transformative justice in wakanda

i just saw black panther for the third time. i wanted to see it in 3D, just in case the awesome could be enhanced in any way. 3D felt unnecessary. the visuals are so crisp, so stunning, that all the dimensions felt covered without special glasses.

since my first viewing, i have had something between a thought and a longing, something i need to explore. i admire the movie, and each viewing gives me more to admire in how the story unfolds. in order to explore this thought-longing i needed to see the film again. and again. and i will surely watch it some more.

and i want to talk about transformative justice in wakanda. (this piece will only make sense to people who have seen the movie.)

transformative justice is justice that goes beyond punitive justice – punishment in response to transgression (from spanking to prison to death penalty); and goes beyond restorative justice, which seeks to restore the original conditions in which harm happened, often focusing on rehabilitating offenders rather than systemic change. transformative justice recognizes systemic injustice, oppression, and particularly the harms that come from putting conflict resolution in the hands of the state; it seeks to go deep into the soil and find the root causes for harm and transform the systems and societies such that harm becomes impossible.

my question around transformative justice in wakanda first occurred to me while watching the last minutes of the story: i believe that the king, t’challa, is offering his antagonist, erik killmonger, transformative justice. and killmonger is not ready for it. with each viewing this belief has strengthened.

Screenshot 2018-03-03 19.45.33

in the scene, t’challa has just bested killmonger in a battle on a literal underground railroad (this was pointed out to me by the very observant poet nadine marshall). t’challa has delivered one of those mystical injuries where the weapon is lodged in killmonger’s body in such a way that it’s a death blow, but the actual death won’t happen until the weapon is removed. i love movie injuries like this because they allow for extended death monologues that spark blogs.

t’challa helps a dying killmonger up into the light, to see the sunset. killmonger’s first words after the death blow are that his father, n’jobu (played by sterling k brown, one of the people most likely to make me cry in the last year) had always told little erik about these sunsets. i had questions about whether n’jobu actually told erik about their secret homeland as a child or only in the secret wakanda journal in his gun closet…or if he just mentioned it in the afterlife.


regardless, this sunset move on t’challa’s part is generous. killmonger has killed t’challa’s uncle (zuri, who, adorably, calls t’challa the bleck peintha…and who, in all fairness to killmonger’s vengeance, betrayed n’jobu back in 1992).

killmonger has also thrown t’challa to what seemed like certain death, burnt all the heart shaped flowers that make black panther kings, and caused mad strife between couples and friends in wakanda. killmonger literally arrived like, ‘hi, i spent my whole life preparing to kill you. what’s good?’


it’s only because of FINE ASS m’baku that t’challa is even alive. now that i mentioned m’baku we should probably look at him.



so. the fact that t’challa continuously tries to find a non-combat-to-the-death way to resolves things with killmonger is noble (woah, did y’all know that noble means having a higher moral principle AND belonging to a hereditary class of rulers? it’s like the hierarchy superword!). however, killmonger is right as rain about one thing: wakanda has been shirking its responsibilities…to the diaspora specifically, and the world at large potentially. it’s unlikely that t’challa would have seen the error of national isolation without this challenge.


the crucial exchange i want to examine happens in the fading light of this sunset.

t’challa says ‘we might be able to heal you.’
killmonger says, ‘why? so you can lock me up? naw son. bury me in the sea with my ancestors who knew death was better than living in bondage.’ he then pulls the spear out of his chest and dies.

i think this moment is so crucial. it’s so heartbreaking.

i have seen and heard people express disappointment that t’challa doesn’t respond in that moment to say ‘wakanda has no prisons!’ or ‘dude, i’d never lock you up. you’re my bro-cousin and all is forgiven.’

but to me, what t’challa offered was far more precious than the absence of prisons – he offered the possibility of healing, which could only be offered with the energy of compassion. i didn’t hear it simply as – we can close up the wound in your body, but as a larger, deeper understanding that what killmonger needs is not victory, or defeat, or prison, but healing. t’challa has listened through the violence, through the personal attack. he has heard the pain under all the anger.

a course in miracles has this idea that what people do is either an act of love or a cry for love. to be able to hear that cry, for love, for healing, is quite profound.

we actually don’t know if wakanda has prisons or not (unless they’re in the comics…are they? UPDATE: several readers quickly let me know there are prisons and popo! more reading required on my part – a part two of this post is coming). yes it would be great to know for sure that wakanda is abolitionist.

but this also speaks in some way to the limits of the colonized imagination. a nation that developed outside of the context of colonialism and slavery would likely have a different method of justice than what we as black people in the u.s. have ever known. black people are part of a diaspora that has been shaped by and against colonialism and white supremacy; we have been traumatized by punishment from humans who did not, and do not, see us as people.

this is not to imply that any prison is ever acceptable, but simply to point out that what we experience as prison/confinement in the u.s. is inside an institution that is a direct descendent of slavery, that is still constructed to break us, to generate labor and misery instead of healing at an individual and societal level.

i actually have a lot of curiosity about how wakandans approach justice. the existence of the doro milaje and ritual combat suggest that physically engaging in combat for a purpose is engrained into the society. the jabari have different values and they have sovereign space in which to live into that difference, plus a fighting chance at the throne. even the conflict of having a privileged monarchy vs other wakandans has to be understood through a context that most black americans can’t fully grasp: being tribe. having love and honor and protection and love for each other as tribe. this is part of what has been taken from us, what we are regenerating.

in wakanda there’s evidence that conflict, and the meting out of justice, happens in culturally respected settings, and that it is generative, from a sense of being tribe, of sharing land, of sharing identity.

but in absence of more information on it, i would say in some ways we miss the point if we focus on physical prisons or not, because it is a society in which healing is possible.

we live in a society where, whether we are behind bars or not, we are constantly harmed, constantly reminded that we can be taken when the state decides. in that constant harm, healing at a societal level feels impossible.

in wakanda we see healing with herbs, healing with family and relationship, healing with the land. healing is available to killmonger without anyone having to say, ‘i understand you’, or ‘i forgive you’. it’s just there if he wants it.

he chooses death. he disrespects my ancestors on the way, the humans black americans descended from only because they chose to live, to cast their breath forward through terror and hell, towards their childrens’ childrens’ children.

and even when killmonger rejects the possibility of healing, even when he is dead, t’challa is still compelled to seek solutions to the original wound that created killmonger’s need for annhilation. t’challa takes shuri to oakland, he wants to bring what wakanda has to offer into relationship with that place. the emergent strategist in me is pleased to see that he is starting with a relatively small experiment – an outreach center (although i also saw the instant gentrification flags). but he is moving in the direction of healing the underlying wounds that killmonger carried into clear view.

i wonder what it would take in this moment for most of us to be able to continue to extend the possibility of healing to those who have harmed us, harmed our families and communities, harmed our movements. those who look like us, and those who don’t. can we stay focused on the harm? and, from whatever privilege we have, can we adapt to meet the deepest need?

that, to me, is the lasting question of wakanda. it is an echo from toni cade bambara’s salt eater: “are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”

are we?

1 Response to “transformative justice in wakanda”

  1. 1 ayanna spencer

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve been thinking about transformative justice and Wakanda, but unable to bring all of my feelings and intuitions into language. You’ve offered us so many wonderful insights and language to think about TJ and Wakanda. Thank you. I cannot wait to discuss this post with my communities.

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