Black Liberation and Technology
by Jackie Wang
The release of the Marvel Studios 2018 superhero film Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, has been hailed by many as a milestone: rarely are there big-budget action films made by black directors, featuring a predominantly black cast portraying characters that are complex, intelligent, and dignified. The setting, along with the characters, is also compelling: Wakanda, a fictional futuristic African nation, appears in the film as a character in its own right, representing a vision of what African nations could have become without the destructive interference of the slave trade and European colonialism. Because of a meteorite collision long ago, Wakanda is rich in a rare precious metal called vibranium, which powers Wakanda’s cutting-edge technology. Vibranium can also function as a metaphor for the real-life coveted natural resources found in African countries, such as cobalt—a key ingredient in the batteries that power electric vehicles.
Against the historical backdrop of colonialism and geopolitical conflict, the ruling Wakandan class has decided to prioritize national sovereignty and isolationism over humanitarian diplomacy or revolutionary internationalism. T’Challa—the enlightened king-meets-superhero who is played by Chadwick Boseman—inherits the throne and must decide if Wakanda should share its resources and technology with the oppressed people of the African diaspora, or continue its policy of isolationism.
It is only part way into the film that the plotline revealing the moral dilemma at the heart of the narrative unfolds, when T’Challa is confronted by his rival to the throne, Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan). Killmonger is a rogue revolutionary, a kind of Eldridge Cleaver figure, who wants to arm people of African descent around the world to overthrow white rule and redistribute Wakanda’s riches. We learn later that Killmonger’s mission to usurp power is partially motivated by a desire to avenge his father N'Jobu, who was killed when he was caught trying to smuggle vibranium to oppressed people while on a mission in Oakland, California. When the characters Zuri and T’Chaka return to Wakanda, they leave Erik, then only a boy, behind in Oakland, where he is traumatized by the discovery of the corpse of his father. Thus, Killmonger’s hardness emerges out of the deep pain of having lost his father as a child. He eventually decides to dedicate his life to training in preparation to overthrow T’Challa in ritualistic combat, even going so far as to become a Special Forces soldier who tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Much has already been written about whether Black Panther’s message is politically reactionary: Does it promote a narrow respectability politics, class elitism, and monarchism? Is Killmonger’s character, unfairly, a “receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism” (Christopher Lebron) characterized by “ghetto nihilism” and anti-social rashness? Is Black Panther anti-Black Panther Party? Or does Killmonger maintain the moral upper hand in the film even as he is portrayed as misguided in his tactics? The character Killmonger is somewhat politically incoherent: Why would he fight on behalf of the U.S. in imperial wars against brown people if he wants to overthrow the white supremacist world order? What is his political vision? By portraying Killmonger as someone hell-bent on world domination rather than an earnest freedom fighter, the film quickly resolves some of its thornier moral and political questions.
While much attention has been paid to the film’s implicit politics and how the film represents both Africans and African Americans, I have not encountered much commentary on the film’s tech politics, aside from some nerdy articles on the scientific feasibility of the technologies that appear in the film (Wakanda’s magnetic levitating subway is not so different from Elon Musk’s frictionless Hyperloop design, but a panther suit that can absorb and store kinetic energy defies the laws of physics!). The film is unambiguous in its techno-optimism: technology is both what ensures national security and is the means through which the black world will be liberated. T’Challa is not so much endowed with superpowers as he is equipped with the latest gadgets made in the lab of his badass sister Shuri (played by Letitia Wright). Shuri is both a quick-witted inventor and a genius: an image of black female scientific excellence. But her energies are spent mostly on supplying her brother T’Challa and the ruling caste with the technical means to defend themselves and Wakanda. Wakanda has been able to reach a high level of technological development because it sits on top of a huge reserve of vibranium, the strongest metal on Earth. All of Wakanda’s weapons, infrastructure, and technology are powered by vibranium. The film implicitly raises the question: If resource-rich African countries were not robbed of their natural resources by colonizers, could they have become like Wakanda? (See Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.) What is the relationship between self-determination and economic development?
Over the course of the film, the question of whether Wakanda has an ethical duty to share its technology and resources with people of African descent is foregrounded. After Killmonger’s plan to export arms to oppressed people is thwarted, T’Challa, in some ways, ultimately heeds Killmonger’s call to end its isolationism and share its resources with the wretched of the earth. But while Killmonger is concerned with supplying black people with the technical means to overthrow their oppressors, T’Challa comes to believe under-resourced communities can be served by Wakanda’s technological sophistication. The film ends with Shuri and T’Challa in Oakland, embarking on a new path of humanitarian diplomacy that will begin with the opening of an outreach center in Oakland, with Shuri appointed as chief scientist.
Here I would like to think of Black Panther’s vision of an Afrofuturist techno-utopia alongside the real-world efforts of Cooperation Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi. While Black Panther depicts an enlightened ruler engaging in a philanthropic project of providing aid to an under-resourced community, Cooperation Jackson offers a vision where democratic control of technology is used to liberate the very people who are exploited and ransacked by those who have monopoly control of technological infrastructure.
Cooperation Jackson is a grassroots movement that seeks to carve out a space for black self-determination and economic democracy through the control of municipal governance and the creation of a network of cooperatives. These efforts are chronicled in Jackson Rising, a book that outlines the practical and theoretical dimensions of the Jackson-Kush Plan (developed by the New Afrikan People’s Organization and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement). While reading Jackson Rising, I was struck by how multidimensional their project and analysis are, and how much attention they pay to the question of technology and its impact on black communities. Like members of the Black Panther Party, who predicted that deindustrialization and automation would lead to the creation of a black surplus population that is redundant to the needs of capital, Cooperation Jackson organizers have analyzed how the Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions (the digital revolution and the cyber-physical revolution) will intensify black disposability. Rather than depicting technological innovation and automation (under racial capitalism) as drivers of urban poverty, the film Black Panther depicts it as the solution. Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson warns that the acceleration of technological development without replacing the capitalist system with an eco-socialist one will exacerbate black immiseration. He writes:
The U.S. economy no longer needs the labor power of the Black working class, and as a result the Black working class constitutes a growing problem for the economic and social order of the empire, a problem in need of a solution.
Once the driving force behind the U.S. economy, constituting (as chattel) and producing over half of the country’s wealth during the antebellum period, the Black working class is now a surplus population, one confronting ever greater levels of exploitation, precariousness, and material desperation as a direct result of the processes and forces of globalization and automation.
Though Jackson is the most economically “developed” city in Mississippi, the region as a whole is still underdeveloped relative to the northeastern seaboard, the Midwest, and the west coast, as its economy is based on agriculture and resource extraction. Without a plan to both modernize Jackson’s infrastructure and adopt technologically advanced production methods such as 3D printing, black southerners will not be integrated into the new information-based economy, which is as structurally racist as the industrial economy. But the vision of Cooperation Jackson is not the vision proffered by Silicon Valley, nor is it aligned with the message of the film Black Panther. Technology, they assert, will not lead to the liberation of humanity unless capitalism—which concentrates technology into the hands of a few—is replaced by democratic control of production.
The only way we are going to come anywhere close to attaining anything like the utopia these technologies promise is to democratize and subject them to social production for the benefit of all, rather than continuing to allow them to be controlled and appropriated by the few. The democratization of the technologies of the Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions, which we denote as #TechDemocracy, is one of the primary demands and areas of focus of Cooperation Jackson. We struggle for #TechDemocracy first and foremost by educating our members and the general public about the promises and perils of the technology so that people can make informed decisions.
#TechDemocracy must be paired, they argue, with eco-socialism. Many of the initiatives they have proposed also use technology to realize environmental goals, such as zero-waste production and the creation of green transportation infrastructure. In short, Cooperation Jackson represents a departure from the path of capitalist “development” through its launching of a social and political experiment in the southern U.S. to create a place where labor-saving technologies are collectivized and used, not for the accumulation of wealth, but for the liberation of black people, the elimination of gender inequality, and the repair of ecosystems.
While the technologies of the Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions have the potential to deliver us to a post-scarcity economy, capitalists have been short-sighted in their pursuit of profits, and as a result have failed to operate within sustainable ecological limits. This ecological crisis demands the creation of a new system that seeks to restore and sustain life on planet Earth, or what organizers have called a regenerative economy. By analyzing the ecological crisis alongside the crisis of black disposability, Cooperation Jackson unmasks the genocidal dynamics embedded in global capitalism, which is both driving the sixth mass extinction and corralling black life into prisons and economically devastated regions.
The film Black Panther and the Cooperation Jackson project offer two different Afrofuturist visions of technologically advanced black societies. Within the framework offered by Cooperation Jackson, outreach and aid won’t fundamentally alter the imbalance of power generated by the racial capitalist system. On the question of the relationship between technology and black liberation, Cooperation Jackson shows us that it’s not simply a matter of the ‘haves’ not sharing with the ‘have-nots’ (as Black Panther might suggest), but that global capitalism requires and produces the immiseration of the majority of the inhabitants of planet Earth, with Africans and African Americans representing a hyper-exploited stratum of the global poor.
When considering the politics of representation in Black Panther, the film has done much to undermine stereotypes of black people as backwards, primitive, and incapable of advancement in the domain of science and technology. For viewers who felt thrilled by Shuri’s technological prowess and T’Challa’s newfound mission to share its scientific achievements with members of the African diaspora, we can support the real-world efforts already underway in Jackson, Mississippi, to work toward the creation of a world where technology is for the people.
 Over 50% of the world’s cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo.