From the Women of Dahomey to Black Panther's Women of Wakanda
Black Panther is more than just another Marvel blockbuster; it's a revelation in Western depictions of Africa and African women.
16 Feb 2018
When the creators of the Dahomey Village at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair planned their living exhibit, the warrior women of the kingdom were central to the imperial, evolutionist message on display. Deemed "Amazons" by European explorers and colonizers, these women were entrusted with guarding the palace and royal court throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. As historical figures, Dahomeyan women have largely been ignored by scholars; those interested in them would do well to read Stanley Alpern's Amazons of Black Sparta, the only full scholarly examination of them. But this is not to say that the "African Amazons" have not been represented to Western audiences, although historical realities and Victorian representations of Africa differed notably.
At the 1893 World's Fair, the "Amazons" symbolized the barbaric end of the gendered and racialized spectrum of social evolution for a Western audience steeped in the rhetoric of colonialism, white supremacy, and the territorial entitlement of American "manifest destiny". The female villagers were living proof of the so-called "White Man's Burden" of imperialism; "half-devil", "half-child", and topless to boot, the display of these women was a primary component of the pornography of colonial power. Although the women who inhabited the Dahomey Village at the Fair were, in reality, performers, many of whom had already served stints enacting "wildness" in other international expositions, contemporary descriptions delighted in detailing their savagery. Violent and capricious as "tigresses", the women did not "know the meaning of fear", according to the pearls-clutching Chicago Tribune. They reportedly slapped each other as greetings, put fires out with their mouths, and fought to the death. These "warlike ladies" and "battle-scarred Amazons" were among the most fearsome exhibits of the enormously popular Midway Plaisance at the Fair.
The colonial display of a fabricated village visually and literally contained the rehearsed performances of violence, as did the occasional covering of the otherwise topless women with American flags on special occasions like the Fourth of July and the Midway ball. The flag -- the ultimate national symbol and international talisman of territorial expansion -- defused the perceived threat in the bodies of these women. The goal of these representations of Dahomey women at international expositions was explicitly colonial, to depict female power as barbaric, something to be "civilized". "Civilization", as a representational process, occurred through the objectification of the women as violent animals and then through the deliberate positioning of them as tamed colonial subjects swathed in the flag. An obvious metaphor for imperialism, the flag also clearly represented domestic control of the black female body just as Jim Crow was taking hold in southern states (hundreds of African Americans were lynched in 1893 alone) and ushered in what historians call the "nadir" of post-Civil War African American history.
One hundred and twenty-five years later, the characters of the Dora Milaje in the box-office-busting Marvel superhero film Black Panther offer a strong argument that, at least in the realm of representation, popular American images of African women have undergone not just many changes, but a full-scale revolution. In Ryan Coogler's Black Panther (2018), the Dora Milaje are the personal bodyguards of the king of Wakanda, T'Challa. In the comic, this army is an elite fighting force made up of women from each of the tribes of Wakanda. Their mission is to protect the king and keep the peace. In recent years, their characters and back stories have been more fully fleshed out in Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates' short-lived series, World of Wakanda. Significantly, the Dora Milaje, led by General Okoye, are not simply brute soldiers, nor are they blindly supportive of male power. In Black Panther they, along with the spy Nakia and T'Challa's sister Shuri, the teenaged technological wizard of Wakanda, are the very backbone of the nation. They are trusted advisors, sources of institutional memory, and crucial figures of continuity during transitions of power. They are, in effect, "civilizers" rather than "colonizers" who redefine the Victorian ideas of Western "civilization", turning social evolutionism on its head so that "Western civilization" is exposed as brute barbarism, based on violence, subjugation, and the deliberate and continued oppression of people of color. In comparison to the savagery of other social systems, Wakandan civilization, which has no history of colonialism, is peaceful and prosperous, with a diverse but equal citizenry. Women are the linchpin of this successful society, and they are the key to its maintenance and developing relationships with the outside world.
For all the debate over King T'Challa's isolationism versus usurper Eric Killmonger's diasporic revolution, one powerful woman in Wakanda has identified a third way. Nakia alone seems to understand that, as Audre Lorde famously put it, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house"; she accordingly reconceptualizes the relationship between Wakanda, Africa, and the African diaspora as one that can avoid the bifurcated methods of Western imperialism (#nakiawasright). As a poignant exchange between Nakia and Okoye makes clear, an unspoken precondition to the achievement and maintenance of this third way is the stabilizing presence of the Dora Milaje. Their duty is not as servants to patriarchy (despite some misreadings of this, Wakanda is not organized according to male dominance -- female leaders in the film's opening sequence indicate that the succession of T'Challa to the throne is not based on default primogeniture, and in the comic, Shuri aspires to the throne herself). Rather, the duty of the Dora Milaje is to Wakanda, and to the ideals that make up this imaginary nation. The peaceful transition of power is part of this duty, and the conflicted loyalty of the Dora Milaje to Eric Killmonger doubles as a necessary stall tactic while Nakia, who soon thereafter dons a Dora Milaje uniform for the first time, rescues the entire royal family and the country itself. These "African Amazons"—objects for white imperial consumption no more—are poised, at the end of the film, to be the conduit for the spreading of Afrofuturistic social forms to marginalized people around the globe. It is estimated that 27 million people visited the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893. Black Panther surpassed one billion dollars in ticket sales in three weeks. It is a "cultural juggernaut" that is more than just another Marvel blockbuster; this film is a revelation in Western depictions of Africa and African women.
In 2009, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie warned of the "danger of a single story" of Africa featuring "beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars" who are "unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner." Monolithic Western representations of Africa do more than create stereotypes and "flatten experiences"; they are situated within colonial power dynamics. Adichie explains, "Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person." And so Black Panther is not just another historical point in the evolution of gendered representations; it is a significant overturning of the power dynamics inherent in Western images of African women. The Dora Milaje challenge—nay, they explode—that single, colonial story of sexualized savages to be tamed, instead offering a narrative of brilliant, capable Amazons who represent not the barbaric past, but rather the future of civilizations.
It is thus fitting that actress Danai Gurira, aka Okoye, is adapting Adichie's award-winning novel Americanah into a television mini-series starring Lupita Nyong'o, aka Nakia. And with the recent announcements that the Dora Milaje will be getting their own three-part Marvel comic series We Are Wakanda, written by Nigerian sci-fi and fantasy author Nnedi Okorafor and that TriStar Pictures acquired the rights to The Woman King, a forthcoming film about the role of the Dahomey Amazons in "stav[ing] off slavery, colonialism, and inter-tribal warfare to unify a nation," starring Oscar winners Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong'o, there is reason to be optimistic that these revolutionary representations are a trend, not a one-off. This is important ideological work; as Adichie concludes, "When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise."
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