Africa's Other Hidden City

In her 1903 serial, Of One Blood: Or, the Hidden Self, Pauline Hopkins tells the story of Reuel, a brilliant, but tortured Harvard medical student who is black, but passing for white.  Through a series of unforeseen events, Reuel finds himself on an archeological expedition, where he discovers Telassar, a hidden city located somewhere in the deserts of Ethiopia.  The city is ancient and grand, featuring technology far superior to any found in the western world.  Reuel is recognized as the city’s lost king and is invited to take up his rightful place at the throne.

To answer the question of how current media representations of blackness relate to earlier iterations, there are certainly a lot of similarities between Hopkins’ Telassar and Wakanda, the fictional kingdom depicted in Marvel’s Black Panther (2018).  Both Hopkins’ novel and the movie describe a gilded, African city whose rulers have deliberately hidden it from the outside world. Both pay deference to African royalty, and in particular, patriarchal monarchy. Both texts reflect a pan-African sensibility, not located in any particular place, but rather composed of various signifiers of Africa.  Finally, both see Africa as a potential solution to black struggle in the US.

At another level, both the book and the movie speak to a desire to be respectfully represented in media.  In his book, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century, scholar Kevin Gaines argues that Hopkins’ serial was part of a larger discourse within the black intellectual community that looked to ancient Africa as a source of pride and aspiration. Black Panther reflects some of these same sensibilities.  However, the film must also be seen as Hollywood’s response to the #OscarsSoWhite movement, which called attention to the striking lack of black representation in film.  The very fact that Disney green-lit, and then supported a film with a primarily black cast is remarkable, the industry’s response has been prematurely self-congratulatory. “Black Panther is a game changer for African American entertainment,” proclaimed the Orange County Register. Adam Vary of BuzzFeed prophesized that the “Historic success of Black Panther should change Hollywood forever.” 

The degree to which Black Panther has indeed changed Hollywood remains to be seen. After all, Hollywood’s record on black representation has been inconsistent over the years.  This brings us to the issue of black ownership of media, which remains alarmingly low. It is significant that Of One Blood was written by a black woman and originally printed as a serial in The Colored American Magazine, which was edited by Hopkins.  Furthermore, Hopkins’ creative output was a direct response to white America’s inability to rightfully tell the stories of African Americans.  Throughout her career, Hopkins urged African Americans to engage in creative production because, in her words, “no one will do this for us.”[1]

Despite Ryan Coogler’s involvement, Black Panther was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and produced by Disney, a multinational corporation.  Authorship may account for some important distinctions between Of One Blood and Black Panther.  Hopkins’ book is overtly critical of the US, ending with Reuel’s ultimate rejection of America.  By contrast, Black Panther is conciliatory, concluding with Wakanda revealing itself to the western world.  Curiously, this is all made possible through a collaboration with the CIA.  The mixed politics of Black Panther is a sobering reminder that, whatever the intentions may have been for creating the film, it is ultimately a commercial product that is intended to reach a mass audience. And the unspoken rule of mass entertainment is never to do anything that might isolate or offend the “average” (read white) viewer.

[1]Found in Pauline Hopkins, “Contending Forces,” (pp. 13-14).

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