Columns

Dismantling the Myth of the Hero

CHERYL THOMPSON

After writing my second book on the cultural mutation of the fictional-character-turned-racial-epithet Uncle Tom, I began to reflect on other enduring mythological figures that are ubiquitous in our culture. The hero is one of them. In the 221 HBO biopic Tina for instance, which drew 1.1 million viewers to the career and music of Tina Turner, I was reacquainted with her 1985 hit song, “We Don’t Need Another Hero” from the film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. (The 7-inch single for “We Don’t Need Another Hero” is nestled somewhere in my record collection). Turner’s hit was one of many hero-themed film soundtrack songs during the decade. Bonnie Tyler’s 1984 ballad “Holding Out for a Hero” (featured in Footloose) and “Wind Beneath My Wings” (sometimes titled “Hero”), first recorded in 1982 but attributed to singer and actress Bette Midler and the 1988 film Beaches, are two other examples.

Action films of the eighties also created dozens of cinematic heroes. These figures, most of whom were white and male, were either in a war, or veterans whose violence seemed justified in a world of turmoil. For the heroes in these films, unrest—past or present—was always personal. I still remember the first action film of my childhood, Rambo: First Blood. Originally released in 1982, and starring Sylvester Stallone as Vietnam War veteran John Rambo, this film was followed by others like Missing in Action (1984), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and Saving Private Ryan (1998), to name a few. Black male heroes who appeared in the 198s and 199s were also produced through the media industries, however, the storytelling around their heroism was quite different than the white male heroism projected onto the silver screen. The case of Michael Jordan is one such example.

While there were African-American sports heroes before him—such as sprinter Jesse Owens, boxer Muhammad Ali, baseball player Jackie Robinson and fellow basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—Jordan was the first Black male hero to be born of a consumer brand. In 1984 as a twenty-one-year-old rookie who had not yet put on his Chicago Bulls uniform, Jordan signed a five-year endorsement deal with the apparel company Nike, not to endorse a new Nike shoe, but to have an entire brand built around his image—the Air Jordan 1 (AJ1s).

Significantly, the AJ1s hit the market at a time of contradiction. In contrast to the proliferation of nostalgic war movies with a white male hero protagonist, hip hop culture with its urban settings, Black masculine motifs, and anti-policing/government lyrics moved into the mainstream. A whole new generation of white youth were suddenly taking their cues from and idolizing Black men who were the anti-heroes to Jordan’s consumer heroism. Stated otherwise, their mission was not to make the world a better place through consumer culture, corporate endorsements, and middle-class respectability; instead, they turned a spotlight on the myth of the great American hero. The Black man in “da hood” with something critical to say became a threatening force; the rapper was so threatening to mainstream America that in 1992 Republican Vice President Dan Quayle called Tupac Shakur’s debut solo album 2Pacalypse Now—considered one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time—a disgrace to American music. Meanwhile, Black men like Jordan, who projected a safe “buddy” masculinity and who were right at home in capitalist structures with their nonthreatening affability began to take up space within the popular culture as appealing heroic figures. Today, violent white male heroes on the big screen have discursively been framed as endearing and charming; meanwhile, Black male heroes are put into a position where they must project the “right” image—on and off the screen. These heroes can never be violent because no Black acts of violence are seen as justifiable—even protests in response to Black death at the hands of police or white supremacists. Nothing about this duality is natural; it is made by people, not naturally occurring historical events. The myth of the hero is part of a systemic tunnel vision that dominates in Western culture, wherein people are unable to see the societal structures that maintain collective oppressions.

The hero is not born of mere folklore; the archetype of masculinity, perpetuated on the big screen, in sports and in popular music for decades, has its roots in the nineteenth century. In his lectures On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle was one of the first to argue that only the hero had the vision to see history as it happened. For Carlyle, the viewpoint of the ordinary person was obscured by “the specters and phantasmagorias of emancipation.” Meaning, where the “ordinary person” (e.g., non-whites, the poor, and women) was believed to be a passive observer of history without agency, the hero, according to Carlyle, stood at the vantage point of being able to grasp the full scope of history—as it happened and in retrospect—with citizenship rights and unrestrained ability to act. With his unbounded vision, the heroic figure had both a present existence and a defined past: only he could envision the future.

In On Visuality, New York University professor Nicholas Mirzeoff explains that Carlyle created a new form of heroism in which “the visualized hero was both the true source of Enlightenment and its primordial origin, a temporal jump that only could be understood in a visualized form of writing as picture.” The Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, a time marked by rationality, reason and scientific progress, helped to create the mythical hero that came to dominate twentieth-century visual culture. To see in the nineteenth century was to imagine a world from the point of view of white European men. In a world dominated by heroes, difference was not tolerated. Instead, it had to be explained through a prism of Otherness. Hence, the emergence in the nineteenth century of theories of eugenics, “survival of the fittest” and beliefs in the innate superiority of Anglo-Saxon Protestant white men. If the hero was born out of visualizing history, anti-heroes, especially Black men, were configured, imagined, seen, and represented as everything the hero is not—a threat to Enlightenment notions of freedom and liberty.

Carlyle coined the term “visuality” to explain the visualization of history; that is, the state of being visual, making sense of the social world through vision and visibility, such as creating a “mental picture” of something, or the use of images to represent the material world. This concept has been taken up by contemporary Black scholars who have unpacked its implication; as well, many scholars have explained why the visual hero narrative cannot be applied to Black men. In Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (215), Jasmine Cobb argues that theories of Black visuality must focus attention on how the visual practices of slavery constructed a racialized social order that suppressed the Black gaze—one’s ability to see and be seen. Denying the very possibility of such a gaze was a key strategy in the colonial construction of Black people as visible objects under slavery, not as authorized subjects. When Carlyle dissociated vision from corporeality—meaning he thought of sight not as a universal experience but as an act dependent on the skin you are in—his theories supported the construction of Blackness as pure embodiment, not of reason and thought. In other words, Black people were deemed to lack a visual history. Black emancipation, as a result, was viewed through the prism of anti-heroism. For instance, in 1831 when Nat Turner, a highly literate enslaved preacher, set off a two-day uprising by both enslaved and free Black people in Southampton County, Virginia, authorities responded with a violent crackdown. Turner was captured, convicted and later hanged. Obviously, he was not a hero to Virginian authorities but in the annals of history, Turner’s actions provide us with the ability to critique the visualization of history.

When African-Americans escaped enslavement, they were labelled “fugitives” because the visuality of the time could only allow their bodies to be viewed through the eyes of white authorities. For African Americans, escaped slaves were “freedom seekers,” renegades and liberators. This explains why Harriet Tubman was known as the “Moses of her people,” but in the visuality of the nineteenth century, she was a “dangerous” criminal. Today, we have the ability to see Tubman and even Turner as heroes, fighting against the unjust institution of slavery, but the lasting impact of their anti-heroic visuality is that even today, Black acts of civil disobedience are rarely interpreted through a lens of Black visuality, but instead, we assume the point of view of white authorities.

Writing in 1995, cultural theorist Stuart Hall observed that “in liberal ideology, ‘freedom’ is connected (articulated) with individualism and the free market; in socialist ideology, ‘freedom’ is a collective condition, dependent on, not counterposed to, ‘equality of condition,’ as it is in liberal ideology. The same concept is differently positioned within the logic of different ideological discourses.” Freedom, in other words, is a subjective concept dependent on ideology but also historical context. When people who challenge Western notions of “freedom of speech” and “freedom of expression” are accused of political correctness or so-called cancel culture, the presentist concerns of primarily white individuals are often put above collective histories. For example, in fall 22 when a letter written in French and entitled “Libertés surveillées” or “Monitored Freedoms” and signed by thirty-four University of Ottawa professors disagreed with how a white professor who used the N-word in their class had been treated, they argued that not using the N-word in classes put academic freedom at risk. The fact that that word has been used for centuries as a weapon of violence against Black people did not matter to the signatories of that letter. Instead, they took on the role of the authorities, coming to the defence of an individual’s right to speak and define academic freedom, ignoring those who have been historically (collectively) harmed by its use. If those professors could see through the eyes of their Black students, would they continue to defend using that word? Would they continue to view freedom through an individualist lens?

The media, as Hall once noted, is one place where ideas about race are articulated, worked on, transformed and elaborated. The media does not teach us how to feel or hear, it teaches us how to see and what to see. It gives us our viewpoint, our perspective. For example, in Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography, author Martin Berger argues that civil rights photographs from the 196s often reduced the complex social dynamics of the civil rights movement to easily digested narratives, prominent among them white-on-Black violence. How have complex and challenging problems been oversimplified through a visuality of white heroism and Black anti-heroism? How do centuries-long modes of seeing still shape how we see and what we see?

Bob Adelman’s iconic photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963, captured King striking a heroic pose as he gestures toward the sky against the colossal columns of the Lincoln Memorial behind him. While King is considered a heroic figure today (as we look back on the past), in the 196s, many white people and the media—looking forward into the future—loathed King’s insistence on disrupting the status quo of white America. He was an anti-hero to many. As such his speech is not remembered in its totality, especially the parts where he rebukes segregation and white racism; instead, the visuality of his recollection of a dream is what is remembered. Nowadays, it has even been reduced to hashtag-able moments.

In 213, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s speech, NBC News asked all Americans to share their “dreams” by using the hashtag #DreamDay and completing the statement, “I have a dream that [fill in the blank].” As Americans responded with posts on social media, some of the submissions which were featured on NBC’s flagship news programs were nothing more than individualist dreams about people’s lives and families; there was little recognition of the continued fight for social justice and the eradication of racism. For instance, in a video posted to YouTube, Ivanka Trump said, “I have a dream that educational equality will become a global reality. This is incredibly important to me as I have a young daughter and another child on the way, and I hope they grow up in a world where that comes to pass.” This “dream” does not mean anything to an individual who has no discernible social justice platform to speak of. The superficiality of the hashtag #DreamDay renders invisible the imagined future of King’s dream.

The prospective of visualizing a Black future is deeply rooted in conceptions of freedom. I believe that to hope, you must dare to question the things you have taken as essential truths. You must question notions of freedom, emancipation, and equality because they are at the centre of understanding how everyone, not just white male heroes, has experienced challenges in the Western world. What it means to be Black and free is not and has never been the same as what it means to be white and free. Dismantling the myth of the hero would help us move conversations about race and anti-Black racism away from being almost entirely located in a binary framework of good versus evil, and most importantly, right versus wrong. Instead, we would be able to have nuanced conversations that are rooted in historical context and complexity.

In Black Is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics (216), Paul Taylor argues that questioning aesthetic theory is one way to move us toward asking deeper questions about the status or meaning of the concepts employed in the representational world. Questions like What is art? and Are judgments of human beauty really about beauty, or are they about something else? Since heroes are not born but are produced through our visual culture and they are always dependent on seeing and vision, how can we create heroes who are representationally different from those who have been produced since the Age of Enlightenment? How can we let go of the visualized hero? Ultimately, part of the process of unpacking the hero, especially the tightly constrained Black male hero, begins with understanding the concept of Black futurity, which asks that we think about our language—what we say and how we say it.

In Listening to Images (217), Tina Campt argues that futurity is not a question of “hope”—though it is intertwined with the idea of aspiration. For Campt, futurity is about “tense.” What is the “tense” of a Black future? There is no tradition of placing Black heroes in history. Prior to Jordan, and apart from King, there have been no Black male figures who have captured the collective public’s imagination as a hero. While we are still inundated with white male heroes on the big and small screens, and in popular culture in general, there is arguably no living Black hero who has replaced the aforementioned. (While former President Barack Obama is often labelled a hero, he has many critics such as Dr. Cornel West who would staunchly disagree). Today, Black martyrs—from Trayvon Martin to George Floyd and the dozens of unarmed Black men and women in the United States, Canada and elsewhere who have died at the hands of police—have become the new heroes for the ways in which their deaths have spawned a social justice movement for change. Echoing the fate of Uncle Tom who, in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s nineteenth-century novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, died a martyr’s death at the hands of a white plantation owner, why is death still the predominant entry point for Black male heroism in the twenty-first century?

The slogan “Black Lives Matter” is much bigger than just anti-Black racism in policing. It is arguably the first metaphysical demand of this century to challenge the binary logic of hero versus anti-hero. Black Lives Matter is about an embodied, visual demand for Black freedom that is not embedded in an individualist narrative that positions one solitary man with the vision to see—past, present, future—but to also save everyone. All Black people can become heroes. Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us (219) echoes this egalitarian demand in that it not only anticipates a future where Black men are seen and heard, it also unpacks a complicated past, moving the viewer beyond aesthetics and the individualist narrative of a heroic visuality.

Films that move us to see a collective lived reality that is both past and in anticipation of a future help us get one step closer to realizing King’s dream. We need an imagined future where historical oppressions are understood as relevant to our present moment, not as something we need to “get over.” We need a new visuality that enables everyone to see history as it is, not as the 198s action hero would have us see it.

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CHERYL THOMPSON

Dr. Cheryl Thompson is the author of Uncle: Race, Nostalgia, and the Politics of Loyalty (Coach House Books) and Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture (Wilfrid Laurier University Press). She also writes cultural commentaries for several Canadian news and popular culture sites, including The Conversation, Toronto Star and the Montreal Gazette. In 2021, Thompson was named a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s (RSC) College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. She lives in Toronto.


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