By Kate Harlin
This academic article explores T.J. Benson’s short story “Jidenna” and Ryan Coogler’s film Black Panther in relation to Afrofuturist and Afro-pessimistic discourse. Afro-Pessimism seeks to critique politics based around a “we” — even the best kind of “we,” made up of marginalized people united in the pursuit of justice. Rather, I hope this analysis reveals the ways two vastly different texts that deploy elements of Afrofuturism can be enriched using the lens of Afro-Pessimism.
- Review: This article underwent editorial review from three editors.
- License: Copyright Kate Harlin. All rights reserved.
- Citation: Harlin, K. 2019. Vibranium, Nigerium, and the Elements of a Pessimistic Afrofuturism. Vector #289. https://vector-bsfa.com/2019/10/06/vibranium-nigerium-and-the-elements-of-a-pessimistic-afrofuturism/
- Keywords: Afrofuturism, Afropessimism, Ryan Coogler, T.J. Benson
In his debut short fiction collection, We Won’t Fade Into Darkness, Nigerian writer T.J. Benson imagines a post-apocalyptic Nigeria. Several of the stories trace the apocalypse to the same inciting moment: the release of a previously unknown element dubbed Nigerium into the air, after its discovery deep beneath the Nigerian soil where crude oil had been completely extracted. Taking a single story from Benson’s collection — “Jidenna” — as my example, in this essay I will explore WWFID’s technologically advanced but politically pessimistic vision of an African future. Furthermore, I will use another ostensibly Afrofuturist work from 2018, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther adaptation, to consider the place of Afro-pessimism within the paradigm of Afrofuturism.
We Won’t Fade Into Darkness was released by Parrésia Books, a small Nigerian press, in 2018. Benson, a writer and photographer based in Abuja, has gained notoriety within Nigerian literary circles, but is not (yet) known to an international audience. His collection is specifically located within Nigeria, rather than a vague or fictionalized African city, and this specificity of place is especially crucial to his story “Jidenna.”
“Jidenna” is titled for the young man at its center, but the story’s true protagonist is Jidenna’s unnamed “Father.” The two live in an improvised shelter built into the crumbling Nyanya Bridge in a post-apocalyptic version of the Nigerian capital of Abuja. The story-world is in many ways a hyperbolic imagining of inequality and social segregation in an African city: post-apocalypse, futuristic technology coexists with poverty and political tyranny. In the case of “Jidenna,” women have gained control of and developed reproductive technology to the extent that men are rendered biologically unnecessary. The matriarchal regime, led by a series of woman rulers referred to only as “Mama,” has subjugated men into mainly domestic and reproductive roles within The Citadel, forcing those men who do not comply (including Jidenna’s father) into hiding. Struggling to cope in this post-apocalyptic society, Father has grown addicted both to alcohol and to his Zivini, an augmented reality helmet that infuses the user’s blood with a less dangerous form of the Nigerium isotope, allowing him to travel to the past, apparently by using their genetic material.
There are two distinct and potentially contradictory terms that can both be useful in understanding “Jidenna,” Black Panther, and the resonances between them. Afro-pessimism is a critical paradigm that values the interrogation of racist and imperialist structures in society, but is skeptical as to whether dismantling them is an achievable goal. Jared Sexton explains it thus:
“Afro-Pessimism is thus not against the politics of coalition simply because coalitions tend systematically to render supposed common interests as the concealed particular interests of the most powerful and privileged elements of the alliance… [But also] because coalitions require a logic of identity and difference, of collective selves modeled on the construct of the modern individual, an entity whose coherence is purchased at the expense of whatever is cast off by definition.”
In other words, Afro-Pessimism seeks to critique politics based around a “we” — even the best kind of “we,” made up of marginalized people united in the pursuit of justice. In any identity-based coalition there will almost always be some contingent that is relatively marginalized, so that even when the coalition succeeds, it simply succeeds in replacing one unjust system with another. Moreover, each of us has many aspects to our identity, and a coalition always demands a suppression of some of these aspects so that, as Sexton puts it, “there is in effect always another intervention to be made on behalf of some aspect of the group excluded in the name of the proper.” Nevertheless, the Afro-Pessimist paradigm is not defeatist. Nor does it argue that working together is futile. However, it is a powerful tool for analyzing the shortcomings of movements predicated on liberating marginalized people, especially global Black populations.
By contrast Afrofuturism, an aesthetic genre and movement first named by Mark Dery in 1993, is often seen as an optimistic antidote to more pessimistic movements in African and diasporic literature. However, “Jidenna” does not view technology as a cure-all for Nigeria’s troubles. For example, as he flees from the scene of a crime, Father notes that “[t]he new government could not afford surveillance cameras but they had heat sensors calibrated to detect the warmth of a mosquito” (Benson 42), suggesting that the surveillance state and budgetary shortfalls both continue into the distant future. As Dery suggests in his initial theorization of Afrofuturism, “Isn’t the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers — white to a man — who have engineered our collective fantasies?” (Dery 180). In other words, for Dery and other Afrofuturists, there is a paradoxical relationship to the future: while it is incumbent upon Black people to imagine a future in which they are the center, the very powers of the imagination are already contaminated by colonialism, slavery, and capitalism; furthermore, there is a great difference between imagining a future and bringing it about. Indeed, for Afrofuturists, technology in and of itself has never been an answer to the oppression of Black people: as Dery further notes, “African Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassible force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies” (180). As such, there is perhaps an inherent cautious optimism is works of Afrofuturism that aesthetically separates them from other works of African and Black science fiction.
The techno-dystopia of “Jidenna” may not immediately appear to fit such a definition; however, several aspects of the story allow for an Afrofuturist reading. First, the Zivini machine, which Father uses to travel back into his familial history, brings “Jidenna” into the realm of Afrofuturism. For example, when questioning the reality of his Zivini experiences, Father reflects that, “Once he had unintentionally returned to the past as the bringer of rain, a god of an ancient community that did not wear clothes. Had this really happened? Had a man once lived with a woman as husband and wife in a home? He laughed at himself” (Benson 50). The Zivini trips fulfill a desire that is also embodied in Black Panther’s Wakanda—the desire to access a usable past untouched by colonialism. The technology of the Zivini, which seems to require pre-colonial African DNA for such time-travel, allows only those with genetic ancestral claim to pre-colonial Africa to access it. Indeed, it is the experiences and ingrained memories of pre-colonial West African village life and family structures that I argue offer Father the hope necessary to sacrifice himself, in order to facilitate Jidenna’s escape at the end of the story. The technology of the story enables both authoritarianism and the hope to rebuild and start anew.
Furthermore, while the extreme inequality of the city reproduces many features of colonial and postcolonial oppression and autocracy, the structure of the government in “Jidenna” subverts expectations surrounding gender and patriarchy. Having acquired the technology to control reproduction, the women of the story finally have a radical autonomy over their own bodies and families; however, the strict controls they put in place around sex and reproduction work to essentially disenfranchise all men. Thus rather than being liberatory, reproductive freedom creates even greater distance between the genders, and queer, gyno-centric families both threaten and reproduce the hold of heteronormative patriarchy over society.
The Zivini is also attended by a complex set of politics, whose progressive possibilities are highly questionable. Father is addicted to it, for instance:
“The man was high on the blood of his ancestors, falling in love with Ifeoma, a pre-colonial, pre-slave-trade… With Zivini and controlled imagination, the father could visit any point in time in the experience of his ancestral line. Tech hawkers who made new modifications every other year warned that consecutive use could cause insanity.”p.34
Later, it is revealed that Ifeoma’s village is being tormented by slave-catchers, undermining the Utopian nostalgia this first scene in the Zivini suggests. Certainly, the reader knows that there is no historical moment at which the imperialist patriarchy offers true comfort and stability to the whole society; thus, what can at first read as a reactionary anti-feminist story, with its caricatures of powerful, cruel, man-hating women, is better read as a text that sees inequality and exploitation as continuous from the past into the future, an Afro-pessimistic (re)telling of a story that would have seemed to hold progressive promise to many of those living it.
Clearly, the tension between futuristic tech and the distribution of power and resources is one that is foundational to Afrofuturism. One particular point of comparison WWFID invites is to another cultural product visible in 2018, Marvel’s Black Panther. Whereas the autocracy of “Jidenna” is built on the toxicity of a fictional element, Black Panther’s Wakanda owes its prosperity to the fictional element Vibranium. Certainly, Black Panther did not begin as an Afrofuturist text; the superhero first appeared in Marvel comics in 1966, and as the creation of white comics artist Jack Kirby, “Black Panther is less of an Afrofuturist work than a neatly commoditized Marvel comic which rides on the coattails of popular black culture, and a popular ability to perform ‘being lit’, more generally” (Marco 4). Yet even in the Sixties the radical potential of the character seemed clear to fans, as critic Brent Staples explains:
The comic, as first introduced, was not the least bit radical in the political sense — and not even self-consciously black — but it had a genuinely radical subtext. The Black Panther’s alter ego was T’Challa, a highly educated king of the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda, which had never been colonized by foreign powers and was the most technologically sophisticated country in the world. (To underscore the country’s prowess, King T’Challa introduces himself to the Fantastic Four by giving them a vehicle that runs on magnetic levitation.) This portrait begs to be read as a critique of both the western slave trade and the prevailing attitudes of superiority through which Westerners have long viewed Africans.Staples
Indeed, a letter to Marvel in the 1970s, during the Black Panther’s second iteration in the Jungle Action comics, a fan criticizes the strip and its hero for not leveraging Wakanda’s great material and technological wealth to improve the lives of the average African:
“The Panther is a dirty, ruthless exploiter of the people. How else do you explain the incongruity between that nifty multi-million dollar palace of his and the grass huts his subjects live in? Such a squandering of the tribal fortune is unthinkable by one so supposedly noble as the Panther has been made out to be. So let’s see him spending some of those billions on schools, running water, electricity and generally improving people’s condition, huh? Remember, this is supposed to be a super-scientific jungle kingdom.”Jungle Action 10: letters, qtd. in van Dyk 476
Indeed, it is a similar conflict that serves as a central plot point in Ryan Coogler’s 2018 film adaptation. Furthermore, the answer at which T’Challa arrives in the 2018 film closely resembles the suggestion from the aforementioned fan: a social outreach center established to educate and uplift Black people, especially children, in Oakland, California. Presumably many more centers are opening all around the world. Thus, the Afrofuturism offered by Coogler’s Black Panther is not of radical liberation or wealth redistribution achieved by Wakanda’s Vibranium reserves and technological exceptionalism; instead, it is a neoliberal fantasy that largely preserves the global status quo.
Returning now to the discussion of “Jidenna,” it is tempting to read Vibranium as a direct inverse or foil to Nigerium. The former offers hope for a prosperous future while the latter is toxic and renders the future nearly unimaginable by destroying human reproductive organs, literally preventing a future of the race. In this futuristic Abuja, if a man were to wander outside without his “cancer diaper,” then “the pure Nigerium in the air would poison his sperm, and his whole reproductive system would rot” (Benson 35). Indeed, even the provenances of the two elements are seemingly oppositional: Nigerium from even further below the ground than the deepest oil reserve, and Vibranium from a meteorite that struck Wakanda 10,000 years ago. However, whereas the relationship between the “Utopic” Wakanda and the fallen Nigeria of Benson’s works may at first seem completely opposed, the dystopia of “Jidenna” offers a more complexly imagined future than its bleak premise might suggest.
Reproductive Technology as Power
The power of the matriarchal autocracy of “Jidenna” differs from the kind of celebratory Afrofuturism of something like Black Panther. Since its very inception, Afrofuturism has been diasporic, and even a primarily African American movement, and one that continues to center the West by focusing predominantly on the afterlives of slavery, especially in the US. Referring to the newfound celebration and commodification of Afrofuturist texts in Europe, Darlene Marco notes that, “Celebration of Black exceptionalism and black trauma from predominantly Western centers means that… we are still, traditionally and predominantly, taught and understood to think from the West as center” (1). “Jidenna” avoids this trap by imagining a Nigeria insulated from extra-national or Western intervention. In fact, when Jidenna decides to escape life in hiding, his father finds that he is trying to escape over the Gembu Plateau into neighboring Cameroon. Not only is this interesting because it imagines a futuristic Africa that maintains its national borders, Jidenna’s plan implies that even the toxic airborne element Nigerium obeys such imaginary lines.
This is but one of several ways in which the apparently subversive Citadel matriarchy simply reproduces heteronormative capitalist patriarchy. Father recalls a local legend wherein a supposed criminal against the regime is apprehended: “He was taken back to the citadel where he became one of the first cadavers for experimenting post-mortem production of semen” (37). Indeed, it is through reproductive control and coercion—strategies de rigueur of the contemporary patriarchy—that Mama is able to keep control. Men, including Jidenna, are consistently dehumanized in the text, valued solely for their reproductive potential, in grotesque parodies of the way women’s bodies are currently policed. Father recounts at one moment that “if he did not man up soon, [Jidenna] would be pumping babies in one of those skyscraper apartments” (35). Furthermore, recalling his past as a Husband to Mama, Father describes how “[p]art of the training for males involved a mandatory course on childbirth to prepare them for fatherhood. When he told her she had delivered them a son in the maternity ward, he saw victory and conquest where there should have been tenderness, and she corrected him that she had born the nation, and not he a son” (53). The militancy of this moment is a nationalist and imperialist fantasy that simply swaps dialogue between men and women, but does nothing to undermine patriarchal structures.
It is here that Black Panther and We Will Not Fade Into Darkness refract and reveal that they are neither utopian nor dystopian texts, but rather exemplify the benefits of reading through an Afro-Pessimistic lens. Whether intentional or not, both Coogler’s Black Panther and Benson’s “Jidenna” offer technologically advanced futures that reproduce oppression and inequality, either on the local or the global level. In Black Panther, Wakanda is a far more just society than many others—particularly the U.S.—while it remains in isolation. However, the establishment of “social outreach” and “science and knowledge exchange” programs in the U.S. with Wakandan money does little to dismantle racist white supremacy in the many other powerful institutions of the United States and the rest of the world. Rather than a system of reparations that returns the plundered wealth of Africa to its inhabitants, the film seems to offer privately funded schools and other solutions that locate the “problems” of Black communities within the communities themselves. Meanwhile, “Jidenna” imagines a future ruled by African women, yet the African women’s goals seem to be the same controlling and acquisitive goals of male tyrants.
In Dery’s foundational Afrofuturist piece “Black to the Future,” science fiction writer Samuel Delany responds to whether Black science fiction necessarily comes from a Black Nationalist position:
“One of the most forceful and distinguishing aspects of science fiction is that it’s marginal. It’s always at its most honest and most effective when it operates — and claims to be operating — from the margins. Whenever — sometimes just through pure enthusiasm for its topic — it claims to take center stage, I find it usually betrays itself in some way. I don’t want to see it operating from anyone’s center: black nationalism’s, feminism’s, gay rights’, pro-technology movements’, ecology movements’ or any other center.Delany, p.189
Delany resists the notion that science fiction ought to start from a particular political position; rather, he suggests the genre’s true power comes from the margins. If this is true, pessimism that incorporates Afrofuturist themes and aesthetics has the potential to be incredibly powerful.
On one hand, perhaps asking a multi-million-dollar Hollywood enterprise such as Black Panther to be politically radical, or even particularly progressive in nature, is a misunderstanding of genre, or a misreading of the film overall. Furthermore, the film did offer unprecedented representation of Black actors and crew and a diverse mix of African aesthetics to a massive global audience, many of whom are African people themselves and often left out of or tokenized in such mainstream pop culture. On the other hand, “Jidenna,” produced on the continent by a Nigerian writer for a largely African audience, has embedded in it discourses of Afro-Pessimism while also incorporating elements of the Afrofuturist aesthetic. In the final scene, Father sacrifices his life to help Jidenna escape over the bordering mountain range into neighboring Cameroon, away from the autocratic matriarchal oppression he was born into. For Benson’s story, the hope for (post-apocalyptic) Africa is transnational but still decidedly African; Jidenna’s future hinges on successfully crossing borders within the continent, not fleeing it. Whether Nigeria’s future is salvageable by forces within or by extranational intervention is indeterminate at the end of the story.
By placing these two texts together, I of course don’t propose to offer any solutions to the problems facing contemporary African nations or the diaspora, or to suggest that either Black Panther or We Won’t Fade into Darkness should or could offer such answers themselves. Rather, I hope this analysis reveals the ways two vastly different texts that deploy elements of Afrofuturism can be enriched using the lens of Afro-Pessimism. In what ways might hope and enthusiasm obscure the ultimately reactionary politics of Black Panther? Could a Western-inspired feminism, focused on reproductive healthcare access, run the risk of reproducing the same oppressive structures of patriarchy, as suggested in “Jidenna”? I argue that both of these texts invite us to turn a critical eye to all imaginings of the future, whether apparently optimistic or pessimistic.
Benson, T.J. We Will Not Fade Into Darkness. Parrésia Books, 2018.
Black Panther. Directed by Ryan Coogler, performance by Chadwick Boseman, Marvel Studios, 29 Jan. 2018.
Dery, Mark, editors. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delaney, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyber Culture, Duke UP, 1994, pp. 179–222.
Morris, Susana M.”Black Girls Are from the Future: Afrofuturist Feminism in Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 40 no. 3, 2013, pp. 146-166. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/wsq.2013.0034.
Ober, Juliane, and Thomas Krebs. “Chemical Elements in Fantasy and Science Fiction.” Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 86, no. 10, Oct. 2009, p. 1141.
Saunders, Robert A. “(Profitable) Imaginaries of Black Power: The Popular and Political Geographies of Black Panther.” Political Geography, vol. 69, 2019, pp. 139–149.
Sexton, Jared. “Afro-Pessimism: The Unclear Word.” Rhizomes, 29, 2016, doi.org/10.20415/rhiz/029.e02.
Staples, Brent. “The Afrofuturism behind ‘Black Panther.’” The New York Times, 24 Feb. 2018, nytimes.com.
Van Dyk, Michael. “What’s Going On? Black Identity in the Marvel Age.” International Journal of Comic Art, vol. Spring, 2006, pp. 466–90.
Kate Harlin is a PhD candidate in her final year at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her dissertation discusses suicide in contemporary fiction from Africa and the diaspora. Her work has also appeared in Prairie Schooner, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and BuzzFeed.