Why Killmonger (and Black Panther) resonates with the African Diaspora
There are lots of posts talking about the fight scene in the movie phenomenon that is Black Panther between Erik Killmonger and T’challa for the leadership of the kingdom of Wakanda.
Most of the discussions talk about the ethics of the Wakandan people in remaining isolationists during the era of chattel slavery. Or they talk about the toxic masculinity of Killmonger and the murder of his supposed love interest in his quest for vengeance.
A few talk about the emotional connection Killmonger had to his father and how the heart-shaped herb allowed him to commune with him in their apartment rather than the soothing purple afterlife of Djalia.
A number talk about Afrofuturism and how Black Panther connects the stories of a mythical land free of colonialism and the issues of the African Diaspora and the path forward toward greater unity and achievement for both groups.
I have read so many of those essays in the last weeks. I have written a couple myself. But when VerySmartBrothers went after T’challa for losing, in their mind, all the waterfall battles, I felt it was an unfair characterization.
First, M’baku’s challenge came and went. He vied for the kingdom as was his right, fought, woke T’challa out of his heart-shaped herb induced slumber (because with the power of the Black Panther, let’s face it, everything is easier).
T’challa got his act together and sent M’baku home, in time for his afternoon salad tray (with some fish on the side). Since T’challa was discovered by one of the tribes’ fishermen, it should have been clear, M’baku’s people ate fish, too.
Anyway, all that serious stuff aside, I want to talk about Killmonger’s rage.
His unbridled, unfettered — made him kill more than a thousand people personally and cover my body front and back with scars for each individual person he murdered — kind of rage.
This was a special thing. The kind of rage which makes you work harder. Study harder. Learn more. Acquire skills. Change every aspect of your life to better serve that rage. No friends. No attachments, no distractions. The All Rage Channel. All rage, all the time.
His rage was the thing which made his crazy dream of conquering the world, turning it upside down, setting it ablaze and killing everyone associated with the Old World Order so appealing to so many despite the fact it was a bat-shit crazy ideal no one should have been on board with.
It was a rage which defied reason. Or compromise.
It was a pure and passionate rage, felt in the hearts of every person of color in this nation. Hell, possibly in the Diaspora as a whole. A rage you and I channel, dampen and cool every day before we walk out the door.
A rage as personal to me as breathing. Yes, I’m angry. I’m always angry. But you can never see it.
Killmonger’s righteous rage doesn’t make him right, though. T’challa accepted the challenge and assumed he would, through his status and skill as the Black Panther, that he would defeat this would-be usurper and be home in time for dinner.
Unlike M’baku, Killmonger was working from a different emotional script. People might have said Killmonger was working from the beloved trope used so often in movies of “avenging my master/parent/family member/beloved pet,” and thus his behavior made both narrative sense and emotional sense.
When I saw this scene, I came away with so much more:
This was more than a rage of a murdered parent, beloved mentor, or cherished family heirloom.
This is a rage of a nation, of a greater family twice lost.
This is the rage of a lost legacy, lost opportunity, a loss of potential greatness. What would you do if you learned all your potential was being lost because you lived in a society that did not, could not, never has and never would nurture you or your talents. Except where they can exploit you best for their benefit.
Living in a world where you had to succeed despite your society, at its active opposition to your success. Every step of the way is hard won because you would have to take it out of the hands of someone actively preventing you from taking that next step by every means legally (and sometimes illegally) available to them.
Killmonger didn’t have to imagine such a place. Every day when he looked in the mirror, he could peel back his lip and see the indication of a place he could never go. A culture he could never have. An opportunity for greatness he simply wasn’t able to reach. Not because it didn’t exist, but because he was a shame his nation could not abide.
Thus he lived within a nation whose chattel slavery descendants were the shame this nation could not abide, yet dare not destroy, and yet remained inextricably bound to and fascinated by these sons and daughters of Africa, who were bound by the same kinds of spiritual chains as Killmonger, longing for a history that did not reek of shame or dishonor. Untouched by the words slaves, colonization, ignorance or nigger.
Look at that word. That single word embodies two hundred years of pure hatred.
LOOK AT IT!
Stop saying it. Stop embracing it. Deny it the power of legitimacy. Let it fall into disuse. Deny the monsters who would embrace it, the benefit of its legacy.
A well-nursed rage is like a fine wine. You can’t drink it before its time, but once it reaches the right age, is in the right place, at the right time, it becomes a sublime thing, unmatched by all but the most extraordinary of vintage.
Tchalla’s rage at the death of his father had cooled with the responsibility of leadership. Killmonger’s festered because each exposure to the opportunities he lost further enraged him, until like a house on fire, he was ablaze, trapped and lost within the maze of his own emotionally-stunted creation.
T’challa treated the challenge like a contest, something fair, studied but gentlemanly. With rules, traditions and history.
Killmonger treated it as a festival of destruction, each death he caused and experienced to reach this point was brought forth upon T’challa, who in this moment was the recipient of a dedicated lifetime of murder.
There was no way T’challa could win.
This moment was something Killmonger had waited for his entire life. His being was forged around it. His problem was he had never truly considered what would happen when he achieved his dream.
He would, if left to his own devices, destroy that which he sought and the world he so despised. Such is the power of a rage slowly aged to perfection. A fire so hot, nothing but Death can extinguish it. A fire without mercy for anyone, even the arsonist is sacrificed for its bountiful harvest.
How could T’challa have known this when he agreed? He was a scientist and warrior trained, but not a luminescent ball of hatred made flesh.
He brought a soul to a torture chamber and expected to win. Killmonger was already dead, long before he ever found Wakanda. That’s why he failed.
Warriors fight as though they were dead. But the best warrior recognizes he must fight for the living, not those already dead. Indeed, the best warrior recognizes he has won when he no longer has the need to fight, only the duty to fight as needed.
Killmonger’s rage was twice-placed, twice-raised, twice-festered. Because we know nothing of Killmonger’s mother, but we know she lived this same hatred for a place she could never know and an injustice she knew would never be corrected.
T’challa paled before that rage. Not because he wasn’t capable but perhaps he felt it might have even been just. Part of any good villain is his connection to a higher truth. What makes him a villain is the extremes he would go to in order to achieve them.
Killmonger was right. Something needs to change. Killing everyone associated with the previous world order to replace it with another imperialist dream of cultural superiority based on a previous genocide hasn’t fixed the problem, just changed the players.
I felt Killmonger in those moments. In my heart of hearts, in that place I never show anyone, the place where I shove every micro-aggression, every back-handed compliment, every rejection due to my color, my race, your belief in my innate inferiority, grief from lost opportunities, deaths in my community whether they be from poverty, drugs, crime, political or judicial malfeasance, every injustice I learn of perpetuated against people of color through the power of patriarchal supremacy and white nationalist thought anywhere through time and space, they are all thrown there.
Lest they poison me and my ambitions. Distract me from my missions. Undermine my sense of self. Steal from me every private and public joy I shall ever know. I cast them into that abyss, swirling and dark, rich from the shadow looming over me, nearly every second of my life.
Into an abyss in which I dare not look for fear of what I might find there: Killmonger’s Lament writ large in me.
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding.
As a prolific writer of speculative fiction, scientific, technical and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California, Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.
Thaddeus works as a writer and editor for two magazines, the Good Men Project, a social men’s magazine as well as for Krypton Radio, a sci-fi enthusiast media station and website. He is also a freelance journalist for Polygon.com and Panel & Frame magazine. Thaddeus is the co-founder of Futura Science Fiction Magazine and one of the founding members of the Afrosurreal Writers Workshop in Oakland.