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

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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.

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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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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

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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.

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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.

In Our Corner: Showing Up As Real MEN and Leaving As Little BOYS

“I am what time, circumstance, history, has made of me, certainly, but I am also much more than that.  So are we all.”

-James Baldwin, Writer

“I have discovered in life that there are ways of going almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.”

-Langston Hughes, Poet, Writer

“The battles that count aren’t the ones for gold medals.  The struggle within yourself—the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us—that’s where it is.”

-Jesse Owens, 4-time Olympic Gold Medalist

“Strong men who are truly role models don’t need to put down women to make themselves look more powerful”

-Michelle Obama

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My Dear Readers,

In my clinical work as a clinical traumatologist and psychotherapist, I focus on what lies within the psychological self.  In this work, I have found that there are large numbers of African-Americans who carry invisible scars from exposure to hostile work, school, or social environments.

Within these invisible scars lie extreme levels of internal emotional tension as people seek to establish intimate relationships, often in their own demographic groups.  For instance,   African-American women have historically built formal and informal social networks for themselves where they can be emotionally supported, share experiences, and more.

This has not generally been the same with African-American males. African-American males have been socialized to maintain silence when it comes to their inner emotions and feelings, which reinforces a message that their feelings are not valid, and forces isolation and distance from others.

To address this, we are starting a new series called “In Our Corner,” which will focus on maintaining emotional and mental health in African-American males.

There is a stereotypical belief that due to cultural values, mores and differences in communication, African-American males are more resistant to talking openly about their feelings than other racial and gender groups.  This silence often extends to participation in child rearing and parenting, participation in household chores and role placement within couples and marital relationships.

A young male patient of mine recently said, in response to comments about the lack of respect that young males have for their male elders:

“What do you expect?  Look who is raising us!   We are only following what we see.”

Ouch.  That comment cut me deeply because it was true. Regardless of the intention, my generation’s actions as well as our silence serves as unconscious model for other generations to follow.   I am often asked:

  • Why do black males act the way they do in intimate relationships?
  • Why do black men feel disrespected?
  • Why are black males unwilling to let small slights go, such as poor customer service?

I have learned that questions beginning with the word “why” lead to circular answers that don’t contribute to resolution or understanding.  Instead, I choose to focus on asking “what” questions to get at the root cause of the issue, such as

  • What are the factors impacting black men regarding intimate relationships?
  • What is occurring in the experiences of black men that reinforce their feelings of being disrespected?
  • What is the definition of a “small slight?” What could be the meaning of such behavior or actions towards black men?

Today’s letter comes from an African-American female who may sound harsh, but is simply speaking her truth. Let’s see how this silence impacts her world.

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Dear Dr. Kane,

I am a 50-year old, no nonsense African-American woman.  I am sick and tired of old ass men acting like little boys.  I am a grown woman and I am sick and tired of this nonsense.  I want to be around real men.

Recently I’ve been getting to know a man of similar age that I’m romantically interested in.  He went out of town not long ago, and he committed to calling me when he came back.  Well, instead of calling, he sent me a text to “check in.”  It has been more than a week and I haven’t heard his voice.

What the hell! I am so sick of black men who cannot effectively communicate their feelings.  Now, I am left to look at his actions and try to figure out what the hell is going on.

One of my friends suggested that I write to you, so here I am. Please tell your brothers to wake up and man the hell up. Grow a real pair! Women are looking for real men out here!

Angry & Standing Up, Seattle WA

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My Dear Brothers,

As a black man reading this, you have a number of options:

  • Delete and dismiss this letter
  • Deny and ignore this letter, or:
  • Avoid listening to someone who is has been impacted by another’s behavior.

Or simply…listen.  Follow along with me as we explore her words.

This is not the first time that black men have received messages debasing their actions and focusing on their inadequacies, and it will not be the last.  In general, there actually are black men who have difficulty in effectively communicating their feelings and emotions.  The question is this: What is occurring within the individual that impedes his ability to effectively communicate? Is there an issue with communication at all?

Attachment in adult relationships includes friendships, emotional affairs and adult romantic relationships.  There are four main styles of attachment in adults:

Secure, Anxious-Preoccupied, Dismissive-Avoidant and Fearful Avoidant.

  • Secure people tend to have positive views of themselves and of their relationships. Securely attached people feel comfortable with both intimacy and independence.  This style of attachment usually results from a history of parents modeling warm and responsive interactions within their relationships in front of their children.
  • Anxious-Preoccupied people seek high levels of intimacy, approval, and responsiveness within their relationships. They sometimes value intimacy to such an extent that they become overly dependent upon the relationship and their partner.  Compared to secure people, people who are anxious or preoccupied tend to have less positive views about themselves, and they may exhibit high levels of emotional expressiveness, worry and impulsiveness in their relationships.
  • Dismissive-Avoidant people view themselves as self-sufficient and invulnerable to feelings associated with being closely attached to others. People in this group tend to suppress and hide their feelings, and they tend to deal with rejection by distancing themselves from the relationship and their partners, whether it is warranted or not.
  • Fearful Avoidant people have mixed feelings about close relationships. They may desire to have emotionally close relationships, but tend to feel uncomfortable with emotional closeness. They commonly view themselves as unworthy of responsiveness within their relationships, so they don’t fully trust the intentions of those who they seek to be attached.  Members of this group frequently suppress and deny their feelings.  Because of this, they are much less comfortable expressing affection.

Black men are no different from anyone else in that they mirror the experiences of the environment they grow up in.  Whatever we observe or fail to observe as children is held with the core of the psychological self and because it becomes a part of the individual’s structure,  it can be consciously or unconsciously expressed.

So, understanding how you grew up and what you saw (or did not see) regarding intimate relationships, what group do you belong to?

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Closing Words-Dr. Kane

“Yesterday’s survivor and a survivor today will be a survivor tomorrow.”

– Dr. Micheal Kane

The term survivor can be defined in the following different context

  • Someone who has had an unpleasant experience and who is still affected by it.
  • Someone who hasn’t died; a person who has been through a horrible experience.
  • Someone who remains alive or in existence.

It is without question that historically, black males of all types, classes, incomes, educational levels, and positions have been victimized and scapegoated.  There are many who, due to no fault of their own, are disenfranchised, unwanted or not needed within today’s highly technological society.

However, every individual black male holds the key to his own empowerment.  Walking the journey of self-discovery through self-actualization and joining in discussion and contemplation with identification of other males who seek to do the same can help to achieve it.

The time has come for black men to examine and explore their psychological selves within the context of their socio-economic group.  I invite those seeking to either to understand, question or facilitation discussion of issues relative to African-American males to join the readership of this new set of themed writings.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.  We are the ones we have been waiting for.  We are the change that we seek.”

-Barack Obama

 

Until the next time, Remaining In Our Corner…