Friday, December 16, 2011

Help a Book Chapter Find a Home: "The Politics of Black Masculinity in Star Wars and Star Trek"



Help a brother out.

We have a rich and varied audience here. For me, part of the fun of We Are Respectable Negroes are the random folks that chime in from time to time (I learn much from you all, and the many lurkers here should certainly make themselves known too), and the range of readers that stop by the site on a daily basis.

If you are a professional writer you likely have many essays, short stories, novels, novellas, and the like that will never see the light of day. It is not all that different for those in higher ed who have to write articles, books, and reviews, as part of their professional obligations. Like the former, there are occasions where chapters and articles end up in the circular file.

It is a Friday. This is a day to indulge. To point: I have a chapter from a book project that was killed at the last moment by the publisher. Here, I explore questions of black masculinity in the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, as well as their overlaps, tensions, and what they suggest about race in science fiction, and speculative fiction, more broadly.

Some of the sections include: "The Birth of the Cool: Star Wars, Mace Windu, and Lando Calrissian"; "The Cool of Star Wars vs. the Sterility of Star Trek"; and "Confessions of a Star Wars Baby."

I was looking through my files and this project lept out at me. Usually, you look at an article or chapter that was thrown down the memory hole, and say to yourself, "good riddance" (at least I do). But, this chapter is different. There is something here that should see the light of day; Following an instinct, I will throw it out to the universe for judgement (acceptance or rejection).

Academics, friends, countrymen, and others, if you know someone working on a book project where this could be of use (written in a tone suitable for an interested lay public as per the editors' request), please forward this one passage, a few paragraphs of the obligatory 25 or so pages, along. I will forward my vita and the full chapter once business, and identities, are confirmed.

Perhaps, all parties involved will find a mutually advantageous and beneficial resolution to a shared conundrum.

Ghetto nerds, please share your thoughts.

Surviving Jar Jar Binks and the Burden of Being Commander Sisko

The controversy surrounding the character Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace brought the question of race to the forefront of the Star Wars phenomenon. In newspaper editorials, magazine articles, and online, a range of cultural critics and others took aim at the character of Jar Jar Binks. He was savaged as a racial caricature, a modern day performance of digital blackface, a contemporary Steppin Fetchit that was nothing more than a tired, hackneyed, race minstrel.

In total, Jar Jar became a symbol of the latent racism present in George Lucas’s subconscious. When placed into the context of the other “racist” depictions in Star Wars, the jury seemed to be in: instead of being a harmless space opera, Star Wars was in reality a thinly veiled racist trope. My point here is not to arbitrate this claim (although I do believe that this charge lacks a deeper appreciation of Star Wars as a cultural text), but to reflect on how the Jar Jar Binks controversy illuminates the question of soul in some surprising ways.

Jar Jar Binks represents the antithesis of soul. Although, he is a cgi character “performed” by the talented Broadway actor Ahmed Best, Jar Jar’s energy humbles and lampoons black personhood. Here, he is a bumbling, “Jamaican” inspired “Patois” speaking alien who is dangerously close to the stock race minstrel character Stepin Fetchit.

The question of Lucas’s intentionality is moot: instead, of primary importance is how Jar Jar Binks represents a character archetype, that from at least the 19th century in the United States, onward, was specifically designed to demean the personhood of African Americans as being lazy, bumbling, incompetent, and not fit for democratic citizenship.

In contrast, Star Trek’s Commander Benjamin Sisko stands strong against these forces. This burden is a heavy one, precisely because of how the dominant script for representing black personhood in mass, popular culture, is so negative. As a qualifier, my claim here is a careful one. I am not arguing that Sisko is a response to Jar Jar Binks--as the two characters do not exist concurrently with one another (Deep Space Nine first aired several years before The Phantom Menace). What I am suggesting is that Commander Sisko exists in juxtaposition to Jar Jar Binks. Furthermore, Jar Jar Binks represents the types of cultural representations of African Americans which Avery Brooks, as Commander Sisko, is actively working to negate.

There were many responsibilities thrust upon Benjamin Sisko. As the principle character, and heroic protagonist, this was not unexpected. Moreover, the weight of the Sisko character was in many ways necessary for the narrative to “work.” But, even as judged against the lofty standards of leadership expected from Star Trek’s captains, Sisko’s responsibilities were outsized and exceptional.

He was a single parent raising his only son on a space station in an extremely dangerous, and strategically critical, part of the galaxy. Sisko was seen by the Bajoran people as an emissary--an almost god-like figure. And Brooks’ character was the first captain to be featured on the Star Trek television series during a full-scale intergalactic war. As a testament to his super-human responsibilities, Benjamin Sisko eventually leaves the plane of human existence and lives as one of the Prophets, a group of demigods with the power to alter time and space.

As compared to the other black characters on Star Trek, Sisko was firmly rooted in, and tied to, the history of his people (as both a citizen of Earth, and as a black man) and actively resisted any efforts to be “whitened,” made apolitical, or presented as being “post-racial” in the narrative. For example, Sisko boasted of owning one of the finest collections of African art in the galaxy; he traveled back in time to lead a revolutionary political protest movement during the 22nd century (events which helped to give birth to a unified Earth, and eventually, the Federation of Planets); and in one of Star Trek’s most powerful episodes, he lived the life of a genius black science fiction writer in Harlem whose work was rejected by a white, racist, publishing industry.

Sisko owned his history as a black man. He was also strengthened by it. This history also exacts a price for awareness: Sisko was denied the chance to remain blissfully ignorant of humankind's cruel realities, and how they shape the present and future. As tellingly highlighted by an exchange between Benjamin Sisko, and his soon to be wife (who is also African-American), the latter tells him that we can imagine the past (in this case a holographic adventure in 1950s segregated Las Vegas) as not being racist, because humanity has moved “beyond” the bigotry of its past.

Her implication is clear: Benjamin Sisko is limiting his own pleasure and joy by seeing Earth’s long history of racism and prejudice for what it actually was--as opposed to imaging the past as it should have been. While Sisko eventually surrenders to his fiance’s suggestion, Avery Brooks’ character remains unique among the captains on the various Star Trek series (allowing for Jean Luc Picard’s apolitical and race neutral fascination with the past) by drawing nourishment from his character’s relationship to a historically specific and grounded experience.

If Jar Jar Binks represents the antithesis of soul, Commander Sisko represents the burden of blackness at the site of the politics of representation. The latter is such an obligation that it robs Sisko of the relaxed, cool sensibility that Avery Brooks channeled in his previous role as the assassin and enforcer, Hawk, on the television series Spencer for Hire. In all, the sum effect of Avery Brooks’ obligation to offer a positive representation of black personhood is existentially confining for the character Captain Benjamin Sisko.

22 comments:

Mrs. Chili said...

I am in LOVE with this essay! I'm going to let it sit for a while before I come back to ask questions, but I wanted to get out there that you have given this grading-weary English teacher a much needed boost today.

Anonymous said...

Chapter VII

In a another multi-universe Jamel was peeking outside his view space of his transport in the fog all he could detect was vulgar rain drops on the roofs of the complex but this was the right sphere the coordinates were accurate..

Jamel was a senior detect analyst he was well trained not only in calibration of his disclosure device but once the spectrum force was released he could calculate within single digits how many underdeveloped residents were clustered in a complex and this of course provide humanity bonus points for him..

Jamel was reading of late how some of the residents were navigating around being detected by the latest model of the cultural detection device but he ignored the reports as just banter from embarrassed and shamed candidates who resented the government's recalibration university programs and six month calendar...

In any event Jamel was getting into position to operate the device..

Chapter IX

chaunceydevega said...

@chili. my tedium? how nice. there are 30 or so pages of it. maybe your good energy will help it find a home. or i may just have to send it to a journal after a rewrite, which i am trying to avoid.

@anon. jamel? a writing circle has developed. share more.

Bryan said...

" Jar Jar Binks represents the antithesis of soul. "
You actually did a meaningful, and objective analysis after this sentence; much more than most Star Wars fans are capable of.

'Nuff said, hold the ghetto nerd chalice proudly.

Now we just need something about
Kung-fu movies or comic books....

chaunceydevega said...

@Bryan. How kind. There is more...

Anonymous said...

Chapter IX

In his morning briefing Jamel was stunned to discover that some of the candidates in his sector were not impacted by the disclosure device!

Jamel could not believe that candidates had developed some type of immunity to the application of the disclosure device. Was it possible candidates had evolved to employ a barrier that was genetically driven? Was it plausible that the candidates had collective reaction and developed a system to shield themselves from the calibration?

Jamel had already made up his mind before the briefing was over he was going to discover why candidates were not responding to the device not only was he losing bonus units but he was getting nervous none of his peers reported their sectors were out of order with some candidates expressing dissent..

That night Jamel decided to act he was going to intercept a couple of the candidates and interrogate them of course little did Jamel know that a trap was already set for him..

As the cold night rolled in the thrifty fog flooded the air with pockets of visibility and mystery Jamel's flight was unencumbered until he felt a loud noise and massive lost of altitude his ship was falling out of orbit..

Chapter XI

Anonymous said...

Chapter XII

Jamel had started a list of candidates he was going to intercept one of the candidates was a chocolate tasty brown woman with bouncy round textured tits that he hoped soon he would slide the crevices of his buttocks on..

Jamel had noticed on his sector scan many of the outlines of candidates he had targeted were woman with sexual aura's that illuminated his sector screen with a peel back licking invitation..Jamel was glad his fleet had equipped the pilot cockpit with only small cameras not full screen lenses licking the screens was a treat he could keep to himself...

Jamel noticed his cock had rhythms that matched the scan screen he could only imagine the actual moment of having his cock dance on the warm skin of the women he selected..

Chapter XIII

John Kurman said...

My take, with an opening qualifier. If you consider yourself a ghetto nerd, then I've got to be a full blown circus geek - unashamedly willing to publicly bite the head off that chicken in the name of nerdy fun. Which makes me wonder if it is possible to be a science fiction fan and also cool. Your own descriptor suggestsd not. Regardless, I'm apt to be much more harsh than you are on Star Wars and Star Trek. Star Wars, to me, suggests a studied general indifference to black folk. Not just Lucas. I mean, sure, the marketing department said you got a throw in a token negro, but don't make it too obvious so give him, say, an Armenian name. But that is what happened. The only reason Lando Calrissian was cool was what Billy Dee put into the part. I understand why you would consider Star Wars because it is a large part of US mythos, but seriously, Fuck Star Wars.

And the best I can say about Star Trek is, well, they meant well. In the original series, you've got the glorious Nichelle Nichols as... Kirk's secretary. You've got Dr. Richard Daystrom (played by the late Wiliam Marshall of "Blacula" fame), who is brilliant, but deranged. You've got one red shirt (played by Carl Byrd), in the episode "By Any Other Name", who is barely restrained by Kirk in a performance of ill-disguised smoldering rage. Oh, and a Lt. Boma (played by Don Marshall) in the episode "Galileo Seven", who is allowed to substitute McCoy's role as Spock's critic, and who is proven wrong.

As characters, in their presentment, not one is allowed a moment of powerful affirmation. Only Uhura, in the later movies, is allowed a moment of power, granting that character some measure of respect.

In the later series, time and again we see black actors and characters in roles, but always subsidiary, or lacking in total presentment of power. True, the captain of the Yamato (played by the late Thlmus Rasulala) in the Next Generation series episode "Contagion" is given a position of authority, but even he is not allowed to exercise a full presence, as his own ship self destructs under his feet.

We finally reach Sisko, but is Sisko allowed to be a black man? Sure, he is cool. Sure, he is powerful. But ultimately no, we are told in the end he is an alien, or rather a product of aliens, and so not even Sisko gets to be a strong black human.

Fianlly, we reach, the Vulcan Tuvok on the Voyager, played by Tim Russ. Credit Mr. Russ for his performance. We do not recognize him as a black man, but a black Vulcan.

So, I've got to say there's not that good of a track record even in the Star Trek productions, but at least they try.

And, yes, it is pretty fucking sad that I should be so knowledgable about this shit.

chaunceydevega said...

@John. I am in good company. In another part of the chapter I hit on some of those points-I also mention Geordi an asexual black man with blue eyes who for the most part is obsessed with white women; Worf, a klingon played by a black actor, the great Michael Dorn, who is a savage Other who learns to become civilized by being with his human family, a predominantly white crew, and again falls in love with a white woman in Deanna Troi.

Star Trek, despite its "p.c." pandering is very much a white liberal racist project where their burden to civilize others--despite the Prime Directive--is quite clear.

Now, I will go hide...

Brotha Wolf said...

I also think Star Trek is a combination of a white savior (Zephrem Cochrane being the catalist for introducing aliens to humanity, thus uniting the world and opened doors to outerspace) utopian (wars, famine, poverty, and disease are gone in the future) fantasy.

Chauncey,

What do you think about that black male crew member on Enterprise? From what I remember, the show just didn't try to dig deep into his character. Hell, I don't even know his name really lol.

Brotha Wolf said...

Also, have you noticed that there seems to be a never ending obsession of Star Wars by mostly white males?

Jim in St Louis said...

enjoyable read... ya big geek ;)

Silky Soul Singer said...

Oh boy... Nerd Alert!!!

Chauncey! Your timing is incredibly impeccable!!

My lovely wife, who lovingly and patiently lives with a huge Sci-Fi geek had never seen an episode of DS9. She'd been a occasional viewer of Next Generation but that was the extent of her Star Trek experience. So a few weeks ago I purchased the full series and we've been knee deep in it since (we're just starting season three... where the series really found it's identity).

Over the years I'd been waxing poetic about DS9 as being the pinnacle of what Star Trek hoped to be. The presence of Commander Sisko and his son Jake (the only Black characters who ever mattered in the Trek universe) made what was for me a great series even more enjoyable.

I don't know if you're aware of Avery Brooks influence over the portrayal of his character and the relationship with his son, but it was significant. Compare the way Sisko was written with the completely emasculated Geordi LaForge and you actually have to feel sorry for Levar Burton.

And it never ceased to annoy me to see the way they used the Worf character as a foil to reinforce the myth of the "Great White Father".

While the writers on Next Gen, deserve much of the blame for this, the real culprit was Gene Roddenberry. His racial politics were stuck somewhere in 1965 (honest to God, have you seen any of the interviews in which he describes his thought processes behind the creation of each character on the Original Series and Next Gen? Yikes!), and since he was executive producer of Next Gen, that series outlook remained there as well.

Having said all that (See? There I go waxing poetic again!), I have for the most part fallen out of love with the vast majority of Sci-Fi. It's been a running joke among my friends and I for many years now that Sci-Fi is white folks fantasy future in which all people of color somehow mysteriously disappear. Especially if the story has a post-apocalyptic theme.

For instance, I know you're a fan of "The Walking Dead", but I cannot bring myself to watch it.

The story takes place in and around Atlanta, Georgia right? But no Black people survived the Zombie plague?

What?!!

And even if I suspend disbelief for the sake of the story, why aren't there more Black Zombies? Are there any on the show at all? Did the dead white folks eat us all?

I know we gots flava, but Damn!

Abstentus said...

I read this post yesterday, and thought you had an interesting take on the "the franchise." Or should that be plural? (I'm sorta geeky/nerdy myself, but I see myself as more of an Arts and Ent. insider, even if not working there these days.) Not to cut in on your topic and all, but hmmm. I would likely come at it from a different perspective, due to the Theatre/dramatic analysis base I come from. If I were to write on such matters.

In any event, regarding Mr. Brooks, I really hope to meet him some day not only because of his body of work, but because my brother knew him well, back in the day, when Mr. Brooks was still in the MFA program at Mason Gross, Rutgers. (My brother was studying jazz, at Livingston College, then.) So I would have a good starting point for the conversation, at least!

(But in any case, you won't see me at any Sci Fy conventions, unless I am there on the clock, or trying to sell/pitch something.)

Ankhesen Mié said...

Benjamin Sisko eventually leaves the plane of human existence and lives as one of the Founders

You mean the Prophets.

Silky Soul Singer said...

Oh boy... Nerd Alert!!!

Chauncey! Your timing is incredibly impeccable!!

My beautiful wife, who lovingly and patiently lives with a huge Sci-Fi geek had never seen an episode of DS9. She'd been a occasional viewer of Next Generation but that was the extent of her Star Trek experience. So a few weeks ago I purchased the full series and we've been knee deep in it since (we're just starting season three... where the series really found it's identity).

Over the years I'd been waxing poetic about DS9 as being the pinnacle of what Star Trek hoped to be. The presence of Commander Sisko and his son Jake (the only Black characters who ever mattered in the Trek universe) made what was for me a great series even more enjoyable.

I don't know if you're aware of Avery Brooks influence over the portrayal of his character and the relationship said character had with his son, but it was significant. Compare the way Sisko was written with the completely emasculated Geordi LaForge and you actually have to feel sorry for Levar Burton.

And it never ceased to annoy me to see the way they used the Worf character as a foil to reinforce the myth of the "Great White Father".

While the writers on Next Gen, deserve much of the blame for this, the real culprit was Gene Roddenberry. His racial politics were stuck somewhere in 1965 (honest to God, have you seen any of the interviews in which he describes his thought processes behind the creation of each character on the Original Series? Yikes!), and since he was executive producer of Next Gen, that series outlook remained there as well.

Having said all that (See? There I go waxing poetic again!), I have for the most part fallen out of love with the vast majority of Sci-Fi. It's been a running joke among my friends and I for many years now that Sci-Fi is white folks fantasy future in which all people of color somehow mysteriously disappear. Especially if the story has a post-apocalyptic theme.

For instance, I know you're a fan of "The Walking Dead", but I cannot bring myself to watch it.

The story takes place in and around Atlanta, Georgia right? But no Black people survived the Zombie plague?

What?!!

And even if I suspend disbelief for the sake of the story, why aren't there more Black Zombies? Are there any on the show at all? Did the dead white folks eat us all?

I know we gots flava, but Damn!

chaunceydevega said...

@Ank. Thanks. See good editors are helpful.

chaunceydevega said...

@brotha. You are onto something. there is a whole literature on Star Trek, some of which addresses your concerns. There is a book called Race(ing) Towards the Future that came out a few years ago that works through some of your ideas, a recent book on Star Trek and Politics, particularly IR, takes on that note too. Also see the book out on McFarland Press on Star Trek and gender.

@Abstentus. As I mentioned in a post some time ago, I was lucky to see Brooks live w. the Shakespeare Company of D.C. Awesome stuff. I was in the 5th row, he spat on me by accident. No complaints.

There are also some clips of him online doing actors workshops which are worth checking out.

Tone said...

What about Darmok?

Tone said...

Oops. I meant Dathon. Shaka, when the walls fell.

Janbo said...

This essay certainly deserves as wide an audience as it can get. May I suggest using CreateSpace or Lulu to publish it as a chapbook, or a longer work of nonfiction, if there are other chapters related to it? I'd buy it!

rosie1843 said...

My God! And I thought the white fanboys were ridiculous when it came to Jar Jar. There's nothing wrong with Jar Jar. Since when did an occasionally clumsy character represented