The Hero with a Thousand Tears

Coming back stronger than ever is complicated.

https://www.reddit.com/r/gameofthrones/comments/70gpg1/no_spoilers_jon_snow_fan_art_oil_on_linen_12x12/ ; https://thewallpaper.co/u/hasan-cengiz-13346/

Yah know I’m not sure we can write enough words about heroes. It’s an inexhaustible subject of conversation. If I was speed dating and I was like “hey who are your favorite heroes” and they were like “you mean like my mom?” and I was like “aw that’s actually really cool but no like a fictional hero” and they were like “oh then Batman” and I would be like “well not just superheroes like other fictional heroes” and they were like “….” then I would take off my sticker nametag (which I usually forget to take off) and leave. But that wouldn’t happen, because heroes are interesting and there is so much to say about so many of them. It’s a conversation that is as easy to start as it is to get immersed in complexities and nuance, and it’s one that is not only fun but also potentially instructive and revelatory. What we say about heroes matters, and heroic matters say something about us.

One way to approach discussing heroes is to look for a hero who, in some way, diverges from many of the common archetypes and tropes, and then to juxtapose that hero to another hero who does much the same thing. Our discussions often work off of seminal frameworks, such as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which lays out the prototypical hero’s journey. It’s a useful framework, even if it allows some people to oversimplify the conversation. For instance, once during a break in a graduate lit class, someone said that Avatar: The Last Airbender was “just a hero’s journey” and I Halperted a nonexistent camera with the force of a thousand suns. Heroes are often created and critiqued in conversation with previous heroes. Whereas antiheroes were once new and subversive, they’ve now saturated creative spaces. Luke Skywalker was molded in the form of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and Rey (Skywalker?) was constructed in response to unimaginative Disney executives Luke. Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven is a commentary on the stoic gunslinger archetype he made famous decades earlier. We can also just notice that two heroes have some things in common and talk about how interesting it is that two characters from two very different works have some important things in common. All of these comparisons are fun and useful.

Something common to quite a few heroes is a near-death experience from which they recover or an actual death experience from which they’re resurrected. The low-hanging comparative fruit is Jesus of Nazareth, and these heroes are often dubbed Christ figures to varying degrees of usefulness (I wrote an entire Master’s Thesis about this, if you’re curious). Oftentimes, these heroes triumphantly return from the dead and kick ass, like T’Challa and Neo. And why not? It tracks that someone returning from the dead would be flying high and ready to take down the ones who tried to finish them off. The hero has embarked on a journey or quest, overcome great obstacles, leveled up, and is ready to dole out the rewards earned by their accomplishments.

(I’m writing some of this on the day of Chadwick Boseman’s death. So as I’m mentioning T’Challa, I just want to say that I’m feeling this one. He played heroes so well, and became a hero in his own right. We lost a great one).

But some heroes emerge from their experience broken. They may go on to further heroic acts, but something in them has changed. They do not return better than ever, or with a greater zeal than ever with their new lease on life, but rather with a devastating wound. Their experience was a traumatic one, and they exhibit something akin to PTSD. They go on trying to help others and do what is right, but while carrying the weight of their experience.

Two of the most notable recent examples of this type of hero are Korra and Jon Snow. So, yeah, I’m writing about The Legend of Korra and Game of Thrones again, which is on brand.

Korra and Jon approach their roles in the world with a similar enthusiasm, despite being of different temperaments. Korra is friendly, bold, and full of confidence, ready to take on the next challenge of going to Republic City and learning airbending. Even in her awkward teen moments, she has immense charisma. Jon is not unfriendly, but he is quiet, sullen, and reserved. He is unsure of his place in the world, but he is certain that if he joins the Night’s Watch it will be an opportunity for him to prove himself and bring honor to him and to House Starke. He is confident he has the abilities to be a great warrior. Korra and Jon both exhibit an amount of arrogance in their early days, as Korra swaggers into a gang shakedown and theatrically apprehends the gangsters, while Jon embarrasses all challengers in sword training. But both find that they were naive, as the situation in Republic City escalates and the Night’s Watch proves to be a shadow of its former self and the scrap heap of Westeros. In response to their frustrations, both prove to be hotheaded and impatient.

Without getting too far afield into audience response, both characters in their early seasons elicited a certain amount of skepticism because of their surly dispositions. Jon was the emo guy in the snow for the fist two seasons, and Korra comes out of the gates in season two mad at everyone all the time. However, both would work themselves into fan favorites as they grew into their roles as heroes.

As Korra becomes a fully-realized Avatar and Jon ascends to the rank of Lord Commander, they go about their heroic duties without the gratitude of the people. Early in season three, Korra mentions that she has an eight percent approval rating (this is just weeks after, you know, saving the entire world), and she is treated like a nuisance by President Raiko and the Earth Queen. As Jon wins the love and support of many in the Watch, some of his superiors scheme his demise, and, of course, no one in Westeros gives a fuck what anyone in the Watch is doing, even if they are the shield that guards the realms of men. But they go on anyway, as Korra helps Tenzin rebuild the Air Nomad civilization, and Jon wins heroic victories at Kraster’s Keep and at the Battle of Castle Black.

The famous words of Jesus come to bear on these stories as Korra and Jon show themselves willing to lay down their life for their friends. Zaheer gives an ultimatum: Korra must turn herself over to him, or he will annihilate all the Airbenders. Even before her allies devise a plan to possibly rescue her during the exchange, she is willing to go on her own and turn herself over, not knowing exactly what Zaheer plans, but sure that it will be some form of destruction. Jon, knowing that Castle Black cannot withstand more attacks from the Free Folk, goes beyond the wall unarmed, determined to assassinate Mance Rayder, certain that the attempt will cost him his life.

However, both evade death for the time being. The Avatar State allows Korra to fight off Zaheer’s poison and engage him in high-flying one-on-one combat. The arrival of Stannis Baratheon saves Jon at the critical moment, allowing him to return to Castle Black and be elected Lord Commander. But after Zaheer is defeated, the poison takes Korra to the brink, saved only when Su is able to bend the metallic poison out of her. Jon takes command of the Watch and leads the heroic effort at Hardome (this is where we’re very much in show-Jon vs. book-Jon territory so keep that in mind if you’re a book person too), but for doing so he is murdered by some of his own men. But some are not so ready to let Jon go, and Melisandre is able to resurrect him.

So what happens now? Korra has defeated yet another frightening enemy and has survived the poison – she should be all the stronger and more confident and ready to stabilize the Earth Kingdom. Jon is back from the dead – time for him to punish the conspirators and become a legendary commander, right? But that’s not what happens.

Korra is broken from her traumatic experience. She is confined to a wheelchair, and the light is gone from her eyes. The final scene of season three is jaw-dropping, as Tenzin anoints his daughter Jenora as an Airbending master and pays tribute to Korra, who he credits as having saved their culture by being willing to lay down her life. And in this moment of great celebration, the final shot is of Korra as a tear flows down her face.

This is not the Korra we’re used to. And we don’t get the spunky, smiling Korra back anytime soon. The first few episodes of season four see her struggling to heal, and even after she regains the ability to walk, she is haunted by her trauma and is unable to beat even petty thieves in a fight. She is caught between fear of returning to her role as Avatar and fear of letting the world down by being out of the game for years. She survived the encounter with Zahir in one of the greatest displays of her Avatar powers, but the experience left her as a broken Avatar.

Jon returns from the dead in a fashion somewhat short of glorious and triumphant. In one of the series’ best scenes, Jon is overwhelmed by his return.

He seems almost appalled by the unnaturalness of it. And then he remembers what happened. “I shouldn’t be here,” he says. “I did what I thought was right. And I got murdered for it.” In short, he isn’t happy to be back. He isn’t ready to go out and fail again, as Davos encourages him to do. When he does resume command of the Watch, he does so only long enough to bring justice the conspirators. Then he abruptly quits the Watch. Only the arrival of Sansa brings him into the political entanglements of House Starke.

So Jon’s back in the game, ready to lead an army to take Winterfell back from the treacherous Boltons, but he isn’t happy about it, and he isn’t growing any more comfortable with his new extended lease on life. Before the Battle of the Bastards, he tells Melisandre not to bring him back if he dies. At the battle itself, he charges the entire Bolton army, completely dispensing with any regard for his own safety. But Jon survives and he is named King in the North, so surely that must encourage him, right? He’s now a living legend, he should smile a little, shouldn’t he?

No; Jon has been forever changed by his experience. He has lost part of himself. He has not come back with a new gleam in his eye.

It’s a sad, sad moment when Daenerys says “We all enjoy what we’re good at,” and Jon replies, “I don’t.”

And, of course, Jon continues to try his best to put himself in danger (some have suggested that Jon is actually trying to die). Post-resurrection, Jon should become the knight-in-shining armor par excellence, the Chosen One who has overcome death itself and is ready to save the world. Instead, he’s a reluctant leader who just wants people to stop fighting long enough to defeat the true enemy. Even when he finds out that Melisandre considers him the Prince Who Was Promised, and even after he finds out that he is the legitimate son of Lyanna Starke and Rhaegar Targaryen and therefore heir to the Iron Throne, he says “I don’t want it” with meme-generating emphasis.

This isn’t what we expect from heroes. Seasons of television, let alone “children’s” television, don’t end with the hero broken and hopeless even after beating another Big Bad. Handsome, heroic warriors don’t come back from the dead more depressed than ever with no interest in growing their legend or hooking up with the beautiful Dragon Queen (well, okay, he gets interested in one of those eventually). But this is what we get: a broken Avatar and an emo King.

But therein lies the other part to this comparison which makes these broken heroes so admirable and memorable. Yes, they are the Avatar and the King, two Chosen Ones if ever there was one (two?), but that is not what enables them to continue to heroically face challenges even after their traumatic experiences. In season two of Korra, when Korra is at her lowest point having lost her connection to her Avatar Spirit, Tenzin tells her that Korra is not defined by Raava’s spirit. “Before [Avatar Wan] fused with Raava, he was just a regular person.” “But he was brave, and smart, and always wanted to defend the helpless,” replies Korra. “That’s right,” says Tenzin. “He became a legend because of who he was, not what he was.” Korra is able to find the light in the dark and defeat UnaVaatu because she connects with her own inner strength. She saves the Air Nomads because of her selflessness. She recovers from the poison because of her desire to defend others. She faces off with Kuvira not once but twice because of her indomitable will. And she gains the love and admiration of all around her because she is Korra, not because she is the Avatar. Jon may be the Prince Who Was Promised, but that isn’t why he takes the lead in bringing attention to the threat of the Night King. He finds out he is not Jon Snow but Aegon Targaryen, but that doesn’t change his priorities. He’s selfless, brave, and resilient, and never stops trying to do what is right.

Korra and Jon go on from their traumatic experiences because of who they are, not what they are. If they were defined by being the Avatar and the King, then maybe there’s a version of these stories where they return from the brink with newfound fire, stronger than ever and ready to ascend to their places of glory. But instead, each story grapples with the humanity of these individuals, and depicts the emotional toll those experiences would take. Their statuses don’t shield them from pain and suffering, and they don’t pull them from the depths of despair, either. Instead, the very humanity that is so fragile and becomes so broken is the thing which leads them out of the darkness and enables them to once again carry the hero’s burden. They don’t do it with the same enthusiasm they had when they left for Republic City or the Night’s Watch, but they do so with the knowledge of how great a burden it is that they bear. In two of the most notable heroes of the last decade, this is an aspect that should not be overlooked.

There are other heroes who fit somewhat into this mold – Harry Potter comes to mind – and I believe we will see more of them. As we reckon with the realities of mental health, and as our notions of heroes continue to evolve and become more complex and nuanced, heroes who can be broken and stay broken but go on being heroes anyway just make sense.

And I look forward to talking about them.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

TFW Bumi Talks to His Dad’s Statue

Let’s talk about one of the best scenes in The Legend of Korra

I wrote a couple weeks ago that one of the reasons that The Legend of Korra is not as great as Avatar: The Last Airbender is that it does not have as many indelible achievements. For instance, ATLA has a character arc like Zuko’s, a villain like Azula, episodes like Zuko Alone, and moments like the “crazy spirit attack on the Fire Nation,” Iroh’s funeral for his son, and the final Agni Kai[1]. There are so many characters, episodes, scenes, musical cues, and images that are breathtaking. Korra simply doesn’t have as many, but that’s not to say there are none. Let’s talk about one of them today, a particular scene that is emotionally devastating and a meta-textual masterpiece.

In Book 2, Episode 4, Civil Wars: Part 2, Tenzin is visiting the Southern Air Temple with his family, including his older sister, Kya, and his older brother, Bumi. During their stay, Tenzin’s daughter, Ikki, has some sibling conflict with Jinora and and Meelo, and the search for Ikki after she goes off to be alone brings up tensions between Tenzin and his own siblings. One of the main points of contention is the ways in which Kya and Bumi felt that Aang favored Tenzin because he was the only airbender of his children.

The scene occurs when Bumi goes on his own into a hall in the temple with statues of all the past Avatars, and he stands in front of the statue of his father. The rambunctious music of the previous scene cuts out, and Bumi stands in the shadowy hall, a shaft of light illuminating Aang’s statue.

“Uh, hey there, Dad. You’re looking well. Look, uh, I’m sorry I didn’t turn out to be an airbender like you hoped. But I’ve tried my best to keep the world safe. Hope I made you proud.”

One of the most important missions of Aang’s time as Avatar was to re-establish the Air Nomad civilization, of which he was the sole surviving member. In addition to training acolytes and repopulating the temples, he would need to produce, with his eventual wife, Katara, a child who could airbend. With that in mind, it’s not too much to say that the first-born child of Aang and Katara would be the most important child in the history of the Avatar universe. Everyone would want to know if there was a future for airbending, no one more than the titular Last Airbender.

Bumi, named after one of Aang’s best friends, was born. And he was not an airbender. To add insult to injury, he wasn’t a bender of any kind. From a young age, Bumi had to know that even if he wasn’t a disappointment, the fact that he wasn’t an airbender was. A few years later, after Kya, a waterbender like her mother, was born, Aang finally got his airbending son, Tenzin. So not only was Bumi not an airbender and the hope for a future of Air Nomad civilization, it was his little brother, the youngest child.

“I’m sorry I didn’t turn out to be an airbender like you hoped.”

Damn.

Aang looms large over the first season of Korra with references to him and his legacy coming early and often and embodied quite literally in the Statue of Liberty-esque monument outside of Republic City. In the first season, that shadow falls most heavily on Korra, and later we will see its weight on Tenzin, but in this moment the focus is squarely on Bumi. Even the world’s best father would have had a hard time making Bumi feel like he wasn’t a disappointment, and, as we learn, Aang was far from a perfect father[2].

But I’ve tried my best to keep the world safe. Hope I made you proud.”

It’s no wonder Bumi joined the United Forces and rose to the rank of Commander. Unable to fulfill his father’s hopes as an airbender, he stuck to the mission of keeping the world safe which so occupied Aang’s time and effort. And, while he embellishes tales of his heroics with an extra typhoon or two, it’s obvious that he must have showed real bravery and determination. For all his jokes and goofs, his motivations were serious, and after a career in the military, he hopes that his service made his father proud.

“Of course he’d be proud of you, Bumi,” says Kya. It’s a tender moment between the brother and sister, and a moment which allows them to make up with Tenzin when they are reunited after finding Ikki.

It’s a brief, but emotionally-riveting scene. It got me again on rewatch, even after I’ve seen it a number of times and thought a lot about it, which is one of the measures of great art.

The scene is also a fascinating metatextual moment. Korra can only ever exist in the shadow of ATLA, and so it was an is scrutinized in the way that follow-ups to beloved shows and movies are. It’s as if in this moment, standing in front of the image of The Last Airbender himself, Bumi is speaking for the showrunners as they hope to make their fans proud. Korra is, in many ways, its own thing and its own thing on purpose, but it can never get too far away from its predecessor. That had to be stressful for the creators, and they had to desperately hope that fans would approve of the work they did. At no point in Korra is the fourth wall broken in quite the same way, and here it is done subtly, as opposed to the overt (yet genius) break in ATLA‘s Ember Island Players.

The high points in Korra are fewer and not as impressive as in ATLA, but there is still much to praise[3]. This scene is a marvel, and one of the many reasons I’m glad Korra exists and is now more accessible than ever. Aang would be proud.

Hold onto moments like this when you learn that DiMartino and Konietzko have departed the production of the live action Netflix adaptation.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

~click the number to return to the text~

1 When my brother and I rewatched the Final Agni Kai most recently, he just said, “Whoever made that the way it is deserves a prize.” Yep. Also my examples here skew heavy towards Fire Nation characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love so much in this show, but you could make a case that Zuko, Azula, and Iroh are the three best characters in the show.

2 Okay, but real talk how could a responsible Avatar really be an attentive father? Pretty demanding job there.

3 A couple notes on Korra real quick. First, the costume design is is so fantastic. It was good in ATLA, but they’re on another level with the variety and creativity. And that score. Man, again, Jeremy Zuckerman does phenomenal work in ATLA, and he’s just as good in Korra. I mean he’s in his fucking bag on some of these tracks. And, as with the costume design, he’s given more variety to work with. I don’t love the jazz numbers as much, but they’re pretty darn good too.

The Imperfect Excellence of The Legend of Korra

The follow-up to Avatar: The Last Airbender is a must-see.

After adding Avatar: The Last Airbender to its library to the great delight of fans, Netflix and Nickelodeon are following it up with the arrival of ATLA‘s sequel series, The Legend of Korra on August 14. For those who appreciated the opportunity to rewatch ATLA without having to navigate sketchy flash players on watchcartoononline, and for those who found out for the first time what they’d been missing, the new buzz is same as the old buzz; the consensus is that ATLA is still a nearly peerless work of American television.

The Legend of Korra is more divisive. There are some who feel let down by the series for various reasons, ranging from the premise to the particular choices in character construction and plot development. There are others who think Korra surpasses the original, appreciating aspects like the more mature themes. But, if there is a consensus, or, if there is a right opinion in my *pushes glasses up on nose* expert opinion, it is this: Korra is very good. It’s not as good as ATLA.

That’s a lukewarm take and not much to build a compelling blog post around, but for me it’s a premise that reifies ATLA‘s greatness, highlights the accomplishment of the expanded Avatar canon, and validates Korra as a series worth watching once it arrives, whether you’re an aficionado revisiting it again, an ATLA fan finally diving into the sequel, or a new viewer riding the momentum into another new discovery.

Let’s start with the first part of my I forgot I was drinking that tea temperature level take: The Legend of Korra is very good. I was slow to warm up to it at first, disoriented by the steampunk aesthetic and technology and slightly put off by Korra as a hot-headed and temperamental central protagonist. But I have come to love the show more each time I have watched it, now that I’m willing to tolerate the steampunk and have come to appreciate Korra’s demeanor (she rocks). The characters are varied and compelling, the soundtrack amplifies the action, the themes are complex and relevant, and the animation is flat-out gorgeous. It achieves a rare mix of action, humor, art, and intellect, and its best moments are absolutely chill-inducing. Before even making any comparisons to the original series, Korra stands up on its own.

That being said, the second part holds true; it’s not as good as ATLA. Again, before even judging Korra as a successful sequel, it’s clear to me which one is better. Korra is flawed, with some inconsistent writing that is, at times, maddening. There is also, I would suggest, a dearth of towering achievements – with two or three notable exceptions, there is a lack of character arcs, scenes, or themes that stand out as something people will be talking about for years to come like they’ve just seen it for the first time. In short, Korra has problems, and nothing besides the animation reaches the heights greatness demands.

But when we consider the two shows as original and sequel, the deficit in quality is actually to the credit of both. Korra is what it is while following the ATLA formula. For all the ways in which it is its own show, it is clearly cut from the same cloth. The fact that it followed the ATLA formula and is a very good but flawed series is a testament to the greatness of ATLA; Korra shows that the ATLA elements are not enough to make a perfect show and leave room for failure, but somehow the original series dodged almost every conceivable obstacle and reached near perfection. However, the fact that Korra is, for all its shortcomings, still a great show, is proof of how compelling the ATLA forumla is; a deus ex machina here or a giant robot there isn’t enough to undermine the various secret sauces that go into the ATLA recipe.

When you see how things could go wrong in Korra, it makes you appreciate that those things didn’t go wrong in ATLA. When you see the errors in Korra, it makes you appreciate how much work the ATLA elements are really doing.

This makes ATLA sound pretty great, but maybe fails to properly laud Korra, that is until you continue to consider them together and think about what it was that the creators actually tried to do in Korra. Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino set out to make a follow-up to one of the best, most beloved shows in history, running many of the same plays while also expanding in some bold ways. The degree of difficulty there is off the charts – and they succeeded. Again, there are real problems in Korra, and it doesn’t boast the list of mind-blowing achievements like its predecessor, but it’s still a really good show and a really good follow-up.

Could the follow-up series have picked up a few days, months, or years later, continuing to focus on Team Avatar as they restore balance to the world ravaged by 100 years of war? Yes. Could they have gone back to a time period well removed from the events of the original? Also yes. But by choosing the setting they did, Konietzko and DiMartino chose the fertile but unforgiving lands of a healthy distance from beloved material while still firmly in its shadow, and the result is a show that reckons with the questions that mature storytellers and mature audiences ask. Yes, we want to know what Aang did as Avatar after saving the world, but Korra presents us with his legacy, both as a geopolitical figure and as a father. We want to see what Air Nomad civilization looked like; we are shown the weight of building from one family and the identity crisis when Airbenders spring up in the other nations. We might want more martial arts-inspired bending battles and the aesthetic of medieval and early modern Asian history; we look towards how the world would change with advancing technology that would give non-benders more even footing with benders.

The best stories almost never end with “and they lived happily ever after.” They end with something like, “Well, I’m back.” Life goes on even after the big bad has been defeated. The ending of Avatar is unambiguously joyful, but it does hint at the difficult road ahead to heal the world and some of the loose ends that remain. Korra dutifully reckons with what comes next, but pushes the time frame further down the road to give a broader, more contextualized picture of how, even after Aang saved the world from destruction, more baddies arise. Conflicts remain. There is always work to be done.

And, while depicting this evolving world, Korra also follows in ATLA‘s footsteps by dealing with mature, relevant themes, such as totalitarianism/fascism, government corruption, anarchism, weapons of mass destruction, and PTSD. Its final scene changed television with a representation of a same-sex relationship in a show nominally meant for children. Meanwhile, it recognized that much of its audience would be ATLA fans now in their teens and 20s, and imbued the show with a more mature feel, as it is more violent, contains more political intrigue, and is more frank in depicting the characters as sexual beings (all while maintaining a suitability for children).

All of this is to say that I think Korra is not just a good follow-up; it’s just the kind of follow-up ATLA needed and deserved.

The particular success of Korra can also help unlock the wider Avatar universe. Since 2012, Dark Horse Comics has released six complete graphic novels written by Gene Luen Yang, Faith Erin Hicks, and the showrunners about the exploits of Team Avatar after the conclusion of the series. And, guys, they’re freaking great. I don’t read comics or graphic novels, and so I came to these very late – well after the conclusion of Korra – and reading them has felt like such a natural continuation and expansion of the story. Korra showed me that Avatar could go beyond the confines of ATLA, and that this expanded canon was worth exploring. Then there are the recent novels about Avatar Kyoshi, written by F.C. Yee with guidance from DiMartino, and they go so far above expectations it’s tough to overstate. Part of the joy in watching Korra and reading the graphic novels and books is seeing how rich the Avatar universe is. It’s a creative ocean that has depth beyond the things hinted at in ATLA, and holds great opportunities for more stories even when the original gang isn’t around. That’s a great joy and, frankly, a relief for fans, given that some series don’t quite hold up beyond the basic canon *cough* Harry Potter *cough*. It’s not Tolkien’s legendarium or Martin’s Westerosi tax codes, but few things are. It’s also proof that the creators have more to say beyond their original story, and that the source material is strong enough for multiple creatives to be successful (looking at you, Star Wars).

(This is where I don’t share my thoughts on the live-action re-imagining being made for Netflix other than to say I don’t get it).

The buzz around ATLA since it came to Netflix has been fun, and I’m hoping that something similar will happen with Korra as fans revisit and reevaluate and newcomers see what they’ve been missing. If all we ever got from Konietzko and DiMartino was Avatar: The Last Airbender, that would have been enough, but The Legend of Korra is a worthy follow-up that I am looking forward to diving into once again.

Zhu Li, do the thing.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

A Moment for Black, Queer Jesus

Jason Micheli from http://tamedcynic.org/

Call me old fashioned, but I believe Jesus and literature always apply. That’s one of the reasons I pursued an advanced degree in the subject.

I’m posting an excerpt from my Master’s Thesis in light of the recent racial reckoning in America which happens to coincide with Pride Month. Jesus of Nazareth was a human being like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the thousands of LGBTQ individuals now protected from employment discrimination after the Supreme Court’s decision (and the thousands of Dreamers now temporarily protected after another decision). But the remarkable nature of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and – if you believe in that sort of thing (*narrator voice* I do) – resurrection, means that the Middle Eastern carpenter executed by the Romans has a transcendent nature for all peoples in all times. In my thesis, I sought to use literature to show how the concept of “Black Jesus” properly emphasizes Jesus’ place in the experience of oppressed peoples. My work was especially concerned with the experience of Black Americans, but a portion of my first chapter explored the ways in which Black Jesus is of special relevance to LGBTQ individuals because Jesus is, I argue, a queer figure.

The excerpt below comes from my chapter on Wallace Thurman’s 1932 novel Infants of the Spring, a story about young Black artists during the Harlem Renaissance told from the perspective of Raymond, a young writer who is Thurman’s stand-in. For the full thesis and citations, go here.


The story of the Harlem Renaissance, and indeed of Black American history, is often told as a story of remarkable individuals, some of whom Raymond specifically discusses. The novel does not affirm this narrative, and instead casts light on the shortcomings of flawed individuals. In this, W.E.B. Du Bois is again relevant and prescient, claiming, “Throughout history, the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness,” (34) a tragedy which he attributes not to weakness or inferiority, but to the nature of double-consciousness, or the “double-aimed struggle of the black artisan” (34). As the novel’s concerns take shape, it becomes clear that remarkable individuals represent an answer to existential problems, but the characters can hardly conceive of an individual powerful enough to address the nature of their plight.

The novel’s misgivings about the saving power of individuals works in conjunction with anxieties about the stock placed in the future as the location of progress and salvation. After Raymond’s longtime friend Lucille comes to him for help in getting an abortion after she becomes pregnant with the boorish artist Bull’s child she says to Raymond, “I never want to bring a child into this world. I agree with you, although I doubt your sincerity, that race suicide would be the quickest way to cure human beings of their ills. Why should we go on bringing others into this world?” (158). It is a morbid and sociopathic thought, but one which Raymond affirms:

“It would be a grand day when the entire human race would be rendered sterile…a grand joke on the cantankerous old creator of our universe. I would chuckle with glee if one by one the inhabitants of this foolish old world would drop dead with no newly born replicas to don their shoes. That, in my opinion, is true anarchism.” (158)

Raymond’s remark is a compelling inversion of contemporary eugenicist thought, which Thurman decried not only in Infants of the Spring but in the screenplay he would write for an antieugenic film, Tomorrow’s Children, in 1934. His remarks here enter into the project of defining and controlling the succession of the Black family. The legacy of chattel slavery has, according to Hortense Spillers, dehumanized and commodified the Black body (67) while destroying the capacity for African peoples in the Diaspora to conform to Western notions of patronymic succession and nuclear family structure (74). “Failure” to conform to these structures affirms anti-black narratives, and so the creation of future generations ends up working against the Black population.  Raymond’s inversion of eugenics rejects the notion of eliminating a population deemed inferior or undesirable.

This critique of family structure and succession also attacks the stronghold of eugenic practice: the future. Paired with Spillers’ work, Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive raises the stakes as he suggests that prizing the future limits the potential of the present as the interests of the future erase any deviance that would threaten a social order based in heteronormative reproduction:

For politics, however radical the means by which specific constituencies attempt to produce a more desirable social order, remains, at its core, conservative insofar as it works to affirm a structure, to authenticate social order, which it then intends to transmit to the future in the form of its inner Child. (2-3)

Edelman rejects the future as it, even in attempts to be new, better, or progressive, acts to reproduce the past. He suggests a mode of existence which (quoting from Guy Hocquenghem), “is unaware of the passing of generations as stages on the road to better living. It knows nothing about ‘sacrifice now for the sake of future generations’ . . . [it] knows that civilisation alone is mortal” (30-1). Edelman’s rejection of the future is based in the threat the Child poses to affirming the place of queer sexuality in society, a conflict which plays out in Paul’s fate. Fiona Ngô describes Paul’s suicide as “a grand performance of queer identity, where death is presented as another form of transcendence” (104). Paul is open about his queer sexuality, but in his death he rejects societal demands in extraordinary fashion as he denies whatever possibilities were held in the future of a system built to write people like him out of it.

Rejection of the future based in queer identity is part of Raymond’s proposal of universal sterilization, but it also stems from marginalization based in other deviances from normativity. The artists of Niggerati Manor are judged and oppressed on account of the color of their skin, and some of them affirm the constructed superiority of whiteness by trying to pass for white or by affirming the value of sexual partners with lighter skin, which, looking to the future, would create light-skinned children more in accordance with white society’s standards of breeding, worth, and beauty. The artists are also pressured to produce the right kind of art. In his artistic pursuits, Eustace refuses to sing Negro spirituals, a belief which Raymond thinks has Eustace unwittingly affirming “the theory of Nordic superiority” (65). The artists also face scrutiny for their bohemian lifestyle and decadence, which runs counter to the expectations respectable society has for producers of visual art, music, and literature. The standards, expectations, and normativity which the artists do not acquiesce to are future-oriented; it is in the interests of the future, of the Child, that society seeks to regulate their behavior and castigate them for their deviance. But Raymond and Paul do not want to have to look to the future for solutions. They do not want to affirm the structures which put people of non-normative identities on the fringe. The future is nothing to them if the future demands a sacrifice in the present – especially as that future will be tailored to the needs of normativity.  Raymond’s vision of the destruction of humanity is based in an unmet demand: to be able – not tomorrow, but today – to live and express oneself as straight or queer, as any color, creating whatever art they see fit in their individual experience as a human being of worth.

….

The Middle Passage also moves Raymond’s dream as a site of freedom outside of linear time, which frees him from the demands of the future while also inviting the presence of Black Jesus, as Black Jesus is also unbounded by time. The Transatlantic slave trade was an event that can be measured in linear units of time, but as a location and as a historical event its temporality is unstable and fluid. It is, as Sharpe says, “the past that is not past” (9). A reclaimed Middle Passage is not constrained by the demands of the future which oppress Raymond. While remarkable individuals who might be race saviors face the limits of time, Black Jesus does not, and so this space is ideal for the figure to enter. Black Jesus exists outside of space and time and brings hope without insisting on looking towards the future, all requisite traits for an individual answer to the frustration and pessimism exuded by Infants of the Spring. Raymond’s dream of the Middle Passage locates refuge and freedom in an unparticular time and place, and his musings on human extinction indicate his distaste for future-oriented solutions. While the historical Black Jesus – a Galilean Jew executed in 33 A.D. – is confined within linear time, the theological figure of Black Jesus and his ongoing ministry are not limited by chronology. Black Jesus suffers in solidarity with the oppressed throughout history. James Cone sees the body of Christ “recrucified” in every “black body hanging from a lynching tree” (xv) in American history. Cone also calls for envisioning the cross of the crucified Christ with “any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings – those whom Ignacio Ellacuría, the Salvadoran martyr, called ‘the crucified peoples of history’” (xiv). In this spirit, Raymond’s body coming to rest on the comforting shore might be accompanied by Christ, cooling Raymond’s “fervid head” (Thurman 128) and restoring his frustrated soul, existing in solidarity at that time and place instead of – like Euphoria’s vision of a Black Joan of Arc – leading Raymond towards some future time and place where they would progress into victors.  Although the historical Jesus had a birth date and grew into maturity before beginning his ministry, Black Jesus is not an archetypal promised child as he is already a fully realized savior. So, unlike any extraordinary individual towards which Raymond might have looked, Black Jesus is not bound by the paradigm of the Child.[2]

Black Jesus’ suitability for the novel’s concerns as a non-white, present-oriented figure unbound by space and time is augmented by Jesus’ queer identity. Black Jesus, and, I would argue, any framing of Jesus, is queer. The historical figure, according to Christian tradition, was unmarried and celibate. He carried out his ministry with a small group of (primarily) single men. I do not argue that Jesus was homosexual, but, if Jesus really was asexual in thought and action, then it is problematic to claim he was simply an abstinent or repressed heterosexual[3]. At the very least, his life did not conform to or perpetuate heteronormative standards, one of the many sets of social standards which his ministry rejected or critiqued. The ministry as continued in the figure of Black Jesus carries on these queer traits. We might clarify our understanding of Jesus’ clash with time as well as the temporal struggles of the novel’s characters by using Judith Halberstam’s theory of “queer time,” a term for what happens “once one leaves the temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety, and inheritance” (6). The historical and theological Jesus, as well as the marginalized artists in Infants of the Spring, resist the temporal “logic[s] of capital accumulation” (7). Black Jesus is capable of successfully resisting, but the conflict threatens to destroy people like Raymond. However, the queer time of Raymond’s dream invites a reading of Black Jesus as a companion in a space outside of the temporal frames which threaten queer identity.  Queer sexuality’s marginalization in a heteronormative world is one of the novel’s primary concerns, and Jesus’ status as a queer figure makes Black Jesus that much more appropriate as the solution to those concerns.

Raymond’s dreamscape of the reclaimed Middle Passage also appeals to an aesthetic sensibility which brings a life-giving solution to the novel’s death march. As Raymond’s naked, spray-enveloped body floats from the sea onto the shore, the scene evokes Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (c. 1486). Venus in the Middle Passage is an illustration which Wood also utilizes as he prompts a thought exercise of “how the creation of a visual narrative focused on a black African Venus in Europe, and the African evolved Candomblé goddess Iamanjá, are used to mythologize the female slave body in ways not available to white abolition rhetorics” (123-4). Botticelli’s painting is a twofold birth of beauty: as an artistic representation of the birth of the goddess of beauty, and as a milestone in the history of aesthetics. For a novel frustrated by dominant paradigms of human and artistic beauty, invoking this particular painting from within the space of the Middle Passage makes a claim for the aesthetic value of art produced by those people existing within the wake. Raymond’s black body, drifting in on the same waves which once carried millions of enslaved African bodies, stands in for the European Venus emerging from the sea. However, sensuous as these parallel scenes are, they are not sensual. Rather, they evoke a spiritual aesthetic. W.S. Heckscher claims that “Botticelli’s Venus, the naked goddess of Love, far from being secular, alone erotic, is above all ethical and religious” (6). Botticelli’s new-born Venus, the Anodyomene, evokes a spiritual figure which provides an individual which answers the novel’s demand for liberation from society’s white-privileged, heteronormative, bourgeois, future-oriented standards of existence and excellence.

The connection to Botticelli’s Anodyomene further develops the appearance of Black Jesus, as Black Jesus and Venus both address the longing presented in Raymond’s dream sequence. Heckscher explains that Botticelli picked up the tradition of combining pagan and Christian ideas and was the first artist to assimilate them in a masterpiece in the post-classical age (31). The scenes of the Birth of Venus and the Baptism of Christ hold plenty of similarities, such as “a divinity born, distinguished by nuditas sacra, flanked by attendant figures, emerging from a watery expanse” (Heckscher 6), and leaders of the 4th Century Christian church had apparently drawn the two figures together (29). Botticelli’s Birth of Venus integrates Jesus into a secular artistic tradition, and, given the above discussion, Raymond’s dreamscape evokes the Anadyomene from within a reimagined Middle Passage. Black Jesus and Venus are not future-oriented, or bound by the rules of time and place which limit human beings. In comparing the Birth of Venus and Baptism of Christ, Heckscher notes that “both divinities were redeemer-figures who appeared, though just engendered and born, in full panoply” (6). Jesus had dates of birth and death, but the theological configuration – like Venus – is already fully-realized and ready to stand in solidarity with oppressed people at anytime and anywhere.

Reading the novel as an abstract work sets it on a slant and grants a view into a more complex, more distressed, and, I would argue, a more emotionally engaging reading than might be accessible by treating the novel as a rollicking satire and witty roman à clef. The novel may be these things too, but one of the useful traits of abstractionist aesthetics is opening this space for multiplicity and ambiguity. Envisioning Black Jesus as a response to the novel’s anxieties and concerns – as a configuration which fills the spaces opened within a fractured reading – accomplishes two main objectives for the novel. The first is that it illuminates what is missing by setting Black Jesus in relief against the inadequate efforts proffered by the novel’s characters. Black Jesus is an array of attributes unmatched by an individual like Euphoria’s Black Joan of Arc, a societal solution like human extinction, or even an indomitable spirit of artistic individuality. Against Black Jesus, all other proffered solutions appear inadequate. This does not undermine the novel’s aims; rather, this further underscores the novel’s insistence that something critically wrong at the intersections of race, art, culture, and sexuality has set the lofty goals of the Harlem Renaissance on the brink, despite or because of the plethora of ideas of racial and societal betterment circulating at the time. The second is that applying an abstract reading of the inherently abstract figure of Black Jesus allows for a more diverse and more robust understanding of the relationship between Harlem Renaissance Christian theology and Harlem Renaissance art. Reggie Williams and David Cone discuss appearances of Black Jesus within the works of a few prominent artists, including Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, but all of these representations of the Black Christ are explicit – explicit as Aaron Douglas’ brilliant painting of a Black Christ in The Crucifixion (1927). Limiting configurations of Black Jesus to realistic, explicit works boxes the concept into the realm of the sacred while also recreating what Hartman describes as scenes of subjection. If the borders between sacred and secular are as mutable as some scholars suggest, then supposedly irreligious works like Infants of the Spring will be inadequately understood without attempting to read into how the Christian zeitgeist of Harlem shaped it.

Infants of the Spring is an abstract work, and, when read with this aesthetic, the resulting fractures open up a space of unattended anxieties and concerns which Black Jesus is well-suited to address. Black Jesus is an appropriate solution because this particular theological concept is inherently abstract. Anytime Jesus is invoked – even in the Bible – the appearance is representational and a sign of something else; realism can hardly be achieved in representing Jesus. Even in the four canonical Gospel accounts (let alone those deemed apocryphal), different (though not incompatible) pictures of Jesus are presented. This suggests any rendering of Jesus is some degree of abstract, which means appearances and invocations of the figure do not need to be limited to realistic representations. From the beginning, the legacy of Jesus has belonged to those who tell stories and those who interpret them. Therefore, Jesus, perhaps especially Black Jesus, exists precisely where we decide to put him. Where we decide to put him can be unexpected and surprising, but also so natural as to suggest the space called for his presence all along.


Forth now, and fear now darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

[2] Some theological clarification: My claim is that Black Jesus is especially suited to the concerns of Infants of the Spring because the figure invests the present with hope without having to make promises about the future or demands about acceptable behavior. This claim might seem to run totally counter to accepted Christologies, because part of the hope of the Gospel message is a promise of a better world after death. I do not mean to ignore this essential part of the doctrine of Christ even as I emphasize Christ’s impact on the present. Similarly, as part of the processes of salvation, justification, and sanctification, Christian doctrine encourages and discourages certain behaviors. I do not mean to say Black Jesus has no notion of right and wrong behavior, but Jesus’ presence is not blocked off on account of supposedly immoral, licentious, or sinful actions. Ignoring either of these aspects of Christology would call into question whether or not I am even using Jesus at all. Rather, I am reconsidering prioritization of Jesus’ attributes; Black Jesus re-emphasizes the present and seeks to correct the disproportionate attention given by other Christologies to the future and to morality, as both of these emphases tend to reify dominant structures and marginalize certain individuals.

[3] Benjamin A. Kahan interrogates definitions of celibacy which cast it merely as abstinence from or repression of sexual desire, and suggests that while it may be a choice for some, celibacy can also exist as “a sexuality in its own right” (2).