From Reparations to Wakanda: author Ta-Nehisi Coates is on fire
March 19, 2017 12:00 AM
By Tony Norman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ta-Nehisi Coates is the undisputed public intellectual of the moment. In a nation that elected Donald Trump president a few months ago, this is saying something.
Mr. Coates’ popularity in an era of increasingly polarized opinion and hard feelings along racial lines is a contrast not easily reconciled. Are his critiques of structural racism perceived as a cure for what ails our racially divided land — or a symptom of its confidence in its own intractability?
These are the kinds of questions that Mr. Coates will wrestle with as the headliner of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series Monday in Oakland’s William Pitt Union Ballroom at 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Coates will headline a colloquium at the University of Pittsburgh’s Humanities Center. Poet and University of Pittsburgh professor Yona Harvey and I will respond to Mr. Coates’ presentation: “Mythic Register: Political Contradictions on the Battle Between Good and Evil in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘Black Panther.’ ”
Mr. Coates is best known as the author of “Between the World and Me,” a heartbreaking but mesmerizing polemic about America’s racial pathologies and our nation’s inability to be honest with itself about its contempt for the black body. It is written in the form of an extended address to his teenage son, Samori, in a style that purposely echoes James Baldwin’s classic work “The Fire Next Time.”
“Between the World and Me” remained firmly ensconced in the top 10 of The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list from its first appearance in July 2015. It is a book of startling insight and deep pessimism about race.
In that book, Mr. Coates consciously rejects many of the tropes and tactics of civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. He is not a fan of what he considers the cheap grace that results when black people forgive white people so easily for a shared and difficult history.
Prior to his best-selling book, Mr. Coates was best known as the author of the much-discussed 2012 article “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, where he is a national correspondent. That essay became the most discussed and commented upon in the magazine’s history. It garnered Mr. Coates the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism as well as the George Polk Award.
Mr. Coates was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2015. In 2016, Mr. Coates and his wife and son moved to Paris for a year as the writer’s fame grew exponentially in America. It was during this time that Mr. Coates took on responsibility for a dream project — he accepted Marvel Entertainment’s invitation to write a revival of its Black Panther comic book series.
A longtime comic book reader and fan, Mr. Coates jumped at the opportunity to update the medium’s first black superhero for our troubled times. He introduced Afro-futurist elements to the Black Panther’s story and rooted it in a fascinating story arc about the limitations of monarchy and the cost of revolution. As the king of Wakanda, a technologically advanced African nation, the Black Panther isn’t necessarily the most sympathetic character in his own series.
In keeping with the theme that everything Mr. Coates touches turns to gold as of late, “Black Panther” became the best-selling mainstream comic book of 2016. The storyline Mr. Coates introduced last year is rumored to be much of the basis for Marvel/Disney’s “Black Panther” movie, which will hit screens in either 2018 or 2019.
While the verdict is out about whether America is taking his criticism to heart, there’s no doubt that this is a good time to be Ta-Nehisi Coates, public intellectual. He's having a major impact on how America talks about race.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631. Twitter @TonyNormanPG.
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