Myth is another form of truth.
Having completed an initial cycle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney has begun to unleash the first installments in its new ten-year plan. Brace for the onslaught and a new opportunity to wonder how many variations on the same generic plot structure are needed to screw in the neon sign of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a galaxy as full of variety and promise as it is frustrating in its commitment to the generic. It is arguably one of the great frustrations of the Age of Marvel that after it finally figured out the special effects to do justice to the expansiveness of the original comic books, Disney also worked overtime to distill and dilute all that was weird, silly, garish, elating about them into a surefire, hit-making formula. The hero may have a thousand faces and Disney a hefty roster of them at hand, but inside they’re also all made of the same flesh, and a lot of it is twice lab-grown, having gone through comic book assembly lines before reprocessing in Hollywood. In those circumstances, departures from formula become all the more significant. When Ryan Coogler directed Black Panther, he did not just bring fifty years of Black superhero comics to the screen; he was expressly inspired by all the Black writers and artists, from Billy Graham, Christopher Priest, Brian Stelfreeze, and Alitha Martinez to the Hudlin brothers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Roxane Gay, all of whom contributed along the years to turn an often corny cat into a cultural icon. Coogler brought as Black Panther’s main foe Killmonger, a cousin and polar inversion who could have been as cringeworthy as Bizarro, but turned out as existential a nemesis as Poe’s William Wilson, and sharing the same sharp fate. The film managed to simultaneously propose and absorb a notion that Killmonger made something painfully clear: however cool and well-meaning, a monarch—and both these guys were monarchs—can’t be a revolutionary. Still, working within these limits, Coogler made a way out of no way with humor and by sprinkling historical and political Easter eggs for those who would explore.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the second feature film focusing on the world of the African superhero, reprises the game of mirrors and inversions so central to Black Panther. It is sort of a mess shot through with glimpses of brilliance. It often feels like we’re watching Coogler fighting studios to try and say something meaningful in spite of plot choices and minute turns that may ultimately help build the MCU, but for now feel puzzling, if not outright nonsensical. There’s no shortage of attempts at recycling what made the first installment a worldwide hit: thus T’Challa and Killmonger may be gone, but their dialectic, ideological opposition lives on in the plot of this sequel. Where Killmonger embodied a caricatural form of Black diasporic, decolonial anger, the new antagonist, K’uk’ulk’an—known by his enemies as Namor, a centuries-old quasi-deity as comfortable underwater as he is in the air—and his nation of Talokan bring a deeper level of acolonial civilization: Indigenous Americans who found isolation from European encroachment at the bottom of the ocean and would rather lay waste to all than entertain any contact with white Westerners. Early in the film, we find ourselves following a US expedition out at sea. Using brand new detecting technology, their deep-sea divers find traces of vibranium—the precious, extraterrestrial metal thought to only be found in Wakanda—on the seafloor, seconds before an invisible foe destroys them. It is not much longer before the crewmembers on the US navy ship that carried them have to deal with a terrifying menace: an unknown sound mesmerizes them into walking off the ship straight into the water. Sailor after sailor drops into the dark ocean, prompted by the deep-sea sounds of Talokan. The scene will instantly evoke an episode of The Odyssey when, sailing by the Island of the Sirens—sea monsters whose song seduces all men who would hear it—Odysseus, ever one to play, has his crewmates stop their ears with wax to neutralize the sonic threat and tie him to the mast to let him enjoy the music without risking death. Music will do things to you: in Wakanda Forever, the deadly song is sung by a special unit of Namor’s Talokanil soldiers. What is charming about music can also be harmful: this important, if mostly unsung, idea wafts through Wakanda Forever.
Sound has long been a crucial element in Black Panther: among the many properties of vibranium, Wakanda’s miraculous ore, is its ability to absorb and release all vibrations, including sound waves. The evil Klaw, T’Challa’s enemy in his first comic book appearance, is armed with a vibranium-based contraption that can turn sound into solid, deadly creatures in his command. Though he was turned into a secondary, somewhat easily defeated character in Black Panther, Klaw retained a relation to sound, through his weapon, but also in his musical tastes. In his portrayal by Andy Serkis, he was a deranged, racist thug whose love of 90s Eurodance, if not deadly, nevertheless made for a distinctive part of his offensive arsenal. No surprise then, to find in Namor and the Talokanil, the other vibranium civilization, sound and sound-making objects front and center. When he bursts in on the retreat of Princess Shuri and Queen Ramonda of Wakanda, Prince Namor himself bestows a conch upon the two Wakandan women; blowing into the shell and submerging it in the ocean will summon him within minutes. The conch could easily be dismissed as one detail in a Marvel film typically packed with clues, hints, and other ties to the previous eighty years of comic book history and the next decade of superhero offerings. But the conch is also one in a cowry chain of references by which Coogler whispers questions on the place and role of culture and politics that have long animated the African diaspora. For all that it sits squarely in Disney and Marvel’s global takeover, Wakanda Forever also allows glimpses into parallel histories and worlds—if you listen closely.
To wit: Wakanda Forever pointedly—if succinctly—nods at Haiti and, through it, at the greater history of Black revolt and resistance already indirectly hinted at in Coogler’s first adaptation of the comic book Black Panther. Thus the conchs of Talokan necessarily resonate with their special characteristic as instruments of the Caribbean basin in general, and of the Maroons in particular. Enslaved people escaping oppression to form independent communities in mountains and other difficult terrain throughout the slaveholding Americas, Maroons used conch shells as a mode of communication, warning, and military organization; they are still used in vodoun ceremonies and to call audiences to attention before the telling of a tale. The somber, deadly use to which the Talokanil put conchs in Wakanda Forever evokes precisely these functions: ever ready to do the West’s dirty work (but WHY? no satisfactory answer ever emerges), Wakandans decide to stand up to Talokan in a war that ends in a bloody stalemate. When Wakandan ships set out to meet the Talokanil on their surf, it is the African sailors’ turn to jump into their watery grave, seduced by the submarine sound. If the first instance echoed Greek myth, this scene hits differently. There’s a long, dreadful history of Africans jumping or being thrown off ships, one of the layers of horror pertaining to the Atlantic slave trade that comes with its own terrifying accounts and rousing myths. Think of Igbo Landing on Saint Simon Island in Georgia, named after the dozens of enslaved Africans who after taking over the slave ship transporting them from Africa and running it aground, decided to drown themselves in the marsh rather than risk being recaptured. Think of the Zong, the English slave ship at the center of a 1783 insurance trial called to adjudicate whether or not the 142 people thrown overboard by the crewmembers—some jumping on their own—were a loss covered by the ship’s insurance. The watery grave dissolves all bodies and bones; it disappears material evidence but not souls. In the postface to her poem Zong!, M. NourbeSe Philip advances that hers is an effort at catching the voices of the many thousands gone echoing “in the bone beds of the sea.” Some have preferred to imagine a true afterlife: in their 1992 album Deep Sea Dweller, electronica duet Drexciya imagined an eponymous underwater civilization made up of “water-breathing aquatically mutated descendents of those unfortunate victims of human greed” thrown over the sides of slave ships. At the end of Black Panther, Killmonger let himself die rather than risk being saved by Wakandan tech only to be kept in a cage for his crimes. Before breathing his last, he uttered these memorable last words, tying his brand of individual rage to a communal history of hurt and loss: “Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” It’s doubtful that Wakandan authorities followed his wishes; had they heeded the words of the American black sheep of the family, they might have found out earlier about the Talokanil, their cousins from a different toxin, and who knows what an alliance, rather than a fight, might have yielded. If only things had started differently.
“If musicians are warriors, instruments are weapons.”
The superhero genre is keen on origins. Superpowers, whether granted by technology or magic, have to be explained, accounted for; whether caused by revenge, a sense of duty, or mere entertainment, vigilantism has to be justified. A criminal kills your parents, your uncle, your family, your entire people; you now solemnly vow to devote your life to preventing this from happening again, channeling your desire for revenge into generalized wild justice. A formula happened upon accidentally in a government lab, or a company lab, or a dash of chemical waste, a magical plant, a meteorite from outer space grants you the amazing powers necessary to make you more than just a resentful malcontent raging against fate: armed with resolve and the power to destroy worlds, you can now arrest petty criminals for breakfast, evil geniuses for lunch, and supervillains in the evening, when the light gets all dramatic and all the cats are gray. Yet the possibility remains that you chose darkness to begin with, or that you will be tempted to when you unavoidably begin again, as the genre demands. Ultimately, though, few are those grandiose antiheroes in the Magneto or Namor mold. This world cannot thrive on uncertainty.
Temptation and doubt are par for the course—they make things interesting, dramatically speaking, but too much of an interesting thing can bog down progress. Especially in the simpler days of the Golden Age of superheroes (1930s–’50s), the strength of superheroes has been their ability to trust in their moral compass. Not unironically, this resonates with the decidedly amoral Friedrich Nietzsche, a mustachioed German not without influence on the birth of the superhero genre: he once considered the perfection of a life so bereft of regrets one could live and relive it again and again without changing a thing. In The Twilight of the Idols, he revealed his “formula of [his] happiness: a Yea, a Nay, a straight line, goal....” We must imagine superheroes happy: content in the knowledge that they are always right.
Granted, some level of complexity came with the years. The Silver Age (1960s) saw the company introduce their own formula for happiness: teenage angst, embodied in the likes of Spiderman and the X-Men. Stan Lee and his crew struck gold when they came up with mutants, a narrative conceit designed for anyone suffering from injustice to identify with. Misunderstood misfits in a society that simultaneously reviles, fears, and wants to exploit them, mutants are constantly targeted by enemies claiming that their very nature is a menace and an insult to humanity. Mutants can always be read as—and are often undeniably—thinly veiled stand-ins for oppressed racial, ethnic, sexual, gender groups. They are a narrative structure that allows writers to tap into real historical instances of such oppression for material. The genius of it is that it allows to eat one’s cake and have it too: you don’t have to speak about race to “speak about race,” and for exactly that reason, you can always claim that you weren’t. Or that you were, as you see fit.
This formula, or at least elements of it, predates the Uncanny X-Men. Consider the terms in which the origins of Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, are presented in his first ever appearance in Marvel Comics #1, in 1939. An American scientific expedition in the Arctic circle wrought desolation on the submarine civilization of Atlantis by unwittingly dropping depth charges onto the city. “White Earth men… nearly exterminated our entire race,” Namor’s mother reminds him. Sent by her father the king to “find thy way into the hands of these white monsters, there to work your feminine wiles to our racial advantage,” Namor’s mother ended up falling in love with the American captain, eventually giving birth to a mixed baby endowed with incredible powers: the ability to fly, breathe out of water, the strength of a thousand men. After Namor’s first personal confrontation with surface humans, she spells out his mission in life in no uncertain terms: “My son, it has taken us twenty years to build up a race to avenge the brutal harm done us then…It is your duty to lead us into battle!... Go now to the land of the white people!” Harsh words, but also word censors would be hard put to find exception to: Atlantis is far enough from the real world, any similarity to actual people, alive or dead, done dirty by Europeans and their descendants is purely coincidental. Carry on.
Mama’s boy is nothing if not dutiful: for a few episodes, he engages Americans and destroys everything he finds: a lighthouse here, a random infrastructure in New York city there. But Namor is noble, of course; he saves damsels in distress, even the American ones. He kills Nazis on a whim, or possibly out of a sense of fairness, as he happens upon them attacking a civilian ship. It falls to a pure-hearted woman to convince him that he is mistaken about Americans—whom, it must be noted, he calls “white devils”: “The Americans are not bloodthirsty! We are a gentle, easy-going race, unless we are aroused by injustice or intolerance on the part of our neighbors!... we are kind, and all we want is peace and law and order—we fight only for that!” Namor trusts no one, but he buys this, the fool, until a few episodes later a new slight reminds him that you really can’t trust Americans. Until he does again, ad nauseam. From the beginning, then, Namor resonated with echoes to colonial history in general, and Black history in particular. In the way he is stuck between two worlds, belonging to neither; in the hatred he bears for the genocidal nation that birthed his father, in the way he carries the flag of his mother’s disgrace—whose ‘love story’ is not without echoing the way some speak of Pocahontas or Sally Hemings—Namor “the avenging son” is nothing if not an underwater tragic mulatto—without the issue of actual Blackness.
Origins must be remembered and will be routinely revisited, remolded, updated. The irony of it. Namor’s stella maris waxed in the 1940s but it also waned, the merman diving underwater only to resurface on several occasions in the 1950s. He was reinstated in Fantastic Four #4 (1961) (two years before, Captain America, another Golden Age hero, was literally pulled out of the ice to come grace the pages of Marvel comics). In this issue, the Human Torch comes across an amnesiac homeless man living in the streets of New York, and recognizes him as none other than Namor, whose old adventures he just happened to be reading in comic book form right before encountering him. What are the chances? The 1962 comic reboots Namor’s origin story with, well, a vengeance: Atlantis has been destroyed by nuclear testing, this time around and on finding out, Namor vows revenge on the entire human race. You know the drill. Namor went on to become one of Marvel’s most anti heroic staples, in spite of—or, possibly, thanks to—his haughty demeanor and puzzling pronouncements (he is prone to shout the dubiously Latin phrase “Imperius Rex!” as he goes into battle, for no apparent reason).
The new origin story Marvel Studios concocted for 2022 Namor is weaved of old familiar threads: bringing to the surface historical colonial motifs that were only indirectly stated, but also erasing in the process the specifically anti-American character of Namor’s anger. In the sixteenth century, Spaniards took over the Yucatán peninsula and spread new diseases that ran through the local population like wildfire. Desperately looking for ways to survive, a group of people started consuming a plant altered by vibranium, that gave them the power to breathe underwater. A power and a curse then, as they consequently lost the ability to live on the surface, and built a new world underwater, Talokan. Gone is old Namor’s tragic hybridity: conceived on the surface, Wakanda Forever’s Namor was the first Talokanil baby born underwater. In this transition, he gained special powers none of his compatriots (neither born above nor those conceived and born below) share. Worshipped from birth as a king by the Talokanil, he is soon equated with the fearsome K’uk’ulkan, the feathered Serpent of the Mayan Pantheon. On taking his deceased mother to the surface to be buried in the land of her birth, the young boy happens upon a scene of horror; the Spaniards have taken over his ancestral land and enslaved the local population. K’uk’ulkan and his people raze the colony to the ground, slaughtering every colonizer in sight. As he expires, a Spanish priest gives him his surface name with his last outraged breath: “eres un niño sin amor.” The El Tri song by the same title tells the tale of an orphaned street kid no one cares about; here, the phrase is uttered as a puzzling reproach. Unclear why the religious caution of a band of genocidal maniacs would expect a child among their victims to show them love, but here we are. The Submariner keeps the final syllables as his fearsome surname, NAMOR. Revenge has a new champion.
It can be done, a substitute future, a vice-future (though not a bad one), an alter-destiny can be developed… I would say that the synonym for myth is happiness-because that's why they go to the show, to the movies, and they sit up there under these myths trying to get themselves some happiness. And if the actors can indulge in myth, why can't the musicians? They might be actors in sound...
Anything before history is a myth.... That’s where Black people are. Reality equals death, because everything which is real has a beginning and an end. Myth speaks of the impossible, of immortality. And since everything that’s possible has been tried, we need to try the impossible.
Black Panther’s origin story has been told and retold, as has been the story of his origins, planted in the blood-soaked ground of Civil Rights–era USA.
It goes like this: in June, James Meredith—the African American activist who had desegregated the University of Mississippi four years earlier—was shot two days into a “March against Fear” in support of voter registration drives in the Jim Crow South. Stokely Carmichael, the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee had led such drives for years. A year earlier, he had notably helped locals in the 80% Black Alabama county of Lowndes to constitute their own party in opposition to the white supremacist branch of the Democratic Party.
The Lowndes County Freedom Organization adopted a crouching black panther as a symbol to make visibly clear their difference from the Democratic Party’s white rooster. The pale cocks won the election in May 1966. By June 1966, Carmichael had had enough of the MLK-led movement’s tactics. “This is 1966 and it seems to me it’s time out for nice words,” he proclaimed; “It’s time Black people got together.” Black Power a slogan you could have mistaken for a comic book title, had there been any significant Black superheroes at the time. Yes, yes. You can see this coming like a radioactive spider: we’re not quite done with the origin story yet. In July 1966, Black Panther, the superhero, made its first appearance in Fantastic Four #52; in October 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton of Oakland California formed the Black Panther Party, borrowing LCFO’s logo and something of Marvel superhero’s dark-clad swagger. There was a lot of Black Panther to go around in 1966.
But that’s not all, and there’s a case to be made about how recovering the circumstances of the Black Panther’s advent shines an interesting light on this recent Hollywood treatments.
Jon Savage makes a case for seeing 1966 as “the year the decade exploded,” a turning point for pop music, a moment where finally, in the UK as in the US, the music echoed the social and political upheaval around. Yet arguably, pop experimentation paled in the face of the sonic revolution already started a few years earlier in free jazz. And here also, 1966 was a very good year. Fresh off the success of A Love Supreme, John Coltrane released Ascension, one of four albums that year, this one proclaiming his engagement with the so-called “New Thing”: a radical, improvisational, iconoclastic approach to music led by a vanguard of young Black musicians, many of whom (Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Archie Shepp) also released recordings that year as well. So did another jazz musician included in this broad new galaxy, though very much in his own system: Sun Ra, a celestial body whose gravitational pull attracted most of the bright stars of the Black Arts era.
Sun Ra’s origin story, unsurprisingly, is one of revision and rebirth. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham, AL in 1914, he was in his twenties already a music prodigy, even though he destined himself to a career in education. While in college he had a revelation about his purpose on this Earth after he was contacted by aliens and, through a process of transmolecularization, taken to Saturn. There, he was told secrets for him to share, when the time came, to save the planet, and which he would communicate through his language of choice: music. Leaving Birmingham for Chicago in the late 1940s, he did not just continue on his musical path; in the Windy City, he came into his own and unto his new name and developed a philosophy cross-pollinating his interest in the Bible as secret code of knowledge, Ancient Egypt, esoterism, Black history, space, and music. He and his galactic crew landed in the Big Apple in 1961 and immediately started spreading the cybernetic word. Even in the home of the New Thing their weirdness was unequaled. Some found them hard to take seriously, looking as they did, decked out in garish garbs evoking both Ancient Egypt and the space age.
Sun Ra’s galactic sounds and visuals have been celebrated rightfully for the past three decades as a foundation of Afrofuturism; he is also evidence of the complexity of the political and activist strands of the genre and of the way in which they were expressed. Sun Ra provided the soundtrack to the Black Arts Movement, quite literally, as when he and his Arkestra performed on a flatbed truck in the streets of Harlem to announce the opening of LeRoi Jones’ Black Arts Repertory Theatre. Ra’s philosophy is an explosive mix of Afro-pessimism and celestial optimism. In this present, Black people can only exist as myths because the present was designed to deny Black existence. There is no saving the now, but “an alter-destiny can be developed.” The utter weirdness of Ra’s demeanor and music was never random: in Old English, weird meant “having power to control fate.” So it evidently did for Ra. He manifested as “a presence sent to you by your ancestors,” a myth produced “before history,” when and where Black people still held control over their fate, to hint at a faraway horizon from this brutal present. “A parable is a myth”: no surprise then that the “myths of the future,” which Ra proposed to build through music, echo with the same gospel of change spread by Lauren Olamina, the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s uncannily familiar and prescient Parable of the Sower. In the familiar hellscape that is Butler’s 2024 USA, weather and arson have turned California into a field of constant fire; roaming bands of drugged-up thugs rape and pillage their way through neighborhoods with complete impunity while an increasingly conservative political class paves the way for giant companies to take over, reinstating company towns and slavery under any other name. “Space could be our future,” the young woman says to her father early in the novel, trying to convince him that “we have to be going some place other than down the toilet.” Intrigued but unconvinced, her old man dies, killed by apocalyptic agents of this dreadful new world. Lauren keeps going, carrying her cosmic dream for all of humanity. It didn’t come from nowhere.
The Negro Digest’s November 1966 issue, dedicated to the Black Power movement, featured “Will the Circle be Unbroken?,” a peculiar short story written by Henry Dumas—one of Ra’s most exalted disciples—bringing music onto page to explore the possibility of a future myth.
Rumors are swirling in “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” Probe, the famed jazzman (soprano saxophone, like Coltrane), is back from exile, and it appears that in his travels he has somehow obtained a mysterious new instrument—the afro-horn. He is now spreading the gospel of the new sound, playing only in select venues and for strictly Black audiences. Few have heard it, but those in the know say that the afro-horn’s vibrations are lethal to white listeners.
Jan, Ron, and Tasha—three white hipsters, a musician, a scholar and a journalist, honorary Black people, or so they think—have heard all about it and believe none of it. They know better, you see. Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night, and some take it all for granted. Special as they are, they have caught wind that Probe will be blowing at the Sound Barrier Club tonight, and so they show up, even though the doorman says “Sessions for Brothers and Sisters only.” No matter: the three hipsters hail a cop who helps them force their way into the club. They walk in, “three ghosts, like chaff blown from a wasteland,” just as Probe summons the motives necessary to sound his afro-horn. We’ll never know if Jan, Ron, and Tasha ever understood that the tall tales were true: they collapse where they sit, their hearts falling “silent in respect for truer vibrations.”
According to Sun Ra, he and his Arkestra were “like space warriors. Music can be used as a weapon, as energy. The right note or chord can transport you into space using music and energy flow. And the listeners can travel along with you.” What he brought in his music was alien sonic technology with Black purpose. This did not always go over well with the people most directly concerned. Acting as himself in the 1974 film Space is the Place, Ra appears in full regalia in front of a group of Black kids gathered in a youth center, walls covered with posters of the faces of the Black Arts and politics: Frederick Douglass, Angela Davis, Amiri Baraka, Eldridge Cleaver, Jimi Hendrix, George Jackson, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, etc. They scoff at him, his shoes (“What are those!” Black Panther’s Shuri might exclaim), and they have the following exchange:
Sun Ra—How do you know I’m real? I’m not real, I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real; if you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we are both myths. I do not come to you as the reality, I come to you as the myth, because that’s what black people are: myths.
I came from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago. I’m actually a presence sent to you by your ancestors. I'm going to be here until I pick out certain one of you to take back with me.”
Anonymous kid—What if we won’t come? You’re going to make us come?”
SR—Then I’m going to have to do you like they did you in Africa: chain you up and take you with me.”
AK—Are there any whiteys up there?
SR—They’re walking there today. They take frequent trips to the Moon: I notice none of you have been invited. How do you think you’re going to exist? The year 2000 is right around the corner.”
Black people are not welcome in the US space race; but they are the space race, and they have mastered technologies tapped into the cosmos and apt to send them beyond history and this earthly plane to build the myths for the future: art in general and music in particular, always, already.
While Sun Ra was compatible with many figures involved in radical politics, Amiri Baraka foremost among them, he systematically shunned politics, when he did not defend deeply conservative, if cosmic, views. Such positions did not sit well with more grounded elements of the Black Power scene: he was expelled from a Black Panther Party house in San Francisco in 1971, an episode that likely influenced the scene above from Space is the Place. Speaking of this real-world rift, Daniel Kreiss argues that at its core lay a disagreement on how each respective party saw fit to use technology for Black advancement: where Sun Ra “appropriated artifacts and technological metaphors to create… a ‘mythic consciousness’ of technologically empowered racial identity that would enable blacks to recreate and invent technologies and construct utopian societies on outer space landscapes,” the Panthers “redeployed and reconceived technologies to create a revolutionary consciousness with the end of political mobilization. Kreiss ultimately suggests that time may have proven Ra right in one regard: half a century into that future, with the Panthers a thing of the past and their political legacy erased, obfuscated, slandered, or sanitized—or when it could not be destroyed, appropriated: see how the Panthers’ breakfast and homework-help programs predated and possibly influenced the federal Head Start and School Breakfast Programs—by former opponents, critics and remote admirers alike, their brand of decolonial socialism more alive in dreams than in society, they could be said to have endured most lastingly as myth. A cynical take, maybe; an endless circle, surely: art ages better than politics, and for seeming more innocuous and evasive than pamphlets, metaphors and myths fly more easily under the radar. You can harness images, but they will also always elude you. In “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” all Jan the white hipster has to do to get past security at the Sound Barrier club is to call in a beat cop—in the “real world,” how much does, can an axe weigh against a billy club and gun? He goes in, satisfied he can consume the music like he has many times before, only to die “trying to capture or elude the panthers of the music” as waves of sound wash over him. For Dumas certainly, for Sun Ra arguably, the most dangerous panthers were not in the streets of Oakland but creeping in the very music, ready to pounce when least expected, performing in a mythical version of the revolutionary ways promoted by the Black Marxists.
Imagine a metal from outer space able to absorb vibrations—sound and all—and unleash them in endless possibility: cosmic technology for a far-out sound.
Henry Dumas did:
There are only three afro-horns in the world. They were forged from a rare metal found only in Africa and South America. No one knows who forged the horns, but the general opinion among musicologists is that it was Egyptians. One European museum guards an afro-horn. The other is supposed to be somewhere on the West coast of Mexico, among a tribe of Indians.
Hear the horn echoing all the way to, from, Wakanda. Vibranium, the precious metal everybody wants—whose uses include enhancing the impact of sound waves—is one of the rare things on this Earth (though not of it) never to have been exploited industrially by white people. The Indigenous African and American who claimed custody of it have become something different from mere humans. When Namor sets on his path of revenge in Fantastic Four #4, he digs up an ancient Atlantean instrument, a “trumpet-horn” that can summon Giganto, a submarine behemoth which the prince then proceeds to sic onto the surface world. If musicians are warriors, instruments are weapons. This is hardly a new metaphor; saxophones have long been called axes, a double entendre Dumas himself used from both edges in this very story. Myths will turn metaphors literal to devastating effect.
There’s no telling if Dumas ever read the original Black Panther, but we do know that Sun Ra’s myth shuffling—if not his myth-building—had that same fateful year of 1966 intersected with this most ubiquitous of twenty-first century myths: the superhero. In January 1966, he and the Arkestra collaborated with a friendly neighborly East Village white band, The Blues Project, on a record designed to cash in on the Batman craze with far-out takes on the famed TV series theme and other superhero-related musical offerings. It’s more than possible that Black Panther’s writers, all or some, have read Dumas. It matters little, one way or another. Myths are not just to be found on paper: they travel the spaceways. Call it a peculiar cosmic phenomenon, but distinct echoes to “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” and, beyond it, to Sun Ra’s music and myth science can be heard and seen in the Black Panther films: it was an axe that Killmonger sought to liberate from a British museum in Black Panther. It’s with the afro-horn, his axe, that Dumas’s Probe means to “cut the deadwood of the world.” And it is with his Afrofuturist cosmic sounds that Sun Ra went about unmooring the expectations of the surface world. Consider the puzzled reaction of French jazz critics, versed in politics and history but entirely baffled by the Arkestra’s “Superman costumes” and references to an Africa of the mind, an “invention of Africa by blacks from Harlem and elsewhere… a mythic Africa, a bricolage, a vision of Africa wholly invented by Western culture… by the way whites represent Africa to themselves.” It was precisely in their dedication not to subscribe to musical, cultural, and political respectability, in their unsettling nature, that Ra’s “myths without mythology” breathed revolution, even as Ra himself appeared to speak against it.
“The Strange Truth of Eternal Myth/Is the Sound,” Sun Ra states in one of his poems. If anywhere, sound may also be where the truth of a finely honed global blockbuster like Black Panther resides. Ponder the fact that for all its mastery of vibranium, Wakanda is the one party in presence that does the least with sound: hero status is politically neutering—for all the good intentions attached to the kingdom of Wakanda, the best it can ever be is a high tech, trendy but harmless ditty, Muzak blasted over the quirky outer space sounds it discreetly draws inspiration from. Beware the power of sound, it means to warn us: in the wrong hands—Klaw’s evil hands, Killmonger and Namor’s vengeful ones—sound can hurt. But even the loudest Muzak cannot drown out the melodies that sing beneath. The Talokanil sirens’ song, for what faint but seductive and deadly echoes of better worlds it carries, may be the one thing Wakanda Forever ultimately delivers, somewhat in spite of itself: even Disney cannot fully harness the strange truth of eternal myth. No one has to watch Wakanda Forever; but if you do, watch it with your ears.
Spring / Summer 2023
Grégory Pierrot is a professor at the University of Connecticut at Stamford. He is the author of Decolonize Hipsters and The Black Avenger in Atlantic Culture, co-editor of An Anthology of Haitian Revolutionary Fictions, and co-host of the Decolonize That! webcast series.