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With ‘Wakanda Forever,’ African Folklore’s Influence on Pop Culture Is Finally Getting Overdue Recognition

8 minute read
Agyemang is the author and illustrator of Fibbed. She writes about magic, history, folklore, love, and fairy tales, and draws from elements of her Ghanaian heritage and faith

Legacy and the driving forces of popular culture often seem interchangeable. Both exist in the zeitgeist as collective experiences, memories, people, and even fictional characters that have moved or shaped a culture or its people. How many times have we scrolled passed ads from movie studios or literary presses touting the next big thing?

Yet, while pop culture can be crammed into quiz shows and trivia books, legacy is perpetual. Like the African folktales that my parents and their parents (and their parents before them) shared from generation to generation, it’s not a currency that can be measured or exchanged using marketing dollars or ad spending, nor does its meaning lay solely in its verbatim recounting. Rather, legacy is a current that flows through the ages, forever shifting and making its weight felt by those that carry it.

Rarely does legacy make itself known in the present, and even rarer is the thing that exists within both the realm of pop culture’s cannon and the throes of history. But in 2018, Black Panther cemented both its place in pop culture and its legacy in history. On Nov. 11, its successor Wakanda Forever seeks to reignite that flame.

I’m sure pundits and box office watch dogs are already laying their bets on whether or not the sequel can outdo its predecessor. But for me, the return to Wakanda in this new film isn’t just a moment of fanfare and or speculation—it’s a journey home, one that speaks to the traditions woven within African folktales and the Black Diaspora.

Read More: Everything You Need to Remember From Black Panther Before Seeing Wakanda Forever

The release of Wakanda Forever embodies this powerful tradition of honoring and immortalizing heroes for future generations. Black Panther was the first representation of an African superhero in film. Not only that, but in pop culture, it’s known for breaking box office records and winning three Oscars (Marvel Studio’s first ever). The legacy of its release was seminal for Black Americans. It brought together the Black diaspora, something only African folktales have managed to do so distinctly before.

The first thing you should know about African folklore is that they are origin myths, lessons, and explanations. They are stories that interpret the world as it exists and demonstrate how knowledge can be gained through observation. The next thing you should know about African folklore is that they are everlasting and evolving, fostered through the intimacy of family, friends, and communities passing these stories on to one another. Every ending is a new beginning, and in African folklore, legacy and rebirth go hand in hand.

Take, for instance, the myth of Ananse. Ananse is a trickster spider who uses his quick wit and antics to outsmart other animals. In fact, all of the stories that could ever be told were said to reside in the heavens, until Ananse himself brought them down to the world. During the transatlantic slave trade, although so much indigenous culture was scattered, Ananse stories were shared in the Caribbean and the United States, and Black American storytellers gave Ananse new forms, where he became known as “Anansi.” His stories were also reimagined as Br’er Rabbit tales, and later, in the Black Panther comics.

While the Black Panther comics predated the film’s iteration of the character, Ananse stories were first spoken through word and passed along around bonfires, and yet still the mythical spider found his way into many homes and new mediums. Maybe you know him as the superhero who Static Shock met on his trip to Africa, or the smooth-talking deity played by Orlando Jones in American Gods. The Amazing Spider-Man comic printed in 2003 reveals that the original Spider-Man is Ananse. Comic strips and superhero films endlessly reimagine the hero’s journey. In Ghanaian culture where the tales originated, it is custom for new storytellers to add to the canon.

For me, the journey to follow in these footsteps began as a first generation immigrant, when my sharpest memory of home lay beneath my feet. In my birthplace of Ghana, my footsteps traversed through sand. My bare feet and the soles of my sandals remembered the warm, welcoming embrace of sun-red clay. In my new home in America, they were pierced by shattered glass and bitten by the cold until calluses formed and toughened skin grew accustom to the new terrain.

When I returned to Ghana more than a decade later, the pop culture tidbits I’d heard of Ananse stories were deepened by reconnecting with the living legacy of my people and our customs. It’s through that lens in my own work, a graphic novel titled “Fibbed,” that I reimagine Ananse, in this case as a young boy who, after failing to guard a magical forest in his village, must reluctantly team up with a young girl named Nana who is visiting her family in Ghana. The story draws from themes of family, discovering the roots of one’s culture, and environmental stewardship—but the path to publication was opened because of Black Panther’s legacy.

Black Panther’s release sparked a reignited interest within pop culture for stories in Africa centering Black people. In the years since the film’s release, audiences have been able to see Africa through many lens, from the harmonies of Beyoncé’s Black is King to epics like The Woman King. In literature, an Afro-futurism renaissance has re-emerged with stories such as The Broken Earth Series, The Blood Trials, and War Girls flourishing, while works like Tristian Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, Serwa Boateng’s Guide to Vampire Hunting, Maya and the Rising Dark, and A Comb of Wishes have inspired young readers to reconnect with the magic and mythology of African lore.

Yet notwithstanding the joys of seeing new stories from Black creators and returning to Wakanda, there remains the ever-present grief of losing the late Chadwick Boseman. To his family, the cast, and to audiences, his legacy is ever enduring. Wakanda Forever continues that legacy. From Tem’s heartbreaking and uplifting cover of Bob Marely’s “No Woman No Cry” to Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up,” and even in the films conception itself, the creators and cast don’t shy away from this grief and pain of losing Boseman.

In African folklore, too, the pain of loss and the past is forever woven. It’s this legacy that distinguishes these stories from pop culture’s inclination to sanitize and erase. In fact, the idea of separating pop culture from Black culture stems from how much society has been hot-wired to doubt and attempt to negate the impact that Black people and Black culture has on the world stage. Look no further than the history of minstrel shows, colonizer propaganda, and the sinister subtlety of cultural appropriation for examples of how these forces work in tandem to erase, rewrite, and discredit the legacy of Black people and our creations.

The myth of zombie lore has been subject to this. Zombies, even before they were popularized in films like Night of the Living Dead and The Train to Busan, originated in Haiti. The history of zombie lore is tragically tied to the 17th and 18th centuries, when French colonizers brutalized and enslaved Africans to work on sugar plantations. Many of the enslaved painfully took their own lives, believing that only death would free them. This spawned a superstition of awakening as an undead slave, a “zombie” that could not escape the dehumanizing subjugation of enslavement even in the afterlife. Zombies were doomed, forever denied from being the master of their own fates or captain of their own bodies, yet were trapped in slavery for perpetuity. This heartbreaking, cautionary tale was a mirror to reignite resilience and hope in Black people, and a reminder that their lives were still worth living—that our people would see freedom one day.

Wakanda Forever, like African folklores that predate it, is in conversation with the legacy of the past and the promise of the future. While this dialogue may manifest in many ways, be that through the film itself, its fans, or in the art created before and after its release, Wakanda Forever and the heritage of Black Panther will forever exist in that seminal place amidst pop culture and historical legacy. For audiences everywhere returning to Wakanda, this journey will undoubtedly be an ending and a new beginning in which its legacy persists.

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