Killmonger’s Captive Maternal* is M.I.A:
Black Panther’s Family Drama, Imperial Masters
and Portraits of Freedom
by Joy James
*The captive maternal: a nongendered (but often racialized female) who provides emotional and material support that furthers stability
Audience as Arbiter
Seeing Black Panther in March, Women’s History Month, weeks after its February Black History Month premier was not as intense as screening the Marvel movie during its first weeks of breaking box office records. Obviously there is an emotional need for the narrative and visuals offered by Black Panther. The movie theater audience is an arbiter of taste. In Harlem’s AMC Magic Johnson Theater, probably knowing that violent “Coming Attractions” last 20 minutes, audience members, likely arriving for their second or third screenings, appeared 30 minutes after show time. Cell phone flashlights beaming, they walked up and down the aisles in front of the screen seeking their seats, greeted by only one irate female shout of “What the fuck are you doing?!” The veteran audience, patient and subdued, simply waited quietly while they were seated and enjoyed the film, folding audience performance and tastes into the screen play. Adults and children reflected a gentrifying Harlem, bonded by two hours of entertainment in a cavernous, dark space; neo-indigenous blacks, latinos, and white settlers, adults and children, sat side by side embodying the Wakanda promise.
Moviegoers interjected their preferences and tastes onto screen characters, rewriting the script with call-response precision. When General Okoye, concerned about CIA infiltration, resisted transporting back to Wakanda and saving the wounded agent E.K. Ross, who took a bullet for T’Challa’s love interest, Nakia, a man of indeterminate ethnicity hissed “Bitch!” (I can’t fathom a black man doing that in a theater filled with black people). When the General, pointing a vibranium spear at W’Kabi’s vitals, retorted “Yes” to her rhino-riding lover’s traitorous query as to whether she would kill him to preserve Wakanda from Killmonger, a black woman shouted “Damn Right!” with an intensity that suggested fierce domestic strife. When the audience failed to applaud or cheer Killmonger’s death as a victory, they met it with somber silence or resolve, punctuated by one father’s emotional articulation at the gravitas of rites of passage in a Hollywood spectacle.
Killmonger’s crimes were egregious; he was a mass murderer. Yet, the audience seemed ambivalent. It did not noticeably respond to the killing of the white museum curator. Nor was it responsive to Killmonger shooting his nameless, murderous girlfriend although commentators were disturbed, partly because it depicted pathological, black American “toxic masculinity”—images of black American “toxic femininity” were not an issue due to the absence of black American female characters (unless the girlfriend was from the States). It was only when a favored Dora Milaje leader stared into the desperate eyes of sister General Okoye, shouting “Wakanda FOREVER!” just before Killmonger slit her throat that the audience (me included) gasped. Some then felt that Killmonger had lived too long and became impatient for T’Challa to dispatch him in a subterranean vibranium subway. Others might have wished for the Dora Milaje to de-necklace his misogyny and femicide with a beheading. Black Panther would not allow Killmonger to be killed by a captive maternal. Only after he hurled the Dora Milaje elite into the battlefield of rogue tribesmen and rhinos, and later, M’Baku (women) warriors fighting to tilt the balance of power towards T’Challa, only when Killmonger prepared to notch another armor scar by stabbing baby sister Shuri, did T’Challa find the strength to take mortal combat into the underworld.
In arbitration, if there is a debate, the audience seemed to determine that this violent coming of age story punctuated by sunny natural beauty was not a hero vs. villain fable but a family drama painfully seeking a point of re-entry and closure for its alienated and abandoned members. The audience applauded only at the end when T’Challa got the kiss he craved more than the throne—the kiss from a sovereign captive maternal, Nakia, who saved his life and gave it meaning. The mythical King was ready to settle down and the audience was ready for closure after four epic battles. Family precedes and follows drama. T’Challa earned not a mere throne but kinship with a captive maternal, a beautiful, brilliant and compassionate warrior. The Harlem audience as arbiter of taste came to relish not a union between Wakanda and the CIA but a restoration of tribe. The former would be problematic and potentially deadly. The latter, marked by trauma, would be shaped by the terms set by Wakandans who had their lives structured and stabilized by sovereign captive maternals.
Where’s Your Mom?: Finding the Captive Maternal
When T’Challa first visits the ancestral afterlife, after becoming king of Wakanda, to commune with his assassinated father T’Chaka, his father reassures him with a query that the son is capable of being both a King and a decent human: What kind of father would not prepare his son to continue life in his absence? Pause. Translate. What kind of mother would insufficiently prepare her child to live in her absence? T’Chaka, having killed his younger brother, knew that the father option was unavailable for a young N'Jadaka. Black Panther’s enigma is— in the words of philosopher Janine Jones—“Where is the mother?” That raises the question of the importance of the captive maternal, a nongendered (but often racialized female) who provides emotional and material support that furthers stability.
The universal disciplinarian interrogation of black children—often read as black boys; Black Panther erases little girls and queered communities—raised in capitalist privatized settings or as wards of the state is “Where’s your mom?” The non-sovereign captive maternal, in societies where masters feed on her reproductive and productive labor, functions as a stabilizer until too much grief and trauma lead her to a breakdown/rebellion. Sovereign captive maternals, such as the Wakandan women, were never debased as slaves or exploited laborers; they nonetheless work for the well-being of those they love.
N’Jadaka, unimaginatively renamed Killmonger through his foster family CIA’s rift on “warmonger,” is missing a captive maternal. Perhaps that is how he became a “killmonger,” or perhaps not. Either way, he could have definitely used a mom in Oakland and one who could have found airfare to Wakanda, to support his living a meaningful life of rebellion for justice. Or failing to pull off that feat, a maternal who could mutter: “Look at what they did to my baby.”
T’Chaka’s mother, N’Jadaka’s paternal grandmother, is also missing. If she had lived, one hopes that she would have made King T’Chaka go back to the states and get his nephew, her grandson. The grandmother would have foreseen foster care, pernicious institutions and unbridled aggression. She would have understood the plight of raising grandchildren because the parents are missing or incarcerated or deceased or emotionally and financially stressed. The grandmothers would have been the bio-vibranium partnered with the meteorite that took all of the credit for the wonders of Wakanda. If T’Chaka’s mother were alive, she would have stood down Queen Ramonda to rewrite the prodigal son narrative and make the absent mother the heralded returnee. Logically, the next maternal move would be to conspire with captive maternals including Zuri, a male captive maternal, to contain, heal or dispatch Killmonger. (That he would grab a grandmotherly elder by the throat because she sought to preserve life where he sought to destroy by burning healing herbs suggests that Killmonger might not have survived a captive maternal embrace.)
With a missing grandmother and mother, N’Jadaka’s father was an emotional anchor but also a vulnerable revolutionary. Perhaps N’Jadaka’s mother was a revolutionary, too, captured or killed in battle. We will never know unless she appears in the sequel (which might not be a good thing). If N’Jadaka’s parents were sensitive, suffering, proud, and ethical that would help us understand how sacrifices to battle imperial masters can become distorted and create catalysts for the greater good that involve sacrificial lambs or lions.
Unlike Killmonger, every captive maternal in T’Challa’s life knows and survives the art of war as diplomat and militarist (except for Zuri). Killmonger’s captive maternals are “missing in action” or M.I.A. during war, wars that have raged for centuries throughout the black diaspora while Wakanda hid and the CIA grew in the Cold War to determine the possibilities of freedom.
The CIA and the Fifth Column
T’Challa’s loving mother, sister, lover, general saved his emotional, intellectual, and physical lives. If they plan to save him from the CIA, they will have to align their powers with those of the bio-vibranium of the West, the black captive maternals who gave their reproductive and productive labor and emotional intelligence and who had their generative powers, trauma, and time stolen by an imperialist democracy backed by national and international police apparatuses. They knew that N’Jadaka was a child and that serving male rulers has its limitations; and that it’s cute to think you can contain the CIA, without controlling its employer. They daily raise complex N’Jakadas mislabeled and condemned as one-dimensional Killmongers.
We all know of everyday or extraordinary captive maternals. Mamie Till Mobley defied all norms with an open casket funeral for 14-year old mutilated Emmett declaring: “I want the world to see what they did to my baby.” Assata Shakur, framed by the FBI-CIA, shot, tortured, and jailed, gave birth to a beautiful daughter while imprisoned and then escaped to see her child outside of captivity. Erica Garner spent her last months and breaths loving her children and protesting the NYPD homicide-murder of her father, Eric Garner.
Perhaps Black Panther sequels will offer support to black militants and leverage the CIA into truth and reparations commissions that free political prisoners and provide community control over police, prisons, and political-economies. Ancestral Panthers will reconcile with N’Jadaka despite the lives he disappeared or damaged. They will likely forgive him for bringing the CIA into their fold. Imaginatively, the living could model activism focused on truth and reparations from the CIA, FBI, police, and their allies who abetted the destabilization of freedom movements across the globe.
After Black Panther’s final apocalyptic battle, in which the only black American dies, the Wakandans export justice to the world with their technology and their wisdom. Their confidence or conceit that they can outplay the CIA is amazing. The Wakandans’ first mission is to black Oakland of Killmonger’s birth which, unlike Harlem, is not yet gentrified. T’Challa’s first political act in the “ghetto” was to buy real estate; consider that astute political messaging. The child who approaches him on the Oakland basketball courts that N’Jadaka played on years ago looks like a young Killmonger with braided hair. He distinguishes himself by leaving the other black boys—there are no girls out playing, perhaps they are home taking care of younger siblings and making dinner while their mothers work—who admire and contemplate jacking the Wakandan hoover craft as Shuri explains its mechanics and theoretical physics. This N’Jadaka look-alike child walks away from technology towards the man who brought it. He stops and boldly asks a king for his identity. The same secretive smile that T’Challa gave Ross he gives the black youth; but one feels that the question is in some ways purely rhetorical if mutual recognition of a splintered self is a possibility.
Until his mother or a sister calls him home for dinner, this boy will be a Wakandan subject-warrior, part of its expanding protectorate of promised technology and training to safeguard against predatory police, poverty, and substandard-carceral education. Every child left behind, reintegrated and educated into a protectorate, promises Afrxfuturity. She doesn’t have to attend a U.S. military academy or MIT, or go into the training grounds of special ops and destabilization that serve empires, built upon the backs and bones of the Africans who would or could not jump ship. There might be other ways to beat the masters at their own game, or so Wakanda promises.
This very popular movie offers T’Challa, the human saint, an alternative mandate through Killmonger, the human satan (Lucifer did sit at the right hand of the throne until his ambitions precipitated his fall): Bury me in the ocean so that I can be with the ancestors who jumped ship. Captive maternals might have demurred N’Jadaka’s demise and defied Killmonger’s death wish, risking their lives just as the Wakandans did when faced with the dilemma of saving by housing a CIA agent who posed an existential threat. If the CIA could, defying history and imperial mission, help save an African sovereign nation, then why is this unimaginable for N’Jadaka? For those without the means to hide in plain sight from and wield war technology sufficient to vanquish imperial masters, resisting, treading and floating in deep waters with one eye on the shore seems the only option.
N’Jadaka-Killmonger commingles with ancestors who jumped ship rather than be enslaved (Christina Sharpe’s work, In the Wake comes to mind). Renegades will outlive Wakanda in waters where molecular particles mingle the oceans of Haitians, Nigerians, Syrians falling or pushed over the edge. Ingested by fisheries disappearing into groceries, dead and buried in deep waters, refugees and revolutionaries (depicted in Hollywood movies as pathological stereotypes) are part of our food chain.
The ancestors will embrace the lineage they helped to create. That includes a pedantic, wanna-be academic reclining beneath an ancient tree, a wise-cracking Black Panther lecturing about abandonment, diaspora, slavery and violence; someone who will trouble the complacency of ancestors and “safe blacks” who never mounted necessary, risky interventions to assist those struggling to live. There is always a role for captive maternals to play; perhaps one day they will plot a path independent of those who need their agency. This seems unlikely for the majority. Still, as a biological variant of vibranium, the guardian of throne, family, and men heading a fabled kingdom, theoretically, everything is possible for the captive maternal but her role seems pretty defined. Captive maternals protect and inspire warriors and function as such. The powers of the sovereign maternals given to T’Challa made him a man and a true king. Unlike the adversary, his captive maternals bonded the young monarch with love to create a Black Panther King or ruler that some crave.
At sometime, somewhere in Oakland, a black American mother loved N’Jadaka. When she disappeared or was eliminated, he lost or forgot the powers to process grief and bring justice to his slain father; absent a family plan, he became a ward of the state which birthed a warmonger. One can’t promise that things would have ended differently with a maternal present, she’s not an insurance policy; still he needed a captive maternal to love and help raise him. Don’t we all? Ask King T’Challa.
Captive Maternal is explored here: James, “The Womb of Western Theory: Trauma, Time Theft, and the Captive Maternal” (Carceral Notebooks, 2016, http://www.thecarceral.org/cn12/14_Womb_of_Western_Theory.pdf).