Today we welcome a guest post from Karin Alejandra Rosemblatt, author of The Science and Politics of Race in Mexico and the United States, 1910–1950, just published by UNC Press.
In this history of the social and human sciences in Mexico and the United States, Karin Alejandra Rosemblatt reveals intricate connections among the development of science, the concept of race, and policies toward indigenous peoples. Focusing on the anthropologists, sociologists, biologists, physicians, and other experts who collaborated across borders from the Mexican Revolution through World War II, Rosemblatt traces how intellectuals on both sides of the Rio Grande forged shared networks in which they discussed indigenous peoples and other ethnic minorities. In doing so, Rosemblatt argues, they refashioned race as a scientific category and consolidated their influence within their respective national policy circles.
The Science and Politics of Race in Mexico and the United States, 1910–1950 is available now in both print and ebook editions.
(This post contains spoilers.)
I saw Black Panther just weeks after the publication of my new book, which assesses the work of intellectuals committed to the well-being of Native peoples. The Science and Politics of Race in Mexico and the United States, 1910-1950, echoes the themes of Marvel’s blockbuster in exploring the tension between more insular identities and broader solidarities, local custom and global science.
Black Panther focuses on the African polity of Wakanda, a place with vibrant traditions and artistry but also—surprisingly, given its reputation as a backward African nation—extraordinary scientific and technological sophistication. Wakanda has kept quiet about its intellectual and natural riches, including its extensive supply of the valuable metal Vibranium. By avoiding contact with the outside world, it has remained moored to its own distinct past. It nevertheless possesses resources and knowledge that humanity as a whole urgently needs. Panther’s plot hinges on whether the Wakandan leader T’Challa will continue on this insular path or lend Wakandan expertise to the disenfranchised peoples of the globe.
Critics have interpreted Black Panther as illuminating the dilemmas of Black political mobilization. Philosopher Christopher Lebron has chided writer-director Ryan Coogler for elevating the less militant T’Challa over his cousin, the violent, revolutionary, Oakland-bred Eric Killmonger, who seeks to overturn a global social order that has oppressed people of African descent. Lebron suggests, quite correctly, that the film perpetuates lamentable US stereotypes of ghetto masculinity in its depiction of gangster Oakland resident Killmonger. And it dismisses radical politics.
My research leads me to question this interpretation. Mexico’s indigenous people have from the time of the Spanish conquest inhabited a world that would not leave them alone. Like Wakandans, they had to choose from a panoply of possible responses, deciding often under duress when and how to mix with the outside world. Like Killmonger, they have often felt divided or unmoored, forced to endure a liminal identity, not knowing whether to turn the colonizers’ tricks against them or to instead turn their backs. At times, they were able to remain true to their pasts without being insular or static. Catholicism is the best known Western tradition that Native Mexicans adapted so as to reinforce aspects of their local identities. Native people have also become literate in Spanish so as to better defend their rights. Postrevolutionary Mexican official sought to craft theories and policies that acknowledged that reality.
Mexicans’ desire to blend and twist the ways of the West, leads me to an interpretation of the conflict between Killmonger and T’Challa that challenges Lebron’s. Killmonger, after all, is part Wakandan, and he dreams of returning to an ancestral “home.” T’Challa is also hybrid: After Killmonger perishes, T’Challa takes up Killmonger’s agenda (albeit not his radical tactics) and charts a cosmopolitan future course for Wakanda. In fact, T’Challa turns his back on the intergenerational masculine feud between begun by his father and Killmonger’s. He instead embraces the advice of his girlfriend Nakia, who tells T’Challa that Wakanda can help others and remain strong. In the end, Coogler seems to suggest that it is possible, though hardly simple or easy, to avoid the divisive posturing of stereotypically male superheroes.
A memorable scene in the film takes place in a British museum, where Killmonger helps his white ally Ulysses Klaue to steal a Vibranium hatchet, pilfered no doubt by a British explorer and now displayed as part of that country’s global heritage. In the mélee, Killmonger repossesses an antique African mask, which he wears later in the film when he attempts to gain control of Wakanda. Killmonger thereby reappropriates the African past for his own alternative global project. Similarly, the Mexican intellectuals at the heart of my book tout Mexico’s Native heritage as models for the world. The pioneering Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio helped his mentor Franz Boas set up an International School of Americanist Anthropology in Mexico as part of broader effort to chart the diffusion of peoples and civilizations across the Americas. Some years later, during the Second World War, historian Luis Chávez Orozco wrote an account of colonial and nineteenth-century practices of democratic Native local government, which was published in Spanish and English by the intergovernmental Inter-American Indigenous Institute, as a model for the world.
The Mexican advisors and policymakers at the center of my book sought, like Nakia and T’Challa, to manage Western influences, to take part in global efforts to improve humanity without abandoning their own idiosyncrasies or forsaking their fellow Mexicans. However, they confronted counterparts abroad who were unwilling to recognize them as disseminators of generalizable knowledge. US scholars in particular long pigeonholed Mexico’s intellectuals as provincial, unable to generate broadly applicable theories. In Black Panther, too, the rest of world seems unready to accept the mindblowing improvements Wakanda can offer the rest of the world.
In an interview in Rolling Stone in which Coogler articulates his complex vision, the writer-director reflects on how his experiences as a Black American “marooned” in the United States shaped his film. “When people ask me where I’m from,” he tells the reporter, “I tell them the Bay Area and there’s a sense of pride there. But the truth is, we’re really from that place. The place that everybody’s from.” Black Panther, like Coogler, emerges from a specific place and people. Yet like its talented writer-director, the film is rooted in a history that holds universal lessons. For Native and African descended peoples, it is a history that has spurred contradictions and choices, along with innovation—local identities and global solidarities.
Karin Alejandra Rosemblatt is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland.