King of the Black Millennials: “Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Magic Pen”


Anna Webber—Getty Images; Brian Stelfreeze/Marvel Entertainment

In the spirit of discussing the very real heroes behind the African and African-American hero that is Black Panther, which Micah began by showing why Ryan Coogler was the best choice for the Panther film, I’m going to introduce you to another artist in T’Challa’s royal court. (Thank you for coming up with that one, Micah!)

The newest Black Panther run is authored by the one, the only: Ta-Nehisi Coates.

(I’ll wait while you google search him.)

Let me begin with a caveat. Now, normally when picking up a graphic novel, I’m looking for the best story teller. I will read/watch anything with Gail Simone or Geoff Johns’ name on it. I bow down in praise of Mark Millar. Neil Gaiman? Legend.

Not to say that you can’t be both an astute essayist with a knack for exposing the most brutal of societal truths and a bomb story teller, but I’m not usually expecting mastery of both forms. When I read James Baldwin, I’m not expecting the same things out of that story as I am when I curl up with a Gail Simone graphic novel. In short– there is the active pursuit of truth; and then there is entertainment that one may, but not always, consume passively, without the intention of discovering a greater truth.

Now, I’m a firm believer in the ability of text, any text, to reveal truth about humanity.

Am I always in pursuit of that truth? Honestly, no; although, I am, admittedly, probably more committed to that pursuit than most.

Nevertheless, conscious pursuit of truth does not devalue what merit a text has to offer. And injecting a text meant to be passively consumed is perhaps the best way to convey important ideas to a wider audience.

Meaning…the best way to get someone to eat their vegetables is to sneak it into their dessert.

I’m not saying Ta-Nehisi Coates has a secret Black Nationalist, anti-systemic racism agenda that he’s pushing in between the lines of Black Panther. But just having a writer like him on board is ground breaking. There is a very real reason that the author of Between the World and Me (check my review here) is considered by some the next James Baldwin. Coates writes with prose that strips away the veil behind which America likes to hide its ugly history and our very real racial problems, and reveals a truth that is illuminating, but blindingly so. The warmth and comfort that I take for granted as a staple for all literary works, is simply not present in Between the World and Me, or in any of his works. “The Case for Reparations”, an article that should be required reading for high school-ers and university students everywhere, makes you want to storm your local government and demand your mule and 40 acres, no matter what your feelings on reparations were before.

So, no, Coates’ Black Panther isn’t going to come bounding out the gate, quoting Kwame Nkrumah, but you can’t honestly believe the man who could write to his son, “The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are,” (p. 99) and who could so plaintively (and succintly) articulate the truth of a raw wound in American society, is going to turn off the deeply critical part of his brain to give you an easily consumed, one dimensional comic story featuring a man of color, can you?

With capitalism in mind, I could see the merits of being explicitly political, but also the merits of being seemingly unpolitical. Either you draw in a huge Black audience, or you isolate an audience, having the comic perform more or less the way it would’ve regardless of any political message.

But the decision to hire Coates’ itself is a political decision; it is a statement. Coates lives what he writes, believes what he writes because it is his truth. 

Every writer is going to convey to you at least a part their personal truth, no matter if they are writing you an autobiography or creating a fantastic universe on Mars.

No matter what Coates is writing, we are going to get bits of the thoughts that inspired “The Case for Reparations” and vestigial parts of Between the World and Me in Black Panther. 

This is precisely why Coates earns a well-deserved spot in T’Challa’s royal court. Black Millennials, particularly the class of college-educated Black hipsters who love words like “woke,” will love knowing the man responsible for sharpening their minds is giving a new, 21st century Black consciousness to character who had been inspiring since day one due to his very existence. Having Coates on Panther’s comic portrayal writing team and Coogler joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a prime example of the solution to problem that we encounter with most representations of diversity in media: is it enough to have representation?

It’s layered.

As more Black artists are added to the creative teams of Black characters in media, a Black consciousness is more readily conveyed through the character. But it’s not just about representation on the screen. Having Coogler behind the camera and Coates holding that pen inspires filmmakers like Micah and writers like me, telling us that our truth can be mainstream and that it is valuable.

Now…let’s see how long it takes to get Junot Diaz on a Miles Morales Spider-Man run.





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