The Black Panther(s), the Coal Tiger, and US
BONUS POST: Thanks to Larry Lade and his March pledge at the Doctor Xaos Patreon! All you comics nuts probably already know how Lee and Kirby were developing an African black character called the Coal Tiger in early 1966, then changed the name to the Black Panther.
You might not know that the original name Coal Tiger wasn’t neutral by a long shot, as at the time, it was the media term for post-colonial African nations. The relevant name here is Patrice Lumumba, leader of resistance against the Belgian colonial government, author of Dawn in the Heart of Africa, important participant at the All-African People’s Conference in 1958, advocate for nationalizing the resources of the Congo Basin, then briefly the first prime minister of the Republic of the Congo in 1961. He was soon ousted in a military coup backed by the USA and Belgium, imprisoned, and executed. The nation – called Zaire from 1971 to 1997 – was brutalized for thirty years thereafter by a right-wing military dictatorship presided over (and thieved shamelessly) by Robert Mobutu, who makes a nice matched set with Ferdinand Marcos, Augusto Pinochet, and Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
There’s considerably more of Lumumba in T’Challa than anyone has ever mentioned, particularly his erudition and the idea of a resource-rich African nation entirely free from colonialism, which controls and develops its own technologies. Lumumba’s legacy spoke directly to both African heritage and economic national empowerment. This is Third Way, Non-Aligned Movement material again: the most frightening thing the U.S. political establishment had ever seen, outside the comfortable bipolar framework that had been cemented in 1948-1952.
An American organization you might not have heard of was US, or the US Organization, written in capitals but not an acronym, founded in southern Calfornia in 1965 by Ron Everett, who changed his name to Ron Karenga, with the title “Maulana.” It was a pan-African movement seeking to recover and re-synthesize African traditions, using Greek-American or Italian-American pride as a model (that’s my example; these were not explicitly named by US). Although sometimes called “separatist,” and directly inspired by many African nationalist leaders’ writings, the idea was to conduct traditions and community activities in an ethnically-rich way, not to move away. The group is also the originator of Kwanzaa and a number of other cultural terms, some widely adopted.
You might have noticed that in the original Star Trek, Lt. Uhura speaks Swahili (“The Man Trap”). That was the language promoted in the U.S. by US, and thus most linked to the concept of black pride and African heritage in the public eye. The episode was filmed in that same summer of 1966. The character’s name is almost certainly based on another US holiday, Uhuru Day, first celebrated early that same year by US.
The political term “black panther” originated with the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which emerged from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in late 1965 and was associated with founding member Stokely Carmichael’s book Black Power (1966). The Mississippi group used the black panther as its logo, but the image and term was swiftly picked up by the media in 1966 and was then co-opted by a number of organizations, including two in California, one in Chicago, and one in New York City. But before that, the comics character was introduced: Lee or someone there picked it up from the LCFO logo and media labeling just like others did, assigned it to the Coal Tiger design, and the character appeared in The Fantastic Four a few months before the Oakland organization went public. Considering that Mobutu named himself president-for-life at that time and embarked on a notorious, ongoing reign of butchery, and also that Lumumba’s name was a rallying cry for militant, anti-colonial revolt throughout Africa, it strikes me that in mid-1966, “Black Panther” might even have been chosen as the less threatening name over Coal Tiger.
For some perspective on the timing, Donald Warden founded the Afro-American Association in 1962; Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam in March 1964; the first and rather weak Civil Rights Act was passed in July 1964; Malcolm X was shot and killed in February 1965; the Selma-to-Montgomery marches took place in March 1965; the Voting Rights Act and the Watts Riots were almost simultaneous in August 1965; * the events I’m talking about occur here *; Martin Luther King was shot and killed in April, 1968, not long after allying with Robert F. Kennedy against the Vietnam War; Kennedy was shot and killed in June, 1968; Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago Panthers and linchpin organizer among working-class white, black, and Puerto Rican grassroots groups, was shot and killed by police in 1969.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded by Huey Newton in Oakland, became the most nationally prominent and formed alliances with the other groups using the name; when Eldridge Cleaver was released from prison in 1968 he accepted Newton’s offer of the position of Minister of Information and took leadership of the New York group. (At the time of this writing, the LCFO Wikipedia entry wrongly calls it the BPP’s “predecessor.”)
The BPP and US began with some accord (they celebrated Uhuru Day together in 1967), but had little in common. Newton’s view was refined Leftist to the core. He applied Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth to the disenfranchised under-class (Marx’s lumpenproletariat), to which most American black people were relegated – he considered it all to be a form of colonization and emphasized combating discrimination – especially police harassment – as a form of modern class struggle. Contrary to popular belief, blackness as a cultural identity was not a Panther priority, and they built alliances across ethnic lines and within community structures (e.g. food programs at schools). So ideologically, the BPP and US differed greatly, and as it turned out, the FBI’s CoIntelPro was on the job, sabotaging communications between the leaders and according to some, were the real instigators of a Panthers-US gunfight on the UCLA campus in 1969.
The story moves on from there and although US may seem minor compared to the political impact and media presence of the Panthers, quite a lot of its ideas have persisted in black activism and community efforts nationwide. My kids celebrate Kwanzaa in school. Karenga is a university professor and an influential voice, as are many US alumni.
So to recap, well before the above-mentioned conflicts. the political context for the character’s creation is not the BPP at all, but the coal tiger nations and the US Organization, which in mid-1966 was the most visible new black activist group. It must have been visible to Lee or Kirby or both. T’Challa, Prince of Wakanda, is so spot-on with US ideals of Africa’s heroic past and potential, it’s amazing they hadn’t already started a comic book of their own starring a guy like him. That another group soon used the name “Black Panther” and became more publicly visible is history’s little joke to obscure the content in retrospect.
Again, my take is that this is Lee’s admirable eye for genuinely trenchant politics, and Kirby’s lightning-bolt insight that comics are journalism, all of which deserves more appreciation. The content is more spot-on than anything Life Magazine was portraying, much more challenging to the white mainstream. T’Challa could have been another “Willie” or “Robbie,” the other first named black characters at Marvel, probably because Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson were the two most famous non-threatening but non-servile black people known to white Americans (to be fair, they did threaten a lot of people, heroically so, but not like King or Malcolm X did; also to be fair, Joe/”Robbie” Robertson, introduced a bit later, turned out to be a pretty good character). Or he could have been a waif “rescued” from the colonial stereotype of unspeakably primitive life In Darkest Africa and fully assimilated into Europe or the U.S. Or he could have been a cosmic whackadoo like Galactus or the Watcher, good enough to check off the “black character” box but without any difficulties pertaining to his possible human presence.
The modern accounts I’m reading describe Lee as merely tapping into hip memes with his political content, and as playing right and left against one another, but I don’t think so – you can’t get the 1966 T’Challa without being tuned in better than that, and finding ideals of justifiable pride and existing power to portray that were decidedly not mainstream or soft/centrist liberal white. In foreign policy, the “coal tiger” phenomenon was swiftly cast as creeping global communism, and Mobutu and the government of South Africa were our bold heroes of freedom (if a bit “authoritarian” … you do realize this is sarcasm, I hope). Domestically, the term Black Power was flatly radical in both North and South, as it explicitly broke with the northern-white-friendly “non-violent” terminology from the SNCC. US, like the BPP and the Deacons for Defense, went armed (more accurately, without pretending otherwise). Don’t let all the pretty legislation fool you – this is post-Watts, and the LBJ administration’s support for civil rights stopped with the northern white vote. It had blood in its eye toward any but the most mild and white-led effort. Black Power, for black people, meant being spied on, being beaten, going to prison, and getting murdered. Invoking it in pop media, just a hair short of naming it outright, wasn’t appropriation; it was solidarity.
Was the Black Panther a token? And here I mean the term not as a sole nonwhite face, which he couldn’t help but be, but a fake inclusion intended to smooth things over. Not to be too polite about it, was he a Tom? I don’t think so. The LCFO, US Organization, and BPP had something important in common: neither asking for favors nor settling for a weak win by conceding first. T’Challa wasn’t doing any of that either. He didn’t need redeeming, rescuing, salvaging, uplifting, or educating. This was not a nice-and-comfy center statement in 1966; if you put a black guy as a national leader, a mysterious presence, a sophisticated African, and a decided ass-kicker in there, it wasn’t playing to the gallery. One may make the case that Wakanda is Latveria without the villainy, and arguably, therefore scarier to the reading audience. It means relevance, not in the shallow sense, but being actually relevant.
The question then becomes, how black was T’Challa going to be? The Coal Tiger seems like a remarkably strong, gutsy start. On the published pages, though, there was apparently some early stuttering, maybe that’s why there were two covers, one which displayed his skin color and one which didn’t, and see also this contrast:
Marvel’s history with the issue started strong, but is also full of steps and missteps. In 1969, they stumbled hard with the Falcon who even had a pet hawk if you didn’t grasp the whole Indian-sidekick thing on the first try. Thomas – widely perceived as more political than Lee – was embarrassingly ham-fisted in writing the Panther as a token in the Avengers. Fortunately, not too much later, the Panther’s Rage would come along, as well as another fellow to address the American urban black hero issue. Bet on some posting about these in days to come.
Some thoughts on more recent affairs at the Hudline Entertainment forum
Next: K.C. Ryan
Posted on March 31, 2015, in Heroics, Politics dammit and tagged Black Panther, Black Panther Party, Black Power, Coal Tiger, CoIntelPro, Cornell West, Fantastic Four, Franz Fanon, Huey Newton, Jack Kirby, Kwanzaa, Latveria, LCFO, lumpenproletariat, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Maulana Karenga, Non-Aligned Movement, Patrice Lumumba, Republic of the Congo, Stan Lee, Stokely Carmichael, The Wretched of the Earth, US Organization, Wakanda. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.
I don’t have much to add here, so a few brief comments:
I don’t know what to think of Thomas’s use of the Black Panther in the Avengers, except that from a modern perspective it’s really disappointing. Instead of a multi-billionaire genius with fighting skills equal to Captain America, he’s just the guy in black spandex who jumps around a lot. There’s no reason he wouldn’t have completely dominated a team made up of non-strategic goofs like Pym, Wasp, and Hawkeye; Priest’s ret-con that he was spying on them is the only thing that makes sense.
In particular, Thomas does a particularly disappointing story with the KKK stand-ins the Sons of the Serpent, in which America’s race problem circa 1971 is due to a black demagogue running a false flag operation.
But the more serious problem with the Black Panther is that he is, actually, too awesome to do anything we ordinary mortals can relate to: any foible detracts from his majesty, and arguably slights an entire race. He’s an extremely difficult character to write interestingly: he strikes an amazing pose, but what is he feeling or thinking while doing so?
And, God help me, I may be the only person in Marveldom who genuinely admires the Falcon. As a criminal defense lawyer, I deal with social workers and institutional problems in the justice system all the time. A dude who says, “Damn it, I am going to fight this the best I can within the system, but when the system can’t provide justice, I am going to put on a mask and beat the hell out of gangsters, bad cops, corrupt judges, and everyone else making it hard for folks in Harlem.” He’s almost NEVER written like that, but it’s the best and noblest rationale for vigilante social justice I’ve seen. The Falcon is inherently and unapologetically political–at least in concept, if almost never ever in execution. But it’s not exactly a radical politics: it’s a politics that cares to get things done, so to speak, rather than making a splash and lookin’ good like Luke Cage.
Incidentally: the 1998 Black Panther series by Priest and Sal Velluto shows a genuine love for the character, referencing the Jungle Action comics, Kirby’s 1977 series, Thomas’s handling of the Panther, but always harkening back to the original Fantastic Four conception of a mysterious, aloof bad-ass who never plays fair and is always one step ahead. The only problem, IMO, is that Priest’s ambitions usually exceeded his storytelling skills: almost every issue would be improved by removing one subplot and telling events in chronological order. When you’re trying to turn a B-List character into an A-List guy, you can’t risk being inaccessible. But I think Ron would get a kick out of Queen Divine Justice. And the scenes with Princess Zanda towards the end.
Hudlin’s 2005 series is mostly okay but not spectacular.
When I was a kid in 1990, the big Black Panther story was running in the (usually terrible) anthology series, Marvel Comics Presents… in which the Black Panther infiltrates apartheid South Africa to rescue his mother. (Written by Don McGregor, who also did the Panther’s Rage storyline back in the ’70’s.) I never ended up reading all of those issues, but as a teenager I knew the author was trying to make a political statement.
It was a weird and schizophrenic media world for black people in the early 1970s. I am not sure if you can even believe me that news anchors, for example, never included anyone but the whitest faces. Or that buddy-duo TV shows invariably featured a dark-haired and blond-haired pair of white guys, as the standard “different looking men” composition. The confusion wasn’t simply among shows, but within people’s heads. In 1973, we have Steve Englehart writing and co-writing Hero for Hire, which you’ll see my views on soon, at the same time he’s caricaturing the Panthers in the Avengers. For anyone but John Birchers and the too-many Americans who tacitly agreed with them, they literally had no idea what to think, and it showed.
Hi Ron! I did know about the Coal Tiger, but practically nothing about the social environment at the time (and, as a lot of people these days, I thought that the Black Panthers predated the marvel characters). Thanks for the info!
Ah, that’s not totally true: I did know about Patrice Lumumba, there is a street named after him less than 100 yards from my home. Other streets nearby are named after Salvator Allende, Ho Chi Minh, and Martin Luther King. There is a street named after Kennedy too but it’s still clear at a glance who the people here rooted for at the time… 🙂
Talking about black marvel characters, let’s not forget Blade! I think that he is almost the same age (in publishing terms) than Luke Cage.
Oh, I see. I post about one black hero in one post, in a blog all of all things, and I’m supposed to cover every such character in every major storyline and phase of the company. You guys think you might manage to talk about this character at the time I’m talking about? Like, a little?
Also, if anyone wants to see more blog posts per unit time, and you can bet both the Falcon and Blade among many others are in the queue already, then let’s see some more $10 pledging. There ain’t no cap on that until we hit 30/31 posts per month.
I am fascinated by the street names, and James, I agree about about Thomas’ Panther in the Avengers, and the “too awesome” problem. … I suppose someone’s already thought of this, or obviated it through some other plotline (in fact I think they did, so don’t explain it please), but … my dream change-the-world moment would be when Wakanda, Latveria, and Atlantis formed a Nonaligned Movement, gained major international support including a re-founding of the UN without a security council veto, and provided every sensible reason why the U.S. should stand down its military … “every sensible reason” including what would happen if we didn’t. What would the major superheroes and supervillains do then? Thor’s not an American. Neither is Magneto.
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As somebody not really interested in super-hero comics, even though I quite enjoy the occasional film based on a super-hero (the Dark Knight trilogy by Nolan springs to mind), I still find the posts where you discuss political issues, as seen reflected in the comics and contextualised by your analysis, fascinating.
I’ve been trying to catch up with second-half 20th century history, since high-school history stopped at the battles of World War 2. Mainly watching TV documentaries, and pestering my knowledgeable significant other who has got a masters degree in 20th century history. I’ll gladly count Spione and Shahida in that effort, too.
Totally tangential paragraph: I’m especially fascinated by topics were it gets very tricky to delineate two sides and to understand what is really going on (especially, I find, when the issues survive to this day), in contrast to the evil nazis of WWII. The usual narrative of Europe and the US being the good guys and all others shady at best has grown very very thin and falters in many places. Taking my little country as an example, one day I’ll have to check what deals Switzerland and Apartheid-era South Africa had, or what was up with the anti-communist operation Gladio stand-behind army.
Back to the comics discussion, this post here was very interesting, as it gave me some new insights into US history (I’d never heard of the US Organization) and how the the mainstream might have reacted to it. Especially as a few weeks ago I saw the film Selma. It’s a bit like connecting dots and seeing a picture emerge.
Now that I’m articulating (haha) my thoughts, another thing that fascinates me is how one might not get anywhere by just shouting “this thing here is unjust, lets fight it!”, while writing about a character with a background in this injustice, and portraying him or her as a reasonable and touching human being might allow more readers to connect with him and the issues they have been subjected to. Perhaps to the same final net effect, but at least communication was momentarily possible and non-confrontational. Similar to what you’ve been doing with Spione and Shahida, in fact.
I think I’d gladly read the comics featuring Black Panther, but the comic culture is extremely confusing to me: different writers (some good, some bad), different illustrators (ditto), different time-lines, reboots, out-of-print stuff, etc. Plus, soft-back. That doesn’t feel right… It seems so much easier with European comics: there is only one Tintin, one author and there are so many volumes and that’s that. Especially, no reboots. So, how can I read the Black Panther comics relevant to this discussion?
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Hi Christoph, thanks for the kind words about my political books. “Confrontational” is an interesting term in English, because by one definition, both the Lee-Kirby Panther and those two books of mine are extremely confrontational, in that once you see what’s there, you can’t unsee it. By another definition, which implies irrationality and attack, the word applies less … but to people who are invested in counterfactual narratives (instead of history), these same works are perceived as attack.
Moreno would be happy to talk with you about Gladio, as it relates directly to his own experiences and location.
As for the books, and here speaking only from my boyhood experience rather than an encyclopedic array, the real source material is probably the Panther’s Rage story, which ran from #6-24 in Jungle Action in the early through mid-1970s. Along with some issues of Hero for Hire, it was the first mainstream comics story with no white people in it at all. In my experience, aside from that, there isn’t much to appreciate. Some writers did well with the Panther in scattered issues of the Avengers or Daredevil or Marvel Team-Up, but he was often relegated, as James says, to an acrobatic guy jumpin’ around in the background, instead of – as he should be, in terms of powers – literally a cross between Captain America and Doctor Doom.
Although I just grumped at James for bringing up this-or-that later incarnation of the character, his recommendations are a good place to investigate other stories, mainly because I don’t know them at all.
out of curiosity, where’d you get the detail about “coal tiger” being a media term for postcolonial African nations? Earliest I can find is a 2011 comment on SuperMegaMonkey’s comics chronology.
Unfortunately, that came from my readings across a bunch of civil rights and protest history texts I did a few years ago, and most of the books got boxed prior to my recent move. I took extensive notes, so now that the books are available again, and my notes are too, I can do some recovery and find the answer. I too am a bit disappointed in the alleged all-human-knowledge internet thing.
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I look forward to seeing your better sources so I can add this to Wikipedia!
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