Religion & Culture Forum

How Black Panther Betrays Dr. King's Dream​ | April Issue


The April issue of the Forum features John Sianghio’s (University of Chicago) essay, “How Black Panther Betrays Dr. King’s Dream.” Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther has conquered the world. Beyond being a box office blockbuster, communities of color and colonized people identify with its depiction of the African nation of Wakanda. Wakanda is a nation at the height of technological, economic, and social advancement. It is untouched by white colonialism and achieves its power, not despite, but because of its blackness. Parallels have been drawn between Wakanda’s king T’Challa—the eponymous hero of the film—and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. Both tout blackness as having a power that can benefit the world. However, as empowering an image as Wakanda has become for those who continue Dr. King’s struggle against racism and colonialism in the real world, the very excellences that make Wakanda a beacon of hope may be antithetical to the radical economic and axiological aspects of Dr. King’s legacy. Dr. King regularly condemned capitalism’s veneration of the values of technology, security, prosperity and traditional power. For Dr. King, the valorization of these excellences too often devalue the poor and vulnerable. It is, however, precisely the depiction of Wakanda as a black nation possessed of technology, security (in both the physical and economic sense), and power that give the country its potency and its appeal as a rallying symbol for oppressed cultures. Coogler’s Wakanda is aligned less then with the civil rights message of Dr. King than it is with the contemporary sentiments of figures like Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose weapon of choice against an oppressive system is the achievement of power by black and other colonized peoples. Wakanda can never be the prophetic dream of figures cut in the mold of Dr. King like James Baldwin and Cornel West. Unlike Wakanda, these figures find the strength of their communities not in superiority, but from the unique resilience and unconventional power that historic vulnerability and oppression have engendered.

In the coming weeks, we will publish responses to Sianghio’s essay. We invite you to join the conversation by submitting your comments and questions below.

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John Sianghio (MDiv '15) is a Ph.D. student in religious ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Formerly he was Assistant Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Trinity Christian College. As a political scientist, he served as an embedded asset advising U.S. Army units in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. He lives on the Southside of Chicago with his wife and five-year-old son.







About the Forum

The Martin Marty Center's Religion & Culture Forum is an online forum for thought-provoking discussion on the relationship of scholarship in religion to culture and public life. Each month the Marty Center, the research arm of the University of Chicago Divinity School, invites a scholar of religion to comment on his or her own research in a way that "opens out" to themes, problems, and events in world cultures and contemporary life. Scholars from diverse fields of study are invited to offer responses to these commentaries.

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The Religion & Culture Forum is edited by Joel A. Brown, Divinity School PhD student in Religions in America. Emily D. Crews, Divinity School PhD candidate in the History of Religions, was the previous editor.