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Black Panther’s Courageous Take On Basic Truths

by Autumn Hayes

Apr 16, 2018 | Culture

Illustration by 
Edel Rodriguez

The water in my eyes didn’t rise for Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger, a fictional character played by Michael B. Jordan in director Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster superhero film, Black Panther. The water in my eyes didn’t fall for the ancestors that Erik evokes in his final speech, either. The tears on my face as—spoiler alert—the only African-American character with more than two lines of dialogue in the entire movie died were tears of relief that, finally, someone dared say it: for people like Erik and me, descendants of African slaves—people who have been longing for a place to feel safe and empowered for as long as we’ve been drawing breath—there is no Motherland, no “going home” to a continent that doesn’t necessarily want us and perhaps never did.

Like the Boston Review’s Christopher Lebron, who boldly proclaimed that Black Panther is “not the movie we [African-Americans] deserve,” I didn’t leave my first viewing of the movie in ecstasy over finally seeing people with skins like mine included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Although I must admit I spent the first 15 to 20 minutes of my initial viewing swooning over Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o and so many other dark-brown-skinned ladies occupying the same screen! At the same time! And not being raped! Or left for/angry at/compared to white women!) Instead, I left eternally grateful that the theater I visited was one of those where I could eat chicken tenders and down a “theme”-related Black Cherry Margarita while I watched African royal after African royal proclaim Erik Stevens—abandoned by his own uncle to grow up in the projects of Oakland with a single mother whom we never meet, and now never will—unfit to rule his father’s nation because he was an outsider, an American, as General Okoye (Gurira) spits distastefully, earlier in the movie.

This is important. According to the “good” characters in Wakanda, the wealthiest and most stable (fictional) African nation and the setting for most of the film, their lost prince’s son was unfit to rule because he was an Other. Not because he was a murderer or a thief. Not because he had anger issues or sought to launch a Fourth Reich using vibranium—the indestructible metal responsible for Wakanda’s uncolonized strength—to fuel the warfare. No. As spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) urgently explains to M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of the mountainous tribe of gorilla men (!) who will help save Wakanda from Erik, the problem is that “an outsider,” a “man who arrived here hours ago,” sits on the throne. Despite his “royal blood,” Erik, cousin of the king, is and was—as his murdered father warned him in a vision—just another American outsider, just another killmongering, angry, undignified, and unworthy descendant of slaves, at least in the eyes of his “family.”

That these are the “good guys,” and that they ultimately “win” when Erik is dethroned and killed, is problematic, to say the least. That the film implies that legitimately angry African-Americans like Erik are “monsters” of Wakandans’ making, and that there is no black American character to counter this implication, is problematic, too. Reviewers like Lebron have a point. But that Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole even dared to write his existence and murder—to broach this underexplored rift between Africans and African-Americans—is one of the bravest things I’ve seen in recent cinema.

That Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole even dared to write his existence and murder—to broach this underexplored rift between Africans and African-Americans—is one of the bravest things I’ve seen in recent cinema.

Erik considers Wakanda “home,” and he has been taught to do so by his father N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), a “War Dog” spy sent to keep an eye on the outside world by his brother T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani, John Kani), Wakanda’s king. Few reviewers have noted it, but the movie’s first lines are Erik’s, and they show us a young boy asking his father to continue spinning a fantasy Africa, full of belonging and power: “Tell me a story, baba,” Erik’s American voice calls from the opening void of the screen, “about home.” N’Jobu has instilled in his son a connection to, and hunger for, his African roots.

Of course, this pride and hunger come with complications, the first of which is the bitterness that Erik’s Wakandan knowledge engenders when he finds his father dead “with claw marks in his chest.” He knows that “brother” and “sister” don’t necessarily mean loyalty or safety once you cross the Atlantic. But before that, N’Jobu and Erik must have had to navigate a world of triple or quadruple consciousness, just as most African-Americans must see the world through both their own eyes and the ones that see them. What questions about Africa does a son ask his father when that father is the prince of a powerful African nation, one that did nothing to stop the capture, imprisonment, exportation, and oppression of his and his mother’s forebears? What is life like in the home when Dad praises the ancestors, and Son knows what those ancestors allowed to happen to his Mama’s? Because, for all his b-boy swagger, Erik is a scholar: he speaks the Wakandan language, knows and even tries to participate in the rituals of government, and can identify the artifacts. So he presumably knows the part that African kings and queens played in his ancestors’ enslavement. As an Annapolis grad, he’s smart enough to figure out that West African traders couldn’t possibly plead ignorance to the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade for all 500 years of its existence—especially not with all the security that African tribes provided to keep captives from running away or killing themselves before they could be loaded onto ships. Especially not with people jumping overboard within sight of African shores rather than submit to those horrors.

Yet, as an African-American and the son of an African prince, he would feel double the pressure to pretend those atrocities didn’t happen or to minimize them. Just ask any African-American who came of age in the ’90s—rocking Africa-shaped earrings and Malcolm X shirts—how we’re supposed to talk about “the Motherland.” How many closet and open white supremacists will seize upon the preceding paragraphs to say, “See?? Black-on-black crime!! All Lives Matter! You (need yet) have no moral authority! Now back to the status quo.” Never mind that Africans did not invent the transatlantic slave trade, that the Ashanti did not sail to Liverpool, Lisbon, La Rochelle, or Cádiz, and say, “You know, we’ve got the opportunity of a lifetime for you….” There is a power imbalance that demands black perfection before injustice against us can be considered unjust, and there is always the inevitable dullard who needs to excuse genocide by breaking out the “But everybody else was doing it” defense.

And so many of us keep quiet. We “maintain the lie,” as King T’Chaka and elder Zuri (Forest Whitaker) do when they kill an already-disarmed N’Jobu and abandon Erik to a life of poverty, stop-and-frisk, and police helicopters. It’s just too dangerous to reveal ourselves as human and fallible, so, in the words of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, we wear the mask.

And I get it. Like Erik and Coogler, I grew up in the 1990s. Rodney King was beaten on my ninth birthday. I attended a diverse elementary school for all of a year and a half, before almost all the European- and Asian-American students fled further into the suburbs, even though the European-American teachers (who left, too) sat them in the front and only called on them. I came home from that same elementary school and had my superhero cartoons—Batman: The Animated Series, to be exact—interrupted by the news that the four white policemen who had beaten Rodney King had been acquitted by an all-white jury, and the city of Los Angeles was burning. I was 10, and I watched coverage of the unrest all alone, thinking that the violence was both horrible and understandable. I wanted to smash the television, set my own house on fire, because there’s no such thing as home when segregation, white flight, and physical and mental brutality consistently remind you that you don’t belong here, that nothing belongs to you—not your body, not “your community,” not your intelligence—that will not be violently controlled. I remember thinking, This reaction doesn’t make sense, but what does? Like Erik, I grew up in the generation that saw integration’s promises eroded, the violence of the American dream fulfilled, and the temptations of Afrocentricity dangled before us and coopted. Like Erik, I dreamed and even believed that there was a beautiful Motherland where I was descended from kings and queens, and where that would matter to anyone.

The reality on the ground is quite different. Watch at least two Nollywood (or West African) films, and you’ll notice that the conflict is usually between an “overly Westernized” character like Erik—whose skin is often lighter brown, whose accent and education are British or American, whose language is English—and darker characters, whose speech and actions reflect a more unbroken connection to collective tribal life. Check out a few online responses to Black Panther’s trailer to see how many African authors express contempt and weariness that African-Americans would dare to “appropriate” or try to reclaim the culture that was sold out from under them. In a lot of Africans’ minds, Americans—regardless of color—are rich outsiders at best and the enemy at worst, even as unauthorized images of rapper Ludacris are plastered on every barbershop in Kumasi.

This attitude is often reflected at a governmental level. The slave trade is a tourist industry, seldom a tragedy, in West Africa. As a nonlocal, even a black one, you pay to see the dungeons where your relatives were penned and raped. The official entry fee for any of Ghana’s coastal slave castles is at least twice as much for non-Ghanaians, but you will probably be charged more than that by a man who shrugs when you point to the sign. The Ghanaian currency is the cedi, which is Akan for “cowrie shell”: you know, the shells imported from India by slavers to “pay” for your foremothers’ bodies. A taxi from Cape Coast—where your tour guide seems confused by the fact that you do not want him to take ten thousand pictures of you weeping—to Elmina—where a young woman takes Jersey Shore–style selfies next to the staircase that enslaved women ascended on their way to being violated by the castle’s governor—costs 14 cedis, according to the hand-painted sign on top. The driver tells you it costs 21, and after an old woman pretends to haggle with him and he drives you to your destination, he slaps the side of his rattling car three times, signaling “fresh meat” to the half-dozen hustlers waiting to call you “sister” and sell you masks you all know were mass-produced in China.

Of course, these examples point to the pressing need to make money in a third-world economy. But they also point to the kind of disconnect that led a tour guide at the Kwame Nkrumah museum to shake his finger at a group of Spelman undergrads as he warned them not to pretend that “their” government hadn’t funded a coup against the pan-Africanist in 1966. 1966, when African-Americans had just finished getting water-hosed and tear-gassed for the right to vote.

So when Erik Stevens, also named N’Jadaka, whom his long-lost family will only call Killmonger, dies, it is partly his final words—“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage”—that set the water down my cheeks. After traveling to Morocco in 2013 and through Ghana last summer, I found myself realizing that, as much as I’ve been taught that I come from African kings and queens and ought to be proud of it, I don’t. I come from slaves, and even if I did come from kings and queens, one was involved in the slaving of the other. There is no escaping it, whether they participated eagerly, reluctantly, or turned a blind eye as Wakanda did. Wakanda, Ghana, Morocco, Zamunda—the idea that any of these places are home for me is a fantasy just as much as vibranium or Captain America. I’m not from here, I found myself thinking, sitting in the shadow of Cape Coast Castle last May, watching an entire village sing and take in the day’s catch from the Atlantic. I am from the ocean, I realized, and it felt freeing, like finally being at peace, at home, in my own skin. So when Erik Stevens said it, too, I closed my eyes and cried because somebody else got it and said it. It felt like community, at last.

But I also cried because of King T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) so-true, brutally honest response to killing his own cousin. His bewildered withdrawal. His timid, “Maybe we could heal you, too.” The look in his eyes that says he doesn’t really believe it. The way he doesn’t immediately reach for his magic vibranium beads the way he does to save white CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). The way he just lets Erik die and doesn’t say, “No, cousin. We would not put you back in chains. We would offer you a chance at redemption, as my father once offered yours.” The way the only person who calls his family members what they are—auntie, cousin, uncle—is Erik himself. Erik who, in the end, realizes this dream of family is just an illusion, as easily turned on and off as his cousin’s indestructible suit. Erik, who can’t be the Black Panther because he literally and figuratively won’t wear the mask of infallibility.

So the water came. For all its problems, Black Panther is the first movie I’ve seen tell the truth that I’ve been hiding from myself for almost a year now, since my return from Ghana: as an African-AmErikan, I’m from the ocean, from the in-between, and there is no “going back” someplace I’ve never been. I can’t “grin and lie” and pretend that all’s OK, either. I can’t wear the mask.

And neither can Coogler and Cole. They refuse to play the game, and I applaud the bravery it took to sneak in a bit of Afro-realism with all the Afrofuturism in Black Panther.

Autumn Hayes is a freelance writer, creative writing teacher, and poet; her poetry, articles, and short fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in 3:AM, African American Review, The Seattle Review, Teachers & Writers Magazine, Southern Women’s Review, and the micro-fiction anthology 140 and Counting. She holds an MFA in poetry from Texas State University, where she teaches.

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  1. Wonderful article. You’ve captured the point well between Africans and African-Americans.

    But there is a way back that you know not of.

    Visit us in Kenya at our Invigoration Centre.

    A wise man never knows all, only a fool knows everything. African Proverb

  2. Ms. Hayes,

    As a “fat old white guy” born into privilege, I am grateful for this article. As a white person who has struggled to recognize the myriad ways that privilege manifests in daily life, I am grateful for this article. As a white person who tries to understand “the other”, i.e. how the life experiences of others, particularly those on the other side of privilege, experience their personal realities, I am grateful for this article.

    It is from such sources that I learn and grow and try to find what I can do to diminish that privilege. Slowly, I learn and grow.

    Thank you.

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