T’challa, Erik Killmonger, and Luke Cage:
The African Diaspora.
T’challa, Erik and Luke Cage, as characters, men, and representatives for their communities, represent such a wide breadth of the African Diaspora, and it’s really cool to see how that’s affected their characters, their worldviews, and their philosophies. But it’s also interesting to see the parallels that these three men, who’re each within varying stages of Diaspora, have.
Now, I’m no expert on African Diaspora, and there’s a lot that I’m still learning, but I’ve had these thoughts in my head since I left the theater after seeing Black Panther.
*Spoilers for Black Panther underneath*
T’challa is a man who grew up on the African continent (Wakanda) so he’s never had to deal with any kind of diaspora. Whatever media he consumed (and I would assume Wakanda would have its own source of media and entertainment) was steeped in Wakandan tradition/culture/language. He never had to feel out of place in his own home country. And true, being heir to the throne of Wakanda probably warped his own sense of what Wakanda was, and gave him a more rosey-outlook on his home country, but for the most part, no one in Wakanda gave him any kind of grief for speaking Xhosa, or for having the name “T’challa” because he was “Home.” T’challa practicing his own cultural traditions was never looked down upon.
Then we have Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, who, for all intents and purposes, is the son of an immigrant. Erik grew up with his father’s stories of Wakanda. His father, N’Jobu gave his son everything he needed to be Wakandan. Despite Erik being born in America, N’Jobu wanted his son to have some connection to his heritage. from teaching him the language, to even giving his son a Wakandan name (N’Jadaka). And yet, despite being Wakandan (of both Wakandan and royal blood) Erik is still seen as an outsider to both Wakandans (due to his American upbringing) and Americans (due to his skin color). Through the film, Erik cites the atrocities against Black people throughout the diaspora had suffered as the cause of his crusade. Erik is a man who grew up with fairy tales of another world that he should, by all rights, be able to take part in, but can’t. Erik is the product of two worlds and not being able to take part in either one leaves him frustrated and angry. Even at the end of Black Panther, at the time of his death, Erik says “Bury me in the ocean where my ancestors jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage.” He associates himself, his family and his heritage, with those who could not be considered “African” but also refused to assimilate. Erik exists as something in between these two identities.
Now, unlike the two previous men, Luke Cage isn’t the son of an immigrant, and he never grew up in an African society. He is the descendant of American slaves, and in so doing he is so far removed from any kind of “Traditional African” culture that he probably doesn’t even realize it. African-Americans (or Black Americans who’re descended from slaves) grew up with no knowledge of their cultural roots, and any kind of tradition that was past down to us was done in a way that was hidden or weaved into a Eurocentric package. African Americans, for the most part, had to start from the ground up and create an new culture. And Luke Cage is aware of this. He has an extensive knowledge of African American history, and a deep pride in the advancements and achievements that African Americans have made. From music, to language (African American Vernacular English) to fashion, and politics. Luke carries all of those aspects of being African American with him, into every conflict and every challenge he faces. Unlike Erik, Luke never grew up with stories of Africa because he’s too far removed from that land (but not so far removed from it that he doesn’t still deal with antiblackness/mass incarceration/biases in law enforcement that Erik cited.
The past as the present
A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. -Marcus Garvey
Carter G Woodson wrote The Miseducation of the Negro, and is the man behind Negro History Week which would later become Black History Month. Woodson noted that American schools systems not only taught history through the lens of white superirity, it also made it seem as if Africa as a continent was devoid of any kind of history or culture. Black History Month was created so that African American children could learn that their fore bearers made large contributions to the United States, and to the world at large. Speaking from a personal standpoint, in the schools I attended, we never learned about the continent of Africa (not its history, religion, or mythology). Furthermore, American schools never teach about any other Black people across the diaspora. We don’t learn about the Haitian revolution, or the history of Afro-Brazilians, or the contributions of Black people to European art and literature, such as Alexander Dumas or Leopold Sedar Senghor. And the United States’ educational system runs with the narrative that for Black people life started in slavery, and ended with the civil rights movement. Luke Cage, being a man who grew up in America with no strong connection to his African roots outside of his African American heritage and upbringing, only really had African American history to hold onto when it came to searching for and understanding his identity. You can see within Marvel’s Luke Cage, how he calls attention famous African American figures (such as Jackie Robinson) how he reads great Black American authors such as Walter Mosely, and Donald Goines, and Nikki Giovanni. The music he listens to, Wu Tang, and Method Man, are all artifacts of the African American experience, and proof of their strength. When Luke Cage was imprisoned in Seagate and offered the position of gladiator and better treatment, he responds with:
“Slavery was always a good deal for the master.” Luke invokes a specific instance in his own history as a Black American to fortify himself against temptation.
This isn’t just limited to Luke Cage, all the major players in Marvel’s Luke Cage draw reference to Harlem’s great leaders, musicians and politicians as a way to chart a course for the future. From Cottonmouth to Mariah Dillard to Misty Knight and Henry “Pop” Hunter.
Now, Erik Killmonger, having gone through the same educational systems as Luke would probably not only recognize how limited the western world views African history and culture, but also realize how hypocritical those history lessons are.
Take for example Killmonger’s reaction to being in the museum, looking at all of those artifacts. He not only chastises the “expert” on how white people obtained those treasures (”How you think ya’ll got them in the first place? Did you pay a fair price for them?”) But he also reclaims them for himself, and uses them for his own purposes and empowerment. He takes that antelope mask (because he’s “feelin’ it”) and wears it for his next heist.
Or how he scars his body to commemorate each kill he’s done which is an ancient African tradition called Scarification. And couple that with his knowledge of the Diaspora across the world (from how he cites atrocities and how Black revolutions never had the fire power enact real change). He uses both his knowledge of the African Diaspora, his training as an American, and his reclamation of African traditions as a means of gaining power and agency for himself. In these instances, Erik Killmonger acts as a bridge between two worlds.
The World Where the Ancestors Rest
In the film Get Out, one of the title songs, “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” which is Swahili for “Listen to the Ancestors”, What makes this song so jarring is that the singers are constantly trying to warn the listener (and Chris, the main character of Get Out) to run away to safety. They are trying to warn Chris in a language that he doesn’t understand because he is so far removed from that aspect of his culture. Feeling disconnected from your cultural roots is another part of diaspora. Chris can’t understand the danger he’s in because he can’t “Listen to the Ancestors”.
However, T’challa, Erik and Luke subvert this in their respective journeys. They “listen to the ancestors,” albeit in their own ways. They find wisdom in the past, and each man gains a different solution depending on who they invoke. Each man calls up, and takes wisdom from a different “Ancestors” that represents his own respective place within the diaspora.
T’challa connects with all the great leaders of the Panther clan, the kings of old, the ones who never had to question their identities or change themselves in order to assimilate. Erik claims those who jumped from slave ships and chose death over compromising their own identities. And Luke connects with the many African American trailblazers who created a new identity in spite of their country’s racial animosity.
When T’challa visits the ancestral plane for the first time, he is greeted by a beautiful purple sky and his father’s prideful smile. There is majesty in this space. A space when Kings come to gather. It’s not just the people T’challa calls on that is important, but the place where the exchange takes place.
Erik Killmonger (who is of the royal line as well) however is greeted with a different scene. Instead of being surrounded by Savannah, his “ancestral” plane consists of his childhood home, a rundown apartment in the poor neighborhood of Oakland California. While N’Jobu did everything he could to teach his son about Wakanda, and fill their living space with Wakanda/African art and culture, it was still a pale comparison to the real thing. In Erik’s astral plane, both son and father are banished from home, and are “lost”.
And while Luke Cage may not have ingested a heart-shaped herb, he too returns to the place of his ancestor. The church his grandfather founded, and the church his father ministered in. The venue for each man here is a reflection of where they are within their own diaspora. T’challa’s is traditional. It knows what it is and where it is. Erik’s is frustrated, rundown and exhausted, but still desperately clinging to its own culture. And Luke’s lacks any kind of majesty at all. It is without ceremony, or grand power, and is devoid of any “African” aesthetic, but it still boasts a strong and proud history founded upon African-American fortitude. And much like T’challa’s astral plane, Luke’s has a sense of identity and it knows who and what it is.
“When I Think of Home” -Dorothy, The Wiz
The place we live has the ability to shape us into the people we will become. There’s a reason we say “Home is where the heart is.” And the reason I used this quote from The Wiz is because the lyrics to the entire song are fitting to T’challa, Erik and Luke’s situations throughout their narratives. T’challa and Luke have learned to integrate themselves into their worlds. Luke has risen to become Harlem’s hero, and T’challa is the crowned king (through both blood and right). Erik’s situation, on the other hand, is very different. Erik acts as a man in between “homes.” Both Black Panther and Luke Cage did a phenomenal job of building up both character’s “homes”. And while Erik’s home of Oakland California did not get the same world building as Luke’s Harlem or T’challa’s Wakanda, its history, heritage, and influence is still evidenced through Erik and his actions.
“What happens here determines what happens to the rest of the world”
Wakanda has always had control of its own culture, its own destiny and its own identity. It has a culture that it is keen on protecting, even if it means turning its back on the rest of the world. Erik even knows of this lands wonder through the stories his father told him as a boy. And T’challa is the culmination of being brought up in this world. He is wise, he is strong, but he never allows his pride to control his actions. He is thoughtful and is averse to taking life when it can be avoided. However, through his film, he does deal with a crisis of conscious. He questions where Wakanda stands on international affairs, and what its responsibility is to the rest of the world. Both Nakia and Erik bring up Wakanda’s power, knowledge, and resources, and T’challa has to seriously consider what his role and his kingdom’s role is to the rest of the world. And then you have isolationist like W’Kabi who bring up the fear that Wakanda will lose its own identity and culture if it opens itself up to outside influence. Identity is an important part of Wakanda’s philosophy, and it’s clear that Wakandans pride themselves in holding onto who they are.
And later on in the movie, when he discovers his father’s hand in Erik Killmonger’s creation, T’challa experiences first hand the consequences of Wakanda turning its back on the rest of the world, and the rest of the diaspora. Erik Killmonger returns to Wakanda influenced by his upbringing in America, and actively destroys Wakandan culture (such as the heart shaped herb) and replaces Wakandan philosophies of peace and isolation with American philosophy of violence and destruction.
“Can you believe that? A kid from Oakland, running around believing in fairy tales.” -Erik Killmonger
Erik grew up in Oakland California in a run down neighborhood. One can infer that Erik and his father grew up in poverty, with gang violence running the streets. Oakland is also the place where The Black Panther Party was founded. A party that was concerned for the well-being of African American people and were responsible for radical movements that worked to benefit Black Americans, and protect them against exploitation by corrupt police. N’Jobu was also of the mindset that Wakanda could do more to help Black people all across the diaspora, and he came to this conclusion while living in Oakland, and he passed this ideology onto his son, just like he passed on the stories of Wakanda. In this way, father and son become products of the two cultures they are a part of. Adopting the philosophies of the political party that also bore the namesake of their country’s royal family, of their family. Erik was a kid during 1992, which means he probably saw the fallout of the Rodney King riots over in LA. A time where many Black Americans were dealing with the fall out of a bigoted, unfair policing system that exploited their lives and bodies with no consequence. It wouldn’t be difficult to believe the chaos he witnessed during those times, and how it contrasted with the stories of a beautiful, wealthy Wakanda that his father told him of.
Erik comes from fire, he joined the military and, as he admits in Black Panther, killed. He killed in Iraq, in Europe, in Africa, in America. He comes from a place that was forged from flame. And during his time as king, Erik brings that same flame to Wakanda. By burning the Heartshaped Herb, ensuring that there can be no other ruler to oppose him. By taking Wakanda’s resources for his own agenda. He, through his own machinations, turns Wakanda into Oakland. Through Killmonger’s tenure as king, Wakanda undergoes an identity crisis where it doesn’t know what it wants to be. But is also through Erik’s time as king that the voices of the Diaspora are heard, and Wakanda is forced to recon with its own complacency.
“[Harlem]…is supposed to be a shining light to the world.” -Luke Cage
Harlem is the main setting for Luke Cage, and is where the bulletproof hero calls his home. Harlem is a historic neighborhood for African Americans, being the birth place of some of the greatest works of art, literature and identity for African Americans. All throughout his show, Luke Cage (and many other characters) cite the importance of Harlem, the history of Harlem, and the future of Harlem. And while Luke loves his home and works to protect it (much like T’challa does for Wakanda) Luke Cage (at least in his Netflix series) isn’t a Harlem native. His home down is in Savannah, Georgia right where his grandfather built the church, and where his father used to minister. Luke Cage moved to Harlem as a way to escape the law and find a better life. His journey has many parallels to the Great Migration, a time when many African Americans migrated from the racist, segregated south to the north in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Like Erik, Luke has his heart and history in two different places. And like T’challa, Luke recognizes the importance of his home’s (of Harlem’s) identity and what it means to the rest of the world.
Perhaps I’ve rambled on a bit too much with this post, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a well defined look at the African Diaspora so broadly. Especially in such an internationally recognized cinematic universe.
I really responded with how Luke Cage used and touched upon African American culture and history. And seeing T’challa and the whole nation of Wakanda opened a way of seeing the Diaspora that I never thought was possible. And Erik Killmonger works as the perfect median for both of these perspectives. While Luke Cage and T’challa have come to terms with their varying Diasporas, either though having it ripped away for generations (Luke Cage) or never having it taken in the first place (T’challa), Erik is still coming to grips with his, and his place within it.
Erik Killmonger, while struggling to come to terms with his cultural, and racial identity has, inadvertently, created a new one. Being Wakandan-American, which gives him a perspective that is unreachable to both T’challa and Luke, his place within the diaspora gives him access to the experience of creating to survive, holding onto what was old, while also forging something new in the process. And with this in mind, its ironic that Erik claims his ancestors as the “ones who jumped from the ship” those who are in the constant in between of two worlds. Those who never finished the journey through the middle passage and to America. In a way, there is strength to this identity, an uncompromising power that lives on, even in death.
However, each person goes on similar journeys throughout their respective narratives, and there’s a lot of crossover between their experiences. Whether it is leading their communities, gaining wisdom through a shared history, or simply learning to use the tools we have to make change. T’challa, Erik and Luke are each different sides of the same narrative pyramid, and it is such a wonderful treat to see them wrestle with their own ideas of how to navigate in a world where Blackness is often times looked down upon, or ignored. I think it would be really cool if we could get other perspectives in the MCU on the African Diaspora (such as Eric Brooks/Blade who is British, or Jericho Drumm/Doctor Voodoo who is Haitian).
Regardless, I’m glad that there are narratives that showcase both the difference and the parallels of the African Diaspora, and I hope these new programs can inspire people (of all Diasporas) to look at their roots. I know it’s been an inspiration to me.