I was a late comer to Wakanda. When I did arrive, my Pan-African senses were pleased with the drips of South African house music and the incorporation of every beautiful textile the continent possesses. I was relieved that there was no tinge of jealous “authenticity” politics afoot. And off-screen, Black people everywhere rejoiced in 2 hours and 15 minutes free of racist micro-aggressions. What a sacred space at a troubled time.
Yet, I exited the theater wondering if I would be welcomed in Wakanda. African-American women were conveniently absent even from this supposedly inclusive and utopian Black space. As an African-American woman, as a mother to an African-American son, as a wife to an African man, as a traveler to non-fictional African countries, as a scholar of Africa and its Diaspora, this movie hurt me to my core. Why is the African-American woman (STILL) subaltern in a contemporary display of utopian Blackness? (whaddup Spivak!)
And, further still, what exactly was being said about African-Americans? (Not that part at the end where we are basically rescued from the ghettos by our enlightened African brothers and sisters – that I don’t necessarily agree with, but I can live with it.) What I mean is, why are we always portrayed as Erik Killmonger? Self-centered, egomaniacal, bloodthirsty, violent, self-destructive, vengeful… shall I go on?
Now, I am no stranger to seeing Michael B. Jordan play characters of questionable character, but Erik Killmonger was too much. He was well-trained, but quick tempered. He used the tools in Uncle Tom’s Cabin to build his own coffin. Painted as a righteous mutineer gone power crazy, Killmonger is simultaneously the colonized and the colonizer’s worst enemy. He was the walking stereotype of the angry African-American man – maybe justified in the beginning, but notoriously drunk with power and toxic wherever he goes.
This movie, for me, reinforced negative stereotypes of African-Americans to present mythical African glory. This zero sum game is just another example of a colonized mind and the continuation of White hegemony, even in supposedly sacred and autonomously crafted Black spaces. Like braid extensions at the natural hair expo, I feel that this film still misses the mark. It gives credence to superficial narratives and it omits crucial voices.
Did anyone ever think that taking Erik from California to Wakanda was not an option, because – oh, I don’t know – he had a mother!? And from the Black excellence he exuded in the military, my best guess is that she was African-American as F. Taking her son wasn’t an option for more important reasons than Wakandan shame. That same love and pride that Angela Bassett (depicting an African mother) showered on T’challa, that’s African-American women all day. And somehow, that cultivator, that influencer, that decision-maker, that elder, was absent. Better yet, omitted. Why, for, come?
Like so many narratives about the conversation between Africans and African-Americans, Black Panther regurgitates tropes and past transgressions dominate the dialogue. We should be talking about partnership among troubled equals. This exchange could have been different on screen and should be different in real life. That passionate longing for belonging in African-Americans is somehow always framed as futile. Like asking for reparations, we are paternalistically discouraged from looking back and preemptively halted for fear that we will get (rightfully) unbridled or bloodthirsty – like Killmonger. Yet, like movements for actual reparations (Georgetown slavery Archive), African-Americans are owed the opportunity to make peace with their pasts. And, rest assured, we know how to do it without destroying our futures.
To watch this movie and not see a commentary on how African-Americans are our own worst enemy is to be deaf, dumb, and blind. Those who don’t see it my way, haven’t been to Africa and haven’t known this conversation as intimately as I have. This movie is nowhere near accurate. When I first went to Ghana in 2006, I remember discussions with Kofi Awoonor about the Transatlantic slave trade. There were side eyes at the White girls in the group, whose White guilt was so thick you could cut it with a knife. There were layers of Blackness confronted when a light skinned Black woman was called mulungo (White, foreigner) and wasn’t embraced on her expected “return to the motherland.” It brought up her own uncomfortable memories of being ostracized for being bi-racial. Needless to say, everybody was working through their own positionality. Above all else, what gripped me from the many conversations between Blacks and Africans during that trip is a comment from one of the junior academicians at the University of Ghana. He said, “We lost you – our most powerful resource. Do you know what it is to lose your strongest, your most-able bodied, your youth? Look how we suffer because we sent you away.”
This is the real conversation. It acknowledges agency and objectification. It recognizes history as a continuum and not a series of ruptures. It talks about socio-economic consequences for labor migration. It speaks to cultural interconnectivity, not in terms of fictional theory, but in realities of development. This conversation is about restorative justice… not revenge.
This movie sucks the air out of the room because it falls so far afoul of this useful conversation. I hope moviegoers remember that we do not have to do our (neo-) colonizers’ bidding by having Hollywood ticket sales rebuild our burned bridges. No matter how many beads and handshakes we have on screen, the story is built on old tropes that don’t serve us in real life. Black Panther excludes the lynchpin connecting Africa to America – the African-American women, mothers, and aunties – the guardians of our cultural continuities. If Wakandan value doesn’t come in the form of inclusion of all Blackness, let’s hope it has cleared the way for conversations like these that call out the exclusions. As a mother, an African-American woman, and a member of the Pan-African diaspora, I have to believe that this movie is not us. It is not us any more than X-men is us, no more than Batman is us. We do not live in Wakanda any more than we reside in Gotham City. Killmonger is not my son and I am not absent.