U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black Intellectual History, and Literary Fiction

The upcoming release of the newest Ta-Nehisi Coates work has many people abuzz. This is not, however, an essay. Nor is it a collection of essays or a longer piece of nonfiction. Instead, Coates has now turned to the realm of fiction with his upcoming novel, The Water Dancer. The novel is about an enslaved man who finds himself not only involved in the Underground Railroad, but also possessing supernatural powers. Such a work by Coates is not, in itself, out of the ordinary for him: I have enjoyed, in recent years, reading his works for Marvel Comics on both Black Panther and Captain America. This new work by Coates should make us consider the ways in which African American intellectuals have used fiction to further delve into the African American experience.

                Looking at his comic book runs it is obvious that Coates is using famous Marvel characters to talk about wider issues facing Americans. For example, his first run on Black Panther, titled A Nation Under Our Feet, took its name from the Steven Hahn book about African American political struggles in the South during and after the American Civil War. Coates’ meditation on dynastic rule versus a parliamentary democracy was not only a critique of the Black Panther character. It also showcased Coates’ greater concerns about grassroots organizing, revolutionary zeal, and what it truly means to fight for “the people.”

                Likewise, his current Captain America run uses the titular character to talk about genuine issues facing American democracy. Concerns about foreign interference in American affairs? Check. An overall decline among Americans believing in the greatness of the nation? Check as well. This, of course, is not new with the character donning a red, white, and blue costume. In the 1970s, for instance, Captain America was used to tell stories about Watergate, government corruption, and a loss of American innocence. All Coates has done is to continue this tradition—one which also a strong entry from Coates’ predecessor, Ed Brubaker.

                Coates’ fiction writing comes at a time when African American letters, fiction and nonfiction alike, continues to concern itself with the W.E.B. Du Bois question, “What does it mean to be a problem?” Memoirs by Kiese Laymon and Darnell L. Moore lay open the truth of the diversity of the African American male experience in America at the end of twentieth century. Likewise, the writings of authors such as Tressie McMillian Cottom, Roxane Gay, and Jesmyn Ward blur traditional genre lines and, also, inform us all of the depths of the experiences of African American women. But the use of fiction, in particular, reaches back and connects these—and many other authors—with their Black intellectual forefathers and foremothers.

                W.E.B. Du Bois’ use of fiction to detail the African American experience throughout the twentieth century is well-known. The short stories he wrote in collections such as Darkwater, for example, were his way of communicating to a wider audience the travails of African Americans. What is interesting to note, however—and what links Coates to this wider tradition—is Du Bois’ use of speculative fiction to get his points across. His signature short story, “The Comet,” fits this bill. In “The Comet,” an African American man and a white American woman have to decide whether or not to have a sexual relationship in order to propagate a human species that, due to a comet, is seemingly on the verge of extinction. Writing such a short story in 1920 was certainly risky for Du Bois. Recent research into the voluminous papers of Du Bois, however, suggests that he wrote far more speculative fiction than previously believed. In addition, he often used such works—much of which was never published—to think harder about the African American experience.

                The study of African American intellectual history in the early twenty-first century will, as is the case with other eras, require historians to dive deeply into works of fiction and non-fiction. With Coates alone, it won’t just be enough to read his Atlantic essays or his non-fiction books; his plethora of writings in comic books will be critically important to understanding how he saw the world. I am sure The Water Dancer will also be in that category too.

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