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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Book Review: Black Panther: A Cultural Exploration by Ytasha L. Womack


reviewed by Charles W. Henebry, Boston University

Black Panther: A Cultural Exploration by Ytasha L. Womack. New York: Epic Ink, 2023. 176pp.

Judging by its cover, lavish illustrations, and meager page count, you wouldn’t think Black Panther: A Cultural Exploration lived up to the scholarly ambitions of its title. Yet Womack manages to pack a surprising wealth of cultural references and oral history into this slender volume. Having myself analyzed the Panther by reference to the aims of his creators, I was fascinated by Womack’s reader-centered approach to the character. Prior scholarship has problematized the Panther’s status as the “World’s First Black Superhero,” given Marvel’s all-white creative staff back in the sixties. Womack implicitly responds to this criticism with a moving account of the lived experience of the superhero’s African-American fans who, in that same era, encountered the new character at the newsstand and argued with their friends about how he was connected to the Black Panther Party. And she ties this oral history to developments in contemporary history and culture, from Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister of Ghana, to the cosmic jazz of Sun-Ra. In so doing, she encourages us to think of the Black Panther not as corporate IP, but as one of the shared myths of our culture: “I’d reason that the Black Panther myth is bigger than its creators, an idea held by fans, writers, pencilers, and the awed alike—a myth that channels love and liberation.” Having previously published a book on Afrofuturism, Womack is well situated to deliver in this effort to claim the Black Panther as a genuine expression of the African-American experience.

While the first chapter contextualizes the creation of the Black Panther in the ferment of the late 1960s, the book is organized not by timeline but by topic: “The Panther Mystique,” “The Wakandan Protopia,” “The Modern Goddess and Futuristic Warrior Queens,” etc. Throughout, Womack works suggestively rather than analytically: in the chapter on political power, for instance, she juxtaposes the Panther with real-world political figures ranging from MLK to Mandela, but does not explicitly argue any particular parallel or connection. Some may see this as a virtue, in that it invites the reader to take an active role in making sense of the Panther’s cultural resonance. But I would have liked a more detailed account, especially in regard to lesser-known figures like Kwame Nkrumah. Without such detail, the reader is hardly in a position to weigh the real significance of Womack’s musings.

The book’s greatest strength is its oral history of fans. Besides childhood memories, the interviews offer up a variety of insights as to the Panther’s political and cultural significance. A few of those interviewed are famous; many others are identified by Womack as authors or artists. In a few cases, we are provided with no more than a name, which left me wondering what principle Womack used in choosing whom to interview.

Another strength is the book’s format: lavish full-color images predominate throughout, ranging from comics panels to news photographs. Comics are a visual medium, and it’s wonderful to see scholarship illustrated in this way. Too often, due to the cost of permissions, comics scholars see their work go to print with no illustrations whatsoever. In Black Panther as well as in an earlier book on Spider-Man, Epic Ink neatly solved the permissions problem by partnering with Marvel Comics.

But I can’t help but worry that this cure is worse than the disease. Rights holders like Marvel are unlikely to partner with scholars who train a critical eye on their history, so in the marketplace of ideas, such scholarship will be text-only and hence at a disadvantage relative to visually attractive puff-pieces. Womack’s wholeheartedly celebratory account—which interrogates neither the politics of the characters early decades nor the politics of Marvels creative team—does little to allay such concerns. Interested readers will have to seek out that richly problematic history elsewhere.

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