In the movie Black Panther, the character N’Jobu is residing in Oakland, California as a Wakandan spy when he is troubled by the racism faced by black Americans. T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda, gets wind of his brother N’Jobu’s plot of using Wakanda’s advanced technology against oppression in the United States. He views it as a betrayal of Wakanda, and kills N’Jobu. Later in the film, N’Jobu’s son, Killmonger, travels to Wakanda, the land of his ancestors, to use its resources to ignite a global solidarity of the oppressed and to overthrow the existing social order. During their encounter, the new Wakandan king (and son of T’Chaka) T’Challa injures Killmonger. Like his father T’Chaka, T’Challa is more concerned with Wakandan isolationist nationalistic sensibilities than the global liberation of the oppressed.
In the film, we are told that Killmonger learned the strategic and military skills needed for his planned revolution during his days serving in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Killmonger’s character is reminiscent of Robert Williams (1925-1996). Williams wrote Negroes with Guns, a book that influenced Huey Newton, who co-founded the Black Panthers Party with Bobby Seale in Oakland in 1966. Williams was a US Marines veteran, who used the techniques he learned in the military to develop the anti-racist movement that he called “armed self-reliance,” or self-defense against the violence of racism.
Du Bois’ Double Consciousness and Second Sight
Killmonger, who grew up in Oakland as an African American, comes to his political consciousness through his experiences of oppression and those of his father N’Jobu. These include witnessing police brutality and mass incarceration against black Americans. Killmonger’s political consciousness can be understood through W.E.B. Du Bois’ notions of second sight and double consciousness. Killmonger, through his black experience and history in the United States, knows of the barbarism that lies under what white Americans consider civilization. This knowledge gives Killmonger his second sight. Du Bois explains that having firsthand knowledge of the oppression of black people in the United States, and being able to simultaneously look at oneself through one’s own eyes and the eyes of the oppressor (as the oppressor’s other), is a curse and a gift to black Americans. It is a curse because, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” It is a gift because, “Out of evil came something good—the more careful adjustment of education to real life, the clearer perception of the Negroes’ social responsibilities, and the sobering realization of the meaning of progress.” Killmonger is gifted with second sight, which allows him to imagine a struggle for global justice
Living like Hossein or Zaynab for Shariati, and Resisting Reactionary Death for Newton
At the end of the film, Killmonger refuses to use the advanced Wakandan technology to survive and heal himself. The technology helped in the survival of a CIA agent; the agent represents the existing global order and his role in the movie is “to save Africans from themselves,” as Hamid Dabashi explained. Killmonger’s refusal to heal himself can be understood as political suicide. In his writing, Huey Newton divided suicide into reactionary and revolutionary. A reactionary suicide is a response to poor social conditions that crush the soul; the victim “bereft of self-respect, immobilized by fear and despair, [he] sinks into self-murder.” Newton adds that there is another form of suicide, reactionary suicide, which he calls spiritual death. In this instance, the person, facing poor social conditions and oppression, surrenders themselves to their reality, the soul dies despite living bodily, hopelessly thinking that resisting the status quo is impossible, and believing instead that things will eventually improve. For Newton, however, he does “not think that life will change for the better without an assault on the Establishment, which goes on exploiting the wretched of the earth.”
On the other hand, resisting oppression that gives rise to reactionary suicide or spiritual death jeopardizes one’s security, well-being, and even life. At the same time that it endangers one’s life, it also brings about hope and the possibility of imagining a different life. This is what Newton calls revolutionary suicide. Though he clarifies that “Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible.” Newton gives the example of his prison experience where he defied authorities and refused to cooperate, resulting in his solitary confinement. He explains, “If I had submitted to their exploitation and done their will, it would have killed my spirit and condemned me to a living death.” Hence, to Newton, resistance in that situation, even though it risked his well-being, is necessary for raising consciousness in society and resisting spiritual and reactionary death.
In another context, Ali Shariati (1933-1977), an Iranian intellectual similar to Huey Newton, employed philosophy to theorize social resistance. Both these thinkers were influenced by Marxism and the anti-colonial currents of their times, including the work Frantz Fanon (1925-1961). In the case of Shariati, Shi‘i history and concepts also play an important role. Shariati theorized that social responsibility is materialized when an individual is involved either in the revolutionary act itself or in spreading the message for justice. Shariati refers to the third Shi‘i Imam, Hossein, and his battle and martyrdom in Karbala as the revolutionary act. He refers to Zaynab, Hossein’s sister, and her speech about her brother’s martyrdom as spreading the message of the revolution. Therefore, according to Shariati, to be socially responsible requires “being ‘Hossein-like’ or being ‘Zaynab-like.’”
Connecting this idea to Newton’s thoughts, living like Hossein or Zaynab is to resist the spiritual or reactionary death. Shariati explains that longing for or awaiting the ultimate revolution (conducted by the return of twelfth Shi‘i imam: the Shi‘a Messiah) is positive when the longing person lives like Hossein or Zaynab, and is negative when the longing person only waits without challenging the status quo. To Newton, this negative waiting is spiritual death. However, to Shariati, negative longing, though passive, still protests the existing conditions and refuses to accept the existing social order as the only possibility.  Killmonger’s attempt to change the social order is his resistance against reactionary and spiritual death; he endangers his life in this endeavor, which is revolutionary suicide and Hossein-like. Refusing to survive in bondage turns his body into the revolutionary message, Zaynab-like, and that refusal is him bearing witness to the collective trauma of slavery on the screen.
Return to the Self
Killmonger’s return to Wakanda’s reality—a reality his father experienced before his American experience—which is almost similar to the pre-colonial self, is not done as a return to African roots, but rather for global emancipation. Reference to Africa, as a space of both fantasy and reality, is essential in black Americans’ political imagination. Africa is real in the sense that it is the space of origin and the historical memory of pre-slavery life. Africa invokes a sense of belonging that was disrupted by the trauma of slavery. Africa is also a fantasy in the sense that imagination is not a particular location with a specific language or history. Consequently, Africa is hinted at being similar to scatting in jazz and the unrecognizable words that the artist improvises The artist no longer has access to those African languages, and the story of that loss is unspeakable due to slavery trauma. Yet the artist “bridges this loss or, recovers this lost object of language by reconstructing it in a new jazz language that speaks volumes across generations.” Africa is invoked as a reminder of the sense of belonging that exists there, while living here. It is a sense of belonging to both here and also there, or belonging to nowhere while belonging to both places at the same time, as the complete sense of belonging to both Africa and the United States is disrupted by the trauma of slavery. Adorno wrote in his work Minima Moralia, “‘It is even part of my good fortune not to be a house-owner’, Nietzsche already wrote in the Gay Science. Today we should have to add: it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” It is that relation to space, to not be at home in one’s home, that brings about the concepts of second sight and double consciousness, or in other words the potential for liberation in black Americans’ political history and imagination. Feeling in exile also makes the notion of home and the comfort of an undisrupted sense of belonging important. Exile cannot be essential without having the notion of home at its heart. Africa is an irretrievable loss and evoking it, as a lost home and the traumatic relation to the US history, is a continuous struggle to make the United States home for black Americans, where the emancipation of the entire society resides there.
In the case of Iran, the concept of the return to a place of fantasy or reality for political purposes varies across different times and different political strata. Some intellectuals during the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), occurring simultaneously with the formation of the nation-state in Iran, felt exhausted by the despotism, colonial interventions, and the Russian-British contributions towards dismantling the revolution. Some of them referred to the pre-Islamic years (as the golden era free from domination) in order to criticize the conditions of their time. Egyptomania, or fascination with ancient Egypt, was similarly a response to racist ideas in the United States among black Americans. For instance, Ronald Fritze explains that Du Bois “was [...] acutely aware of the unremitting prejudice and discrimination that black people throughout the West faced on a daily basis. Like other black nationalists and Pan-Africanists, Du Bois sought to refute racist assertions of black inferiority and lift black self-esteem by asserting the basic unity of all black people and connecting them to the achievements of ancient Egypt.” Similarly, the reference to the golden era (among Iranian intellectuals) was an attempt to dismantle racist colonial ideas that regarded some groups of people as being inherently inferior compared to others.
Passing through Baghdad on his path to Istanbul, the poet and political activist Mirzadeh Eshghi (1893-1924) visited the court of the Sassanid kings. Disturbed by the ruins he saw, he composed the first Iranian opera, Opera-ye Rastakhiz-e Shahriarian-e Iran (The Opera of the Resurrection of Iran’s Leaders), in which he describes the incompetence and ignorance that ruined Iran, expressing his belief that Iranians should be ashamed of their condition. In the opera, the shrouded corpse of one of the Sassanid kings’ daughters emerges from her grave and testifies in the Sassanid court to the past glories that have been replaced by the ruins of the day. Dismayed by the ruinations she states, “This ruined space is a graveyard. This is not Iran. Where is our Iran?” The juxtaposition of past glories with present ruins was a prevalent trope among some of the intellectuals, often used as a means to criticize the conditions of their time. Farrokhi Yazdi, a contemporary of Mirzadeh Eshghi, wrote the following poem: “[...] Is this the same Iran that was home to Keykavous/ The place of comfort for Daryoush and the place of security for Sirius?/[...]/ It was not under the feet of British and Russian domination.”
Shariati theorized his return to the self in 1972, seven years before the 1979 Revolution. He was trying to find a way to imagine changing Iranian society when change was unimaginable. He argued that the ideologization of Islam in society at the time, as a way to form social responsibility and critical stance towards social norms, was a return to the self that was accessible to all people. Yet, Islam had to undergo some changes in order to not be the reason for political passivity, but rather to form politically committed people. Shariati stated, “Islam must be articulated as a progressive protesting enlightening ideology as opposed to its current condition that it is a repetitive and unconscious traditions which are the major cause for decay and deterioration. Hence, this revitalization and ideologization of Islam is to change Islam from ‘scientific religious education into conscious faith, from a collection of slogans, signs, and acts that are done solely for the heavenly rewards into a massive force that gives responsibility and mobility [...] to people prior to their deaths.”  The return is a return to the present. The Islam of the present had to go through reforms to turn it into an ideology of resistance and anti-colonial consciousness. This Islam was influenced by the anti-colonial theories of Amy Cesaire, Fanon, as much as it was by Marxism and Western critiques of modernity. In the movie Black Panther, it is through the return to Wakanda that the tools for emancipation are considered to be obtainable. The entire movie occurs in the present—thus there is no return to the past. The scenes in the United States are not fantasy, but the parts in Wakanda (Africa) are. It is hence, through this political scatting, and references to Africa as an unrecognizable place with no specific language or history in reality, that emancipation is imagined.
Nostalgia as the Freedom from the Confinement of the Present
Contrary to the bifurcation of revolution and education that the movie Black Panther creates, the Black Panther Party was formed after an initial interaction between Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966, in which they tried to reform the curriculum of Merritt College (in Oakland) to include a course on black history. Education was essential in the formation and the ways that the party understood a path towards justice. Moreover, the party did not consider itself zealots towards the revolution at any price, but rather teachers of correct methods of resistance. As Newton explained, “The Black masses are handling the resistance incorrectly. When the brothers in East Oakland, having learned their resistance fighting from Watts, amassed the people in the streets, threw bricks and Molotov cocktails to destroy property and create disruption, they were herded into a small area by the Gestapo police and immediately contained by the brutal violence of the oppressor’s storm troops. [...]So if things get worse for oppressed people they will feel the need for revolution and resistance. The people make revolution; the oppressors, by their brutal actions, cause resistance by the people. The vanguard party only teaches the correct methods of resistance.”
These are gloomy days for Iranians facing intertwined domestic corruption and the harshest US-imposed economic sanctions. There are moments of bright stars in the sky though, such as the recent letter of a worker activist responding to pro-government journalists, “[...] I talk to you not as a representative of the workers, but rather as one of the millions of Iranian protesting workers. You are right we never shouted the slogan of neither reformists nor principalist factions of the government, as we have done with both of these factions and consequently of this slogan for a long time now, and we have reached the slogan and the demand for independent councils of workers and people [...]” We have these shining moments, but there is still a fear of starvation and destruction among the people of Iran. These are not bright days for Americans either. Killmonger refers to his father’s words on the beauty of the sunset in Wakanda and expresses his desire to watch the sunset, which is symbolic of his father’s nostalgia for Wakanda. In the same way, we can “watch” the thoughts of the past to find ways out of the current political conundrum, even if with a hint of nostalgia. Nostalgia can be the longing for a possible future that was repressed in the past. In other words, nostalgia can be a longing for the ideals and dreams of the past, longing for a past where a collective of people yearned for a different future and found dreaming about an alternative world possible. If we go back in time, the present is not the only possible future of the past, it is one of the possibilities; nostalgia hence frees us of the confinements of the present time. Svetlana Boym distinguishes between two forms of nostalgia: reflective and restorative. While reflective is trapped in longing itself, restorative attempts to recover the losses of the past and is prospective. Obliteration was not the only destiny for the dreams of the Black Panther Party if it was not for projects such as COINTELPRO, just as the present situation in Iran was not the only destiny of the 1979 Revolution if it was not for the oppression (domestic and international) of Iranians.
Newton, from Santa Rita Jail, California (in the year 1964), asked Joe Blum, a student activist involved in the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley University, “Hey Joe! How many of you motherfuckers [other student activists] are coming out here?” Today, Iranians—facing the Muslim Ban in the United States and severe financial and political hardship in Iran—can ask the same question from the ordinary people of the world who witness their government go with economic sanctions (and similar policies) against Iranians with little to no reaction.
: W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bedford, 1997), 38.
: Ibid., 42.
: Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide, Penguin Classics Deluxe ed. (London: Penguin Publishing Group, 2009), Kindle Edition, 2.
: Ibid., 3.
: Ibid., 5.
: Ali Shariati, Martyrdom, Islamic Renaissance Series (Chicago: Kazi Publications, Inc., 2012) Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 1706.
: To Newton, resistance is survival and preserving oneself is an obligation. Newton wrote, if the person “does not preserve himself then I accuse him of suicide: reactionary suicide because reactionary conditions will have caused his death. If we do nothing we are accepting the situation and allowing ourselves to die.” To Shariati, mourning the usurped rights, while suppressing the desire to revolt, turn the mourner into a living martyr leading a tragic life. Shariati’s notion of a living martyr is close to Newton’s concept of a spiritually dead person. To Shariati, awareness, instead of power and possibility, results in social responsibility.
For more details on Shariati’s interpretation of entezar, see: Ali Rahnema, An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari’ati, (London: I.B.Tauris, 2014), 191.
: See page of Tyfahra Danielle Singleton, “Facing Jazz, Facing Trauma: Modern Trauma and the Jazz Archive” (Phd. diss., University of California, 2011).
: Theodor Adorno, Minima moralia: reflections from damaged life (London: Verso, 2005), 23.
: Ronald H. Fritze, Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy (London: Reaktion Books, 2017), 314.
: Mirzadeh Eshghi, Majmoueh Karhaye Eshghi [The collection of Mirzadeh Eshghi’s work] (Tehran: Elmi, 1954).
:For discussion on this topic, see:
Hamid Dabashi, Iran: A People Interrupted (Macat Library, 2017).
: Ali Shariati (d.1977) theorized “Bazgashte Be Khishtan” (Return to the Self) in a speech that was delivered at Jondishapour University in Mashhad, Iran in 1972.
: See Svetlana Boym, Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).