Of the Marvel Cinematic Universe cannon—17 movies including the Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor films—Black Panther is the first to feature a predominantly black cast. And it’s already being lauded as nothing short of historical. In a follow-up to Captain America: Civil War—which introduced T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as the mysterious and stealthy Black Panther—T’Challa returns to his nation of Wakanda to succeed the throne after the death of his father. Now king, T’Challa must deal with factions within his own country as well as new threats who conspire to destroy Wakanda.
On the surface, Black Panther is just another superhero flick, but behind the scenes there are ponderings on race, identity, and Afrofuturism that make this a movie worth exploring beyond the silver screen. As a MCU nerd and black woman of African descent, this is a movie I won’t be watching just once because, beside the larger-than-life story line, there are so many cultural facets to pick apart. Just in time for Black History Month, here are 5 books to read to fully grasp the cultural impact of Black Panther.
For anyone walking into a screening of Black Panther with no prior knowledge of the comic books or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this world-building installment of the Black Panther series is an excellent place to start. In WORLD OF WAKANDA, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay team up to tell the story of Ayo and Aneka, young women recruited to become Dora Milaje, an elite task force trained to protect the crown of Wakanda at all costs. This graphic novel also explores the humanity of the Wakandans with a love story, a disgraced king, and even delves into the origins of a mysterious and powerful figure, Zenzi.
Like Black Panther, THE INTUITIONIST, by UNDERGROUND RAILROAD author Colson Whitehead, draws on elements of Afrofuturism to tell the tale of a black female elevator inspector, Lila Mae Watson. Lila Mae finds herself at the center of a war between two factions within the Department of Elevator Inspectors: the Intuitionists and the Empiricist. Whitehead brilliantly brings today’s familiar meditations on racism, society, and identity into a reimagined world. As the hero of this story, like the many heroes of today, still finds herself in the margins of society, THE INTUITIONIST remains one of the most important fictional works on racial progress. A must-read for Black Panther fans fascinated by a land like Wakanda—where an uncolonized African kingdom thrives above all societies.
Colson Whitehead has been much in the news these days with his latest novel, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, recently selected to be the next Oprah Book Club Pick. He burst onto the literary scene nearly 20 years ago with the marvelously inventive, genre-bending, noir-inflected novel THE INTUITIONIST, set in the curious world of elevator inspection. With a nod to Ralph Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN, Whitehead portrays a universe parallel to our own, where matters of morality, politics, and race reveal unexpected ironies.
If you’ve ever marveled at the interwoven tales of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the dreamed-up worlds it produces, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenisis series will enrapture you. DAWN, the first of the Xenogenisis series, takes place hundreds of years after our time, after Lilith Iyapo awakes from a centuries-long sleep to find herself on the spaceship of the Oankali. As the reader progresses through the series, an exciting and fascinating literary world unfolds that ingeniously explores themes like sexuality, gender, and race.
Led by one of Black Panther’s personal bodyguards, one sector of the Wakandan warriors, the Dora Milaje, is a horde of fierce women fighters who are not to be trifled with. Nnedi Okorafor’s novel AKATA WARRIOR explores what it means to have the fate of the world on one’s shoulder. Sunny Nwazue is an American-born Nigerian girl inducted into the secret Leopard Society. With the support of her fellow inductees, she must travel through worlds both visible and invisible to the mysterious town of Osisi, where she will fight a climactic battle to save humanity. A fierce warrior herself, Sunny would surely find her place among the Wakandan women.
Among the many topics of conversation that arose with Black Panther’s public interest were black identity, what it means to be black, and why the representation of positive black figures matters. FRESHWATER delves deeper into this conversation with its observations on how we all construct our identities. Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel explores the surreal experience of having a fractured self. It centers around a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves within her. When she leaves Nigeria for college in Virginia, Ada finds her various selves harder to control, which completely upends her life. While FRESHWATER is a departure from the afrofuturistic narrative you see in Black Panther, it uniquely examines self and being, mental health, African folklore, and religion.