Erik Killmonger: Pan-Africanism and Black Diaspora in 'Black Panther'

Black Panther is a new Marvel release that features Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, Michael P. Jordan as the villainous N'Jadaka and all-stars such as Lupita Nyong'o and Angela Bassett. The movie Black Panther is about the rise of T’Challa to the throne after his father’s untimely death. He, however, faces the issue of continuing the isolationist policies of previous kings, with his lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) insisting they serve as a sanctuary for refugees of neighboring African countries, instead of hiding in the shadows. However, there is a, understandable fear of attack from outside forces to obtain vibranium, from which Wakunda bases its economy and powers the Black Panther suit. By hiding for so long while other African nations were colonized by Europeans, they were able to keep their sovereignty. This is not without a price, as one will see later in the film.

The result of their separation from the black diaspora comes in the form of the villain Erik Killmonger (N'Jadaka). His experience is different from T’Challa; while T’Challa was groomed to be a king and enjoys the privileges that that entails, Killmonger had to struggle to survive in Oakland in the '90s when there was a drug epidemic and police violence. He resents that Wakunda has so much wealth, yet refuses to help his fellow Africans and oppressed people around the world. Even though he has the blood of Wakunda, his presence is unwelcome. In a trip to the ancestral plane, his father warns him, “They will never accept you.”

This is reflective of the African American experience: While many of us expect or long to be welcomed with open arms in solidarity as brothers or sisters, often people find they are seen as a foreigner. I had the personal experience of being rejected by a Nigerian man, who retorted that I was not a real black woman even though to the world, I am seen and treated as a black woman. However, I concede I do not have that cultural understanding similar to Killmonger whose American clothes and accent stand in sharp contrast to the traditional African dress of a Wakandan family. He also expresses a sense of abandonment when he addresses the Wakanda court, saying “Two billion people all over the world who look like us whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all. Where was Wakanda?” Wakunda, in trying to keep its existence a secret, has in the process ignored the suffering of other people of African descent, making it complacent in their oppression.

It is a sad reality that African Americans find themselves rejected by the land of their birth and that of their forefathers. In America, historically, they have been forced to live in ghettos, discriminated against and enslaved. Killmonger, though a ruthless, cunning man, makes important points about how many Africans have distanced themselves from African Americans, doing little, if anything, to help them resist racism. He also calls for a pan-Africanism that has been undermined by tribalism, as shown by Wakunda's barring of refugees from neighboring countries.  While many have said he is radical, what Killmonger wanted was not much different from what Britain, America and other western powers aspired and succeeded in doing – conquering countries sometimes by force or through destabilization in order to expand their borders. He simply wanted to use the same tactics for the benefit of oppressed people, many who are people of color and  previously did not have the means of doing so. For this reason, he was a much more compelling character that you could sympathize with, even if you disagreed with his means of securing power for black people. His biggest flaw was that he became so blinded by revenge and a desire for power that he became eerily similar to colonialist nations such as Britain, saying “The sun will never set on the Wakundian empire,” echoing the sentiments of the previous British Empire. Seeing no other way to liberate those of the black diaspora, Killmonger resorts to imperialist means. And for as long as racial and social inequalities persist, his message will appeal to people who have continually been denied their humanity.