THE KING AND THE CONQUERED
Exploring The Concept Of Black Heroism
Written by: Ziggiy
There is no force like success, and that is why the individual makes all effort to surround himself throughout life with the evidence of it; as of the individual, so should it be of the nation. Our success educationally, industrially and politically is based upon the protection of a nation founded by ourselves. And the nation can be nowhere else but in Africa. Glorious shall be the battle when the time comes to fight for our people and our race. Look to Africa, for there a king will be crowned.
In July of 1966, the Black Panther debuted within the pages of Fantastic Four #52. He was T’Challa, defender and monarch of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. He was the first black superhero to be introduced within mainstream american comics; he was fierce, intelligent, confident, and most importantly for comic book readers, cool as hell. T’Challa was able to prove his worth by defeating the first family one by one to test THEIR skills, and in the end was portrayed as not only a force to be reckoned with, but to also be respected. Over the course of decades, T’Challa has been through several iterations, most notably from those of Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin. Christopher Priest is often cited as the most accomplished and critically acclaimed author of the Panther’s stories, he is to Black Panther as Frank Miller is to Daredevil within the comic fandom. Mysterious, calculating, and always seeming to be two steps ahead of both his foe and his audience, Priest took a character who had been too often relegated to the hell of tokenism, and reinvigorated the essence of what the Panther stood for, regality. Reginald Hudlin gave fans an epic and sweeping saga, which put T’Challa front and center in some of Marvel Comics biggest crossover events of the time, he is also married to one of the most high profile characters in the universe, Ororo Munroe, better known as Storm of the X-Men. For a period, T’Challa’s status as the greatest Monarch in Wakanda’s history was unblemished.
However, in the world of comics, nothing gold can stay…
Black Panther issue #1 finds our hero in the midst of a violent upheaval. Having suffered two devastating invasions at the hands of Dr Doom and Namor, the once impenetrable nation of Wakanda has lost faith in their king’s ability to protect its citizens. T’Challa himself, divorced, disowned by his own father, and agonized over the disappearance of his younger sister Shuri; might be at this point losing faith in himself. The Black Panther has always stood as a symbol of Wakandan excellence, just as T’Challa the character has stood as the personification of black excellence within fiction since his debut. The failures he has been dealt in recent years has caused not only his people, but his fans and readers to question his worthiness. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates has chosen this juncture to explore some very deep-seated themes, those of destiny and blood rule. Gender equality and duty. Justice and accountability. However, one of the most fascinating themes running concurrent with the coming revolution is that of black heroism. What does it mean to serve as the inspiration for an entire populace? What happens when you falter, when your flaws are exposed? As many young black enthusiasts go to pick up issue #1 over the coming weeks, what is this version of T’Challa saying to our audience?
Mr. Coates message seems to be very simple at its core, that T’Challa’s greatest superpower may be in his humanity. The fact that he is being faced with open revolt is seemingly coming from an emotional disconnect with his people, T’Challa has always meant well, but by enshrouding himself in secrecy his subjects have failed to grasp the concept ofwho he is. The lesson T’Challa is to learn is that he must accept his flaws. Martin Luther King was a tireless advocate of black equality, who fell victim to the desires of the flesh and was repeatedly unfaithful in his marriage. Malcolm X was a fierce and passionate proponent of black independence and self sufficiency, who happened to have a criminal background as a thief and hustler. These flaws did not diminish the legacy of these icons, they merely highlighted the imperfections that they dealt with. T’Challa is a man living under the mound of extreme expectation, and as such Mr. Coates is exploring the notion that being a King might not be a burden T’Challa even wants, though he is certainly capable. This internal struggle between law (expectation) and humanity (emotion) is highlighted twice, when Ramonda, T’Challa’s stepmother and advisor, sentences a a member of the elite body guard group, The Dorae Millaje; to death on the grounds of murder. Even though this murder took place against a chieftain who was abusing his authority in exploiting young Wakandan women. Ramonda’s conflict is upholding the law, even if that law appears harsh or unjust, there can be no signs of weakness. The irony of this scene is juxtaposed by a later panel with Ramonda advising T’Challa against single minded thoughts of hunting down and killing the villain responsible for sowing seeds of unrest amongst the citizens. “Don’t lose yourself.” She implores. “You are not a soldier. You are a King. And it is not enough to be the sword, you must be the intelligence behind it.”
Pretty weighty words for a comic book starring a hero who HAS been known to be physically punishing of his enemies. But it simply serves to again put focus on T’Challa’s need to greater connect with the emotional and spiritual needs of his people. If a monarchy is to continue being the head of a civilization of an intelligent and outspoken populace, they will need to believe in him and have faith that he represents the best of Wakandan society, to the outside world and most importantly, to them. In this manner will T’Challa truly achieve the ultimate victory, which is the unification of the kingdom. To do this, T’Challa cannot simply be the Black Panther, he must become the living embodiment of Wakandan heart and soul, and only through understanding and accepting the humanity that he has forced himself to keep at bay, will he be enlightened.
A black hero is many things to many things to many people. A symbol, an ideal, a guide, a validation. Many times we allow the expectations we place on our heroes to encapsulate them to the point where we deify them, and as soon as they step outside of that box, as soon as they allow their flaws, their very humanity, to be showcased publicly, we have a tendency to abandon them. T’Challa is literally, a hero, one who has helped save the world and his kingdom multiple times, at often times great personal cost. After a period of 4 years in which the character has made certain narrative decisions which stripped him of everything, only to gain it back while facing the wrath of a people who feel he has failed them on the basic level of understanding; the question begs asking, are we still fans of T’Challa? Have his flaws turned us against him, or are we willing to walk the path alongside him to redemption? The answer lies in the execution, and my belief is that Ta-Nehisi Coates alongside artist Brian Stelfreeze are crafting a narrative that will not answer the simple question of whether or not T’Challa deserves to be King.
It will definitively prove that the Black Panther is a hero whose humanity goes hand in hand with his greatness.