My last post notwithstanding, I emerged from Captain America: Civil War neither Team Cap nor Team Iron Man but thoroughly Team T’Challa, the Black Panther. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa has perhaps the most fully realized arc in the movie despite having a fraction of the screentime of the leads, combining Captain America’s moral conviction and sense of greater-good duty with the Black Widow’s adaptability and clear-eyed pragmatism. All of these traits are important for T’Challa because he is not merely a superhero, but a king, responsible for a people in a way that even pro-registration Tony Stark is not.
This burden is at the heart of the current Black Panther comics, written by MacArthur Fellow, National Book Award winner, and journalistic luminary Ta-Nehisi Coates, and illustrated by comics veterans Brian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin.
Decades before Coates was asked to write the first black superhero in American comics, his life was defined by a different Black Panther: his father Paul Coates, an erstwhile member of the revolutionary party, and the anchor of Ta-Nehisi’s 2008 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. Struggle contains ideas echoed in Coates’s first Black Panther arc, A Nation Under Our Feet. Both are portraits of black rulers whose once-unshakable authority is compromised, but Struggle in particular also has much more to say about how we find meaning in the world.
“HEAVY IS THE HEAD”
In A Nation Under Our Feet, T’Challa faces a homegrown terrorist group in his kingdom, Wakanda. The Panther’s career as a globetrotting superhero has for years distracted him from his responsibilities as king of the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. Worse, it’s arguably invited the multiple catastrophes that have been inflicted upon Wakanda. Coates, reasoning that it only makes sense for such an advanced nation to have an absolute monarchy if the monarch is uniquely effective as a defender of the people, is using A Nation Under Our Feet to explore what happens when those people finally decide their king has failed them too many times.
“Heavy is the head, they say,” T’Challa muses in the arc’s second chapter. “The proverb does no justice to the weight of the nation, of its peoples, its history, its traditions.” This narration continues over a fight sequence in which T’Challa uses powers of his high-tech armor that are new to his arsenal—or at least, previously unknown to most people. He notes that this may, ironically, weaken his regal authority:
The day after I became king, S’yan offered a single piece of wisdom. Power lies not in what a king does, but in what his subjects believe he might do. This was profound. For it meant that the majesty of kings lay in their mystique…not in their might. Every act of might diminished the king, for it diminished his mystique. Might exposed the king’s powers and thus his limits. Might made the king human. Breakable.
This recalls a passage in The Beautiful Struggle about the mystique of Paul Coates’s kingship in the household. An independent re-publisher of out-of-print books about people of African descent, the elder Coates demanded discipline and self-mastery of his sons. While failures to live up to his standards were predictably punished, less predictable was the nature of the punishment.
There was some calculation and illusion here. Dad wasn’t the type to have a bad day at work and come home and start swinging. Equally, there would be days when the teacher called home and you were certain a beating was on the way, and he would sit at the table and talk. But this made it worse, because when we were wrong, we felt trapped in a horror movie. We never knew what was coming, how it was coming, or when.
As Ta-Nehisi grew older, his father’s moral authority was somewhat punctured by an understanding of Paul’s shortcomings. Specifically, Paul was serially disloyal to the women he loved, who loved him. What Ta-Nehisi has in common with T’Challa is being a vessel for his predecessors’ hopes that he can do better than them.
[NOUN]S OF [VERB]ING
Beyond the circumstances of his upbringing, and parenting in general, Ta-Nehisi Coates is deeply interested in the intricacies of power, and the variably tangible ways in which it can be exerted—and suffered. This comes through not only in the political journalism he’s done since The Beautiful Struggle, but in Coates’s writing style, specifically his liberal use of proper nouns in the way of superhero comics, sword-and-sorcery novels, and professional wrestling: “we loved that, too, the stew of language that gave a beat down style and grace, that made an eye gouge a ritual.”
Paul Coates silently deploys “The Look of Not Playing” to quickly end any hope of out-arguing him. Ta-Nehisi’s mother Cheryl has her “thin smile like You Know What This Is.” Paul is a “Conscious Man,” someone who understands not merely the historical facts of slavery and segregation but the philosophies undergirding white supremacy and the ways in which the experiences of people of color have been erased from approved histories.
“Consciousness” and “Knowledge” as Special Things are through-lines of The Beautiful Struggle. Paul Coates envisions and builds “a propaganda machine—a vertically integrated entity that printed, published, and distributed Consciousness to the people.” Ta-Nehisi’s older brother Bill is a font of the Knowledge that enables survival and grants influence in the streets of “Age of Crack” Baltimore. “The Knowledge was taught from our lives’ beginnings, whether we realized it our not. Street professors … lectured from sacred texts like Basic Game, Applied Cool, Barbershop 101.”
This writing style grants mystical weight to “mundane” concepts, drawing attention to the way certain words can mean much more to some people than to others—but also to the way that if we can recognize more layers of meaning, any of us can tap into a deeper power of language. “It was mostly through pop culture, through hip-hop, through Dungeons & Dragons and comic books that I acquired much of my vocabulary,” Coates told the New York Times. If you acquired much of your own vocabulary in the same way, this is easy to see. The [Noun] of [Verb]ing is a common construction in fantasy fiction and games. A sorceress in the Forgotten Realms isn’t Coates’s Conscious, but she has access to the Weave, as a Jedi has the Force. There aren’t always a lot of regular books in fantasy novels, but there are a lot of spellbooks—books of calligraphed, tangible power that in the hands of those with the right Knowledge can summon fire, raise the dead, or otherwise alter reality.
WORDS AND WORLDS
At least in part because of the pop culture he consumed, young Ta-Nehisi Coates could understand the ways of his parents and neighbors and peers not in the form of rules tacked onto a classroom wall, easily ignored, but more urgently as sacred commandments and infernal incantations. Even before he was as fully Conscious as his father, he grasped that his world was much more meaningful, beautiful, and dangerous than its appearance suggested. This was in part a way of making sense of the senseless, of bestowing significance upon the insignificant, in a place where in a very literal way only the strong survived. If like Coates you were not innately mighty, you could maybe talk yourself into it with the right Words.
In the writing of the memoir, too, the right Words do what in fiction we call world-building. “Anthony was … the sort of odd, quiet kid who sits off in the corner, nodding his head, then grabs a mic and unveils the Cain Marko.” This is a never-spelled-out reference to the super-strong X-Men villain the Juggernaut, with the X-Men themselves last namechecked over 150 pages earlier. Coates also speaks of his teenage self “unfurl[ing] the green David Banner.” This is not mere wordplay but, for anyone who knows what TV show David Banner was the protagonist of, a way of stating just how much damage a young and angry Ta-Nehisi was prepared to inflict on another human being.
These references will be lost on the reader who does not know the X-Men or the Hulk, just as many hip-hop and sports references went over my head. But their meaning is not lost. Because Coates’s imagery is so vivid—a skill that presumably serves him well in writing for the artists of Black Panther—and because his story is so specific, rather than puzzle readers all these Words immerse us in the storyteller’s point of view. It’s a world of power made flesh, of gods and (misunderstood) monsters, of life-or-death lessons. These Words are a way for the godless—whether raised that way like Coates, or having come to it later—to access the reality-structuring power of religion and understand their place in the universe.