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.