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Black Panther, Killmonger and The Boys Of Color Who Experience Trauma

March 15, 2018
By Brian Pacheco

*Trigger & Spoiler Warning: the following articles contain spoilers of Black Panther and shares details about violence.

As a kid, I was more of a Catwoman kind of boy. I was never really into male Superheroes, so when I heard about Black Panther, I wasn’t interested. My friend had to drag me to see the film.

But I was blown away. I was surprised by how much of my own story, and the stories of the men in my life, I saw reflected in the film. In fact, it brought back so many memories of my own childhood. Like the scenes depicted at the beginning of Black Panther, I grew up in a low-income, predominately black and Latino neighborhood. My father is Afro-Latino, and both my parents are Puerto Rican. The basketball court that Killmonger played in as a young boy looked almost identical to the one that was outside of my own apartment complex.

Like Killmonger, I grew up experiencing events that would be considered ‘traumatic’ (i.e. domestic violence, child abuse and bullying) in my own life and the lives of the boys and men around me. Of course, we didn’t label them that way back then. It was just my life: like so many others, full of beautiful, funny, scary, painful, and unforgettable moments.

Working at Safe Horizon, I’ve learned language and concepts that have allowed me to name and move past traumatic events in my life, but not everyone has these resources.

Like Killmonger, so many boys and men of color do not get to process their traumas with the same support that is available to others. Our voices and our stories are so often muted from the conversations of trauma. In fact, the very word “trauma” is not often in our vocabulary. That’s why when I saw Black Panther, I was so thrilled to see how trauma was not only a central part of the movie but that the hurt and pain of boys of color (in this case, black boys) were humanized.

I recently had a conversation with my colleague Paul Barrett, Jr. (also a man of color), project manager for Safe Horizon’s Enhanced Service for Boys and Young Men of Color, to explore these themes further.

BRIAN: In Black Panther, Michael B Jordan’s character Erik Killmonger lost his father to homicide, which is traumatic. What is the impact on boys and young men of color when they witness violence or lose a caregiver to violence?

PAUL: What is anyone’s experience when they lose a loved one? There is grief, deep sense of loss, anger and powerlessness, to name a few. But the way that men are taught to be socialized is largely that your manhood is grounded in your ability to assert dominance over others. These messages are no different for black or white boys. What is different is that white male toxicity is normalized, while for men of color it is pathologized [seen as abnormal] and demonized.

Look at when white men vandalize property and riot after a sporting event, the media frames it as a celebration. But when black men protest for their basic human rights, and if they vandalize priority, they are framed as thugs and vandals. Why is the framing different?

BRIAN: What is the best way to address a young boy’s trauma? Are there enough of these services?

PAUL: Take the best of what we do for everyone else and do that for boys and young men of color. We need to funnel more resources to communities of color. One of the feelings I left the movie with was that Killmonger would not have become Killmonger if King T-Chaka had brought him to Wakanda. He was left to deal with a traumatic event [death of his father] on his own.

For service providers, if a young man of color comes to you after getting robbed, it isn’t just “Fill out this compensation form.” It’s humanizing this scary experience and asking, “How are you doing?” So often, these questions aren’t asked because society doesn’t see men, boys of color, as people who experience trauma. We blame them for the hurt that has come to them. Any agency that works directly with or interacts with young people needs to move past ‘What materials resources do you need?’ and dig into ‘How are you doing?’

BRIAN: The film explored the effects of structural racism, such as poverty and lack of resources in communities of color in the U.S. How does structural racism affect boys and young men of color?

PAUL: Therapeutic resources, social services, financial resources that can direct a person away from risky behavior and exposure to harm is readily available in most white communities. Yes, there are still poor white communities, but at a disproportionate rate, these resources are not as accessible to communities of color. When you look at the intersection of class and race, people of color are more likely—even if they are not poor— to live in less resourced communities than white people.

BRIAN: Erik Killmonger ended up as the antagonist in the film because he wanted to avenge his father’s death. Do boys with unaddressed trauma go on to harm others?

PAUL: Let me be clear: not all people who experience violence or trauma go on to harm others—many don’t. Trauma affects functionality. Unaddressed trauma can lead to self-harm, harming others, being hyper-vigilant and sensitive, as examples. There is a real need to address the effects of trauma after it happens. Even then, it really should be as simple as responding to the trauma of boys and young men of color because they are human beings. You can be the toughest, hardest, dude around and you still want to get stuff off your chest. We need to normalize sharing feelings.

BRIAN: The theme of fathers and sons was an important one in the movie, and resonated with so many black men who watched the movie. Why do you think that is?

PAUL: It exists because in many ways in the black community we have been taught to believe fathers are the solution to the trauma that boys are experiencing. ‘If their dad was around, all this would be solved.’

I do not want to hate on the need for fathers to be in a child’s life. I just became a father myself, but if all black men came out of prison then underlying issues such as white supremacy, structural racism, and toxic masculinity would still exist. And these are the root causes of what is pushing forward much of the trauma boys and young men of color experience.

Of course, it is important to note that many many black men are great fathers to their children and the absence of black fathers is not specifically because they are incarcerated.

BRIAN: Safe Horizon is strengthening our services for boys and young men of color. What can we learn from Black Panther?

PAUL: We look at boys and young men of color as this distinct species. What I love about this movie was that it was a human a** movie. There were funny scenes, tension, nuance—people changed over time.

It also humanized the trauma of loss—whether that is losing a family member to homicide or generational/historical trauma for black communities that we are still grappling with. So many of us are searching for home and our roots. Few white people have to grapple with this. For example, my last name is Barrett—that is a slave name.

But what I really took away was this: The representation of Killmonger was very human. His rage is totally understandable. To me, he represents a subset of black people who are validly angry, both at injustices of white supremacy and inaction of certain people within the black community. Yet, his rage is not effectively channeled.

So many people who saw the film said: “I was rocking with him.” This reads like so many black men I know. Unfortunately, the direction he was trying to move his anger in won’t help him or ‘us.’ But, Killmonger has experienced traumatic events. His response is fueled by hurt. And how do we respond to that?