Aja D. Reynolds
“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.” – Junot Diaz
Black Panther reclaims the complicated identity of African diasporic people. It situates beautiful Black people and our various political imaginings in a place where we no longer have to run off to a fugitive space to remind ourselves we are not monsters. In Wakanda, Black Lives matter, kinda. N’Jadaka, first cousin of T’Challah, represents the most maginalized Black youth that walks into our classrooms with a chip on their shoulder. N’Jadaka reminds us of the work we have to be about if we truly believe #AllBlackLives Matter and our shortcomings in fulfilling our responsibilities to creating a transformative world.
There are already plenty of think pieces about Black Panther by some of the greatest Black writers and cultural analysts of our time. Many have already published nuanced interpretations that leave much to be thankful for in the now and much to desire in the future on and off screen. So I’ll use this space to hopefully encourage us to make more mirrors in our classrooms, while processing the connectedness that I and many others felt to N’Jadaka. Please note, I am intentionally choosing to call Erik Kilmonger by his given name throughout this article in recognition of his humanity.
Particularly as a lover of all things Afrofuturistic, I am often unsettled by the positioning of the Black Utopia as a radical existence that is either something that has already past or lives somewhere in the future. Just like the depiction in the movie, many of these imaginings implicate that Black Americans must be rescued for they know not who they are and where they are from. This leaves me and many Black Americans uncomfortable. Although others in the Black diaspora have also had to resist colonialism and slavery, we are still seen as the most distant and lost in the eyes of our African descendents, even in Wakanda, because white supremacy is global. For although Wakanda never experienced colonization and European influence in the ways it has disrupted the histories of other Black nations across the globe, Wakandians are still influenced by anti-Black sentiments of Black Americans. While I can attest to consistently searching for the deepest most parts of my roots that rest on distant lands, I know we are not inherently broken and without culture. Yet, it is an injustice to not recognize that our histories began long before slavery in the Americas. In the now, much of our anger is fueled by the persistence of bondage that forces too many of us to have to rely on movies produced by Hollywood to taste freedom in all its glory.
In my educational journey, I too have felt enraged from encountering limited Black narratives filled with depictions of suffering and pathologies, while experiencing structural racist realities. Yet, the most frustrating part to being awakened to the realness of oppression is not having the tools to resist. N’ Jadaka needs access to justice praxes (theory and practice) that not only teach us to dismantle oppression, but equips us to build the alternative in the meantime. The murder of his father left him to be educated by American institutions that taught him the use of violence to attain dominance, rather than “self-defense as an act of violence”. His academic journey unveils the trouble of schooling that Carter G. Woodson referred to as the “Miseducation of the Negro” (purchase book here http://www.africanbookstore.net/proddetail.asp?prod=the_mis-education. Woodson’s book is foundational to understanding Black education and critiques traditional schooling intentions to indoctrinate Black children into believing they are inferior. He warns that eurocentric schooling makes Black students , “…anxious to have everything the white man has even if it is harmful”. This concept contributed to N’Jadaka’s belief that using the same tactics his oppressors implemented would equip him to beat them at their own game.
So, yes, some of us found ourselves rooting for Kilmonger, hopeful that his defeat by T’Challah would not be the end for him, but rather a new beginning for them both to create a framework for dealing with the tensions in the diaspora, for a revolution that maybe contain both armed defense and the distribution of resources. My abolition lens saw a possibility for a transformative process in that N’Jadaka and T’Challah could reconcile the past by moving forward together, and that he would offer a Black American voice that had previously been excluded from the politics of Wakanda. This proclamation is essential to resisting antiblackness and in our quest for justice that we wrestle with alternative processes for holding one another accountable outside a politic of disposability. This means reckoning with the N’Jadakas sitting in our classrooms, that angrily expresses their disdain for being dehumanized, yet we become more concerned with policing their tone than affirming their realities. The angry Black American, whether boy, girl, or gender non-conforming, at every turn is deemed as inferior and lost. In the meantime some become destructive to everyone and everything around them in a search of finding a truth in a mystical world where they are beautiful, powerful and free. Loving ordinary people who aren’t “respectable” and perfect, and we must draw from our vibranium or cultural assets that lie in the communities where we live and work where our children can love the beautiful representations of Black Panther. Where is there room in our social justice praxis for Black anger and rage in the political landscape to dismantle oppressive structures and construct fugitive or sovereign homes? Most importantly, what is our responsibility as educators to nourish educational spaces where our children do not have to envision Wakanda as a place so distant? To paraphrase my mentor and good friend, David Stovall, how do we shift our justice discourse to aspire to to live for our communities rather than die?
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Aja D. Reynolds is an activist, artist and scholar in the Educational Policy Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the program coordinator at A Long Walk Home Inc., working with Black girls using art activism to address violence against women and girls. Aja has over 12 years of experience as an educator/youth worker.