Saturday, March 24, 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.”
Killmonger is ruthless. Intelligent. Single-minded. Strategic. But above all, he is angry.
And I have to admit, it was thrilling for me, a black woman who has recently come out as “angry,” to see black anger depicted so brilliantly on screen. I mean brilliant in the sense that it burned so bright I felt that I had to shield my eyes or look away from it. Killmonger’s every scene was pulsating with a blood-deep hostility that motivated him. It focused him. It propelled him to great successes, like a Ph.D. at MIT, and great evils, like killing hundreds of people and reducing them to nothing more than another notch on his body. This was a villain unlike almost any other I had seen. He was not motivated by greed or a protean, gossamer-edged sense of evil. Killmonger’s anger took the shape of a spear aimed unerringly at the heart of Wakanda. Here was the shimmering personification of righteous anger, turned poisonous, but sprung from love for his father, devotion to his father’s vision, and commitment to righting centuries of race-based wrongs. Why not remake the world with black people on top? Forge black privilege, black supremacy, and black power from vibranium and kimoye beads. I found myself nodding in agreement with Killmonger more often than not. And although I was sorry he died, I understood why he chose to, instead of accepting T’Challa’s offer of trying to heal him. His choice of death over bondage was completely consistent with his character. With his anger.
As thrilling as his anger was for me to watch, it was also a lightning rod for criticism. People were unsettled that Killmonger was so angry. His anger colored everything else about him: his intellect, such that he could have a Ph.D. from MIT and still be labeled a thug, and his motivations, such that his plans were labeled divisive.
I took these accusations debasing Killmonger’s anger personally. He gets to be angry, I thought. He has a right to his anger – especially since he is right to be angry. Because his anger was one of the things that, for me, made him black. It was part of his blackness. It certainly is part of mine. At least once a day, in ways large and small, I am reminded of ways in which my country fails me because I am black. I am angry that my black husband and I are far more likely to be stopped, detained, searched, and shot by the police than other people. I am angry that I have to worry that my black daughter’s teachers are underestimating her abilities or attributing any typical toddler misbehavior to personal failing, lack of ability, or some other deficiency based in implicit racial bias. I am angry that my chances of dying of a heart attack, of breast cancer, and of child birth are markedly higher than those same statistics for other women – and that, if I were in severe pain suffering from any of those things, I am less likely to get medication to adequately manage my pain. I am angry that when we apply for mortgages or car loans we will automatically be charged higher interest rates because we are black.
My anger is not colorblind.
Colorblindness reduces race to a physical concept. It erases black culture, black history, and black lived experiences. And it also washes out black anger. In order to be heard, we are supposed to be able to have debates with Tomi Lahren without seething, to discuss each millisecond of a video of police brutality without being overwhelmed by its graphic contents, to let people take pictures of our scarred backs to convince them that things are as bad as we say they are.
There needs to be more space for black anger in the law. James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” And Maya Angelou said, "Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns all clean." Anger can be just as much an engine of social change as any other emotion.
Perhaps that, ultimately, is a big part of why black anger gets such a bad rap. If you are angry enough, you might choose resistance – no matter the cost – over bondage.
Robin Walker Sterling is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law