In Our Corner: Betrayal Trauma and the Psychological Self in Black Panther

“Wise men build bridges, foolish men build barriers.”

-T’Challa, Black Panther

“We should be building bridges to the rest of the world.”

-Rep. John Lewis, US House of Representatives/Civil Rights Activist

 “Bridges or barriers: which ones are you building?”

-Dr. Micheal Kane, Clinical Traumatologist

————

My Dear Readers,

In this installment of “In Our Corner, ” let’s talk about the largest grossing Marvel comic movie ever, Black Panther. I can’t say enough things about it.  Excellent. Well done. Captivating.  It left me wanting more and more.

It featured a black superhero as the lead and an almost entirely black cast with powerful roles for both black men and women.  It focused on a contingent of bad ass black women led by a seriously bad ass black woman who together kicked lots of ass throughout the film.

Featured in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the country’s technological advancement and economic progress provides a safe and equitable society where black people, especially children and women, can thrive—all conscious messages of the film that satiate the hunger of black audiences for a positive identification with a leading black superhero, but can drown out the voices  of those who may want to discuss the unconscious messages hidden in plain sight.

Betrayal & Loyalty: The Unconscious Message

Most of the major black male characters (except T’Challa himself and M’Baku, who never promised loyalty) betray the throne of Wakanda or someone who is close to the king.

Specifically:

  • Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) betrays his girlfriend Linda by killing her when she is held hostage by Klaue
  • W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) betrays T’Challa/Black Panther when he sides with Killmonger and his plan to send Wakandan weapons into the world
  • Zuri (Forrest Whitaker) betrays his friend Prince N’Jobu when he tells King T’Chaka about the stolen vibranium
  • Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) betrays his brother King T’Chaka father of T’Challa/Black Panther by conspiring with Klaue to smuggle vibranium out of Wakanda
  • King T’Chaka (John Kani) betrays his nephew Erik Killmonger when he leaves him alone in America after killing Erik’s father

 There are four unconscious themes being portrayed regarding black men and women:

  • Regardless of age, status and occupation; the black women in the film are loyal and committed to either a specific person (T’Challa/Black Panther), its people/country (Wakanda) or an idea/entity (the throne of the king).
  • Black women are unquestionably trustworthy
  • Black men are not loyal and cannot be trusted
  • Black men will betray and sacrifice the women they love (Erik Kilmonger and Linda, W’Kabi and Okoye)

 

The Psychological Wounding of Unconscious Messages

Already there are those within the African-American community who feel forced into silence out of fear that they will be shamed or ridiculed if they dare to criticize the largest grossing black film of all time.  As a result, they smile, nod in agreement and continue to suffer in silence.

One of my black male patients Alex, (not real name, age 29) spoke of having mixed feelings after seeing the film. He felt joy in finally seeing a black superhero, but also experienced depression and anxiety, recalling the betrayal of the black men in his life:

“I remember my mother saying black men ain’t shit and the fact that my father and uncles chased multiple women.  To this day, I have trust issues with other men and I am unable to remain loyal in relationships with women.”

When he shared his response to the movie and the feelings it brought up for him, Alex was ignored, laughed at and told that he was taking the movie too seriously.  As a result, Alex shuts down, internalizing his feelings and starting to isolate himself from others.  He began reacting to nightmares, flashbacks of memories of his own shameful actions towards women. He recalled having cold sweats and crying uncontrollably.

We could ask “why,” but “why” questions provide responses that are circular and therefore not helpful in getting to the foundation of the issues.  To get to that foundation, let’s focus on “what” questions:

  • What was Alex experiencing?
  • What was the basis of Alex’s depression? Nightmares? Flashbacks?
  • What drove Alex’s feelings of guilt and shame?

The answer: Alex was responding to betrayal trauma that, although long buried within the psychological self, had been “uncovered” when he watched the film.  There were scenes in the film that activated his memories and now create an active and ongoing recall of his past actions.

 

Betrayal Trauma

What is betrayal trauma?  Betrayal trauma is the violation of implicit and explicit trust.  To clarify these terms

  • Implicit trust – implied through not plainly expressed.
  • Explicit trust – stated clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt.

The violation of implicit and explicit trust can occur in many different ways, including but not limited to:

  • Being unfaithful in a relationship
  • Negligence in guarding or maintaining information shared in confidence
  • Intentionally revealing or disclosing information shared in confidence.

The impact of betrayal can be defined as traumatic since it impacts the individual’s frame of reference as it relates to their worldview, identity, and spirituality.  Betrayal trauma is distinct because for the trauma to be successfully inflicted, the individual must have allowed the betrayer access to their psychological self’s three internal resources: belief, faith, and trust.

 

The Pain of Remaining Silent

One of the issues that Alex was struggling with was his desire to remain loyal to his community in community by joining in the community acknowledgement of the film while responding to his own feelings.  He felt caught in a “no man’s land” between wanting validation and acceptance from his social group, while at the same time, dealing with the impact of the movie on his psychological self.

To attribute the activation of his trauma to the movie would be tantamount to Alex blaming the movie for his own issues—something that would not have sat well with his friends and family, and on a broader level, the black Americans who were so excited about the movie.

The implied consequence of sharing his feelings and not being part of the love for the movie would have shown him to be an enemy, so he chose to hold his opinion, and in doing so, he denied the impact of the movie on his own self-concept, and reinforced the silence he continues to suffer in.

 

Prognosis

Despite all of this, Alex’s prognosis is good.  In therapy he is learning that instead of choosing between loyalty to his community or facing his unresolved issues and behavior he is able to balance both by being supportive of his community in acknowledging the film while simultaneously exploring his own behavior.

————————-

Concluding Remarks-Dr. Kane 

My Dear Brethren,

Although I write to the readership, I want to direct my concluding remarks specifically to black men as we walk the journey of self discovery.

I believe the film Black Panther to be of excellent quality and content.  Just like other noteworthy black films such as The Color Purple, Amistad, and many others, this film has the potential to be  psychologically impactful and worthy of open discussion regarding psychological trauma in the African-American community.

“In times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

-T’Challa/ Black Panther

It is understandable that black women and men are suspicious of each other,  given the manner that black people as a whole have been treated over the last 400 years in this country, and the issues of betrayal and loyalty within our own community/intimate relationships.

Understanding these feelings, we must decide whether to build bridges with open communications or maintain those barriers.

I recommend this: Be kind to your psychological self….Find a safe and secure space to speak and release your stuff, such as with a therapist or counselor.

“Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows.  We cannot.  We must not.  We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other.  Now more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth; more connects us than separates us.  …. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”

-T’Challa/ Black Panther

Until the next time….Remaining In Our Corner.

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