John L. Williams.
London: Constable, 457 pp., $32.99.
The Old Man was once quite young–almost permanently so. And vibrant, always ready for socialist revolution. But not for the overthrow of European civilization and culture. In a new biography, John L. Williams pulls back the curtain just enough to show why intellectuals, particularly culturally complex ones, need platforms and bases. What results is a non-judgemental tale about a 20th-century charismatic Caribbean intellectual destined for the classroom, the typewriter, the lecture hall and the cricket field. His cultlike, harem-based sexism will rile 21st-century readers but his stamina and constant optimism never fail to impress. Most of all, James–whose long speaking and writing life spans the birth, revolutionary work, danger and martyrdom of fellow Caribbean Leftist world travelers such as Walter Rodney and Maurice Bishop–shows that revolution requires a lot of work.
Power to the Person?
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow is a master storyteller, and Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra attempts to be an epic story for this moment. It succeeds in being hella entertaining.
My last Ultra post was about its historical emphasis, allowing this subsequent comment to be ideological in nature. And so, clad in my dashiki, a note to Maddow and MSNBC:
The best way to fight organized fascism is an organized radical united front, not just individual efforts because the latter depends on liberal democracy working on your behalf. Didn’t McCarthyism, instead of an American movement against fascism, flow from this history?
This kind of color-within-the-lines conclusion is why what Dave Chappelle said at the end of his Saturday Night Live monologue was so important: as Black people, we are no strangers to the system not working. Sadly but not surprisingly, Maddow doesn’t have a James Baldwin/I.F. Stone-type voice who would hit that target, expressing the idea that American democracy itself is a flawed concept at its core. Nope, me no trust paleface.
And, Rachel and MSNBC, um, you might want to, um, not take off the air anyone else who speaks plainly about the current rightwingers (*cough* Tiffany Cross *cough* 🙂 ).
Fighting The Power, for-real-for-real this time
Reginald Hudlin’s writing style remains blatant and strident by half. But as a former full-set Icon/Static/Hardware Milestone Comics collector (sadly, lost them in a move 😦 ), I must admit I much prefer his style to the comparatively accommodationist Milestone founder Dwayne McDuffie!
Six issues in and you win, Mr. Hudlin: the 19th-century enslaved Arnus as a Nat Turner (!) character and present-day free Augustus with a fine-ass sista amazon at his side and an assassin to hunt is much more appealing. And he had the assassin, an alien hired by the U.S. government to kill other aliens, kill a certain white infant recently adopted in 1939 by a white Kansas farm couple!
I doubt this version of Icon will be Clarence Thomas’ favorite! LMAO!!!! I’m in for the entire hardcover run! Thanks to DC/Milestone for bringing back my non-Wakandan superhero comic favorites!
A true drama about a deliberately-forgotten time
Tellingitlikeitis/keepingitreal/keepingithunnert, etc. I have never gotten the Rachel Maddow hype. Every night I tuned in to her MSNBC show she acted like she and her research/producing staff had broken Watergate or had the Pentagon Papers! LOL! I still don’t understand that RussiaGate stuff!
So, now, to her podcast narrative series Ultra. I’m now completely caught up and I’m excited about the forthcoming last episode.
Like the greatest middlebrow magazine writers of the last century, Maddow’s clearly a very talented reporter, narrator and dramatist. But she continues her television approach here. Clearly, the ultra-patriotic American nation was not shivering in collective fear before and during World War II because of the existence of small (but well-organized and armed) groups of American Nazis and their fellow travelers; their salutes dropped quickly after Pearl Harbor. And as someone who has also studied a little of the history of 20th-century radio, perhaps it’s debatable that the radio racist Father Charles Coughlin was as politically powerful as she is saying, the same way not everyone in the nation believed Martians were invading Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. 🙂 But she’s making the same point that Pulitizer Prize-winning historian David Blight made at the end of his recent Yale conference on teaching race and slavery: these politically-retrograde people have always been here, will always master any updates to the art and science of influence and are never leaving the collective, progressive us/US at peace.
Dr. Jared Ball is in rare and raw form here!
Please read this.
So it’s too early in the morning to worry about whether this post will be an example of good writing. I’m watching (listening, really, to) Vigilante, Greg Palast’s new documentary on Georgia voting suppression while I’m updating my blog.
This post-Halloween pre-dawn screening is an appropriate end to a frightening weekend. Tiffany Cross is fired from MSNBC on Friday for directly confronting our enemies and unapologetically using late-’60s-style Black activist language in doing so. A Yale academic conference spends two days directly linking American white-supremacist history to what Palast is outlining in my ears. In my New Jersey hometown, the-used-to-be-a-ghetto Newark, former Black nationalists cry out in the Newark Public Library for us to vote because, as I’ve heard them say all my life, it’s the only way to stop the coming fascist tide. Meanwhile, some of my Dee Cee folks are decrying the choice between, as one of them calls it, Fascism and Fascism Lite.
Everybody’s right, particularly if we meld an insider/outsider strategy, but that’s not enough. Why? Because between then and this Monday morning’s typing while viewing, I made the mistake on Sunday of getting offline just long enough to read last week’s New Yorker. Pennsylvania has gone crazy (to no surprise to Mumia Abu-Jamal and his supporters, I’m sure!) and very well-organized right-wing school activists refuse both fact and truth.
See this post’s lead photo? That’s my attempted reading this week so can I reward myself, guilt-free, with the half-escapism that Wakanda, the white-created and corporate-endorsed theme park of the African mind, represents.
Damn, was John Henrik Clarke and other historians right when he said that “all history is current events.” Well, I really hope the historical half-successes of both Black liberalism and Black revolutionary-ism loop around again and soon, because Palast is reminding us that in 2022 only one side knows they’re at war, and for many reasons, it doesn’t seem to be ours. And those retrograde warriors, not us, seem more willing to confront their opponents face-to-face, kidnap, kill, go to jail, slander and lie with every single breath, organize and vote like their children’s lives depend on it and spend their last billionaire dollar to maintain the white American race-supremacist structure that was so inspirational and utilitarian in the last century to both the apartheid South African government and Nazi Germany. Not surprisingly, these right-wing warriors are not “outside” the white-supremacist, capitalist system they created for their own benefit, but they are unapologetically and consistently clear that their collective goal is to make sure we Wakanda forever are.
The deadliest of the species
So a Brazillian media outlet interviewed me via email about a certain Marvel character and a certain film. Here’s what I wrote:
Todd Steven Burroughs, 54, writer, comicbook geek, public historian and adjunct Africana Studies professor at Seton Hall and Wayne State universities. He is the author of Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates.
1) In your opinion, what is the importance of continuing the legacy of Black Panther in cinema, as it was one of the rare positive representations in Hollywood of a Black king, seen here at the head of an African nation among the most powerful countries in the world?
I struggle over “importance” being the right word. The comicbook geek and the Africana scholar forever warring inside me go back and forth on it. This is a white corporate product starring characters originally created by white Americans with some later help from African-Americans, and now it’s a film produced by a white conglomerate, one written and directed by African-Americans starring both African-Americans and the children of continental Africans. This is not an authentic, organic African cultural product–which shows our powerlessness to do one ourselves. Remember: America was comfortable having a Black president serve two terms but there is still no Black American that can greenlight a Hollywood film. The great writer Haki Madhubuti has called the first film “dangerous.” And if you are committed to African liberation, how can you not call it that? The first Black Panther is an exciting and powerful movie, one that made me tear up with joy, but it’s also a film whose climax shows a white male CIA agent shooting down African revolutionaries. I have known about T’Challa since I began reading Marvel Comics as a pre-teen, but I have only loved him since I first read, while in grad school in the late 1990s, a groundbreaking, satirical Black Panther comic series written by Christopher Priest, its first Black writer. Reginald Hudlin, its second Black writer, did his best to make T’Challa a decolonized character fighting European imperialism. But what about real, decolonized African heroes and Black/African films? Black Panther only shows that the billion-dollar Disney/Marvel Cinematic Universe can make popular any kind of story starring anyone, that it can make anybody in the world into a popular superhero, but it is not an advance for Black, African and African Diasporic filmmaking. I’m excited as any fantasy-loving Marvel Zombie about this sequel–I got my ticket for the November 10 Thursday afternoon sneak preview weeks ago–but the African reality always is in the back of my mind. At the same time, I quietly agonize, I do acknowledge what this franchise means: African children–and some adults–around the world get to see themselves as the most powerful people on Earth. I think that’s where any importance really lies. So it’s complicated for me, internally and externally, intellectually and emotionally.
2) How much do you think the success of the original film is due to the ferocity and brilliance with which Chadwick Boseman embraced the role of King? Can a sequel be as successful without him? He was the heart of the movie, in a way, right?
I have in my living room a mounted, framed poster of Chadwick Boseman on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, so I don’t want my next sentence misinterpreted. I don’t think it’s an insult to say that Boseman’s channeling of Nelson Mandela–even using similar speech patterns–made him the most boring character in the film! LOL! In my view, the success of Black Panther was the dramatic balance between T’Challa (Boseman), the amazing Dora Milaje and other female characters (Gurira, Nyong’o, Wright, Bassett) and Killmonger (Jordan). This may sound strange, but as I mourned Boseman I did not worry about the sequel at all because I knew director/screenwriter Ryan Coogler and Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige could and would compensate and recalibrate well. That first teaser trailer–one that caused tears to flow on YouTube, including my own–showed they were still in command of this world they made–Wakandan characters in particular and the MCU as a whole. The film is already on track to make $1 billion worldwide, so all is well.
3) Since we have now some distance from the first film, do you see any positive impact of Black Panther on the way Hollywood mainstream films portray Black people these days?
Well, here’s what I wrote one year in. I don’t think it’s changed Hollywood at all, with one obvious exception: it’s clear that without Marvel’s Black Panther, there would not exist The Woman King. (Look at the chronology of the greenlighting of that film here.) And I definitely don’t think The Woman King‘s familiar-feeling vibes, non-sophisticated story and Hollywood filmmaking style, along with a wide release date right in front of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, is in any way coincidental. As I wrote, The Woman King is Black Panther 1.5. 🙂
I will be very interested in how indigenous people in the Americas will react to seeing Meso-American people and culture as a major part of the MCU worldwide juggernaut. I think turning Namor, The Sub-Mariner and his people indigenous is a stroke of genius! I’ve loved the Sub-Mariner since seeing him as a pre-teen in very dramatic animated stories on second-run syndicated television in the 1970s (which is the link; here’s info on the original 1966 limited-animation show I saw in ’70s reruns).
And, an important note: the fact that Wakanda Forever‘s bi-cultural, big-screen clash of the titans is coming at the close of a year that saw the Disney+ streaming emergence of an Egyptian superhero and Desi people getting a deservedly critically-acclaimed drama starring teenage superhero Ms. Marvel, is neither accidental nor incidental. Again, Disney/Marvel is leaving no money on the table. 🙂
It’s clear that if the great writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is right in that the first Panther was Black people’s Star Wars, Wakanda Forever is positioning to be the trying-to-be-bigger, trying-to-be-even-better sequel, a Black Empire Strikes Back.
But here’s what I’m most fascinated with as 2023 approaches: will Angela Bassett, an Academy Award nominee, be nominated and win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her anchoring Wakanda Forever and Oscar winner Viola Davis be nominated for and win Best Actress for her film, too? Can Black American women sweep the female Oscar contests for portraying African royalty? As they say in the comics that inspired all this Panthermania, to be continued!