In Our Corner: Erik Killmonger and the Inner Pain Of African-American Men

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.”

-Paul Dunbar, We Wear The Mask

“I want to return to the scene of the crime.

I do not want to go back.

Going back can only bring pain, suffering and unresolved memories

Returning, I am armed with wisdom and knowledge, which I can take into my future.

I am empowered.

Whatever I was, I am no longer.

The past is what is what it was.  It cannot be recovered.

I live today, to understand and uncover.

I seek tomorrow.  To explore and discover…

Self.”

-Dr. Micheal Kane, Returning to the Scene of the Crime

———————————-

My Dear Readers,

In the previous blog, I wrote about the  the unconscious messages of betrayal and loyalty within black male and female relationships in the movie Black Panther.   I observed that in the movie, black women were portrayed as being loyal, committed and unquestionably trustworthy, while black men were characterized as being deceptive, disloyal, and therefore, untrustworthy.

The responses to my commentary on the portrayals of the film’s depiction of male betrayal and trustworthiness were immediate and wide-ranging, from hostility and suspicion, to questioning my motives, to accusing me of taking the movie too seriously in my analysis.

All of these response types have one common underlying theme: fear.  It is normal for an individual or a society as a whole to fear what they do not understand.  In this case, the film itself and my analysis of it may have exposed  feelings that are generally unconscious until one is faced with something that challenges black men to look within their psychological selves.

Charles from Fort Lauderdale, FL writes:

“Your article Black Panther got me to think about my own betrayal of relationships throughout my life.  As I sit here typing, I am allowing myself to feel the trauma as well.

I can see now that I don’t trust women but tend to use women, which I believe is the root of my own pain.  So now I have learned not to ask the why question but rather, the what is the foundation question.  I just would like to say thank you for walking with me on this journey.”

In this, our third In Our Corner post,  we return to Black Panther, which has now grossed over $1B.   This week, we will focus on the villain Erik Killmonger.

  • Why is Erik Killmonger a key representation of African-American men?
  • Why is he cast as a dark, yet sympathetic villain?
  • Why is he being depicted as an angry black man, raging out of control?

I have written before that why questions provide responses that are circular back to themselves, so as a result, they do not help us to understand the foundation of the question we ask, which often gives us a more useful answer than simply why one thing or another happened. So, we ask:

  • What is it about the character of Erik Killmonger that he captivates the audience as the sympathetic villain?
  • What is the impact of the pain, the hurt, anguish, and the rage that lives within Erik Killmonger?

Erik Killmonger’s appeal to African-American audiences comes from his character being a clear and direct representation of the generational and psychological trauma of the North Atlantic Slave Trade, but not as a depiction of being sold into slavery and the ensuing centuries of racism, discrimination, and oppression, but as the result of that sordid experiment—generations of people who were, despite that severe adversity, able to thrive and become successful.

In this respect, Killmonger’s is a story of his success in gaining education and skills, mastering the cruelty that he was shown as a child, and wielding it with an efficiency and glee that surpasses even the most evil slave master.

However, this is not how he was born; this is what was crafted by King T’Chaka abandoning young Erik in America after killing his father, and Killmonger is who he had to become in order to survive: to emotionally detach from himself as a human being, and the feelings associated with that, evident in his comment to his father N’Jobu on the ancestral plane, when N’Jobu noticed that Erik shed no tears for his memory.  Erik, a dry-eyed child, simply said:

 “People die every day.  That’s just part of life around here.”

What motivates Erik Killmonger? A frighteningly rational and focused hate for King T’Chaka’s and Wakanda’s traditional stance of non-intervention in the face of the profound suffering that he and other African descendants of the ones who were taken have experienced, feeding into a righteous anger. Where Wakanda could have helped, yet did nothing for generations, Killmonger, knowing his royal lineage and having prepared for ritual combat and to take the throne all his life, is more than willing to use what he has to help those that he knows suffer throughout the world.  In essence, by killing T’Challa, the last of his line, in ritual combat, he kills Wakanda’s apathy of the suffering of Africans in the entire diaspora.

“I lived my entire life waiting for this moment.  I trained a lot.  I killed in America, Afghanistan, Iraq… I took life for my brothers and sisters right here on this continent!  And all this death just so I could kill you.”

But, it’s not all just an altruistic desire to liberate Africans around the world.  Killmonger, the abandoned child of Wakanda, is different from most African-Americans in that he actually knows what country he is from, and knows for sure that they abandoned him intentionally, and in that, there is a desire, also coldly rational, within Killmonger to inflict the same or greater harm on those who inflicted such catastrophic harm on he and his family, and to put an end to anyone else who would have adopted that same philosophy that harmed so many.

“The world took everything away from me.  Everything that I ever loved!  But Imma make sure we’re even.  Imma track down anyone would even think of being loyal to you! And Imma put their ass in the dirt, right next to Zuri!”

What is Erik Killmonger?  He was a little boy who lost his father.  He was a child who was abandoned by his family.  He is the psychological self, seeking attachment, belonging and connection.  He has the words and actions of a villain, yet he has many redeeming qualities, and a more than valid ax to grind against the other members of Wakanda’s royal family.  Still, he is dangerous: he is the “angry black man” who cannot be reasoned with, he is believed to “lack control,” and he must be destroyed.

In the final fight scene, many will question why T’Challa offers to heal Killmonger and save his life—this is because T’Challa sees the error in his father’s (and in Wakanda’s) attitude towards the world and specifically, those who were taken from African countries and their plight, and sincerely wants to make a change.

But, Killmonger rejects the gesture—his inner pain and the fact that he failed in his life’s mission means that he truly has nothing left. He can’t use vibranium to liberate the Africans outside of Wakanda that he wanted to help.   He couldn’t possibly live in the society he tried to destroy as a citizen, much less as a prisoner who murdered both Zuri and a member of the Dora Milaje. (His attempted murder of T’Challa was done through ritual combat, so it wouldn’t count as a crime towards him.)  Rather than be locked up, Killmonger responds:

“Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships because they knew that death was better than bondage.”

That quote made me and many others in the theater gasp upon first hearing.  Of course, this is who we as African-Americans would have wanted to be, right?  The ancestors who chose death over bondage?  Who kept their dignity instead of succumbing to generations of rape and murder and cruelty?

But there is something different here.  Our ancestors jumped into the ocean to get away from unjust, barbarous chattel slavery.  Killmonger, on the other hand, simply doesn’t want to face punishment for using the colonizer’s tools and tactics to murder two of the African people he claims to want to lead.  The African-Americans in his mother’s lineage who survived slavery enough to create him as a descendant would have something to say about death being better than bondage when they had to endure bondage to ensure that their bloodline, which led to him, survived.   Surely we can revere those who endured as much as we can revere those who refused, right?

This isn’t to say that the lessons of Killmonger cannot assist us in our own journey of self-discovery.  They can.

———————————————-

Concluding Words- Dr. Kane

My Dear Brethren,

I write for my general readership, but as with all In Our Corner blogs, I want to direct my concluding remarks specifically to black men as we walk the journey of self-discovery.

Black Panther is an excellent movie, and both its conscious and unconscious messages are breathtaking and worthy of uninterrupted discussion regarding psychological trauma in the African-American community.

For those who question my motives and intentions, I seek to influence the intellectual mind by keeping it balanced with the psychological self.  These discussions are incredibly important for the African-American community, and specifically for black men in that this film allows its black male characters to have rich emotional lives, and they are not simply heroes and villains—they are real, complex people, in real, complex situations.

A clear yet unconscious message in Erik Killmonger is that he was abandoned by family, he utilized the country he was left in to transform himself into a stone cold assassin, and used that unimaginable strength to impose his will on the country that abandoned him. While his success is admirable, the pain in the psychological self that drove that success also contributed to his failure and eventual demise because he never integrated that pain and transformed it into something that served him better.

You can hear Killmonger’s psychological self screaming when he talks about the pain he grew up in, and the pain he feels for other Africans in the diaspora.  This is a result of complex trauma, a myriad of 13 separate types of traumas that African-Americans face on a daily basis, which can be draining and overwhelming.

Mark, age 32, describes his trauma:

“I get on and off the mat every damn day.  Every day I go in and face people who either ignore or disrespect me.  At the end of the day, I feel alone and abandoned.  Every day I trudge forward.  Every day.”

Trauma is a permanent etching on the psychological self.  The memory of the incident at point of traumatic wounding or injury will never ever go away.

However, in choosing to opening up to others, such as friends and loved ones, and when wanted, seeking counseling or therapy, the individual can learn to balance the traumatic wound or injury achieving advocacy, balance and calmness in walking the journey of self-discovery.

Steppin’ Into Tomorrow

We cannot step back into our past,

Nor must we want to.

It is our fear of the unknown that chains us.

The future holds new possibilities

We can journey into the future

Holding onto Belief, Faith and Trust …

In Self.

-Dr. Micheal Kane

Until the next time…Remaining In Our Corner.

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