If you’re saying “Come on now, Marques. America is not post-racial!” Well, you’re right, of course. America is not post-racial and Michael B. Jordan’s latest acting gig is another not-so-subtle reminder that no matter how much we try to ignore or avoid race, sometimes that guy is just too black for our liking. In this case, it’s the Fruitvale Station actors upcoming role as Johnny Storm of The Fantastic Four that has some Americans in a racial tizzy. This has come to be expected as of late, especially after the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games and the hate storm that it spawned. Well, if this is something to be expected, why am I even writing about it? Because these reactions are a perfect segue to open a dialogue about a much more prevalent and important problem in American society.
In November of 2008, Americans around the nation welcomed a new term into their households: post-racial. The prefix “post-“ implied that the United States, with its long (and continuing) struggles with race, had managed to finally leave the spectre of slavery, internment camps, assassinations, and riots in its past. A joyous day and a prosperous future lay ahead for America, right? Race relations would no longer be an issue because, of course, being in a post-racial era meant that race no longer existed (or mattered, maybe). The issue with all of the declarations of a post-racial America was that Americans from all walks never truly learned or understood what race was, what racism was, and how deeply ingrained each are in American society. Indeed, the great event that led Americans to proclaim the advent of post-racialism was the election of an African-American president. Not coincidentally, many figures from Tupac Shakur to Malcolm X to Dave Chappelle noted that the idea of an African-American president, while a sign of advancement, had also become the stereotypical gateway to a society in which Blacks could no longer make legitimate claims about any injustice that they faced. “The president is Black, stop complaining.” was of course a prophetic line that I would come to see in countless locales from in-person discussions to online comment boards and social media networks. You see, because Americans never took the time to actually look back on our racist history, we erroneously believed that the presidency was some sort of mystical switch that could wipe away the endemic racism in American history. We believed that because we only saw the immediate effects of racism. We only saw the hounds biting protesters, the lynched and whipped black bodies, and the bombed out Southern churches. We never stopped to consider how a long history of subjugation could limit both Black and White communities alike. Although I could write on a plethora of more overt effects, such as the impact of the War on Drugs, the Fantastic Four fiasco has drawn my attention to a less considered effect.
The fact that there is consistent outrage when Black actors and actresses play fictional characters typically envisioned as White is truly one of the first and few times that most whites must even think about race. This is not to say that many whites don’t superficially think about race at other times prior, but that this is a rare case in which the racial identity of something that Whites are encouraged to care about is does not match their own. Most other times that race becomes an issue in mainstream American life is when it is seen as a boon to minorities, some sort of advantage. Yet, even as Jake Gyllenhaal played the Prince of Persia and Johnny Depp starred as the Native American “Tonto” in The Lone Ranger, the issue of character race rarely seemed to truly bother mainstream America. It seems as though incidents such as the castings of Stenberg and Jordan have introduced some in the White American community to the confusion, anger, and disconnect that develops when their heroes don’t (or no longer) look like them.
This, however, is the norm for Blacks in American society. From the classroom to the silver screen, every mainstream and popular hero to be worshipped and revered is White. The character of these heroes can range from the honorable nobility of Superman to the ferocious warrior facades of ancient peoples like the Spartans or figures like George Washington or George Patton. On the other hand, any Black hero celebrated in mainstream American culture is made to be a peaceful dove, acquiescing to the idea of integration, shunning any aggression towards their enemy (see: The Butler). Any black heroes outside of that spectrum are considered hateful and to be hated or viewed as a hindrance (again see: The Butler). We can’t watch Malcolm X and admire his resistance to oppression “by any means necessary” without also hearing about how “hateful and racist” Malcolm X was. In mainstream American culture, the Black Panthers are viewed almost terrorists, during a time when terror from racism and government aggression was the reality for African-Americans. Yet a great deal of Americans can watch 300 and relate to or even imagine themselves as the brave 300 Spartans fighting against oppression as they kill off the monstrous brown-skinned Persians (A far cry from their prince Mr. Gyllenhaal) with no question as to their honor and respectability. Or many Americans can watch a film like The Patriot and applaud the undying fight and the justified brutality of Mel Gibson’s character, who was based on Francis Marion, a brave figure with skeletons in his closet as well. Yet, those skeletons are buried and the audience, can see their hero save the day, untarnished by controversy, as he dashes his enemies.
In America, this is the unfortunate reality for minorities and one that is especially difficult for African-Americans given our unique history in this country as property, three-fifths of a man, and full citizen. For a population that has seen this country through its darkest and greatest times, there are so few heroes respected by our mainstream “post-racial” American brethren that look like us, yet so many valiant figures that are placed before us as heroes that do not look like us. When a production company chooses to take a fictional hero and relate him to our people (not to say Jordan was only cast for his race), this is viewed as an affront to the character’s history and even racist. The moment Johnny Storm becomes black is the moment that the movies expected majority-white audience can no longer relate. A shame that the problem is as simple as skin color, yet the backlash shows this. I understand that many, maybe even most whites, have no immediate problem with Michael B. Jordan playing the Human Torch. I mention the controversy only to shed light on the fact that the discomfort many armchair critics feel regarding their hero’s race-change is the same discomfort young black boys and girls live with throughout their childhoods… Never being able to relate themselves to Kal-El without inevitably being called the “Black Superman” or someone saying “but Superman is white.” The same discomfort that plagues a child who knows his/her history and is told that the Black Panthers were hateful and ignorant without justification or that Angela Davis’ words are archaic and to be forgotten while the words of Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln may be quoted eternally as though they did not all fight conflicts central to the freedom and safety of their people. The very same discomfort, yet for African-Americans, it is indelibly marked with a sense of shame as well. Being told that you can never be your hero because he/she does not look like you can be traumatic to say the least. Now, I don’t suggest that some radical change take place in our cartoons, movies, or children’s toys. I simply ask that you understand the impact that race still has in this so-called “post-racial” society. I ask that you understand how the absence of the shameless, non-submissive, valiant, Black warrior hero and abundance of the proud, relentless, honorable, White conqueror hero can affect the psyches of Americans, both young and old. I ask that you understand the messages that we send when we keep our children from becoming their heroes, even if it is only in their young, formative minds.