Diaspora

We Love How ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ Honors Haiti – Essence

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Marvel’s blockbuster “Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever” immerses us once more in the fictional African Kingdom of Wakanda, a Black refuge from the predatory nation states of Europe and the United States. The Black Panther, known as T’Challa, was the former king of this wealthy and hyper-modern asylum from the colonialists and capitalists who impoverished the real continent of Africa, but he perished in the first “Black Panther”released in 2018.
[Editor’s note: SPOILER ALERT, but if you haven’t seen the film yet, what are you waiting for?]
The sequel features a stunning revival of his legacy when we learn that the Black Panther left behind a son with his wife Nakia, a Wakandan warrior. In a mid-credit scene meant to set up the next “Black Panther,” Nakia and her son are revealed to have been living in Cap-Haïtien, a northern port city that was famously the capital of the nineteenth-century Kingdom of Haiti, ruled by King Henry Christophe.
It is not only the story of the first and last king of Haiti that the film evokes with this setting. The life and legacy of Christophe’s comrade-in-arms, the famous revolutionary hero Toussaint Louverture who helped end slavery on the French-claimed island of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), surges forth when T’Challa’s son tells his father’s sister, Shuri, who has recently arrived in Cap, that his “Haitian name” is Toussaint. “Toussaint is a beautiful name,” she softly replies.
As the inheritor of his father’s throne, the new Toussaint will therefore be the one to carry into Wakanda the heritage of Black freedom and equality instantiated by Haiti in 1804 when it threw off the yoke of its very real colonizer, France, and became the first modern nation to permanently outlaw slavery.
Beginning in 1791 Toussaint Louverture, who had been enslaved until the 1770s, led numerous slave revolts on Saint-Domingue. By 1794 he had helped force the French to officially emancipate all the people they were enslaving there and in other French colonies. After reconciling with France, Louverture became the second Black man after Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (the famous novelist’s father, also born in Saint-Domingue) to achieve the rank of general in the French military.
Louverture had also successfully led France to defeat the invading armies of Spain and Great Britain. His military, social, and political aptitude, joined with his ardent determination, are captured by one of his many famous remarks: “I’ve been fighting for a long time, and if I must continue, I can. I have had to deal with three nations and I defeated all three.”
Louverture’s power only grew as he achieved the title of governor-general and issued his own constitution for the colony. Meanwhile French leader First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte plotted to reinstate slavery while making it his mission to subdue the Black man whom he considered to be his greatest rival. Like the colonizers in “Black Panther,” who played a role in T’Challa’s downfall, Bonaparte defeated Louverture with betrayal and deception.
In June 1802 Louverture was tricked by a white French general into a meeting where he was arrested and placed aboard a ship that was setting sail for France. He was subsequently left by French jailers to die in a prison in the Jura Mountains, never to see his wife and children or his homeland again.
Not long after Louverture’s arrest and deportation, his greatest fear came true. France issued a decree that reinstated slavery in its overseas colonies. But Louverture had already prophesied France’s ultimate inability to re-enslave Saint-Domingue when he uttered this iconic phrase, “In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of liberty – it will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.”
Just as various leaders and soldiers from different parts of Wakanda are vital to its defense and success, Haitian independence was in the end accomplished by a diverse array of formerly enslaved individuals from not only Saint-Domingue, but West Africa and other islands in the Caribbean.
With its beautiful tribute to the Haitian Revolution, and the Haitian people of today, “Wakanda Forever”joins a long tradition of storytellers who evoked the spirit of Louverture to talk about global Black freedom struggles. Numerous writers, artists, and activists, including the British poet, William Wordsworth, the French poet and playwright Alphonse de Lamartine, the US American abolitionists William Wells Brown, Wendell Phillips, James McCune Smith, David Walker, and Lydia Maria Child, attached Louverture’s name to the fight for abolition in the Americas. Indeed, in the nineteenth century Louverture was, after the novelist Alexandre Dumas, the most famous Black man in the world. Louverture continued to be celebrated by writers from the Black intellectual tradition in the twentieth-century, too, like C.L.R James, Langston Hughes, Aimé Césaire, and Édouard Glissant. Louverture even makes a cameo appearance in Ntozake Shange’s 1975 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide.
The empowered Black future that the “Black Panther” franchise continues to ask us to lovingly look towards with Wakanda, and now Haiti, is a reminder that we can be inspired by how Toussaint Louverture lived as we never forget how he died. “I was born in slavery,” Louverture once wrote, “but received from nature the soul of a free man.” Although Louverture was killed in French captivity several months before Haitian independence was declared on January 1, 1804, the hope for enduring Black freedom carried into the world by the revolutionaries of Haiti, and that the very name Toussaint has called forth for two centuries, will never die, unless we let it.
Marlene L. Daut is Professor of French and African American Studies at Yale University. She is the author of Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution and the forthcoming Awakening the Ashes: An Intellectual History of the Haitian Revolution.
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