On the Blackness of the Panther
Louisa Bertman

On the Blackness of the Panther

‘In my wildest dreams, there is no king. I killed the king. The king…

I began to become African a little over twenty-five years ago. That was when I left Nigeria and moved to the US. I had been born in the US in the summer of 1975 and had been taken to Nigeria in the fall of the same year. For the next seventeen years, Nigeria was home. But I also knew I was American, that the US was a kind of home too, because I had been born there. But was I African? I didn’t feel it. What I felt was that I was a Lagos boy, a speaker of Yoruba, a citizen of Nigeria. The Africans were those other people, some of whom I read about in books, or had seen wearing tribal costumes in magazines, or encountered in weird fictional form in movies.

In the summer of 1992, that began to change. The US provided a contrast to my latent Africanness. “What are you?” “I’m Nigerian.” “Where are you from, man?” “Lagos.” “Leggo my Eggo?” No one had heard of Lagos. I was African, that was the kind of “other” I was. It was news to me, but I didn’t fight back for long. I fell in with others who were in a similar predicament, and began to learn African.

I sometimes feel in my body a paradoxical loss: the loss of forgetting. I find myself longing for an earlier time when what I knew was contingent and was always sheltered by what I didn’t know. Knowledge, in the days before instantaneous electronic recall, was full of potential energy. It was attended by a guesswork that fostered a different way of knowing, one that allowed for ranges rather than insisting on points.

Here is an attempt to struggle to remember: I know, or knew, a few things about the big cats. Lions are found on the Serengeti, tigers in South Asia. Both are enormous. Cheetahs are the fastest, obviously, leopards good climbers, dragging their prey up a tree. Both are African (animals can be African, but only people can be Africans). I think the scientific names of the big cats contain “Panthera,” though I can’t be sure. Panthera leo. That’s lions, I think. Jaguars look like leopards but are of stockier and more compact build. They’re South American. This is where it gets cloudier. Are panthers jaguars? Or are they their own thing? If panthers are monochrome jaguars, then they can’t be African, because jaguars are South American. Is a black panther the same thing as a black leopard? And what the fuck is a puma? What are mountain lions? I think they’re the same as pumas: aren’t they’re the North American ones? Wait, what about cougars?

I was into the big cats as a kid. Knew my cats back then, and also free-lanced in birds of prey (eagles, hawks, falcons, ospreys), which had a similarly complex family structure. Dabbled in dinosaurs too, but not seriously. I don’t mind that I have now lost much of my taxonomic memory of these peak predators. What’s sad is that, in the blink of an eye, I can look it all up.

On the morning of October 11 1933, six years before the beginning of the European war in which Switzerland was to play a tangential but troubling role, the cage of the black panther at the Zürich Zoologischer Garten was found empty. The animal, a recent arrival from Sumatra, had escaped in the night. In the weeks that followed, numerous sightings were reported in the Zürich area. The normally unflappable citizens were caught up in hysteria. There were hundreds of articles in the Swiss press. Traps were set, and a few half-wild dogs were caught. Tracks thought to be those of the panther also turned out to belong to dogs. It was suggested by some that an exorcism be performed by the members of a religious cult. Someone else wrote to say that what was needed was a clairvoyant.

It wasn’t until the middle of December of that year, ten weeks after her escape, that the panther was found hiding under a barn in the boundary between the Zürich Oberland and the Canton of St Gallen. The remains of roe deer found nearby were a clue as to how she had survived a Swiss winter. The black panther was discovered by a casual laborer, who immediately shot and killed her for food.

Many movies made by Hollywood have engaged in thought experiments about Africa. Some, made for American whites, resurrect colonial fantasy (“I once had a farm in Africa”), with the African roles either brutish or naive. Others, made for American blacks, have a goal of uplift, cloaking the African experience with a fictional grandeur. These fantasies, white and black, are always simplifications. There are fifty four African countries. What would it mean to dream with these already-existing countries themselves? What would it mean to dream with Mozambique, Sudan, Togo, or Libya, and think about their politics in all their hectic complexities? What would it look like to use that as a narrative frame, even for works of fiction? Wakanda is a monarchy, and so is Zamunda. (No idea what Nambia is.) Why are monarchies the narrative default? Can we dream beyond royalty?

In my wildest dreams, there is no king. I killed the king. The king is dead. All power to the people.

Only once have I ever owned a pet: a cat, about a decade ago. Her name was Mirabai, also known as Midnight. She’d leap up to meet me, this beautiful panther in miniature. Or she would go deep into prayer, as cats do, or knead some patch of sun on the wooden floor. But I could not train this sweet, playful, all-black kitten not to bite. I soon tired of having to take a course of antibiotics each time she bit me. Three times she bit me, and twice visitors. There was no hostility there, she simply didn’t know how to modulate, and often drew blood. More seriously, I discovered that I have a severe allergy to cat hair. Not all cats, but most. I hadn’t known. Poor Mirabai. I had to return her to the shelter. But in my heart of hearts, I’m a cat person. I can stand dogs, but I more naturally like what cats do and how cats be.

On my way to becoming African, I also began to become black, which proved a more complex journey. “African” had been about mutual spaces with Africans: friends from across the continent, or people with whom I’d been placed in the same category. It had something to do with finding ourselves strangers in the strange American land, but also with our shared experience of the background radiation of colonialism. The formalized white supremacy of colonial rule ended in Nigeria only fifteen years before I was born. It was still fresh! “African,” whatever else it was, was about collectively undoing this assault.

“Black” was something else. It was in a sense more inclusive. In the inclusive sense, it took in all that colonial hangover and added to it the American experiences of slavery, slave rebellion, Jim Crow, and contemporary racism, as well as the connective tissue that bound the Black Atlantic into a single territory of pain — which brought all of the Caribbean into its orbit — as well as European, Latin American, and global diasporic blackness.

But “black” was also more restrictive because, in everyday language, “black” (or “Black”) was American black, and “American black” meant slave-descended American black. In the terms of US discourse, this wasn’t primarily about every black person in the world; it was something else, highly localized to the American situation. To be black in America, that localized tenor of “black” had to be learned, it had to be learned and loved. Black skin was the admission to the classroom (and skin sometimes didn’t have to be especially dark, and sometimes it was just a shade or two off-white), but black American cultural codes were the lesson. So, I learned black, like Obama learned black, like black British living in LA learn black, like Jamaicans in Brooklyn, Haitians in Miami, Eritreans in DC, and Gambians in the Bronx learn black. We learned black and loved black — knowing all the while, though, that it wasn’t the only black.

In the heart of the continent is a landlocked nation, small and peaceful. The inhabitants are thought to be a simple and unostentatious people. But this is one of the richest nations on earth, and one of the most technologically advanced. The country is set at a great height, ringed by mountains. Its political system is stable. There have been no internal wars for centuries. Fearful of the mayhem convulsing the world, they stay out of international disputes and do not open up their borders to migrants. But behind the quiet-looking walls is a remarkable industriousness in the fields of scientific research, weapons development, and pharmaceutical innovation. The country has solved the mystery of transportation: traffic congestion is unknown there, and high-speed trains silently criss-cross the territory. Now, in a rapidly changing world, the inhabitants of this country must decide if they want to continue hiding themselves from the world, or if they wish finally to take more responsibility and use their wealth and technology to improve the lot of others.
I’m talking about Switzerland, obviously. But Switzerland is a democracy. Wakanda, not so much, and my antipathy to monarchies is intense, inflexible, and probably irrational. The hereditary right to rule offends me almost personally, whether I encounter it in fiction or in reality. I rate it, as ideas go, somewhere between eugenics and phrenology. Human history is full of monarchs. Let’s leave them where most of them are, in the past. The societies I dream organize themselves around knowledgeable democratic choice. The dream extends past even the nation state. No kings, no queens. No royal presidents. Temperamentally, I’m a regicide.

The nations and cities of Africa, as they are now, are each so consumed with the complexity of being their distinct selves from day to day that they cannot take on the thankless task of also being Hollywood’s “Africa.” African countries have always been in conversation with the world: an isolationist blackness is incoherent and impossible: we already been cosmopolitan. In the modern world, black is as unimaginable without white as white is unimaginable without black. What we are is shaped by the other, for better or worse (for us, mostly worse), but interaction is real. The way out is through. We can’t wish that away, not even as a storytelling fantasy.

As for kings, they exist even now, but they mostly occupy modest roles, at the level of the ethnic group or clan rather than as potentates over nation states. These lesser kings have ceremonial roles within various larger political organizations. They know their place. Meanwhile, the few real national monarchies that remain are nothing to be envied. They’re absurd throwbacks, no kind of future.

Truth is not stranger than fiction, but it is more specific, more contradictory, more hectic, more layered. “Africa” — vague or composite — cannot hope to match the complexity or interest of any actual place in Africa.

In the winter of 1902, Rainer Maria Rilke visited the zoo at the Jardins des plantes in Paris and saw a black panther there. The poem he wrote in response, the earliest of his Neue Gedichte, is one of his most famous.

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält. Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht, ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte, in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht. Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille sich lautlos auf — Dann geht ein Bild hinein, geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille — und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

In my rapid translation:

His gaze, from the constant passing of the bars,
becomes so tired that it can no longer hold anything. He feels as though there are a thousand bars and behind the thousand bars, no world.

The soft strong supple steps
that turn in the smallest circle are like a ritual dance in the middle of which stands a great will, stunned. Only sometimes does the curtain of the pupil soundlessly lift. Then a picture enters, goes through the tensed silence of the limbs and, entering the heart, ceases to be.

Rilke’s poetry, at its best, is a marvel of sympathy. He can ghost himself into the lives of things, adopt the view from their perspective. The panther in his poem is black because of the color of its coat. But it is also a racialized subject.

All black panthers are black in color but cannot now evade cultural meaning: the caged cat, the escaped cat, the never-captured cat, the black people who are seen as animals, the 60s comic book hero, the radical political party, the 21st century film stars. All black panthers and Black Panthers are black, black like night and also black like me.

No translation of Rilke’s “Der Panther” is entirely satisfying, so dependent is the poem on the propulsive rhythms of the German original. Only a version will do, one full of forgettings, misreadings, a stealth leap into the poem, an ambush:

A thousand bars flicker
in front of nothing.

A thousand bars
— his exhausted eyes can’t take it.

Soft paws, supple tread.
He circles, dazed.

But sometimes!
The eyes slide open, an image enters, goes through the tense limbs, and on reaching the heart, vanishes.

In addition to my big cats and soaring raptors, in childhood I was keen on the Transformers, Voltron, Speed Racer, and a number of American superhero comic books. This was in Lagos in the 80s. But by the time I was in my mid-teens, I had lost interest in all that: sci-fi, fantasy, video games, comics, cartoons. There are exceptions: I like Solaris, 2001:A Space Odyssey, Children of Men, Minority Report, but that’s a fairly narrow selection of dystopian futurism. I love Sun Ra’s Space Is the Place, but that’s something else entirely.

But the recent leotard-and-cape blockbusters generally bore me to tears. It faintly feels like a terrible thing to admit (what kind of monster doesn’t love superhero movies?) but the world is made of what we’re into and what we’re not into, and there’s consolation in knowing what’s yours. In certain genres that I do not love, the louder genres especially, there’s so much at stake that it can feel that there’s therefore nothing at stake. The fate of the planet, the destiny of the universe, and so on, are always one clever decisive action away. The fight sequences stretch on, but the fights don’t really feel like fights. Compare a battle in any recent big-budget superhero film to one in a Kurosawa samurai epic like Ran: the recent films are all CGI, while Kurosawa feels like steel and flesh and dust and actual battlefield clamor. In a typical superhero film, the enemies are killed in great numbers, but death is curiously light, inconsequential, undeathly. (What would the climactic civil war in Wakanda have felt like had there been a serious reckoning with its death toll? It would have made apparent the movie’s discomfiting secret: that it has two lead villains and no hero.)

Maybe it’s a tonal thing. Or maybe it’s the economic censorship, which is inescapable in any film that costs more than $100 million to make, and which is even less forgiving than ideological censorship: that money must be recouped and there must be profit. Or maybe it’s that the films are made, as all films are, for those who love them, not for those who doubt them. I do know I’m an outlier. The box office returns of the Marvel Cinematic Universe proves that heretics of the superhero film money laundering operation are outnumbered. But even for us, there can be the fine surprise, for example, of a film that strains at those conventions, attempts to establish new mythologies, and in the process invites even non-partisans to think with its world, reactionary as that world might be. Coogler did that.

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon in March 2015, I visited the Parque Zoológico de São Paulo. A zoo, with its echoes of early science and colonial practice, can often feel like the opening chapter of a given country. It’s often as though the logic of a society’s organization has been reduced to the fundamentals in a zoo, where there are the rulers and the ruled, types and typologies, symbols everywhere and meaning nowhere.

That day, I saw elephants, giraffes, a strange fox-like dog, chimpanzees, flamingos, a boa constrictor. There were few solitary adults around but there were a couple of boisterous school groups. Perhaps this is one place where my tastes reliably overlap with those of younger children. I go to zoos, and while I’m there, I’m thinking about what a zoo means — it is both defensible and indefensible — but I’m also absorbed by the gallimaufric variety and sheer strangeness of those ones on the other side of the barrier. Their gazes, dulled by human encounter, can no longer admit us into their existential circle but, like tarnished mirrors, those gazes still glimmer from time to time with recognition.

I do not recall now why I paused by the black panther’s cage that day. I began to record a brief video on my phone. Soft paws, supple tread. She (or he) moved swiftly, worriedly. It was an intent rather than distracted pacing. He (or she) was simultaneously gorgeous and frantic, loping, maddened, a grievously confined power.

In 1902, some four years before he wrote “Der Panther,” Rilke had written another poem, “Die Aschanti” about a group of West African men and women. They had been displayed in the zoo-like setting of the Jardin d’acclimatation in Paris. The practice of exhibiting African people (as well as Samoans, Inuit, and Sami) in zoos, circuses, and world fairs, was especially rampant between the late 19th century and 1930. The history of this atrocity is deep, but a signal moment was in the life of Saartjie Baartman, brought from South Africa to England in 1810 and put on display in London. In the 1870s, in the name of ethnographic research, there were human zoos in Antwerp, Paris, Barcelona, Hamburg, London, Milan, and New York City. The Congolese Ota Benga was confined to the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in 1906, and freed only on the protestations of African American activists. (He was to kill himself a decade later, with a gunshot to the heart. To the heart!) And in 1930, three years before the black panther escaped from the Zürich Zoologischer Garten, a group of Senegalese people had been put on display there.

“Die Aschanti” is a poem of disappointment. Rilke finds that the Ashanti are not African enough for him, not savage enough. One verse goes:

Keine wilde fremde Melodie./ Keine Lieder, die vom Blute stammten,/ und kein Blut, das aus den Tiefen schrie.

In Edward Snow’s translation:

No wild unheard-of melodies./ No songs which issued from the blood,/ and no blood which screamed out from the depths.

It goes on. There are “no brown girls who stretched out/ velvety in tropical exhaustion,” there are “no eyes which blaze like weapons,” no mouths “broad with laughter.” The Ashanti are just there, self-possessed, with a “bizarre” vanity, acting almost as though they were equal to Europeans. “And it made me shudder seeing that,” Rilke writes. He can only conclude the poem by declaring “O how much truer are the animals/ that pace up and down in steel grids.”

That’s racist.

Eusébio da Silva Ferreira was born in Maputo to a poor family during Portuguese colonial rule. He moved to Portugal and became the greatest of Benfica’s players, and perhaps the greatest to ever have worn Portugal’s shirt, for greatness is more than a matter of trophies and goal tallies. Eusébio was black and beautiful on the field, quick, quick, in that red shirt of his, blessed with a tremendous right-footed shot. He was the best player in the 1966 World Cup, this man of feline reflexes whom they called the King, the Black Pearl and, above all, “la Pantera Negra,” the Black Panther. Perhaps it is only too obvious that the first great football player from the African continent would be compared to an animal. But it is also true that neither the panther nor the player is diminished by the comparison, which after all seeks to put into words a beauty that the heart cannot contain.

Had to look it up. Forgetting is impossible. It turns out a black panther is two different animals, and no animal at all. It is “no animal at all” in the sense that a panther is not a distinct scientific species. A black panther is two animals because a jaguar with a black coat is a black panther, and a leopard with a black coat is a black panther. The blackness of the panther, in the case of the jaguar, is due to a dominant gene for coat coloration. In the case of the leopard, the blackness of the panther is due to a recessive gene. Both are melanistic variants and when deh mutated gene for the bleck color is expressed, deh big cat receives the powa of deh Bleck Pentha.

Listen to Toni Morrison a second:

“Saying something is pitch black is like saying something is green. What kind of green? Green like my bottles? Green like a grasshopper? Green like a cucumber, lettuce, or green like the sky just before it breaks loose to storm? Well, night black is the same way. May as well be a rainbow.”
Louisa Bertman

And there it is, the black rainbow. I learned black and I learned diversity in blackness. Turns out black is multifarious and generative. It is capacious and dissenting. Those who have to learn black also expand what black can be. My pain is black pain, my joy is black joy, my individuality is black, I arc blackly in the rainbow with all the rest of those pitch black cats. Next person comes along to learn black will have to learn me too.

At least once a day, I think: “another world is possible.” There’s life yet in our dreams. The pan-African political project is still alive. The memory of whatever was good in the Bandung Conference or the Organization of African Unity still makes the heart race. Flashes of common cause among the Darker Nations can be illuminating and sustaining. But “Africa” as trope and trap, backdrop and background, interests me ever less.

I am more fascinated by Nairobi than by Africa, just as I am more intrigued by Milan than by Europe. The general is where solidarity begins, but the specific is where our lives come into proper view. I don’t want to hear “Africa” unless it’s a context in which someone would also say “Asia” or “Europe.” Ever notice how real Paris is? That’s how real I need Lagos to be. Folks can talk about Paris all day without once generalizing about Europe. I want to talk about Lagos, I don’t want to talk about Africa. I want to hear someone speaking Yoruba, Ewe, Tiv, or Lingala. “African” is not a language. I want to know if a plane is going to the Félix-Houphouët-Boigny International Airport. You can’t go to “Africa,” fam. Africa is almost twelve million square miles. I want to be particular about being particular about what we are talking about when we talk about Africa.

I grew up with black presidents, black generals, black kings, black heroes, both invented and real, black thieves too, black fools. It was Nigeria, biggest black nation on earth. I shared a city with Fela Kuti for seventeen years. Everyone was black! I’ve seen so many black people my retina’s black.

But, against the high gloss white of anti-black America, blackness visible is a relief and a riot. That is something you learn when you learn black. Marvel? Disney? Please. I won’t belabor the obvious. But black visibility, black enthusiasm (in a time of death), black spectatorship, and black skepticism: where we meet is where we meet.

Going on twenty six years now. I learned African and am mostly over it. But what is that obdurate and versatile substance formed by tremendous pressure? What is “vibranium”? Too simple to think of it as a metal, and tie it to resource curses. Could it be something less palpable, could it be a stand-in for blackness itself, blackness as an embodied riposte to anti-blackness, a quintessence of mystery, resilience, self-containedness, and irreducibility?

Escape! I would rather be in the wild. I would rather be in a civilization of my own making, bizarre, contrary, as vain as the whites, exterior to their logic. I’m always scoping the exits. Drapetomania, they called it, in Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race (1851), the irrepressible desire in certain slaves to run away.

Ten years pass and I still dream about that cat. The eyes slide open, an image enters. Where are you now, Mirabai? Euthanized years ago by the animal shelter? Or successfully adopted and now gracefully aging in some home in Brooklyn? With people, young or old, merciful and just? Dream cat, leaping up to meet me.