2018
MLK is always the nicest road in town #InWakanda— #LilDaddyInTheRomper (@GoHomeRyanJ) February 12, 2018
Wakanda is no mere technocracy, though, nor a glorified concrete jungle. Its leadership is determined as much by democratic principles as it is by skill and might. In the movie’s flyover of the land, Wakanda is designed as a place where silicon and metals are woven into the natural landscape of trees and mountains for its buildings. Pedestrians flood the streets of Wakanda’s urban corridors. Shuttles twist and turn throughout the metropolis on advanced maglev tracks, while spaceships sculpted and winged like dragonflies flutter through the skyline.
Perhaps some form of e-commerce exists, but merchants still sell their goods and wares in the streets, hand-to-hand. Its languages, fashions, and ancestral traditions have been preserved, all conducted free from the gaze and judgment of white people. If you’ve ever wondered what kind of innovation and wealth black people could produce had they never been subjected to the decimating forces of colonialism, slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, second-class citizenship, and racial segregation, Wakanda is it.
Except, Wakanda is segregated, both by geography and race, from the rest of the world, and this condition is not without its drawbacks. Since it’s severed from its global neighbors, it is unaware of how nations have coalesced, evolved, and learned to respond to certain threats. More consequently, Wakandans are also unaware of how people like them are suffering outside of their borders.
The most idealistic impressions about what a Chocolate City means tend to focus more on the advantages of this kind of self-determination, but less on the risks and caveats of isolationism. The Wakanda of Black Panther lays both the perils and benefits of this kind of exclusivity out and asks the audience if they still think its worth it. For those who say yes, Wakanda provides guidance for what it means to maintain and protect that kind of chocolate enterprise.
Of course, it’s difficult to make comparisons between Wakanda and real-world Chocolate Cities because, obviously, Wakanda is a made-up place. But if a Chocolate City leader wanted to follow the Wakanda blueprint, she would be tasked with figuring out what her city’s vibranium is and how it can be leveraged. She would also have to figure out how to engage with those outside of the Chocolate City borders—a dilemma that T’Challa agonizes over throughout the movie.
In Black Panther, T’Challa is encouraged to open up international trade talks and to provide aid to other struggling nations, which he's hesitant to break tradition to do. “If we let the outside world in, they will find out who we really are, and we will lose our way of life,” says T’Challa in one scene.
But real-life Chocolate Cities don’t have this luxury. They exist, like cities in general, at the will of the state. In 1969, civil rights activist Floyd McKissick tried building a Chocolate City called Soul City in North Carolina, which he planned as a municipality that would be owned, operated, and inhabited mostly by African Americans. He was motivated by a vision of black power built upon “black capitalism,” but he also envisioned Soul City as a place where black people could live, work, and play free of racism. Still, he needed the start-up funds of the federal government, as well as investment capital and commitments from major employers to get it running. His plans ran relatively smoothly until the political winds changed and the federal government pulled funding, which later led to its cancellation. There was no vibranium to protect it.
This is one of the toughest challenges of the black city: They can’t live on black bread alone. There is no grand demiurge that can create and fortify a city on the soul and sounds of blackness. Still, black cities can succeed with the right kind of investment, argues Andre Perry for Brookings.
“Building upon assets in majority-black cities is an approach that we have yet to significantly try,” writes Perry. “There are valuable assets in black communities that developers, economists, and urbanists genuinely don’t consider”—we just need to locate and forge a better understanding of what those assets are, writes Perry.
In other words, find and mine the vibranium. But this is tough in the U.S. where whatever assets African Americans have held were stripped and stolen away, from Reconstruction to the recent housing crisis. Which is why if black people did ever pool their resources together to construct their own sanctuary city and closed it off to outsiders Wakanda-style, you couldn’t really blame them for doing so.