Sunday, March 25, 2018
This guest post is part of the blog's symposium, "Wakandan Jurisprudence: How Black Panther Challenges Us to Examine the Past, Present, and Future of Race.”
There is much to be said about Black Panther, much to be said about a movie that has caused many to sit and drift, both anxiously and unwittingly, into the planning, enactment and re-imaging of Black Utopia and Black Reconciliation. There is something to be said for sitting and drifting. Both are often understood as passive acts, or non-acts, but in all truth require a type of still movement only found in focus and discipline. To drift is to the relieve the mind and/or body of navigational responsibility, to duty and desire to remain; it is always, already a type of freedom making. Submissive flight. Sitting, the upright folding of one’s body that relieves ankle and foot from the responsibilities of mobility and/or erection. A submission to gravity. A relief. A de/reactivation of specific muscles and joints. A re/balancing.
N’Jadaka emerges as a complicated and familiar character, destabilizing the narrative of Black Utopia. He is familiar, and forbidden, in the way the way that violent protest is a reoccurring, forbidden and familiar option that visits Black people in Amerikkka in the still of black being and the quiet of black rest. N’Jadaka--Eric Killmonger--operates as a stand in for myriad understandings and markings of what Black rage is and isn’t. He is the reminder and the promise of the uncontrollable nature of Black rage, what we might call Black Combustibility; the danger of black feeling, of black being, of black insistence on life and resistance.
“Combustibility is a measure of how easily a substance bursts into flame, through fire or combustion. This is an important property to consider when a substance is used for construction or is being stored.”
Black Combustibility is often marked and pathologized as the site of uncivilized blackness or Black excess. It is sometimes mis/understood as the inability of black people to control ourselves and imagined in tropes or hyper sexuality, hyper masculinity and excesses of strength and emotion. It finds its roots and routes in the transmutation of the Black being from subject to object in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade. Brandings, scars and Bodily regulations. These markings of Black Combustibility work together to create a narrative that marks the most expressive, authentic and charismatic of Black folks as not only dangerous to themselves—combustible—but also dangerous to the community and creates, or at least contributes to, the logic of anti-Black policing, surveillance and assassination plots (COINTELPRO). Here, I imagine Black Combustibility not as excess but as access and ability. It is the ability to become fire, that must be regulated, lest the ship of captivity burn from the hold. I imagine Black Combustibility here then, as the power of black rage, of black witnessing and black insistence on being, as having always, already been capable of undoing regimes of racial-sexual terror, subjugation and violence. Black Combustibility is the flame of black (after) lives that burns freedom present.
This harkens back to what Baldwin famously noted as a constitutive element of the reality of Black (woke) life, “to black and conscious in America to is to be in a state of rage.” To be conscious though, is not simply to be aware of what is happening, but to bear witness to these moments and to gird oneself—one’s people—for the wake, the aftershock, the ripples: wake work. This witnessing engenders a type of responsibility to recall and give voice to what has taken place and to do something with it; even if that something is to simply hold the truth of the occurrence and reckon with it.
N’Jadaka embodies the ultimate witness. First, he witnesses himself as other in Amerikkka. Not simply other as African American, but as Wakandan; knowing that there is a place where Black bloodletting need not occur, if only someone would invite him—and perhaps all those he’d lost—to the refuge. Second, he witnesses father’s death. Not the actual murder itself but the cosmic circumstances that marked his departure. The place that did not want, or perhaps see, him had made itself real only to steal his father, to take more of his birthright. Finally, he witnesses the both grandeur of Wakanda and the struggle of Diaspora. He comes to Re-present the story of abandonment, of rage, of wounds, of love, of home-crafting familiar to the descendants of slaves. He embodies the rupture. He yells the secret. He ushers in the shame of Wakandan (African) complicity in the transatlantic trade and gives voice and muscle to the trauma of dislocation, of orphanage of un/mothering.
N’Jadaka signifies the unrecoverability of African-Americans, while also speaking to a simmering, unmarked fugitive politic. Much like many Black Americans he has temporarily embedded himself in anti-Black institutions in order to afford some modicum of Black life. Even more so, he has used the tools of the CIA to create a pathway to his own understanding, and realization of, a Black liberation politic. “The sun will never set on Wakanda,” he says, not merely because all of the world will now be a Wakandan empire, but instead because all Black people are now Wakandans; entitled to her technology, her history and her future. In fact, all Black people are technologies of the Wakandan project. How might we understand this as a modern iteration of Pan-Africanism, infused with what Saidiya Hartman has called the fugitives dream?
Where Hartman embraces a statelessness that would be contrary to N’Jadakas vision of being King or “the” Black Panther, a re-imagining of both created exciting possibilities. For instance, what happens if we take Hartman’s idea of autonomy—from states, borders and rulers—seriously, and imagine N’Jadakas Wakanda empire as collective rather than monarchy? What if Wakanda is transformed from magnificent location to a collective politic? What if Wakanda is not only where you are, but how you are? The connective fabric of Wakandans then, might be transformed from the realm of monarchical rule and submission to free flowing bonds of culture, spirit and politic.
The embrace of Black Conbustibility isn’t a call to accept the ways in which Black people are continually pathologized; but to instead to see how we are being seen, to stop investing in the belief and practice of trying to change minds for the acquisition of freedom and instead revive or create a new language of freedom, a language of insistence, a language of flight. Perhaps it is a language yet to be made, one that is laying wait in the practice of home or space making, as we learn to come together again, anew. This is a language N’Jadaka stutters through. He is not yet fluent, but he is also not simply babbling.
Today, as Black people are routinely disciplined through legal and economic lashings of violent lessons of comportment—from laws criminalizing sagging to ongoing manifestations of the afterlives of slavery—there is little to lose from trying something old, in a new way. The state has failed to save us from itself; indeed, that is an impossible task it was not built for. However, by making our own fugitive homes, designing our own fugitive flights and dreaming our own fugitive dreams; we might fashion ourselves as the children able to save ourselves from the latest, in a long line predatory states, that lived off the consumption of our foremothers. Perhaps we’ll all be stateless. Perhaps, at some moment, we’ll create a town, a city, a nation, a Wakanda. Perhaps, we’ll continue to scatter in the moonlight. One thing is for certain; we have the ability to take flight and the weather is ripe for departure, with or without vibranium.
Tabias Olajuawon, JD is an author, scholar, and Ph. D Candidate at the University of Texas-Austin.