In a 2014 article published by the Columbia Journalism Review, Ta-Nehisi Coates was called “the most celebrated journalist writing about race today.”
Now, with the launch date of the Black Panther comic book reboot right around the corner, Coates’ readership is about to expand well beyond his already massive following at The Atlantic, where he works as a national correspondent. The new 11-issue series from Marvel will hit the shelves next month, introducing a new generation of fans to the first black superhero ever to appear in mainstream American comic books. (The Black Panther first appeared in 1966, in an issue of Fantastic Four.)
As would be expected, the resurgence of the Black Panther character at the hands of the country’s most prolific race-issue writer has stirred the myopic, reactionary pot. Name-calling. Accusations. Trolling. It probably doesn’t help that the new Black Panther is arriving right on the heels of that whole “revolutionary” Superbowl half-time show fiasco.
Regarding this passing-of-the-torch affair, it was an offhanded remark on social media that got my attention; something along the lines of, “thanks to Marvel, racists have more ways to branch out.” The implication was that Coates – a respected journalist – is a huge racist that will turn the Black Panther toward his own agenda. Rather than waste my time and yours by trying to dismantle such a blind accusation, I figured it’d be far more productive to tell you about the man.
After all, he’s a pretty interesting dude.
Coates Loves Comics
Coates says that some of the fondest memories from his youth involve The Uncanny X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man. In the 80s, he would escape into these comics and others, citing the popular theme of “the weak becoming mighty” as a key draw. The nerdy, wimpy, and the mocked are often the heroes of comic book lore – transformed from victim to victor through spider bites, mutation, or experiments gone awry.
Sometimes this underdog theme rolls right through to parallel the very race issues that Coates has made a career of addressing. The X-Men are an obvious example, as they embody notions like oppression and xenophobia quite well. Comics have always carried deeper messages; they are the fables of our time, and that could very well make them a perfect vehicle for a writer like Coates.
Just remember that putting things in perspective and delivering a moral lesson through fiction isn’t the same as “having an agenda.” It’s the difference between storytelling and propaganda, and since Coates’ outlook on race issues is about as widely-known and obvious as possible, it would be hard to make a claim that there some sort of deception in store.
Comics Influenced Coates’ Journalistic Style
Coates points out the interesting dichotomy within many comic books: over-the-top concepts meshed with very few words. It’s the nature of the medium that the use of words must be efficient. “This big/small approach to literature,” says Coates, “the absurd and surreal married to the concrete and tangible, has undergirded much of my approach to writing. In my journalism here at The Atlantic, I try to ground my arguments not just in reporting but also in astute attention to every sentence.” Big ideas conveyed with small words? As a Hemingway fanboy, I can totally agree with that.
Coates also liked Dungeons & Dragons. There’s a good chance Gygax didn’t have as much of an impact on his work in The Atlantic, though many of his feature articles were critical hits. Yeah, I said it.
Coates’ Father Was a Black Panther
Paul Coates, Ta-Nehisi’s father, was also a Vietnam vet and an indie publisher. Yes, Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up around stacks of Black Nationalist literature, and much of it was being published right in his own basement. He tells The Atlantic that diving into these works was another way of escaping the self-destructive neighborhood where he spent his youth. Eventually, Coates set out for college with a goal to “discover the nobility of black people and make it known,” a plan that he became disillusioned with in short order. He recalls coming face-to-face with a harsh realization: African-Americans must attain “twice as much” success as white people to be looked at in the same way.
This concept of racial disparity appears often in Coates’ work, this notion that the metric against which black people are evaluated is skewed horribly against them. Coates makes this poignant assertion:
True equality will mean black people in this country have the right to be as mediocre as white people. Not that individual black people will be as excellent, or more excellent, than other white people.
Makes sense to me, because this straightforward statement calls to question the very definition of equality. We’re living in an age where “equality” is often seen as a tug-of-war affair where one side is always declared the winner. It’s sort of like the weird George Lucas definition of balance, wherein “balancing the Force” means getting rid of the Dark Side so that good prevails. It’s kind of hard to watch a whole planet exploding and then turn around and say,”hey, look at all that damn harmony!” Doesn’t matter if the planet was full of First Order baddies, that scale is tipping like a mofo.
And it would seem that many people view equality this way, wherein “balance” means “winning.” It’s like harmony is a commodity, a limited resource that has to be conquered. “You can’t have more equality, because then I have to give up my equality!” So instead of balancing things, the scale is pushed this way and that. Then, because that doesn’t work, people try changing the metric. They modify the scale instead of changing what the scale is meant to measure. What happens then? Thoughts like this:
“A black man is president, therefore MISSION ACCOMPLISHED on racial equality. Next problem!”
Some people think this is a real sign of balance — of change — but Coates takes great pains to push the spotlight away from President Obama and back towards racial profiling by law enforcement, disparity in prison sentences based on race, and other matters that prove the scale is still tipping. Will this be a theme in the new Black Panther comic? I should hope so. Why else bring someone like Coates on board for the project in the first place?
Comic books are a form of art, a means of expression. Like most creative pursuits, there’s a compelling surface element, but that’s only the veneer over the artists’ take on the subject matter. The whole point of art is to experience the perspective and the mind of the creator, to see something, some detail of the world, through their eyes.
I’m looking forward to seeing what Coates has to show us.
All opinions are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Deck Ape...or anyone else. Arrr!