If you have not seen Marvel’s Black Panther, then this is your warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!
In December 2007, I took a trip to India to see some friends of mine get hitched. During the trip I was in Mumbai and later Ahmedabad. This was my first trip outside of the US, and it was my first experience in a country where my skin tone fit within the majority of the population. Walking around the streets of India, I had a strong feeling that completely overwhelmed me. Never in my life had I felt the power of resembling the majority. It was this radiating sense of belonging with such intensity that I felt energized.
Now, if you look at me, it’s pretty clear I am not of Indian descent. In addition, I am a bit larger than your average person I bumped into over there, but as far as my skin complexion was concerned I “matched.” Whether I was reading the newspaper, watching television, sitting at the movies, eating at local restaurants—whatever—I blended in enough that when wearing traditional kurta pajama, locals sometimes assumed I was from the same streets as them.
What was amazing to me about this sense of belongingness I experienced were two main things:
(1) That subconsciously I must have been in dire need for this feeling, because while I shared a similar hue with the people of India, I was definitely not Indian. Yet, there I was so energized by this feeling that I felt as though I was radiating.
(2) The entire trip I kept thinking, “This must be what my white friends experience in the US every day.” And while I was right, the truth is that most of them are not aware of how powerful and unique their sense of belongingness is in comparison to many others here within the US. As one of my friends put it, it’s like breathing air—something you just expect to be there and something you take for granted until the day it’s gone.
Side note: this is one reason why we are seeing a rise in white supremacist organizations and xenophobia in the US. The racial and ethnic demographics in our country are shifting, and this belongingness that has been taken for granted is causing unnecessary emotional stress as it is being eroded. I used the word unnecessary because their belongingness doesn’t have to be eroded if a dominant discourse of diversity and inclusivity is embraced by all. But that’s another topic…
So, this whole concept of belongingness is a well-researched area by people like Dr. Terrell Strayhorn. Reading some of Strayhorn’s work, it quickly becomes clear that belongingness is one of the most critical components of our well-being. There have been studies attributing belongingness to 50% of what makes an undergraduate student successful. Sure, grades are important, but what needs to take place for a student to earn good grades? What happens after graduation? When a student feels as though they belong, there is a higher likelihood they will engage in student organizations and events, take advantage of campus resources, develop a fuller network, and yes earn better grades. When students see themselves as a positive part of the dominant narrative, initiatives, policies, and culture of the campus they excel. This is not only true on college campuses, but it is true for all people in societies everywhere.
Now enters the newest Marvel film, Black Panther, and its main villain Eric Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan.
Killmonger was clearly a representation of the African American experience in the US, specifically those of us who are descendants of African slaves. We can often feel enraged. We can feel the lasting impacts of stress from watching our friends, family, and others who look like us suffer through despicable treatment. We can feel displaced, confused, and removed concerning our cultural heritage. We can feel a dire sense that we need to reclaim and redefine our heritage. And sometimes, just sometimes, all of these emotions—and many more—can blind us. That was Killmonger in a nutshell.
But, all of these stated emotions and their intensity are justified. Even when T’Challa learned the origin of Killmonger, he felt empathy for him. He recognized that Killmonger’s anger made sense, and T’Challa knew he could not honestly fault Killmonger for his disposition.
Keeping it 100, when Killmonger died in T’Challa’s arms I had tears welling up in my eyes. It felt as though I was watching myself, my brother, my cousin, my friends, and the expressed feelings of so many who look like me end in a rage-filled fury. A fury I have felt many times in my life.
While the anger of Killmonger was justified, being consumed by that anger is never a reflection of positive well-being–it’s disruptive to our self-identity and our sense of purpose. Despite being consumed by this anger, T’Challa still extended an opportunity for restorative justice toward Killmonger, but Killmonger was too far gone. The US, and his abandonment by King T’Chaka, radicalized him.
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, because they knew death was better than bondage,” was possibly the strongest line from the movie.
When I heard Killmonger exclaim that line as he died with his head held high, all I could see was the image of the Gateway of No Return in Benin. A memorial to mark the middle passage. Something I have not seen with my own eyes, but still haunts me.
There are so many resonating lessons and emotions within Black Panther, and I am still processing this experience. Being able to watch the raw emotion of Killmonger tied into an epic sci-fi Afro-futurist tale was one of the few times I felt a deep sense of belonging while sitting in the theater. Well, a deep sense of belonging that left me with my head held high. Plus, I love comics, and as a black comic fan, this experience was rare for me. Seeing people who look like me in stories that are interesting, positive, and well-executed doesn’t always happen for a multitude of reasons.
If you liked Black Panther, then you would probably enjoy Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run with the Marvel hero as well (the comics in the cover image of this post are some of those issues). Also, you really need to check out Fruitvale Station, an earlier project by Coogler and Michael B. Jordan about the killing of Oscar Grant. In a way, Killmonger felt like the vengeful spirit of Grant, and I was happy to see him get screen time.