When Tech Meets Tradition
How Wakandan Technology Transcends Anti-Blackness
Timothy E. Brown
*This essay appears as Chapter 16 in Black Panther and Philosophy.
Black Panther was more empowering for me than I thought it would be. Here we had a mainstream film about an ultra-advanced African nation, set in Marvel’s mostly-white cinematic universe. And there I was, watching this Africanfuturist film on opening day, in Seattle’s famous Cinerama theatre, a Black nerd surrounded by white nerds. It was surreal to think that this audience would accept or even embrace stories that center on Africa or Africans. As I have written elsewhere, if the film didn’t live up to their expectations—as a watershed moment for Black representation in futurist blockbuster films—I would be responsible for explaining to my white friends what happened.
After all, the unfortunate truth is that science fiction often excludes Black people. What’s more is that even when we are included, it isn’t clear how Black people arrive in the future. Representations of us seem distinctly “post-racial,” disconnected from the messy histories and lived traumas of colonialism, diaspora, and the transatlantic slave trade. This disconnect is troubling. Representations of the future will inspire the next generations of scientists, engineers, and designers who will shape our future—Star Trek’s communicators and PADDs are today’s smartphones and tablets. But it’s not clear if Black Americans ever receive the kind of reconciliation and support they deserve. As more technologists and scholars push us to transcend humanity’s current limitations, to become “posthuman,” several questions remain. Will Black people be included in this transhumanist future? What role would they play if they were, and what form and flavor would our cultures take?
Black Panther, even with the deep problems in how it represents Black American men, grapples with messy histories directly, in plain sight of white audiences. The motivations and struggles of the characters Shuri and Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, in particular, showus how Black Panther’s blend (or collision) of Africanfuturism and Afrofuturism is meant to teach us how our memories of the past (as painful as they are) must connect with our visions of the future. In this way, Black Panther is an introduction to how Africanfuturism pushes back against the more naïve transhumanist visions in a way that allows us to at least begin to imagine a future that has confronted its past, filled with technologies that we are a part of.
Are There Black People in the (Transhumanist) Future?
In 2017, the artist Alisha Wormsley installed the words “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE” on a billboard in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. Wormsley’s installation was just the most recent iteration of artist Jon Rubin’s The Last Billboard project, featuring a rotating series of artists sharing similarly impactful (or otherwise cryptic) messages. These simple words, especially, are both reassuring and affirming. After all, our past and current technologies exclude or actively target Blacks, and media representations of the future so often either exclude Blacks or push us to the margins. These words were also, apparently, controversial. Eve Picker, the landlord who owns the building and the billboard space, was “contacted by a number of people in the local community who said that they found the message offensive and divisive.” This, she concluded, was against the tenants’ lease agreement “that states the billboard cannot be used for items ‘that are distasteful, offensive, erotic, [or] political,’” and so she forced the project to take the message down from the billboard. Fortunately, an outpouring of public support in response, across social media and in Picker’s email inbox, pushed to her reverse her decision.
But why were these words so controversial in the first place? Why would anyone take them to be offensive? Perhaps this follows a similar logic to the way that the simple phrase “Black Lives Matter” seems like a kind of favoritism of Black lives over white lives—such that some whites feel compelled to respond, “All Lives Matter.” The very idea that Black people will play a role in humanity’s progress, or even the idea that Black people will exist in the future, should be a truism. Yes, there are Black people in the future, and we need to say as much because it seems that people have forgotten. Instead, it is construed as polemical—perhaps as a type of “reverse racism,” perhaps as a form of “attention seeking,” or perhaps as just an unnecessary claim.
Black Panther presents a vision of a distinctly African future that not only affirms that there are in fact Black people in the future, but also gives us a glimpse of how Black people make it to the future and what kind of home we make there. Further, Black Panther demonstrates how humanity must grapple with past traumas and ameliorate present harms if it has any chance at building such a future. The promises of enthusiastic technology “thoughtleaders” and “transhumanists,” like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, seem out of touch with communities of color entirely—the details of how we will reconcile many of the harms of the past are lost as noise beneath loud signals warning about colonizing space through commercial space-flight, getting along with AI, and extending our minds through brain-computer interfaces.
What is transhumanism, and what does it transcend? According to an early version of the Transhumanist’s Principles, transhumanists “strive to remove the evolved limits of our biological and intellectual inheritance, the physical limits of our environment, and the cultural and historical limits of society that constrain individual and collective progress.” The goal of many stripes of transhumanism, then, is (at the very least) two-fold: to overcome sickness and death, and to overcome humanity’s physical and cognitive limitations through enhancement.
Let’s look at a few claims and projects transhumanist thinkers have proposed. In “The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant,” philosopher and self-proclaimed transhumanist Nick Bostrom characterizes death as a seemingly invincible dragon, terrorizing the world. He cautions against accepting death and becoming complacent in our collective attempts to thwart it. If it is at all possible to extend life, we have a moral obligation to do so. Bioethicist Julian Savulescu—perhaps infamously—argues that we have a moral obligation to select for the best possible children if presented with the means to. That is: when a person produces and selects a fetus to implant at an in-vitro fertilization clinic, or when a person uses prenatal genetic tests to screen for so-called birth defects like Down syndrome, they ought to select for the fewest genetic defects. A number of disability rights scholars and advocates, Adrienne Asch most chiefly, argue that using prenatal genetic tests to identify “defects” in (and ultimately to abort) fetuses expresses a discriminatory attitude toward people with disabilities. The philosopher Ingmar Persson (along with Savulescu) argues that we collectively do not have the moral capacities necessary to meet global challenges, like climate change, poverty, or a global pandemic. He and Savulescu argue that we should “morally enhance” ourselves—or use biomedical means of improving capacities for moral reasoning and decision-making. This might take the form of drugs that may increase empathy, reduce anger, dampen fear, in the hopes that we become more responsive to pressing moral issues. I have argued elsewhere that the push to morally-enhance will likely burden Black people directly by reframing their warranted feelings of distrust, suspicion, and anger as moral deficiencies.
A number of scholars, however, remind us that race and racism are embedded in our technologies. The aforementioned transhumanistprojects fail without dealing with these. Kate Crawford, for example, remarks that the artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) has a “white guy problem.” Ushers of “the singularity”—or the moment when AI surpasses human intelligence—are all too often white men, and the technologies that would bring about the singularity are often created by teams of white men. The technologies produced by these teams—in all likelihood inadvertently, but still perniciously—consistently malfunction for Black people. Technologists Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru, in their Gender Shades project, tested facial recognition software from Face++, IBM, and Microsoft. They found that this software misidentified Black women as Black men. Buolamwini created a spoken-word poem, “AI, Ain’t I a Woman,” to accompany a slideshow of facial recognition software misidentifying famous Black women, like Shirley Chisholm, Michelle Obama, and—yes—Sojurner Truth herself. This artistic project links the experiences of Black women who fought for both suffrage and abolition simultaneously to the experiences of Black women fighting against technologies that erase their existence.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Ruha Benjamin describes how our technologies coalesce to support anti-Blackness and white supremacy—sometimes inadvertently, often times explicitly. These technologies create what she calls “the New Jim Code” or technologies that make our inequities worse, all while seeming more objective or equitable than the systems they replace. The term “New Jim Code” is a reference to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow where she argues that classifying or coding Blacks as “criminals” has become a means of justifying, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and a new form of slavery through prison labor. Alexander’s term is, in turn, a reference to “Jim Crow,” the ubiquitous and garish minstrel show caricature that stood as the symbol for early 20th century racial segregation law and severe disenfranchisement in the southern United States. The New Jim Code, Benjamin argues, hides these inequities inside what Benjamin calls anti-blackboxes; the technologies seem race-neutral, but how they work is opaque and results in harms against people of color. Further, Benjamin along with several others invite us to think of race as a technology “designed to separate, stratify, and sanctify the many forms of injustice experienced by racialized groups.” We can hardly think of chattel slavery in the Antebellum south, for example, without thinking about the theories, techniques, and tools used to keep the slave trade running: from ships to carry slaves across the Atlantic, to chains to hold slaves in place, to pseudoscientific arguments meant to establish that whites are superior to Blacks (or that there are distinct races in the first place).
It is hard to imagine how it’s possible to advance (or even transcend) humanity through the use of technology unless we acknowledge the histories, current practices, and possible futures of technologized racism. Without acknowledging these realities—that Blacks experience, but so many people of color do as well—transhumanists’ promises and goals fall flat. After all, how can Black people get excited about the singularity when racist codes are embedded in the algorithms? How can Black people get excited about “transcending cultural bias” when it will likely mean leaving their culture behind? Black Panther, both the film and the more recent runs of the comics, does not ask us to ignore technology’s possibility to harm or empower Black people. It does not ask us to abandon our identities and worries to understand it. On the contrary, Black Panther gives us opportunities to consider possibilities of the future through past traumas and harms we’ve experienced.
“You savages didn’t deserve it!”
Erik “Killmonger” Stevens pays a visit to the African artifact section of a museum. The museum director—a white woman—approaches him, clearly suspicious of his presence there, and makes an attempt to educate him on the origins of each of these artifacts. He, of course, doesn’t need this education, nor is all of her information correct. Killmonger knows that one of these artifacts is not like the others—it is a Wakandan artifact made of vibranium, the most valuable material on Earth, and he’s going to take it for himself. The museum director was already suspicious of Killmonger, or in his words, “You got all this security watching me ever since I walked in.” Even a stopped clock tells the time twice a day.
The interaction between this museum director and Killmonger illustrates how visions of the future can be rooted in visions of the past, and how our distorted (read: anti-Black) visions of the past can distort (read: whitewash) our visions of the future. The museum director wouldn’t even entertain the possibility that an old African farming tool was anything more than an artifact from a primitive time, made by primitive people. Her expression said it all: this primitive tool couldn’t possibly be made from the most powerful material in the world, this suspicious-looking Black man couldn’t know more about Africa than she does. Killmonger’s dispute with the museum director, then, was not just a dispute over the facts, but a dispute over the authenticity of the artifact. In this moment, their dispute became a dispute over what can count as authentically African. We might think of Killmonger the same way, as a castaway artifact of Wakanda, possessed by foreigners.
Paul C. Taylor draws our attention to how disputes over the provenance and authenticity arise when we evaluate African art, and how these disputes are driven by an interest in African history. Some African artists participate in the artistic practices of modern Europe. They create art for the artworld through installations, galleries, collections. Others, however, create what Taylor calls “workshop” art, the kind of “anonymous masks, carved figurines, and the like”—and these might be extensions of traditional artisanal practices, or they might be attempts to pass off modern day objects as genuine historical artifacts. The more “traditional” African artworks—those artifacts displayed by museums for their anthropological or ethnographic significance—are sought after for their authenticity. No one wants a knockoff, do they?
They are also deeply politicized. Museums and the people who visit them may value traditional African art/artifacts because of what Taylor calls “aesthetic Africanism”—building on author Toni Morrison’s language—where “modern societies imagined themselves as modern in part by distinguishing themselves from the pre-modern, which they then located in societies with unfamiliar modes of social organization and different orientations to the world of technology.” Modern societies look even more modern when compared with supposedly pre-modern societies. In many cases our collective fascination with traditional African art reifies the expectation that African cultures are primitive, and it engenders an incredulous attitude about the intelligence of Africans broadly.
This incredulity is a common theme throughout the film. Take, for example, the moment Ulysses Klaue—Wakanda’s public enemy #1—reveals to Agent Ross that Wakanda is a technologically advanced nation with a mine of vibranium. “It’s all a front,” Klaue insists, “Explorers searched for it for centuries. El Dorado. The Golden City. They thought they could find it in South America, but it was in Africa the whole time. A technological marvel. All because it was built on a mound of the most valuable metal known to man—Isipho they call it. The gift. Vibranium.” Ross, of course, questions his story, “That’s a nice fairy tale but Wakanda is a third-world country and you stole all of their vibranium.” Agent Ross, of course, has seen alien invasions and superhero civil wars; he also knows that T’Challa is the Black Panther. Yet he still, somehow, finds it hard to believe that Wakanda is anything more than a “third-world country.”
Even Klaue, who has seen Wakanda with his own eyes, who knows how Wakandans use vibranium, is incredulous. In his face-off with T’Challa in South Korea, Klaue fires a shot using his prosthetic arm, a weapon made of stolen vibranium. T’Challa effortlessly absorbs the blow with his newly-designed Black Panther suit and asks, “Where did you get this weapon?” Without hesitation, Klaue responds, “You savages didn’t deserve it!” In his face-off with Killmonger in the scrapyard, Klaue admonishes his opponent, “You really wanna go to Wakanda? They’re savages.” Pointing to the symbol carved into his neck, a branding he received after stealing vibranium from Wakanda, he continues, “This is what they do to people like us.” The incredulity of these white characters talking about Wakanda is a representation of the world’s collective incredulity about African progress, about Black progress globally. This incredulity, this form of Africanism, is an attempt to confine Africa to its past and keep Black people (more globally) out of the future.
The Future Must Have Roots and Branches
In making the distinction between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism, Nnedi Okorafor writes: “Africanfuturism is concerned with visions of the future, is interested in technology, leaves the earth, skews optimistic, is centered on and predominantly written by people of African descent (black people) and it is rooted first and foremost in Africa. It’s less concerned with ‘what could have been’ and more concerned with ‘what is and can/will be’. It acknowledges, grapples with and carries ‘what has been.’” We can see Killmonger in this description: his ambition is to force both a global reckoning with anti-Blackness and an internal reckoning within Wakanda, to destroy both colonialism and Wakanda simultaneously, to force everyone to grapple with what is and has been. We also see Shuri more centrally in this description.
Shuri pushes the boundaries of everything, pleading with her brother that “just because something works doesn’t mean it cannot be improved upon.” And Shuri’s imagination reaches far enough to influence so many aspects of Wakandan life. We see many examples in the film: a new panther suit that absorbs and reflects kinetic energy; kimoya beads that can enable driving cars, range-unlimited communication, and stabilize otherwise fatal wounds; and mining carts that can transport vibranium more safely than before. Shuri, however, approaches her work with an open skepticism about Wakanda’s rituals and traditions. Lord M’Baku—the great gorilla, leader of the Jabari tribe—protests leaving Wakanda’s technological advancements in the hands of a girl who “scoffs at tradition.” He has a point. She’s the one who flips off her brother (the incoming king) in jest in front of their mother, the newly widowed queen. She’s the one who demands that everyone just “wrap it up and go home” at T’Challa’s coronation, just before the Jabari challenge T’Challa to ritual combat for the throne. She’s the one who takes responsibility for Bucky Barnes, the winter soldier, the first “white boy she [fixed]” before Agent Ross—these outsiders are a threat to Wakandan interests. Shuri, however, grows immensely by the end of the film. She witnesses, through Killmonger’s coup and attempted world-wide insurrection, what impact her technologies could have on the state of Blacks globally. That is, she learns the stakes of leading and fighting for Wakanda—of what her attempts to transcend could mean for Wakanda, for humanity, and for the universe (looking ahead to Avengers: Infinity War).
We have yet to see how much Shuri will grow in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but in recent comics—both Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther and Nnedi Okorafor’s Shuri—we’ve already seen Shuri grow even more. Shuri takes up the mantle of Black Panther in T’Challa’s absence, and when Thanos and his Black Order invade Wakanda, Shuri staves them off at the (at least temporary) cost of her own life. Her spirit takes a journey to D’Jalia—the ancestral plane where Wakanda’s collective memory is housed—where her ancestors show her what Wakanda was like before the vibranium meteorite hit, before Wakanda’s technology blossomed. They train her and bestow powers upon her: the ability to enter and exit D’Jalia at will, the power to hear ancient spirits that advise her (whether or not she wants their advice), and the power to transform into and travel as a flock of birds. Her ancestors give her the name “Ancient Future,” a name that reflects both her greatest strength, but also the weakness she must overcome to become the technical and spiritual leader Wakanda needs. Even if Shuri is stubborn to a fault, even if she wants to rely on her ability to make vibranium do as she wants it to, even if she wants to transcend the traditions of her culture, she knows (and must accept) that her knowledge and skills are rooted in and connected with traditions she has only yet begun to understand. Shuri—Wakanda’s Ancient Future—unifies Wakanda’s memories with its vision of and hopes for the future.
Technological advancement in Wakanda, then, is not just the result of ongoing attempts to transcend Wakanda’s traditions: even given Shuri’s rebellious attitude, even when Shuri grows tired of her ancestors butting into her affairs. Instead, the wisdom of Wakanda’s ancestors—in the D’Jalia, passed down from monarch to monarch—is what allows Wakanda to move forward. This, it turns out, is central to the goals of Africanfuturist works like Coates’ Black Panther and Okorafor’s Shuri. The entire point is for characters like Shuri to confront characters like Killmonger: to make sense of how Shuri’s technologies can exist in (or will fit into) a world made up of current and former colonies who need her technologies to lift them up. Wakanda doesn’t just somehow pop into existence in the future, with no context or connections to its past. It stretches up like the branches of an old tree, but it can only stretch its furthest when it is well-nourished through a network of deep roots.
Blackness as a Pathway to the Future
Media studies scholar Beth Coleman invites us to think of race as a “prosthesis,” or “as a technology [that] adds functionality to the subject, helps form location, and provides information.” She likens this to the way a blind person might use a cane to feel their way around without sight, to interact with their surroundings. Embracing Blackness could help us find a way toward a more just future, to help develop more equitable technologies. With every new technology released—be it an AI-driven photo app or a self-driving car—we should ask, “How will this device impact Black people? Will it ignore them? Will it target them?” In these moments, Blackness becomes a probe used to stress test technologies.
African/Afrofuturist works like Black Panther help us calibrate our walking canes, in a way. Instead of taking it for granted that there will be Black people in the future, Killmonger’s fight for liberation forces us to confront the possibility that we won’t make it. Instead of pushing for progress for the sake of progress, Shuri’s experiences (of both coming back from the dead, and in her fight against Killmonger) illustrate just how important it is to figure out how to leverage our turbulent past to give our technologies context, purpose, meaning. Wakanda and its people, then, can be a yardstick by which we measure the futures we dream up.
Timothy E. Brown is Assistant Professor of Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Washington. Dr. Brown is a founding member of and long-term contributor to the Neuroethics Thrust within the Center for Neurotechnology at UW. He also leads diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts with the International Neuroethics Society. Dr. Brown works at the intersection of biomedical ethics, philosophy of technology, (black/latinx/queer) feminist thought, and aesthetics. His research explores the potential impact of neurotechnologies—systems that record and stimulate the nervous system—on end users’ sense of agency and embodiment. His work also interrogates neurotechnologies for their potential to exacerbate or create social inequities, in order to establish best practices for the design of future devices and techniques.
 Timothy E. Brown, “Black Panther,” The Philosophers’ Magazine 81 (2018), 108-109.
 Jacob Robbins, “‘Black Panther’ Is a Watershed Moment in Pop Culture,” The Eagle https://www.theeagleonline.com/blog/silver-screen/2018/02/black-panther-watershed-moment-in-pop-culture.
 In the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Encounter at Farpoint,” the omnipotent (but fickle) being named Q places Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew on trial for the crimes of humanity. At the very beginning of this trial, Lieutenant Commander Data, claims that “in the year 2036, the new United Nations declared that no Earth citizen could be made to answer for the crimes of his race or forbears.” While it is eminently important to protect individuals from being persecuted for harms caused by their forbears, any protections must also be accompanied by acknowledgment of the past harms of those forbears, as well as restitution or reparations to those harmed.
 Chris Lebron, “‘Black Panther’ Is Not the Movie We Deserve,” Boston Review, February 17, 2018. http://bostonreview.net/race/christopher-lebron-black-panther.
 Melissa Rayworth. “‘There Are Black People in the Future’ Sign Can Go Back up, Says Landlord, and ELDI Speaks Up.” NEXTpittsburgh, April 8, 2018. https://nextpittsburgh.com/latest-news/removal-of-east-liberty-billboard-sparks-reactions-across-the-internet/.
 Elon Musk, “Making Humans a Multi-planetary Species,” New Space 5 (2017), 46-61.
 Elon Musk, “I Hope Artificial Intelligence Is Nice to Us,” New Perspectives Quarterly 31 (2014), 51-55.
 Sarah Marsh, “Neurotechnology, Elon Musk and the Goal of Human Enhancement,” The Guardian, January 1, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jan/01/elon-musk-neurotechnology-human-enhancement-brain-computer-interfaces.
 Alexander Chislenko, “Transhumanist Principles 1.0a,” 1996. http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Cultural/Philosophy/Transhumanist_Principles.html
 Nick Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant,” Journal of Medical Ethics 31(2005), 273-277.
 Julian Savulescu. “Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children,” Bioethics 15 (2001), 413–26.
 See Erik Parens, Adrienne Asch, eds., Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2000)—esp., Adrienne Asch, “Why I haven’t Changed My Mind about Prenatal Diagnosis: Reflections and Refinements.”
 Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu, Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
 Timothy E. Brown. “Moral Bioenhancement as a Potential Means of Oppression,” The Neuroethics Blog, March 24th, 2020, http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2020/03/moral-bioenhancement-as-potential-means.html
 Kate Crawford, “Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem,” The New York Times, June 25, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/opinion/sunday/artificial-intelligences-white-guy-problem.html
 Roli Varma, “US Science and Engineering Workforce: Underrepresentation of Women and Minorities,” American Behavioral Scientist 62 (2018), 692-697.
 Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru, “Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities in Commercial Gender Classification,” Proceedings of the 1st Conference on Fairness, Accountability and Transparency, PMLR (2018), 77-91.
 Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2019).
 Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow,” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 9 (2011), 7; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).
 See Beth Coleman, “Race as Technology,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 24 (2009), 177–207; Holly Jones and Nicholaos Jones, “Race as Technology: From Posthuman Cyborg to Human Industry,” Ilha Do Desterro 70 (2017), 39–51.
 Benjamin, Race After Technology, 19.
 Paul C. Taylor, Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2016).
 Taylor, Black is Beautiful, 140.
 Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage, 2020).
 Taylor, Black is Beautiful, 141.
 Nnedi Okorafor, “Africanfuturism Defined,” Nnedi’s Wahala Zone Blog, October 19, 2019. http://nnedi.blogspot.com/2019/10/africanfuturism-defined.html
 This, perhaps, would be more Afrofuturist than Africanfuturist on Nnedi Okorafor’s view, since Killmonger’s reckoning centers the struggles of Black Americans.
 Coleman, “Race as Technology,” 194.