Wakanda Forever: A Lesson in Grief

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Black Panther is finally out digitally and COMING out on DVD & Blu Ray on May 15th! I’ve been excited and anticipating the release since the first time I saw the movie. By the time I got home, I had already looked up where I could pre-order the damn thing--to no avail at the time. In honor of this momentous occasion (of which my household has a pre-ordered copy! You thought I was playing?), I wanted to release a post I had been working on, but never finished. There have been many think pieces about this movie and what was offered and missing. Being in the mental health field, I am going to do more of an analysis from that point of view, while also talking about relationships.

Moving In Emotions

We often think that the absence of action is doing or feeling nothing. This is not true. There are many feelings that hide in inaction. For example, we know that when confronted with acute stress, we can fight, take flight, or freeze. Most people believe that they would make the conscious choice to do the former two. I think the idea is cute, but has no merit. You don’t really get to choose in those moments. The body will have its say since fight, flight, or freeze is run by the sympathetic part of the nervous system. What does that mean? It means that the body is sympathetic to the acute stress or fear you are experiencing and will take over the higher brain functions and aid you in the most basic forms of survival. What we know, from the body is that there are appropriate and inappropriate times for fighting, or fleeing, or freezing. An assessment happens and then the body picks which one could aid you the most in survival. The same goes with other social situations. There are times to talk, listen, and act. There are also times when it is most prudent to sit your ass down and do “nothing.” Taking action through talking, listening, or acting should require those higher brain functions that disappear in times of acute stress, but doesn’t always. Emotions can take over and wreak havoc on your ability to think clearly and decide the best course of action. There are several examples of this made by the lovely men in Black Panther.

On T’Challa

Since Black Panther came out, there have been so many articles talking about it, critiquing it, and praising it. But one thing remains almost steadily true, almost none of those articles talk about the main character, T’Challa. T'Challa is seen as not being interesting because some say he doesn’t “do” much. But that is where people are wrong. I see him as a hero for the introvert-- or at least the introvert that lives within me. The one who knows that sometimes rushing into action is NOT the way but rather to consider the thoughts and ideas of others through his silence (I believe he learned this lesson in Civil War, about not jumping into action prior to knowing the facts). His most forefront action was through listening. He listened to Nakia. Listened to his sister, Shuri. Listened to the counsel. Listened to his father. who basically taught him that there is value in the thoughts of others. He listened to Wakabi. He listened to M’Baku. He even listened to Killmonger. Most people are hard pressed to listen to their significant other when they are arguing, but I digress. And he tried his best find more truth, examine it for himself, and used what had to be strong sense of anger, denial, and grief, to get himself together so he could serve his people. He used his ears and mouth in accordance with their number: listen twice before speaking once. This has been seen as a lack of action. The act of listening, not passively hearing, takes a lot of concentration and consideration. Not only are you listening to what someone is saying-- the words they use-- you are also deciphering the message they are trying to convey. Some people think of listening as passive. I would argue that it’s because you hear shit, you do not listen to messages. There are already too many people in the world who barely heard something and are already jumping to conclusions and the actions that would damn them and others. I would challenge you to be more like T’Challa, listen for understanding, then take up a mantel of action. How does this aid in his survival? It helps keep his mind free and clear of the guilt he could have had or the shame he would have earned, if he didn’t listen to what was being said and suggested before taking up with an action.

On Killmonger

Killmonger also echos this idea of perceived inaction.  Admittedly, he was doing a whole lot, throughout the film. We have praised him, in some ways, of being a person of action. Of knowing what he wants, and going through any lengths to get it. Many have seen themselves in Killmonger, which I think, for people of color, is especially ironic. Let me tell you why. When Killmonger goes to the ancestral plane and meets with his father, N’Jobu, he says something akin to “no tears for your father.” Killmonger replies matter-of-factly that “people die.” We could take them to be the sage words of a man-child who recognizes death as a part of life. But these words are not that. These are the words of someone so disconnected from their emotions and what those emotions try to share, that they cannot even begin to understand their own grief. Killmonger grieves differently. He grieves with anger and violence. He grieves with a self righteousness given from the colonizers, embedded into how he was raised. He also seems to believe himself that he is “over” this death, that it has no impact. He has thoroughly lied to himself pretending that things are somehow fine or that he has moved past it all, when his grief for his lost father, lost country, lost mother, and  lost way of life, is what moves him forward. Erik Killmonger moves with the purpose of a man who needs (not just desires) to get stronger to make that grief meaningful, without even recognizing the pain that allows for him to move through the world the way he does. Sheathed in hatred, disgust, anger, and ultimately violence. Also likely moving in fear. Fear of the world around him that could take him from his rightful home, fear of a world that could take his parents away and hurt people who look like him, and ultimately take his very life. Saying that “people die” or that he wants to be in the ocean with the countless slaves that died because freedom in death is better than bondage, is another way of romanticizing death and forgoing the recognition and acceptance of his emotion, the action route I would have recommended. That is why I say it’s ironic that PoC laud him and identify with him. People of color, especially Black people, have been stripped from their very emotions. We have been stripped of the full range and instead been given tropes in anger that we are allowed to view the world in, and not much else.This is what we are already taught. Black men especially are taught that emotions have no place, that is makes them lesser—a woman— and that the shame of emotions are best waylaid to something more acceptable: Anger, hatred, and violence. Where T’Challa moves with the love of family, a woman, his sister, and his father; Killmonger has divorced himself from the love he felt for his father, for the love his father had for his country, and moved instead clothed in hate and fear. Just because he does not cry and grieve in the way many expect to see, does not mean there is an absence of grief. And just because he moves his body and takes up the mantel to act, doesn’t mean that is the action he should have taken.

Again, T’Challa has been allowed his emotions in this almost utopian society. He has not suffered the hurts or lived a life in pain and suffering at the hands of others and with societal approval. So he has no real frame of reference for that which Killmonger has been subjected. As a result, T’Challa’s grief is different. It spurs him into action out of love, not hate. His love of Nakia is what helps him to listen as she basically advocates and argues for what Killmonger has advocated for. Though because she is also absent from this same hurt, her way is also different from Killmonger because there isn’t a portion of self looking for revenge, but rather a choice to right a terrible wrong and move Black people forward. Hurt people, hurt people; as Nakia and T’Challa are free from those hurts Killmonger has experienced, they move differently.

On Wakabi

Wakabi, on the other (other) hand is also hurt, but hasn’t processed his grief. Remember when I just said that Hurt people, hurt people? Yeah, this one is almost the PRIME example. He also acts from a place of anger and fear. The death of his parents changed his trajectory and what he saw as a focus. Focused as he was on self preservation, he also couldn’t see straight. He approves the destruction of others but only in attempting to preserve the self. If the glory of Wakanda fell to his shoulders, he would have been like Killmonger but would still deny the humanity of those Blacks he would put in harm's way for his own vengeance. He already said that to bring refugees is to allow the problems of others (who presumably “don’t belong”) into the border. While at the same time saying that they should fight and rule over the others. And to be honest, in my second viewing of The Black Panther, I realized that he, like Killmonger, also would use women for their own means, so that he could have the satisfaction of having acted. The difference is that the woman Killmonger was supposed to have some feelings for, may not have known her own worth and was thus okay to be used as a means to an end, disposed of when no longer necessary. I mean really, she apologized!!! for ...what exactly? For being captured? And for how she supported Erik, she received death from her partner at his hands, with an apology on her lips. That’s Wild. Again, I digress. Wakabi on the other hand, thought to wield the love of Okoye as a weapon. He challenged her, with his hand on his weapon to ask, if she would kill him. Her reply is the reply I want women all over to have. That for the love of self and what they believe in, not only would they leave men who would try to drag them into foolishness, but would kill them to save themselves and their values as necessary. Keeping in mind, that someone who loves you, should also know you, and not try to force your hand to meet their own. Wakabi acted, but his actions again, are not the ones I would have recommended.

The Action of Feelings

Looking back, this prose is not so much about action or inaction, but the role of unprocessed grief. I think it’s funny that T’Challa was hailed as being boring, when I see him as one of the few male characters that is processing his grief. Not just of the father he has recently lost. But also for the way of thinking about that father and the ancestors who ruled before him. He had to deal with the fact that they had this knowledge of the hurts’ Blacks all over have been enduring that they they chose to do nothing. Chose themselves in their fear over standing up for what is right. Honestly, if Nakia were on the throne, there would be no movie. She agreed with Killmongers idea, just not the tactics. Anyway, back to the point, the role that greif played made action and inaction and the praise we give look different from the various characters. There have also been many articles written about M’Baku. But I would implore you to see that yes, he was a man of action, but also a person that processed his grief and (however harshly) shared his views on the changes being made to the empire. M’Baku and T’Challa are more alike than they are different. Killmonger and Wakabi are also more alike. I just think it’s funny that as people who don’t necessarily process grief, we also praise that same lack of process, in others.

It is Challenge Day! Praise to Hanuman!

Your challenge this week is to try and bring forward the lessons of T’Challa. When you are talking to someone, take up the mantle of active listening. Don’t listen to respond, just listen to understand. Ask clarifying questions. Make sure you are on the same page before you consider your thoughts and experiences to make your response. Maybe we could all be a little better if we could find the time to listen.

Maybe the challenge should really be to listen to yourself. To know yourself and the emotions you may try to bury that come out with your actions anyway…How about trying to do both? Be like both M’Baku and T’Challa. Take up the mantle of knowing and processing your emotions, listening to others, and see if you too, could be the HEALTHY leader of a people (or of yourself, whichever).