Ta-Nehisi Coates is rightly one of the most celebrated authors of our time. His 2014 “Atlantic” cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” was a watershed piece of journalism that brought to bear the United States’ amorale redlining practices which served to destroy black wealth for much of the 20th century. His 2015 memoir, “Between the World and Me,” channelled the trauma of generations that lived under state-sanctioned violence into a devastating single, personal tale and won the National Book Award for nonfiction. Coates has a knack for corralling concepts many find unwieldy and intimidating and reshaping them into more concise, digestible, impacting ones. He interrogates systems, reveals their underlying power structures, and translates his findings with force.
Coates spent most of the last year invested in telling the story of a heroic but overmatched head of state during a time of national distress. It was high-concept work that examined leadership, injustice, unforeseen aggressions, and the messiness of the world. In fact, he told two such stories — one a fiction, the other not.
In his year-long “Black Panther” story, “A Nation Under Our Feet,” Coates takes Marvel readers on a journey exploring the worst time of T’Challa’s kingship. Following a series of devastations, the people of Wakanda lose faith in the regal Black Panther, who suddenly faces insurrection all around him, and must sort out how to lead a people who reject him.
In his December “Atlantic” cover story, “My President Was Black,” Coates profiles the final days of the Barack Obama presidency through the prism of the nation’s fraught racial dynamics, which became only more fraught by the election of Obama’s White House successor. The piece inspects the most transformational politician of a generation at a time when the meaning of his legacy is seen as at its most compromised. Like the “Black Panther” story, it is set at a time of civic uncertainty and political disruption, and offers a hard look at the ability of even the greatest men to challenge historic power dynamics.
Of course, the stories have different functions. One is a work of journalism, of reportage. The other is storytelling, playtime. But while one is the story of a never-colonized, hyper-advanced African nation, and the other of a country built on the concepts of freedom under the law that has rarely wholly delivered on those promises, they have more in common than just their author. Each explores oppression, and its impact on collective consciousness. Each pays deep tribute to the power to inspire, whether inspiring for good or ill. And each confronts underlying realities that no single figure can wipe away the smear of inequality.
“Deceivers are loose in my kingdom. And so the hate spreads.”
-T’Challa, Black Panther #1
With the final chapter yet to see publication, it seems “A Nation Under Our Feet” is likely to resolve as the tale of end of T’Challa’s reign as king of Wakanda. At the onset of the series, the people of Wakanda no longer believe in their king. They do not think he protects them, they do not believe he represents them, and they do not respect him. Over the course of the story, this anxiety manifests itself in a couple of ways.
First, a shamanistic philosophy-student-turned-warlord and an emotionally manipulative witch foster rage and aggression in the population, stirring distrust for leadership and insisting upon a violent revolution in order to topple the nation’s traditional monarchy.
On another front, a pair of disaffected members of the all-female Wakandan royal guard liberate themselves from what they see as an unjust government, and then become liberators of those falling prey to moral decay throughout the nation.
Meanwhile, T’Challa’s comatose sister Shuri — who had been serving as queen of Wakanda before falling in its defense — goes on a spirit journey where she learns deeper knowledge about national identity and how powerful unifying ideas like those can be, until finally being awoken with newfound powers borne of the country’s collective experience.
Black Panther struggles to appease his subjects and loses control of the national narrative when it is discovered that, in his attempts to learn how to win back control of his people, he consorted with enemies of Wakanda. After battling back corruptive invading forces, T’Challa comes to realize he will need to incorporate the stories of his sister, the disaffected Dora Milaje guards, and the philosopher that inspired the anti-monarch movement into one comprehensive story for the nation in order to give his people solace.
It’s an ambitious political story with a great deal of moving pieces. Admirably, there are actual different ideas represented by different characters and factions. Ayo and Aneka, the former Dora Milaje guards that become the liberating Midnight Angels, are rightly outraged by atrocities they see committed across the landscape. Tetu and Zenzi, the mystically powered insurgents, draw their ideas from a wise college professor, Changamire, whose teachings stir their revolutionary instincts. T’Challa’s own advisors, Hodari and Akili, offer counsel that may be sound but ultimately backfires. The two main heroes of the story, T’Challa and Shuri, ultimately exhibit their righteous leadership by being adept and active listeners. All told, the themes of “A Nation Under Our Feet” suggest that when it comes to fully resolving the matters of a people, the most essential component is a comprehensive cataloging of grievances.
“To reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased.”
-Ta-Nehisi Coates, My President Was Black
Barack Obama has an origin story that could almost be boiled down Marvel-style to a “Stan Lee Presents” introductory paragraph. “In 2004, an unknown state senator and failed candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives shook the nation into, for the first time, seriously envisioning a world under the leadership of a black man. A mere 4 years later, the impossible became a reality.”
Barack Obama’s election to the highest office in the land was indeed transformative, but it did not merely transform his supporters. Opponents of his ideals and his policies took unprecedented measures to stall his agenda, and in “My President Was Black,” Coates charts the political struggles of the Obama administration within the national, racial context of the country he was elected to lead, underlining how much of this was, if not explicitly racially motivated, at least informed by centuries of racially divisive practices. During his term, that discriminatory burden was Obama’s to shoulder, but as his presidency gave way to a considerably more fear-mongering successor, the attacks directed at him seemed to be legitimized by the electorate, making many more Americans feel like they were the target of other Americans.
As Coates tells it, much of what Obama’s election “meant” is called into question by the election of his antithesis. In examining what characteristics made Barack Obama uniquely suited to becoming our nation’s first African American president, he posits a theory that the very traits that made Obama a viable leader were the ones that made him unprepared to combat the rise of a certain violent brand of white nationalism. Essentially, Coates suggests that Obama has a blind spot for white hatred, born of his intimate faith in white goodness.
This blind spot is the result of a uniquely remote upbringing in a loving, white family insulated from some of the most poisonous kinds of racism and resultant defense mechanisms. Obama himself cites the rarity of his biography, telling Coates “the lines [of bigotry] just weren’t as sharply drawn in Hawaii as they were on the mainland.”
According to Coates, this uniquely sets Obama apart from the majority of black Americans. He writes, “African Americans typically raise their children to protect themselves against a presumed hostility from white teachers, white police officers, white supervisors, and white co-workers. The need for that defense is, more often than not, reinforced either directly by actual encounters or indirectly by observing the vast differences between one’s own experience and those across the color line.” He adds that behavior informed by this “is also a defense, produced by decades of discrimination.”
A key tenet of Obama’s leadership, according to Coates, and an integral part of his magnetic “electability,” was a good-faith implication that white oppression in America could be suddenly forgiven, like a dissolved debt. By electing this man to that office, parties could flatter themselves into thinking a healing resolution had come.
But in execution, oppression’s bill continued to tally. Economic and achievement gaps persisted, as did police violence. And as Obama sought to confront these important matters, he did so with a sensitivity towards how his actions would be perceived by white America, notably the elements of white America least prone to sympathize with the plight of minorities. Coates suggests that this tactic hindered Obama’s ability to bring about a full reconciliation of America’s racial sins, as it still prioritized the comfort of an unjust system. And in the end, that adherence allowed regressive forces to galvanize in order to take “their country back.”
“What is our remedy against the robber, that so broke into our house?
We burn the house down — with the robber inside.”
-Tetu, Black Panther #7
In “Black Panther,” Coates takes an interesting tactic in tackling the matter of supremacy and oppression — he removes whiteness from the equation. Wakanda is an African society that is largely untouched by European influence, and for years has been portrayed as a utopian one.
But there’s no drama in utopia. And no truth, either.
Coates flips the traditional power dynamic in “A Nation Under Our Feet,” by making his heroic lead representative of historical tyranny and oppression to his people. T’Challa is royalty, after all, making Wakandans his subjects, and as the story often reinforces, power has never been attained or held without struggle.
Changamire teaches his pupils to question the system they were born into, and its justice. He asks how the weak should marshal justice against the powerful, but a lifetime of questioning has not borne him any fulfilling answers, and so he cannot stop his students from becoming radicalized.
This gets at the heart of a great many real-world issues. How does a community make good on an injustice? And is it enough to merely teach children that the world is often unfair to many, and expect that to be the end of it, without them ever pursuing compensation? How do you teach the story without surrendering to extremism, which is destined to give way to corruption?
One theme common throughout Coates’ work is the idea of plunder. In his writing, it is what the United States was built on. It’s a loaded phrasing — not merely wealth and industriousness, but malfeasance. For many, the characterization is alienating and off-putting, out of sync with their nationalistic conceptualization. For others, it is inherent, and constantly being reinforced by their circumstances and surroundings. What makes Coates’ characterization of plunder so powerful is the way it clearly delineates the stakes of culture, as he sees them.
During a conversation with Barack Obama, the two sparred over particulars of how to properly recognize and rectify racial suffering. Obama conceded that a fair instinct for an oppressed people is, “We want society to see what’s happened and internalize it and answer it in demonstrable ways.” But when a society fails to properly acknowledge its underserved, they are left with nothing but feelings of abandonment and resentment, with little recourse.
Gender is also used in “Black Panther” to signify oppression and power. Ayo and Aneka are lovers, which infers upon them a minority status (at least in the eyes of real-world readers), and much of Shuri’s spiritual journey shows women in bondage, yearning for freedom. While as a character Black Panther does not seem prone to misogyny, as a representation of institutional leadership he is implicated by history. Overall, it becomes an exercise in intersectionality, which turns out to be key to the plot.
“No one man”
-Midnight Angels, Black Panther (throughout)
T’Challa and Obama are constrained by their positions. Obama, a former community organizer, admitted that the cries of dissent from allied activists he was trying to serve bothered him, especially since he was already sympathetic to their ways of thinking. “I think where I got frustrated at times was the belief that the president can do anything if he just decides he wants to do it,” he says in “The Atlantic.” “Because you feel like saying to these folks, ‘[Don’t] you think if I could do it, I [would] have just done it? Do you think that the only problem is that I don’t care enough?”
As a candidate, Obama could symbolize all the hopes and aspirations of his supporters. As a bureaucrat, he could only pull the levers of government as best as he was able.
T’Challa’s station as a fictional king differs, but Coates roots his abilities in real-world restraints. As the Midnight Angels rally the masses around the idea that “no one man” should have all that power, and lay blame for the nation’s structural issues at the feet of their leader, T’Challa must continue in his responsibilities to his people as a servant and protector, and cannot adequately allay their concerns.
As a hero, Black Panther can defend the people of Wakanda. As a caring king during a fallow period in the nation’s history, he can only submit to the will of his people, by accepting their grievances.
On being a ruler, T’Challa posits that “deception is parcel to ruling,” and that “a man cannot take it as his business to repeatedly deceive the world, without somehow deceiving himself.” In this, Coates is placing Black Panther, and perhaps all who lead nation-states, as both a victim and an upholder of flawed power structures.
Obama, it should be noted, came to be a symbol to more than just his supporters. Coates posits that the anti-Obama movement was launched by angry stock traders during the housing crisis, and then picked up by a racist sect that felt legitimized in their animosity. By being in leadership when he was, and by being who he is, Obama became an avatar of an old American animus, an ancient aggrievement, and came to represent all that was wrong with the government and the nation in the eyes of some. It brought an ugliness to the surface. It was the same ugliness that had made his election and presidency to powerful to the American psyche. In fact, it was the same statement, in reverse.
Eventually, in both of these works, the leaders are transformed into symbols, far outside of their control. They illustrate that symbolism can unite just as powerfully as it divides. Symbolism gives ideals currency and weight, and remind those that need them that the reasons they suffer are not their fault. And at a certain point in the life cycle of a symbol, the power is drained from the totemic figurehead, and belongs to the people charging it through their belief.
“At some level what people want to feel is that the person leading them sees the best in them.”
-Barack Obama, My President Was Black
There are more than a handful of irrefutable and essential differences between these two stories. Chief among them is that, in “Black Panther,” a mystic is responsible for the bulk of the rising tide of national hostility. Coates’ “Atlantic” story has no such convenient deus ex machina. But while people are driven apart in different ways, they are united in similar ones.
Often a critic of Obama’s bootstrap prescriptions to black Americans struggling with inequality, in “My President Was Black,” Coates confronts how he too was moved by the Obama effect. The power of imagery and imagination and story hit hard when he observed a presidential visit to his prideful alma mater of Howard University, the historically black college, to deliver a commencement speech. The achievement of the moment, and what it meant for black struggle in America, gripped the author. Perhaps it was because, in that instant, the historical import wasn’t actually about the individual who resided in the White House, but the generation watching him and drawing from his story.
As Coates writes, “The national anthem was played first, but then came the black national anthem, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ As the lyrics rang out over the crowd, the students held up the black-power fist — a symbol of defiance before power. And yet here, in the face of a black man in his last year in power, it scanned not as a protest, but as a salute.”
It was an instance of power being diffused to the masses, and story — deep, lived-in, mutual story — taking shape. Moments like that, really each moment of the Obama presidency, never meant that justice had arrived for the sea of parties who have been neglected by America’s national promise, but it did signify that it was arriving. It evidenced that balance was closer than it had been before.
Coates has put the nation of Wakanda in a position to unify under a new story, with T’Challa’s sister Shuri looking to play the part of the redeemer. Through her journey with the spiritual griot, she remembers (not discovers, but remembers) ancient accounts of Wakandans who overcame great hardship. She sees the story of a leader who dissolved his post to fight off invading forces as peers with his people. She learns a lesson of how oppressors themselves are never truly at ease, as they fundamentally intuit the precariousness of their station, and understand the only way to maintain power to is to constantly reinforce it. She learns these stories so that they might once again be shared, and distributes their power to those that need it.
When Shuri awakens, she does not come to T’Challa with a host of answers — rather, she encourages him to engage with his intellectual opponents, just as she engages with the disillusioned Dora Milaje. Her super-ability is in bringing all things to light, so that they might be fully recognized and reconciled.
It’s a pretty grand unifying theory for Coates’ work, that any meaningful settlement of injustice must first begin with a whole and honest acknowledgement of suffering, so that anguish can be properly codified. In “Black Panther,” the Midnight Angels have been heard, and are likely to be incorporated into a new brand of national leadership, but Tetu and Zenzi and their volatile army — who commit rape and all other manner of wartime atrocities — fail to be intersectional liberators, and fail to recognize this when confronted on it. That failure of recognition makes them guilty of the same crimes they accuse the state of having committed, and critically compromises their purity.
I am confident that in the next issue, the Wakandans will find their peace by giving themselves a new, uplifting story to tell themselves about who and why they are. Ideals are compelling, and when they are reinforced by virtue they can be overwhelming.
“My President Was Black” does not suggest that Barack Obama’s leadership was all for naught, and that the election of Donald Trump means race relations are in a irrevocably worse position than ever before. It does, however, illustrate that the Obama presidency was one bright chapter in an often otherwise melancholy book. It wasn’t the last, but it was the latest. In Barack Obama, America was able to see the best in themselves, because he did in them. He held a deep belief the nation was capable of overcoming hardship, and together we did.
But it’s much like Shuri tells T’Challa: “We believed our own myths. This was our first mistake. If you can’t see a world clearly, then you have no hope for mastering it.” Part of Coates’ premise on the former president is that he too readily allowed white America to forgive itself, and allowed for too much denial of how history shapes the modern world. And even if that was compassionately minded, it came at a cost — one that revealed itself at the latest possible moment.
The phrase is repeated throughout, but “A Nation Under Our Feet” takes its name from Steven Hahn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of the struggle for political power of African Americans from the final days of slavery to the days of Jim Crow, through which disenfranchisement and oppression under the law were realities of the state. In “Black Panther #10,” Coates makes the parallels between the struggle of African Americans and Wakandans plain in a conversation between T’Challa and Changamire. The king, holding a book from the professor’s vast library, describes his unease with his royal standing, and Changamire sympathizes in a way that indicates he understands, but doesn’t let him off the hook.
“Your dilemma is not an original one. That book [American Slavery, American Freedom] chronicles the attempt to raise an entire race of kings. And every year thousands of them were born and charged with keeping thousands more underfoot,” Changamire says. “Can you imagine it? Whole generations brought up with the daily weight of turning their fellow man into slaves. It drove them mad, you understand. They slaughtered each other by the score. Whole generations turned to dust. All for the right to live as kings.”
In America, we have no kings. But there are those we crown. We bestow them with meaning, and then either fete them or, more often, tear at them for failing to be everything we dared hope. “No one man” is the refrain of the national uprising in Wakanda. It speaks to the need to distribute power and responsibility among the masses, and it speaks to our world.
No one man could heal our deep national wounds. No one man could create permanent security in the psyche of oppressed peoples. He could, perhaps, shoulder some of it for a time to prove it was worth striving for.
I see both “My President Was Black” and “A Nation Under Our Feet” as stories about great leaders at the end of their tenures, because they need endings in order to be great stories. Great leaders can serve as protagonists in society’s shared stories, but those stories need resolutions, so as long as those figures are in power their resonance is limited. They cannot be representative of the struggle and the state simultaneously, not wholly.
Maybe a righteous leader can’t be a general. Maybe he has to be an idea, a figure. And maybe that requires a certain distance that current leaders can never truly have, because their immediacy is too fraught and complicating. In both their successes and failures, though, those figures are instructional. And as long as they are a part of our collective consciousness, they provide us with direction.
In a fictional world where former President Barack Obama and T’Challa the Black Panther are able to share their thoughts and experiences, I believe that they would come to agree that the meaning of leadership can only truly be found in the limitations of it. There’s a pretty strong theme at the heart of these two towering works by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I think it’s a pretty simple one: everything starts with listening. Listening to one another can make compassionate leaders of us all.
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