Over the past few weeks, and days, numerous articles have appeared about Black Panther. These pieces range from providing historical context for the T’Challa, the role of the Dora Milaje, the cultural impact of Black Panther and representation on the big screen, and countless other topics. The sheer breadth of these pieces in amazing, and there is no way, at this point, that I could cull all them together. Today, I do not plan to really dive into any of these discussions because I think that there are far-more qualified writers that have done that already. Instead, I just want to give some of my ruminations on the film after seeing it the other day. These will probably be rambling, but I hope that you get something out them.
These thoughts started to arise after I saw an article posted on a colleague’s Facebook page. There, she shared a piece by Christopher Lebron at The Boston Review. Lebron’s “‘Black Panther’ is Not the Movie We Deserve” argues that Killmonger, and his ultimate death, portrays the “devaluation of black American men.” This piece made me start to think even more about Killmonger, a complex villain that presents a strong counter to T’Challa’s isolationist perspective.
In the film, Killmonger is T’Challa’s cousin, a point that differs slightly from the character that Don McGregor and Rich Bukler introduced in 1973. Ulysses Klaw pressed Killmonger’s father into service when he attacked Wakanda, and when Klaw gets defeated and his father dies, Killmonger and his family are exiled. He moves to Harlem, studies at MIT, and harbors a hatred for T’Challa and the throne, hoping to overthrow the king. The move to bring a blood kinship into the narrative is important, especially considering Killmonger’s last wishes at the end of he film.
One of the most poignant moments in the film occurs when Killmonger dies as he and T’Challa view the sunset over the horizon. N’Jobu tells Killmonger’s father N’Jobu tells his young son that the sunsets stretching over Wakanda are the most beautiful and awe-inspiring sites in the world, and this is what, after working to avenge his father’s death, Killmonger sees as he perishes.
During this scene, Killmonger requests that T’Challa bury him at sea. He says, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, cause they knew death was better than bondage.” The gravitas of this line brings the whole film, and Killmonger’s motives, into focus. This line essentially sums up the entire traumatic and violent history of the slave trade in one line. Killmonger, growing up in America, represents the severing from Africa that the slave trade brought about. He has been displaced throughout his life, and his return to Wakanda, serves as that reconnection, albeit at the end.
Throughout, Killmonger argues that Wakanda should open its coffers and armories to assist in a revolution that would aid the oppressed around the world. (At some points he presents only Blacks in the argument. At others, he is not specific, just saying, “Oppressed people.” This is something interesting.) T’Challa claims an isolationist view that his father and others have supported for centuries, and he fears how things would change when the world discovers Wakanda’s technological advancements.
At the end, T’Challa loosens the reigns on his position and agrees to share Wakandan advancements with the world, starting by helping the Oakland community where N’Jobu and Killmonger lived. As well, during one of the post-credit scenes, T’Challa stands in front of the United Nations telling the assembled delegates that Wakanda will now open its doors and share their knowledge with the world. The world, however, does not know all of the advancements that reside within Wakanda, and one of the delegates mumbles, “With all due respect, what do farmers have to offer the rest of the world?” Like Killmonger’s final lines, this comment highlights the ignorance of racist thought and history that continues to affect us today.
When Everett K. Ross gets shot, in the spine, Shuri heals him and he is up and walking the very next day. Ross marvels at this medical advancement, and this moment shows the altruistic advancements housed within Wakanda. As well, this scene reminds me of an enslaved individual, Onesimus, that Cotton Mather owned in the early eighteenth century. Ibram X. Kendi tells the story:
Fifteen years prior , Mather had asked Onesimus one of the standard questions that Boston slaveholders asked new house slaves–Have you had smallpox? “Yes and no,” Onesimus answered. He explained how in Africa before his enslavement, a tiny amount of pus from a smallpox victim had been scraped into his skin with a thorn, following a practice hundreds of years old that resulted in building up healthy recipients’ immunities to the disease. This form of inoculation–a precursor to modern vaccination–was an innovative practice that prevented untold numbers of deaths in West Africa and on disease-ridden slave ships to ports throughout the Atlantic. Racist European scientists at first refused to recognize that African physicians could have made such advances. Indeed, it would take several decades and many more deaths before British physician Edward Jenner, the so-called father of immunology, validated inoculation.
This historical fact, and countless others, lead added weight to Shuri’s response when Ross wakes up after the surgery and walks up behind her. She proclaims, “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!”
African American thinkers, from Benjamin Bannerker, David Walker, and John Russwurm, all the way through contemporary thinkers such as Kendi have worked to restructure the prevailing narrative of African “savagery.” Black Panther brings this narrative to a mass audience that the others may not have reached. However, it couches the narrative in a fictional universe that obscures stories like the one mentioned above. At this moment, it is our role, as scholars, to share these stories and to show that Black Panther can open up so much for us at this moment and it can provide an opportunity for us to reformulate the racist histories that continue to perpetuate our cultural milieu.
This is not an easy task, but it is one that needs to occur. Frank Yerby attempted to do just this with his novels, which sold in the millions, but I cannot say how much success he actually had in changing people’s perspectives. Black Panther, to a certain extent, reminds me of Yerby’s work. It’s a popular text that has the ability to open doors, but people must choose to enter those doors and explore what’s inside for themselves. No one can force them to open their perspectives beyond the surface level superhero story of T’Challa and Wakanda. We must strive, though, to point the way through that door and to show people what awaits on the other side.
This has been going on with Walter Greason’s #wakandasyllabus, and I have seen colleagues talking about having events at their schools to engage students and the community with conversations and ideas within Black Panther.
I would love to hear your thoughts. As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.