If you don’t know who Ta-Nehis Coates is, well, that’s a damn shame. Coates is an author and journalist and one of the foremost voices on the American black experience today, as well as being a generally brilliant, interesting, and funny human being. His voice is unique and hard-edged and his social commentary are brave and unflinching, harsh and unyielding, yet also never bitter or cynical. He writes for The Atlantic and has contributed to everything from The New York Times to The Philadelphia Weekly. He’s a goddamn phenomenal writer.
If you don’t know the character of T’Challa, ruler of the fictional African country of Wakanda, otherwise known as the superhero and occasional Avenger ‘The Black Panther,’ that’s a damn shame, too. T’Challa is one of Marvel’s finest, most complex characters, and totally unique in a number of ways. Marvel has made T’Challa a black, African superhero, with a name modeled after a wild animal, king of a nation of dark people, yet somehow — at least in its modern incarnation — avoided a great many stereotypes. Wakanda is fabulously wealthy due to its abundance of the sought-after mineral called ‘vibranium,’ yet it’s also very protective of its resources, culture and people. It’s closed-off from much of the world, a sort of African Atlantis (and indeed, T’Challa maintains a relationship with Namor, Sub-Mariner and King of Atlantis that is complicated to say the least — sometimes allies, sometimes sworn foes). T’Challa himself is a character rich with history and has the potential for interesting social commentary on race, culture, international relations, and politics.
Will spend most of his time finishing his eight-volume comparative history of Latveria and Wakanda. https://t.co/euEFGFVsPy— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) September 23, 2015
And so the announcement yesterday that Coates — a self-professed comics nerd — will be authoring a run of Black Panther comics, titled “A Nation Under Our Feet,” is incredibly exciting. It’s a shrewd move by Marvel, especially as they brace for bringing in Chadwick Boseman to play the character in Captain America: Civil War and then eventually into his own film. The thing is, Black Panther is important, in much the same way that the well-done takes on Luke Cage are important, and in much the same way that the way comics are evolving better takes on female and LGBT characters is important. Cage represents a different side of the black experience, a street-level renegade hero with a self-taught code of honor. Some see those two prominent heroes as stereotypes, but I see them as trailblazers, each speaking to a critical element of modern black life. And so, who better to chronicle such a tale than a man like Coates? The thought literally gives me chills.
Perhaps the day will come when I won’t have to think about things like “black heroes” in comic books, and we will simply have “heroes, who happen to be black.” But this is not that day. Women and minorities are still poorly-and underrepresented in comics, and it’s going to take people with wit and nuance and vision to make them better, to make us see them as something more than support or anomalies. To make us see them as capable of being heroes just as much as Captain America (thank you, Sam Wilson) and Iron Man (thank you, Mr. Rhodes). Marvel is clearly demonstrating a commitment to that, which I appreciate. Adding Ta-Nehisi Coates to their stable is just a cherry on the sundae.