The ‘Black Panther’ Writing System Subverts Our Expectations of Africa

Karla Clark
Movies
Movies

From the costume designs down to the dialect, Black Panther pays homage to African culture in many ways. However, one aspect of African culture that adds authenticity to the film without making a sound: the Wakandan writing system.

Upon first glance, the Wakandan script may look like a made-up language but much of it is not. In fact, it draws inspiration from three different African writing systems: the Adinkra, Nsibidi and Bamum scripts. Their inclusion pays homage to the cultures that birthed them and dismantle our perception of Africa as a savage nation in need of European intervention and salvation.

Expressions of Mourning, Hope and Strength

Shuri wears the wawa aba symbol of the Adinkra script.
Shuri wears the wawa aba symbol of the Adinkra script.

Did you notice those symbols that resemble everyday objects, animals, plants and buildings throughout the film? These are not simplified drawings but a sophisticated, ideographic script, called the Adinkra, that the Akan of Ghana still use today. “These are signs and symbols made on mourning cloths,” says Dr. Chika Okeke-Agulu, professor of African and African Diaspora Art at Princeton University. “These symbols are used to narrate proverbs that have to do with life, death and [other aspects of their surroundings].”

Given the recent death of T’Chaka, T’Challa’s father, in Captain America: Civil War, the script’s presence in Wakanda comes as no surprise. In fact, when T’Challa returns, his sister Shuri greets him wearing a t-shirt with the Adinkra symbol wawa aba printed on it. Native to West Africa, the wawa tree’s hard seeds symbolize toughness, strength, and the ability to persevere through hardships in Akan culture.

Often, we think of the West as the birthplace of civilized thought and morals. Those untouched by the West are seen as primitive or savage. However, Black Panther‘s use of this pre-existing African script shows us something different. We see a nation that finds hope and strength within its grief, making the wawa aba a fitting symbol.

The wawa aba also represents the strength of Wakanda’s women. Note that it’s Shuri, Wakanda’s brightest mind and a trained warrior, who wears this symbol, not T’Challa. In the film, Wakanda’s women can go toe-to-toe with any man, both physically and mentally — a right that women have long fought for worldwide. If the comics and the Infinity War trailers are any indications of the future, then the women of Wakanda will be key players in the upcoming battle against Thanos.

Access to Education

Killmonger and W'Kabi stand side-by-side.
W'kabi's wrap is more than a fashion statement. It is beautifully decorated with Bamum symbols.

Head of Wakandan security, W’Kabi’s blue wrap serves as more than just a decorative piece. Many of the golden characters that decorate his wrap come from the Bamum script of Southeastern Nigeria. “[Inbrahim Njoya, king of the Bamum people in the late 19th century], developed this writing script as a way to create his own knowledge system for his kingdom,” says Dr. Okeke-Agulu. “They have written books and chronicles with [it].” Indeed, Njoya was meticulous in his pursuit to protect and share knowledge. He used the script to keep track of medicinal drugs and their side effects, for record keeping (including the law), and to safeguard the history of the Bamum people.

Its presence makes sense in Wakanda, a nation at the forefront of technology and science. (In the comics, Wakanda even has the cure for cancer.) Wakanda’s rulers have spearheaded the nation’s advancement. By using the Bamum script, Black Panther reinforces the royal family’s commitment to keeping its citizens educated and informed. The nation’s enlightened populace thrashes the foreign perception of Africa as an underdeveloped nation with subpar education.

The similarities between Njoya and Wakanda’s leaders don’t end there. During his rule, Njoya built schools, libraries and even created a printing press. With one of the highest literacy rates in the world, it is clear that Wakanda’s leaders are the Njoyas of this fictional nation. Every choice they make, including providing a free college education, empowers the Wakandan people. After all, a nation is only as strong as its weakest link.

Safeguarding the Nation

Check out all of those hidden secrets on the screen behind T'Challa.

As a nation at the forefront of technology, Wakanda is full of electronic panels and screens with abstract symbols. On the surface, they look like random patterns, but in actuality, they safeguard Wakanda by encrypting the nation’s secrets.

Those patterns are the Nsibidi script, a written language used by a secret cult in Eastern Nigeria called the Ekpe. “The complete sign system has not been collected, but it’s quite significant,” says Dr. Okeke-Agulu. “The members of the cult used them to communicate among themselves so that non-cult members could not access their secret information.” How fitting, then, that this ancient script has found a home in Wakanda, the sole African nation free from the taint of colonization. Gathering intel on the hermit nation has proven difficult for outsiders and this, in addition to the country’s warrior culture, might be the reason for that.

The ancient script’s inclusion elevates one of Africa’s oldest writing systems. The sophisticated system kept critical information out of the hands of both outsiders and normal citizens. In the modern world, we’ve come to expect those tasked with safeguarding our nation’s security to have more information than the average citizen. The use of this language in the technologically advanced nation of Wakanda shows how truly ahead of its time the Nsibidi script was. In the fictional future, this script manages to keep some of the world’s top government agencies from obtaining information to topple Wakanda. Now, that’s innovation.

Elevating the Perception of African Cultures

Black Panther draws inspiration from African scripts to add a layer of authenticity and to change our perceptions of Africa. “It’s a statement about what happened with African cultures,” says Dr. Okeke-Agulu. “We often are told they never developed writing. That’s not necessarily the case because there were indeed African cultures that developed a form of writing that they used for communication.”

The film smashes our expectations of African nations. Not only do we see a nation rise to power without influence from white colonizers, but we also see the languages of African peoples on the big screen. The world will get visual proof that these cultures are just as enlightened, intelligent, and independent as their fair-skinned counterparts. While the real-life nations of Africa were all eventually colonized, the fictional nation of Wakanda shows us an alternate history. A history where we see how these nations could have flourished if left to their own devices.

Karla Clark
Karla Clark is the FANDOM Contributor Program Manager and a writer and blerdy mommy from Oakland, California. You can find her words here on FANDOM, BlackGirlNerds.com, and TheGamer.com. Other gigs: unofficial anime consultant, gamer yearning for couch co-op's return, peruser of manga and comics.
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