Updated: Feb 23
“Y’all sittin’ up here comfortable. Must feel good. It’s about two billion people all over the world that looks like us. But their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate ‘em all.”
Eric Killmonger, Black Panther
Let’s talk about this scene in Black Panther — the one where Killmonger enters the Wakandan throne room and delivers an indictment. He accuses the Wakandans, and specifically their elders and their king, of turning their backs on the African peoples when they have the power to help them.
A lot of the movie hinges on what’s discussed right here, in this exchange between Killmonger and T’Challa and the elders. Are the Wakandans committing some wrongdoing by not helping the African people who are impoverished or who are oppressed? There’s a lot we can talk about: the role of the State, shared trauma, colonialism and race. But I want to talk about inequality, the responsibility (or non-responsibility) of the privileged to help the disadvantaged.
Now T’Challa, at one point, says this: “I am not king of all people, I am king of Wakanda.” To which Killmonger invokes this next claim, “Life started right here, on this continent. So ain’t all people your people?”
Hey, that’s an interesting take. Most people wouldn’t mind, you know, taking T’Challa’s side in this — that sounds perfectly reasonable. I mean, I might not be very happy if my leader decided to spend my fellow citizens’ taxpayer dollars on liberating or developing parts of the world outside of my own nation. Who are they, to us?
So let us pose this question. Suppose you, a decently capable swimmer, were to see a drowning child while rushing to deposit a cheque before its expiry. Would you help that child, forfeiting that cheque? Would it be morally really bad of you to just ignore them?
I’ll take a bet — worth twenty dollars of a non-existent currency — that the answer most would give to both questions is yes.
Let’s replace that drowning child with the impoverished children suffering in Africa. Would we now forfeit that money to help those kids? Would it be morally really bad of us to just ignore them?
Wakanda — at least prior to the end of the first film — might say we shouldn’t. They’re not our people; they’re physically far and quite separate from us and so they’re somewhat less relevant to us. Those disadvantaged children or people aren’t dying right in front of us, like the dying child is.
Killmonger, on the other hand, would say that we should help those children. All people are our people, and our relationship with the drowning child does not differ from our relationship with the African children.
Physical distance doesn’t remain much of a barrier these days, anyway. For the Wakandans, they have wireless technology that allows them to control cars from oceans away, and hypersonic crafts that could get them across continents in under an hour, probably. For us, we have communication technology that bridges distance with ease, and transport has advanced so much that you could get almost anywhere within 10 days. Those impoverished people are very close to being right in front of us.
So if it is wrong for us to ignore the drowning child to keep some money, then it is wrong for us to ignore those African children to keep some money.
Hold on just a minute, one might say, that’s not very fair. The issue of oppressed or starving people is really too big of an issue for me, an individual, to solve? And similarly, there are billions of people that the relatively tiny Wakanda would have to help in order to solve this.
But that’s really like saying that if I, while on my own, came across a hundred drowning children, I wouldn’t save any of them because I couldn’t save all of them. That sounds stupid because as individuals we could have maybe saved at least some of them, couldn’t we?
So alright, then. How about the fact that there are lots of people who are equally able to help those underprivileged communities? Why should I have more responsibility to help than them?
In the case of Wakanda, Killmonger would stake his counter-argument on some shared ethnic identity between the Wakandans, the citizens of other African nations, and the people of African descent on other continents. Killmonger might say that Wakanda is the only nation of that ethnic identity with such an ability to help.
Even then, though, there are rapidly developing African nations who surely can contribute something to helping uplift people in the region, and overseas. If we believe that we can split the blame between all of the people who can help, then while it’d be fair to place a good majority of the responsibility on Wakanda’s shoulders, it’s still not fair to place it all on them.
How would Killmonger respond to that?
Well, violently, most likely. But here’s an alternative. Saying that we who are privileged can split the blame for not helping the impoverished is equivalent to this: imagine a hundred of us come across the drowning child at the same time, and none of us help because there are so many other people who could, really, so it’s not just my fault nothing gets done. Now we could certainly stick with our guns on that, certainly, but it feels a little crappy, doesn't it?
So where does that leave us? It seems that whatever argument Wakanda has against having an obligation to help has a pretty reasonable counter-argument attached to it. Analogously, some of the most intuitive challenges we may raise against the argument to donate have reasonable counter-arguments attached to them.
I’m not here to prescribe anything. But this is just a series of arguments and counter-arguments to do with the practice of donating to suffering people who might be quite distant from us, and dear readers, we may do with that information what we will.
The link below directs to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, a non-profit that supports governments of Sub-Saharan Africa in “[developing] sustainable, cost-effective programmes against parasitic worm infections such as Schistosomiasis and intestinal worms.” You can donate here to help save a life.