Sunday, December 17, 2017

Blood of the Panther: The Superhero as Philosopher-King

**Warning: This article contains major spoilers for A Nation Under Our Feet, a Black Panther story by Ta-Nehisi Coates**

“…neither cities nor States nor individuals will ever attain perfection until the small class of philosophers, whom we termed useless but not corrupt, are providentially compelled, whether they will or not, to take care of the State, and until a like necessity be laid on the State to obey them; or until kings, or if not kings, the sons of kings, are divinely inspired with a true love of true philosophy”.

-Plato The Repubic Book VI

The amber sky burns as T’Challa, king of Wakanda, is attacked by a mob of his own people. The men are vibranium miners. They spend their lives laboring under the Great Mound, extracting the metal that is their nation’s most valuable resource. Their eyes glow green, for in this world green is the color of anger. They hurl themselves savagely, without thought to the harm that may come to their ruler or, much more likely, to them, since T’Challa possesses the powers of Damisa Sarki, the Black Panther. He has superhuman strength and agility, and his vibranium-powered suit can release colossally destructive discharges of energy. The suit is black, because in this world black is the color of good. Being a just and loving king, T’Challa restrains himself and the matter is resolved swiftly. But he knows that this attack will be the first of many. He knows that the legitimacy of his kingship is being put into question, and that the fabric of his nation is about to be ripped apart.

So begins the most recent run of Marvel Comics’ Black Panther, which in its three-volume reissue is subtitled A Nation Under Our Feet, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze and written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The title attracted significant attention as soon as it was announced, only a few months after the publication of Coates’ remarkable book-length essay, Between the World and Me, which became a New York Times bestseller and won the 2015 National Book Award for non-fiction. The calculation for Marvel was obvious. Having appeared to great fan excitement in recent Marvel Studio films, and about to get an eponymous movie of his own, Black Panther is suddenly cool again. Coates is also uncontestably cool, so bringing the two together should produce something colossally, mastondontically cool.

Harder to figure was what Coates was after. What plans did he have for T’Challa now that he had joined the ranks of America’s best-known public intellectuals? The answer, incredibly, is that Coates approached his Black Panther work as a sequel to Between the World and Me. The book is confessional, grounded in real experience, a 300-page essay about race and politics and history, a major literary achievement, while the comics depict in brightly-colored panels the story of an African king who dresses up as a superpowered panther to fight evil, set in an impossible world best fit for pulpy entertainment, seemingly as far from serious intellectual debate as one can get. And yet the concerns of the two works are identical, to the point that the latter attempts to answer the questions posed by the former. Black Panther is a gamble: an incisive, serious, demanding narrative about political crisis and its consequences wrapped in whizz-bang superhero trappings. As story it mostly works, not least because of Stelfreeze’s stunningly imaginative Afrofuturist visual design. As political commentary it raises important questions in original ways, but the answers it provides are problematic at best, perhaps even dangerous.

Only in stories do heroes become kings. True heroism is selfless; the quest to rule is the opposite. In stories the hero defeats evil and then, usually following some grudging protestation, becomes that archetype of storybook myth: the wise and fair ruler. Not so in real life. In real life power corrupts because it’s in its nature to corrupt, but also because those who attain it tend to be the most easily corruptible. Plato knew this well, so the imaginary Republic, the perfect society in his view, could only be ruled by heroic, wise, selfless philosopher-kings and could only exist in the unchanging realm of Ideas, never in the chaotic jumble we call “the real world”. More than two thousand years after Plato’s death, the Austrian philosopher of science Karl Popper declared him the greatest enemy of the “Open Society”. Popper saw in Plato’s obsession with eternal perfection the roots of a totalitarian outlook completely at odds with human freedom and flourishing. In Black Panther Coates marries Plato and Popper. T’Challa is the philosopher-king, the selfless hero who is providentially compelled to rule but, rather than preside over a flawless Republic, must instead lead his nation as momentous change engulfs it and threatens to potentially destroy it.

The creation/the author

To understand the relationship between Coates’ two texts, it’s important to keep in mind that the question of race is not foremost in the author’s mind. Much of Between the World and Me is dedicated to analyzing, questioning, testifying to the experience of being black in America. “It is truly horrible”, Coates heartbreakingly confesses, “to understand yourself as the essential below of your country”. His thesis is that racism is about the control of the black body by a society of “those who think themselves white”, and that there is a connecting line between the centuries-long practice of using black bodies as cotton-picking slaves and the destruction of black bodies by, say, white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore, Maryland, today. But, Coates argues, this historical dynamic is reflective of a broader truth about politics: “Perhaps there has been at some point in history some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it”. He understands that slavery, racism, and exploitation are not fundamental aspects but functions of the principles that underlie so many human societies. “I have spent much of my studies,” he explains, “searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me. I have not spent my time studying the problem of ‘race’ – ‘race’ itself is just a restatement and retrenchment of the problem.” Black Panther sidesteps the question of race to become an exploration of the problem underlying the breach between the one and the many, between “I” and “us”. The problem, of course, is power.

Long before it occurred to anyone to suggest that kings were people just like everybody else, it was understood that political power must be curtailed, contained, confined. This is evident in the very first laws ever written down by human beings. The Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu, composed some 5,000 years ago, proclaims its commitment to “the principles of equity and truth” much like its cousin, the much better known Code of Hammurabi, vows to “destroy the wicked and evil doers, so that the strong should not harm the weak.” That has always been the theory. The practice, as Ralph Waldo Emerson well put it, has been that “all history is a record of the power of minorities, and of minorities of one.” “Torture, theft, enslavement,” Coates rejoins in Between the World and Me, “are so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune…The world, the real one, was civilization secured and ruled by savage means”.

There seems little left to say, except that Coates has a bone to pick because he lives in a country that claims to stand above such evils. If Between the World and Me is ready to recognize that America is not a uniquely evil nation, it goes out of its way to point out America’s unique brand of hypocrisy. The “banality” of evil, it argues, “can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist.” This is provocation, meant to castigate the self-styled protectors of the City on a Hill: “One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.”

Which brings us to Wakanda. In the Marvel canon, Wakanda, “the most advanced country on Earth,” has a glorious history. It possesses technology unimaginable anywhere else in the world, thanks to the benefits of vibranium, the unique metal that lies under the nation’s feet. An unbroken line of Black Panther kings has protected the nation, its riches, and its people so that Wakandans have long believed themselves the greatest and noblest people to ever exist. In recent times, however, Wakanda has been involved in several cataclysmic events in the Marvel Comics universe, including a war against Atlantis and its brash king Namor, and a series of invasions featuring the mad supervillain Doctor Doom and the cosmic titan Thanos with his army of the living dead. While the nation was under attack by supernatural forces, T’Challa went off into space to fight evil alongside the Avengers, and his sister Shuri became Black Panther in his absence. As a result of a mindbendingly complex series of events, Shuri was comic-book-killed, meaning killed-but-not-really-because-there-is-always-some-deus-ex-machina-device-available-to-bring-her-back. As A Nation Under Our Feet opens, she’s out of the picture.

Due to his absence during the war, as well as the loss of Shuri, T’Challa is not very popular among his subjects. He’s even lost the loyalty of his all-female elite-warrior corps, the Dora Milaje, which will prove significant in the unfolding of events to come. “How long must I be divided from my own people,” T’Challa muses, “from my country, from my own blood?” Wakanda is a monarchy, and a hereditary monarchy at that, in which kingship is conferred by blood right. In other words, this most advanced of societies is run by the most backward of political systems. This is a problem for Coates the thinker. He didn’t invent Wakanda’s status quo, yet he must begin his story here. A story focusing on Wakandan politics must perforce revolve around the question of whether T’Challa’s position as king is legitimate and, if so, in what way. In resolving this question Coates will come back again and again to the blood ties that bind the nation, the people, and the king together.

The Dora Milaje and its new role

The power vacuum left by Shuri and the unloved king has been filled by two political movements intent on revolution. To the north, a couple of renegade Dora Milaje named Aneka and Ayo have stolen some vibranium-powered super suits and are wreaking havoc among the evildoers in their land. They used to be loyal to the crown but have become disillusioned with the Panther’s inability to protect his people, especially the women. “Is there no safe place for us daughters?” pleads Ayo, upon witnessing the ravages of men. The Dora Milaje rebellion allows Coates to delve into the theme of the oppression of women, another ubiquitous feature of civilization throughout history. Ayo and Aneka explain that they “were bred by men solely to give [their] bodies to other men.” When asked by a man to consider the suffering of Wakandan men, Ayo responds, “I am a woman. I saw more suffering, more of the human heart, in my first five years than you will see in five lifetimes.” The Dora Milaje’s endgame is never clearly spelled out, but there are a number of suggestions that the women yearn for an egalitarian society akin to that of the saintly Native Americans in Dances with Wolves or the Nav’i in Avatar, with high emphasis on the feminine virtues of care and compassion.

To the south, the radical preacher Tetu likewise seeks to overthrow Wakanda’s monarchy and replace it with The People. Unlike Aneka and Ayo, who use violence reluctantly, Tetu, who wears earthly brown, delights in fighting the fire of the oppressors with a fire of his own. “How long will they plunder our people,” he demands, channeling Bob Marley, “while we stand aside and look?” At his side stands Zenzi, the mind-controlling “witch” who instigated the riot at the Great Mound. She wears the green of fury. Together they represent the ease with which popular revolt can turn into mob violence. For a short while, the two rebellions join forces until Aneka and Ayo decide they cannot condone Tetu’s ruthless tactics. Their joint battle cry is: “No one man should hold so much power”.

This notion is very much on T’Challa’s mind. Being a hero, he’s not sure what his opinion should be on the subject of his own kingship. T’Challa is a scientist, “the greatest in the world,” haunted by “the hunger to know.” His mind is his “greatest weapon.” T’Challa shares his doubts with Ramonda, his wise and loving stepmother. Ramonda is a traditionalist, though also aware of the need for change. She talks to her stepson about his ancestors, the kings who came before. His father, T’Chacka, was “an enlightened man” who believed that “our advanced society needed to develop an advanced morality.” But T’Chacka lost his faith because of “all the wars.” The kings before T’Challa, then, presided over an immoral regime, which survived for so long because of the security and prosperity it brought to the people. Despite their misgivings, Ramonda and T’Challa agree that the Wakandan monarchy has value. She suggests to the king, “[Y]ou have never truly given yourself to your country,” that his subjects are in need of “inspiration.” T’Challa grudgingly concedes: “I still believe Wakanda needs its royalty.”

But what does Wakanda need its royalty for? The answer, like so many others, can be found in Plato’s Republic. Plato ponders how to keep order in a society in which the majority are ruled by a small elite. Why would the subjects not rebel and try to take power into their own hands? His answer is that the polity relies on stories to hold it together. It is through such stories, which Plato calls “audacious fictions” and “needful falsehoods”, that civic duty is born, that patriotism is born, that the bonds of nations are fashioned. For T’Challa and Ramonda, Wakanda’s royalty is the core of the audacious fiction that makes the nation real. The essence of nationhood turns out to be Coates’ central concern in Black Panther. What binds people together, and what are the implications of such bonds? T’Challa and Ramonda, and Coates, believe that forming human collectives is key, perhaps the key, to close the breach between the world and the individual. In Wakanda’s case, the breach is closed by appealing to the blood ties that connect the nation to itself and to its king.

Conveniently, Shuri, the vanished queen, is spending her undeath in Djalia, “the plane of ancient memory,” where the collective unconscious of Wakanda is stored. There she finds a “griot”, or “caretaker” spirit, who looks like Ramonda. When Shuri asks what she is doing in this wondrous place, forested in green like an ancient paradise, she is told that she must learn “the power of memory” and explore Wakanda’s past to discover “the power of our song.” When she returns to the land of the living, the blue-clad Shuri (blue is the color of memory) will prove instrumental in reinventing the nation, one half of the new narrative that will guide Wakanda into the future.

The other half will be provided by Changamire, an aging political activist and university professor (Tetu is a former pupil). A hybrid of James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. – at one point Coates even has him lament “I was a dreamer once” – Changamire wears long dreadlocks and a simple, even monkish, orange outfit (straddling the line between yellow and red, orange is the color of doubt). “Wakanda”, he preaches, “has all the intelligence any advanced society would want, and none of the wisdom that any free society needs.” Still, Changamire appreciates T’Challa’s position: “Men who wish to be kings have almost never considered their request. Who, in full knowledge, would wish to hold a country on their shoulders? Who, in full sanity, would try to hold a nation under their feet?” The king wants to insure the safety and prosperity of his nation. The philosopher wants wisdom and justice. As T’Challa puts it, one “preaches an immoral practicality” while the other “brandishes an impractical morality”: “If the gospel of Changamire is built on air, then my own is built on broken bone.” The hero, the Black Panther, is meant to fashion the two gospels into one. But is this possible?

T’Challa’s closest advisors don’t believe so. Hodari, his chief counselor, and Akili, his chief of security, will do anything to keep their king in power. Hodari blames Changamire for the chaos, arguing “the heretic proposes to end the rule of the panther and elevate anarchy in its place.” T’Challa disagrees, suggesting that the old philosopher is actually proposing “to end the rule of monarchs and replace them with the people.” He even justifies the terrorism perpetrated against his own government, even though one particular bombing almost kills Ramonda. He empathizes with the perpetrators who after all “are Wakandan”, haunted by “shame, hate, rage” and driven by “pride in their nation.” Even at their worst they must be treated as blood relatives, for that’s what the members of the nation should be to each other.

In the face of violent uprising, Hodari and Akili convene a panel of foreign government operatives to seek the optimal way to quash the rebels. These foreigners, the only Caucasian characters in Black Panther, are all evil henchmen to despots and dictators. Their advice is to destroy the insurgency with no mercy, for the only truth of politics is brute force. “There is only one great tradition in Wakanda,” announces the most plainspoken, a bald European with a pale, smirking face, “and it is the same tradition among us all – the tradition of holding a nation under our feet!” T’Challa and his advisors ultimately reject the foreigners’ entreaties but are forced to admit to the truth in their words. Like every other nation, Wakanda was built through and for the benefit of the power of minorities. The glorious history of the kingdom is, as Changamire puts it, just another “national lie.”

Those are the pieces in Black Panther’s political game. Hodari and Akili represent dogmatic conservatism. Tetu and Zenzi irrational, and ultimately harmful, radicalism. Aneka and Ayo stand for the frustration and impotence of good people caught up in events beyond their choosing or control. Changamire represents the philosopher as gadfly, as troublemaker, the one who cracks the façade of dogma to reveal the way forward. And the royal family – T’Challa, Ramonda, and Shuri, once she’s back from the dead – can solve the impasse since they are wise, heroic, and, crucially, in power. T’Challa admits to Shuri that he’s no longer willing to follow the ways of his forefathers and that “their morality can never be my own.” “The past is a story,” she responds. “And tradition is that story backed by a resolute power. If you want new traditions and new morality, then create them, and then enforce them.”

The seed of the new story, the new morality, was first glimpsed by Shuri in the netherworld. There she learned about Adowa, an ancient kingdom within ancestral Wakanda. There were crafters and soldiers in ancient Adowa, and they “were happy.” Then they were invaded, so their ruler “resolved to melt into his nation, return to the essence. And became one with his own people.” Thereafter, the people came together, became strong, and repelled the invaders. The solution to Wakanda’s crisis, then, is for king and nation to become one, and this is made possible by the blood ties between ruler and subjects. The king understands this – “I am T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, son of Azzaria. My blood is my name.” – and so does Changamire the philosopher – “Kings are but men. They die like men, while the nation lives.” – and Ramonda the aging queen – “either you are a nation or you are nothing.”

And so, a new Wakanda is born. It will have a constitution, and a new government elected by Wakandans. The king, the Black Panther, will remain, because who knows what supernatural calamity will befall the nation in the future but also because ,“The throne is still the glue of Wakanda.” “One man who represents the nation,” T’Challa declares, “But not one who rules the people.” Not much more detail is provided on this budding constitutional monarchy, nor is it altogether clear why Ayo and Aneka, who seem well on their way to create a communal utopia up in the north, submit to the new status quo. The implication is that they come back to the fold because T’Challa is “an honorable man” and Shuri was “a good queen,” but this is both sketchy and unsatisfying. As Plato well knew, even the best kings can be succeeded by entitled monsters.

Which points to the much more substantial difficulty with Coates’ resolution: the answer to the breach between the world and the individual turns out to be a national story founded on blood kinship and a shared tradition. Criminals and terrorists are welcomed back with open arms, while foreigners are instinctively despised and rejected. The collective, the nation, is the central concern. Let’s take a moment and consider, in these tumultuous political times, who speaks and thinks like this. Who makes these arguments? Is it the progressive wing with which Coates is most closely allied, the enemies of racism and discrimination, the Black Lives Matter activists and the supporters of universal health care? Or is it the Donald Trumps and Steve Bannons of the world – “America first! America first!”? Both Black Panther and Between the World and Me stand critical of industrial capitalism, which reduces all human activity to profit-making and all human relations to contracts underwritten by self-interest. The Wakandan nation offers a needed corrective, a refocusing on caring and solidarity and the need for belonging. And yet, Coates’ endgame could easily be confused with the hate-filled ramblings of would-be militias currently scurrying about in the “dark web”.

Here’s one story that neither T’Challa nor Changamire nor Coates has any time for, which is unfortunate, since it just happens to be the seminal story of modern Western civilization. It goes like this: beyond politics, beyond society, beyond nations and the stories that bring them into being, there’s an essential human nature. This “natural condition” is, in the words of John Locke, one of its early proponents, “a state of perfect freedom” and “a state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.” Freedom and equality, however, don’t exist in a vacuum. “The state of nature,” says Locke, “has a law of nature to govern it. And reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions”.

There’s much to criticize about this story, but woe to he who simply ignores it. It is this story that drove Immanuel Kant to sanction that each individual human being is “an objective end” and “should never serve merely as a means.” It is this story that made possible the Constitution of the United States – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” – and the Emancipation Proclamation – “all persons held as slaves […] henceforward shall be free” – and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Without it, without this basic intuition about the relative position of human beings in regard to one another, whether it be a truth or an audacious fiction concocted by white Europeans, there’s no reason to believe the new Wakandan republic will uphold the rights of women, of religious and ethnic minorities, of homosexuals and transgender people, of political dissidents and troublemaking philosophers. I have written elsewhere about the ways in which the Marvel universe overemphasizes the primacy of individualism and personal choice in politics, to a potentially dangerous degree. In resisting this view Coates leans too far in the opposite direction, opening the door for the most destructive forms of group mentality. As a perfunctory background for a galaxy-spanning superhero adventure, this noxious political scheme can be overlooked. As the core thesis of a purportedly serious work penned by a serious political thinker, it cannot.

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