Eons ago – before Black Panthers, before Wakanda, before time itself – there were only the Orishas!
What happens when you combine an award-winning author with an established pedigree on race in the 21st century with a resurgent comic character named for an anti-establishment group and set in a fictional, Afrofuturist wonderland? What if we throw in incredibly deep references to West African mythology and tradition as well as the former Queen of Wakanda and storm goddess/mutant Ororo? How about references to the actual political struggles faced by a number of African countries as they still seek ways to recover from the colonialism that ravaged their lands and divided a continent, ending less than a hundred years ago? This is Ta-Neshi Coates’ Black Panther: a deep dive into the mythology behind the King of Wakanda and how belief and modernity come together in the hands of the monarch who holds the fate of his people and their gods in his clawed gloves.
The constant juxtaposition of cosmopolitan New York and technologically superior, but more traditional Wakanda demonstrates the duality of T’Challa and his role as both King and Black Panther as well as his responsibilities to his people and the world beyond. Immediately, in his conversation with Ororo, T’Challa brings up the gods of his people in terms that unequivocally exist and aid his people. Bast, Kokou, Mujaji, Thoth, and Ptah the Shaper are the orisha that have protected the Wakandans in the past, but have seemingly left the people behind. Interestingly, while these are all traditional African deities, they come from different parts of the continent, giving Wakanda a less region-specific locale and tradition. Ptan, Thoth, and Bast are Egyptian gods, while Mujaji is Balobedu (South Africa) and Kokou part of the Yoruba tradition. Meanwhile, the loss of the gods may portend the coming of great enemies of the Wakandans which Black Panther and his Dora Milajae must overcome. In another nod to Pan-African tradition, T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, shouts the Xhosa word “Amandla,” meaning “Power,” as she dives to assault the oncoming hordes.
While the primary story revolves around the conflicts caused by the absence of the orisha, the subplot dances around the issue with new world interference by Dr. Faustus and a crew of ne’er do wells. An interesting depth comes with this intrusion into what seems like a completely Wakandan problem. How does T’Challa balance life as a member of the greater heroic world while still leading Wakanda and serving as its primary enforcer of justice.
Coates brings in so many elements of West African culture – mentioning stories told by a griot, the appearance of the Anansi – that for readers not versed in the lore, the book can be daunting at times. The combining of multiple tribal traditions is certainly not a new concept. The blurring of lines by those who do not understand the differences that exist throughout Africa as a whole is a standard trope of the colonial era. In that world, the cultural misappropriation is due to a de-emphasis on actual details that make these traditions so rich. In this case, Coates takes the old trope and reworks it in as authentic a way as possible, creating an uneven, but more authentic, tradition for the imaginary nation. Co-opting a single nation’s traditions would be disingenuous and making up traditions from whole cloth would serve as an injustice to the African roots of the character.
As an author, Ta-Neshi Coates is renowned for his writing on race in the modern age. By exploring this through the character of Black Panther, he pulls together the struggles left over from imperial rule, traditions being lost through time, and the place of religion in the modern world to create a rich and deep story that truly made me want to know more about the history and culture referenced throughout. As a modern griot, Coates is a powerful voice in the greater socio-political world. Having his voice in comics was an invaluable resource, one I hope to hear again.