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Religion professor explores Afrofuturism and spirituality in Wakanda

Roger Sneed, a professor of religion

Last updated March 22, 2023

By Jerry Salley ’90

Roger Sneed, a professor of religion at Furman and self-described “Blerd” – Black nerd – can point to many examples of Afrofuturism in modern culture.

Jazz, funk, R&B and soul-infused melodies by Sun Ra, George Clinton and Janelle Monae accompany lyrics describing androids, extraterrestrials and space travel. Black protagonists in stories by Octavia E. Butler, N.K. Jemisin and Ytasha L. Womack explore other worlds and timelines. White supremacist vigilantes in an alternate future and eldritch monsters in the Jim Crow era lurk on TV in “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country.”

And “Black Panther,” arguably the most well-known current example of Afrofuturism – a genre described by Womack as “an intersection of imagination, technology, the future and liberation” – is one of the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time, seen by millions since its release in 2018.

Fantastic Religions

“Black Panther,” the blockbuster Marvel superhero movie set largely in the fictional techno-utopian African nation Wakanda, suggested more than just an escapist fantasy for Sneed. In his paper “Black Panther, Afrofuturism and African American Spiritual Life,” he argued that, for African Americans and Africans in the diaspora, the movie provides an alternative religion.

Sneed presented his paper in 2019 at the conference Religioni Fantastiche e Dove Trovarle: Divinità, Miti e Riti Nella Fantascienza e Nel Fantasy (Fantastic Religions and Where to Find Them: Deities, Myths and Rites in Science Fiction and Fantasy) hosted by the Raffaele Pettazzoni Museum of Religions in Vettrelli, Italy. The paper was published as part of the conference’s proceedings in March 2023.

Alternative Spirituality

Wakanda “exists as the blueprint for a Black future that isn’t determined by white supremacy,” promoting “an African spirituality/religion that is informed by African religious traditions and offers the viewer (especially African American viewers) creative alternatives to ‘Western’ monotheisms.”

In contrast to the imposition of Christian values and attitudes, the Wakandans’ worship of panther goddess Bast suggests that “real liberation may be found in an Afrofuturistic rejection of the Western gods and a re-imagination of African deities,” Sneed argued – placing “Black Panther” within a tradition of Afrofuturist critiques of white supremacy.

“I would say that Christianity has become a tool of white supremacy,” said Sneed. “That has been a problem since Europe’s encounters with Asia and Africa. For example, we see that in Richard Furman’s letter to the governor of South Carolina, he argued for slavery using interpretations of the Bible.”

Rejecting ‘Misogynoir’

The world of Wakanda is also a critique and rejection of “misogynoir,” which Sneed described as “the hatred of Black women by Black men.” The antagonist of “Black Panther,” Killmonger, is depicted as a power-hungry chauvinist, while heroines Nakia and Okoye represent the movies “humanistic soul,” Sneed said.

Sneed had finished his paper years before seeing “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” but he found that the sequel continued the critiques of misogyny he described in the original.

“I think the movie’s focus on Shuri’s journey as well as the focal points of the movie being Shuri, Queen Ramonda and Okoye definitely add to my claims about ‘Black Panther’ centering Black women in ways that are empowering,” he said.

Blerds Unite

Centering Black experiences as a source for speculative fiction, “creating narratives in which Black peoples are ‘in the future’ or are in fantastical settings,” Afrofuturism pushes back against white supremacy while offering a vision of new worlds and possibilities, Sneed said.

He enjoys contemporary offerings such as N.K. Jemisin’s Green Lantern comic series, the site and the SyFy Sistas podcast. But Sneed’s fandom goes back to devouring comic books and “Star Trek” reruns in the ’70s.

“I’ve been a Blerd since I was old enough to read,” he said. “What is great is that social media and the Internet can bring Blerds together from far and wide.”

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