Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater has been selling out screenings of Marvel’s “Black Panther” since the film opened Friday. But a Tuesday screening featured a special opening act.
East Bay nonprofit Lincoln brought Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist for the Atlantic, for a conversation with Lincoln Senior Director Dr. Macheo Payne before the audience entered the world of Wakanda.
Coates has earned high praise for his incisive longform works on the black experience in the United States. His second book, “Between the World and Me,” prompted novelist Toni Morrison to say Coates filled the “intellectual void” left after the death of essayist James Baldwin. And his recent release, “We Were Eight Years in Power,” is a collection of essays culled from his work during the presidency of Barack Obama.
“Black people are crucial in the history of the U.S. like no other,” Coates said. He explained that without slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, the nation would not exist.
“In contrast, people have taken themes of the black experience and extracted black people,” he continued, citing the way slavery functions a plot point in films like “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Coogler’s “Black Panther,” he said, is an acknowledgement of the influence black people have had on Western culture, and audiences are hungry for popular culture that is reflective of that influence. The film’s diasporic approach also addresses the wound of slavery, he said, and the void left by its impact on black Americans.
“It’s a movie where everything is reversed,” Coates said. “Where the world is how we see it, not how they’ve reflected it to us … that’s tremendous.”
Coates’ ties to Wakanda are built on more than admiration.
In 2015, Coates was offered the chance to script an 11-issue series of “Black Panther.” Coates is always transparent about his struggles with writing, but producing the comic proved to be even more difficult. “When you write, you have this music in your head and you get this draft and it sounds nothing like the music, and you revise and revise to get it closer. I haven’t gotten to the music with the comic,” he said.
Much of the evening’s conversation circled back to Coates’ assertion that the United States is a “republic built on robbery.” He traced the robbery from the Atlantic Slave Trade to present day U.S., where black Americans pay taxes for public goods like schools, libraries, pools and housing to which they are systemically denied access.
“Segregation is bad because they’re stealing from you.”
On stage, Coates discussed “We Were Eight Years in Power,” which stressed the tension underlying the success of Michelle and Barack Obama — how they were expected to excel in everyway, while paying a high price to be what he called the “ambassadors of black people to white people.”
The conversation turned to his successor President Donald Trump, of course, where Coates remained frank.
“Do I have hope for this country? I don’t really know how to,” he said.
Being hopeful isn’t his job. As a writer, Coates stressed that a writer’s duty is to provide illumination and clarity. Like Baldwin who preceeds him, Coates distanced himself from what he characterized to be the expectation placed on black writers to offer hope and often, assauge white people of the burden of racism. That burden lies with the people — “it remains to be seen whether a critical mass of white people in this country give a f–k,” he told the audience.