Thursday, September 08, 2011

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I Wish Obi-Wan Had Been a Brotherman

Since as long as I can remember, I’ve loved stories that demonstrated an unshatterable bond between a boy hero and his mentor.

And why wouldn’t I? That archetypal relationship—for men and women—is ancient, found in all epics and religions and probably every cherished story that has survived its birth generation to be passed on to history.

That’s why it burns my balls that Hollywood, Big Publishing and the Edumacational System have delivered almost no stories featuring complex, fascinating, dynamic African characters in that role of life-deconstructor/reconstructor. And don’t be telling me about Bagger Vance or Mother Abigail or the dude from The Green Mile. More on all of that jive later.

Mentors, or in archetypal terms, shamans, are the transformational guides who train young, untested seekers to become heroes. Shamans help the foolish to become wise, the weak to become strong, the alienated to emerge celebrated, and the lost to find their destinies.

Luke had Ben. Tom Joad had Jim Casey. Neo had Morpheus who in turn had the Oracle. Odysseus had Mentor (who gave us the name); Arthur had Merlin; Cinderella had the Fairy Godmother; the Pandavas had Lord Krishna; Jesus had John the Baptist; Muhammad had Jibreel (Angel Gabriel), as did Joan of Arc; the X-Men have Professor X, Frank Black has Peter Watts, and the Powerpuff Girls have Professor Utonium.

It’s easy to spot a shaman. He or she, almost always, is all five of the following for the young, untested seeker:

1. A medicine man or woman, that is, a physical, mental and/or emotional healer
2. A mystic, that is, a visionary (via scientific, kinaesthetic, artistic, cultural, or supernatural knowledge)
3. A guardian and adept, that is, a protector and trainer in magic (meaning a great power, an important skill, a mysterious science)
4. A gatekeeper, that is, an initiator into a secret or closed order
5. A lunatic or even an imaginary friend.

Seriously: lunatic?

Let’s be clear: being labelled a lunatic is often as simple as being completely misunderstood by your community. If everyone thinks you’re not just wrong, but actually totally wrong about everything, they’ll call you crazy. And if they think you’re a big enough threat, they might even cut off your head (poor ol’ John the Baptist. At least Quebec gave you a day of your own every year. Hope you’re getting your fill of locusts).

Maybe they think you’re a head case because you’re making all kinds of claims about bizarre things no one else can see with their own eyes, things that exert massive control over all of us (germs, DNA, radiation, gravity), or forces you claim are basically the flesh of the entire universe (atoms, subatomic particles, or, my favourite, vibrating nano-nano-nano-strings).

So be warned: if you want to be teaching some far-out stuff, be careful about sending out for drinks.
Socrates, or maybe my friend Bernie.
And if your shaman happens to be an angel, a god, Caprica Six, Dean Stockwell in Quantum Leap, or the Great Gazoo, at least to the world, he or she is definitely in that “imaginary friend” category. But don’t worry… I understand the new straitjackets are much more comfortable. You can bet poor Joan of Arc would’ve settled for one if that’d been on the table.
Everybody needs a shaman, and if you never get one of your own, it’s damned near impossible to become an adult (no matter how old you are, or aren’t). Oh, you can do it… it’s just much tougher. Like putting on make-up with a paint roller. It works—it just takes longer. And the results aint pretty.
 
In terms of developmental psychology, shamans take over from where parents leave off. We all need and deserve effective, loving parents, but if we stay under their protection and training forever, we’ll remain children, or at best, second-generation (and probably second-rate) knock-offs of mum and dad.

I just wish that SF/F books, films, and TV gave us more African shamans.

And I don’t mean kot-tam super-duper magical negroes.

Super-duper magical negroes? What are those? As author Nnedi Okorafor explains:
  1. He or she is a person of colour, typically [African], often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
  2. He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
  3. He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
  4. He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
  5. He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.
My man Morpheus, who I truly dig, is still dangerously close to being a S.D.M.N., especially since he seems to have no internal life or his own, and the films (notably the second one) grant him only a few relationships that have little or nothing to do with Neo (or Whitefolks in general).

But in fairness, except for Neo, Agent Smith, and Cipher, few of the Matrix characters have any emotional or psychological depth. (And what a shame, since Laurence Fishburne’s performance is one of the best in the series, and since Morpheus’s demeanour is so enigmatic and his deeds exciting).
A better example of the S.D.M.N. is Bagger Vance from The Legend of Bagger Vance, and I guess by mentioning that in public, I’ve destroyed any chance I would’ve had to write a movie starring Will Smith, which is apparently why Spike Lee didn’t get to direct Ali. Too bad. Will Smith would’ve been a great Brotherfly in Shrinking the Heroes. Ah, well… there’s always Andre 3000.

No, if you want a great coloured shaman who isn’t an S.D.M.N., check out Mr. Miyagi.

First off all, he clearly enjoys effing up Daniel-San’s head with all those wax on/wax off passive aggressive karate lessons, not to mention beating the shit out of bullies, rather than shucking and jiving to make them feel com-fort-able around his coloured ass and I-aint-even-trying-to-fit-in-after-forty-five-years-in-this-country accent.

Second, Miyagi has an actual personal history full of relationships radiating poignant trauma, which directly embrace the central irony of Karate Kid: Mr. Miyagi (Okinawan-American) has no son to whom to grant his family karate-do, because the (White) United States government put his pregnant wife in a concentration camp, which killed her and his son during childbirth.
So Miyagi’s only “heir” is a White youth, a child of the people who ended his line and put his fellow citizens in jails and stole their property. But Miyagi accepts Daniel, because the kid is an outsider and a victim of the same brand of thugs who exterminated his own family.

Had it not been for his compassion for another hunted human being, there’s no way Miyagi would’ve opened a Cobra Kai of his own to start schooling ethnic-cleansing hordes of gaijin. Maybe that’s why Miyagi enjoyed beating the balls off of Daniel’s tormentors so much—they were as close as he could get issuing a smack-down onto the people who destroyed his life. Either way, decades later, he still can’t stop himself from getting drunk and sobbing about what the (White) US government did to him.


Okay, great for Okinawan-American shamans (and while a martial arts role is a stereotype, it was an iconic role and outstanding performance, no doubt). But how many Nigerian, Jamaican, South African, Kenyan, Somali, Brazilian, Cuban, or African-American shamans do we have in books, in comics, or onscreen?
It’s possible that Book from Firefly could have become a quality African shaman, had that series not died in the crib and had Book not suffered (in the feature Serenity) the traditional Hollywood fate for a Brotherman in a movie about White heroes: becoming a sacrificial negro (I’m looking at you, X-Men: First Class) in a death that (for someone like me who hadn’t watched the series) had no emotional impact at all). But I doubt that. Let’s just say that Joss Whedon probably isn’t going to win any NAACP Image Awards in the near future.

Anybody else? I sure wish there’d been more of Old Man in A Man Called Hawk, but hell, I can’t even find a single YouTube video of him… or even a kot-tam photo! And in SF/F… man, is there anybody? Except for Morpheus and the Oracle who—excellent performances aside—were essentially devoid of humanity (literally in the case of the Oracle, despite Gloria Foster’s great performance and the best lines in the series), I can’t think of anybody.

So in the spirit of lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness… oh, wait… um… lighting some incense instead of cursing the fart… allow me to present a few African mentors I’ve loved. 

Socrates Fortlow from Walter Mosley’s Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned


Usually shamans are supporting characters, but in Walter Mosley’s superb Socrates Fortlow series of “philosophical investigations,” it’s the protagonist who is the shaman (although he still has his own “untested seeker” hero’s journey to complete).

Socrates Fortlow, whose very name tells us he’s a wise man vulnerable inside a useless stronghold, isn’t one of those ex-cons who went to prison (for 27 years) for crimes he didn’t commit.

Oh, he committed the crimes. He committed the fuck out of those crimes. He was, by his own admission, a monster of a man who did monstrous things, and once inside prison, he became even more monstrous, not simply to survive, but because he’d come to enjoy inflicting agony and terror.
But eight years after he eventually leaves prison, full of rage and alienated from a world he could hardly recognise, Socrates determines to transform himself into something better than he’d ever been. And when a teenager named Darryl violently breaks into his life, Socrates recognises that the time to change is right there and then.

Over the course of two more novels, Socrates battles local criminals ranging from street thugs to economic exploiters, investigates a killer cop, engulfs Los Angeles in a riot, sends his dearest friend to his death, and raises a son.

I first encountered Mosley’s novel around 1998 or so, and it’s haunted me ever since. I can’t imagine it ever being dislodged from the list of my ten favourite novels.
I love Laurence Fishburne as an actor; while he was too young to play 57-year-old Fortlow in this adaptation, and while Michael Apted’s direction on the project rarely rises above workmanlike, I still enjoyed several scenes from the film.


Dr. Jerome Davenport from Antwone Fisher
Antwone Fisher is a real man, and Antwone Fisher is apparently a fairly accurate dramatisation of his life. Raised in poverty, misery, and abuse, Fisher joined the American navy (an instrument of global imperial enforcement and, in the case of Iraq, genocide) and ironically found a measure of peace there… and a mentor who changed his life.

(In reality, as I understand it, Fisher had more than one mentor, but in Denzel Washington’s brilliant direction of Fisher’s top-notch script, all the mentors are collapsed into a single shaman: Dr. Jerome Davenport, played by Washington himself in one of his most understated, vulnerable, and unforgettable performances.)

Because of his past, protagonist Antwone Fisher is terrified of most of the world, and when anyone disturbs the tiny and extremely separate peace he’s carved out for himself, he lashes out—even violently. He’s afraid of being vulnerable with anyone, so he has no friends, no girlfriend, and no guide. Sentenced to therapy following an assault against a fellow sailor, Fisher finds Dr. Davenport, a navy man who is one of the most well-realised shamans I’ve ever seen onscreen.
Davenport is no clichéd take-no-shit-military-man, nor is he an easy going, break-all-the-rules wild man like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. Instead, this shaman works the magic of personal and emotional forensic examination.

And like all the most engaging shamans, Davenport’s own interior and social life is full of its own conflict; the therapist is an incomplete man who himself suffers; he needs a young, untested seeker so that he can complete his own transformation. And that transformation demands a sacrifice than is almost too much for either Davenport or Fisher to bear. Antwone Fisher is, with Malcolm X, the only film I can think of that made me cry twice during the same viewing. 

Uncle from Njabulo Ndebele’s “Uncle” in the collection Fools and Other Stories

“Uncle,” a novella by South African professor and writer Njabulo Ndebele, tells the story of a fatherless boy whose uncle, a jazz trumpeter/ladies’ man/shit disturber/prodigal son/Africentric intellectual, comes to visit when life on tour becomes too much hassle.

Uncle draws lessons from both everyday life and aesthetic experience to help his nephew discover and analyse the architecture of human existence. He descants upon the irony that the closed eye still sees, since its pupil reaches greatest dilation only when its lid is shuttered; that small humiliations are beneficial, since they inoculate us against committing the gigantic ones that would rip our asses right off our hips; that only highly-trained jazz players and painters can improvise beautifully, since true freedom requires the greatest discipline and preparation of all.

Not that the novella, or the character Uncle himself, is preachy. Instead it’s sexy, hilarious, touching, endearingly awkward, and as is as sweet and brimming with risk, exhilaration, and life as a bee-swarming honeycomb.
Furious Styles from Boyz N the Hood
Furious Styles, father and Blastmaster. As a dad, much less Mike Brady than Malcolm X. And dude even cuts heads.

And it’s Fishburne again, Rã love him, in one of my favourite performances. Furious Styles is an atypical shaman in that he’s the biological father of the young, untested seeker … but because he’s been the non-custodial parent for probably ten or more years, he still represents a break from the seeker’s primary parental experience. 

The stand-out character from John Singleton’s 1991 directorial debut, Furious Styles was an electrifying dramatisation of the masculine side of the North American Africentric movement, even if he didn’t wear locks, beads, or dashikis, or carry a verb stick.
Brotherman delivered his own sermon on the mount, ripping the mic on economic self-determination and the hidden hand behind African American fratricide. And when he was cutting your head, he’d even school you on Jimmy discipline and defense. 

For me, who always had to pay to get cut, seeing Furious up there trimming his boy’s skull was one of the most understated and touching movie moments I’d ever seen. And so archetypally rich: dude is cutting his son (branding him as his own, but marking him for manhood; the shears can inflict pain, but in the hands of a caring shaman, they’re an implement for bonding).

Understand that this was 1991. Only a few years before, when Spike Lee just resumed Oscar Micheaux’s revolution, Hollywood offered almost no roles to African actors at all, and the few it did offer were “only” parts, as in, “I’m the only Brother in this film.” If you weren’t a 3D Bugs Bunny like Axel Foley, or playing a toy, chances were against you appearing onscreen at all. And as much as I loved Spike’s joints, none of his films featured a shaman until 1992’s Malcolm X. 

And, sadly, in movies at least, I can’t think of any characters like Furious Styles since 1991. 

Major Bunny Colvin from Season Three and Four of The Wire

Major Bunny Colvin, played by screen juggernaut Robert Wisdom, is the 11:59 Drug War peace activist who creates—without permission from any level of government—several drug non-enforcement zones inside Baltimore’s most devastated neighbourhoods. His plan begins as a way of draining the marshes across his city, and dumping the waters into a few giant swamps: let the mosquitoes breed there, leaving the rest of the city free of malaria.
But Bunny’s in for the biggest case of mission creep of his entire career. Turns out you can’t simply decriminalise drugs and expect social misery just to up and disappear.

Instead, Colvin’s accidentally built a misery supercollider. And to clean up his own mess will mean bringing in security, clean water, condoms, a needle exchange (while trying to avoid getting caught by the media and his superior, or turned in by street cops who’d rather just smash heads).

As Mayor of “Hamsterdam,” Colvin sees that giant social problems can’t be solved by shooting them down or locking them up. Badges and beat downs won’t do shit. Nope. Giant problems need giant solutions. Marshall Plan-style.

And that’s at the heart of Colvin’s heroic, Sisyphean struggle: his actual commitment to justice embodied in the true meaning of Malcolm X’s slogan by any means necessary. What began as a giant F-U to his vicious, ass-kissing/ass-covering superiors turned into a crusade to make his city a place where citizens could live, walk, and work in safety. Not the terrified safety of apartheid-walled-in-suburbs for the hegemons… but safety and dignity for everybody.
By his courage and his commitment, even at gigantic risk to himself, Colvin earns the moral credibility to help an undisciplined bully of a cop, the young, untested seeker Sergeant Ellis Carver, to leave behind his brutal, destructive, and counterproductive policing strategy (terrorise and rout), in favour of building respect and then trust so as to gain the intell necessary to do quality police work and make the alleyways, corners, and front stoops safe for decent folk.

And when Bunny chooses the school system as his next theatre of operations, he’s just as determined to use any methods, no matter how unorthodox, to build justice for and with his young charges.

For one arrogant, shit-talking, but smart young man, Bunny Colvin is a major levelling-up from his own dad, a drug dealer and killer who’ll spend the rest of his life in prison. Bunny Colvin becomes, in fact, the most profoundly transformative figure that this young man could ever hope to enter his life.

Kareem Said from Oz
The brilliant Oz, almost completely and unfairly eclipsed by also-excellent The Wire, portrayed the odyssey of one of the most complex shamans ever projected onto American screens. As played by Eamonn Walker, Kareem Said was a Muslim imam sent to Oswald Maximum Security Prison for torching a warehouse (I can no longer remember the reason, but I seem to recall the warehouse or its owner were threats to the African American community).

At series’ beginning, Said was a swaggering intellectual and devout mujahid (holy warrior) who was devoted to saw Oswald prison as an institution so corrupt that only war and fire could redeem it. But after surviving the Attica-style rebellion of his own making, Said confronts the defects of his own soul, especially that of his enormous pride, enough that he rethinks almost everything about his life.
Kareem’s quest for justice, regardless of his own personal feelings, turns him into a jailhouse attorney who defends Neo-Nazi Vern Shillinger in court because he thinks the man isn’t guilty of the crime he’s charged with; he risks losing control of his African-only congregation by allowing Tobias Beecher, a rich, White, bisexual man, to join them for Qur’anic study, reasoning that Islam is not racial, but universal. He nearly loses his own life by opposing the criminal conspiracy and depravity of the drug baron Simon Adebisi.

Said struggles—sometimes against himself—to lift up men from the mud, men such as the narcissistic Poet who betrays him, a mole aimed to destroy him, the rebel lieutenant Zahir Arif, and the reprobate Omar White. Said’s personal struggles and history are convoluted, conflicted, and full of half-victories and glorious defeats.

And with the elevated speech of a philosopher, a yearning for justice, an unquenchable intellect, and the gravitic performance of Eamonn Walker breathing life into him, Kareem Said achieved a dramatic height that is unlikely to be surpassed for the foreseeable future.
I was so impressed by Kareem Said that I gave the X-Man from my award-winning political satire Shrinking the Heroes the same first name.

(Kareem Philip Edgerton’s other two names are equally connected to Tom Fontana shows: Dr. Phillip Chandler from St. Elsewhere, and Harry Edgerton, the real-life Baltimore detective who was the inspiration for Frank Pembleton in Homicide. All three characters are what I call the archetype of the Malcolm X Professional, a welcome antidote to TV’s previous, well-intentioned, and hyper-boring, ultra-non-threatening African men. Those snooze-inducers are still around… looking at you, Star Trek: Enterprise.)

THE ALCHEMISTS OF KUSH
When I first started conceiving the story that eventually became the novel The Alchemists of Kush, had several goals, and many of them dealt with shamans, rites of passage, and transformation.

When I was in 20s I’d read and been moved by Robert Bly’s mythopoeic discussion of seekers and shamans in Iron John. I’d also been fascinated by the history of the Five Percenters, or Nation of Gods and Earths, a mystical community (with strong similarities to ancient “mystery systems” employing a catechism, passwords, and rites of passage) that separated in the mid-1960s from the Nation of Islam, led by founder Father Allah. (You can check the blog and radio series I did on the NGE here, here, and here.)

And the summer I turned 20, I read Cheikh Anta Diop’s classic book The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality?, about how Eurocentric, imperialist revisionists had de-Africanised Ancient Egypt; that was the same summer that KRS-One released Ghetto Music: The Blueprint for Hip Hop, which address some of the same issues Diop had.

I fell in love with Ancient Egypt, and in one way or another it’s influenced or been featured in all of my work, and in particular, the foundational story of Lord Usir (Osiris) and Lady Aset (Isis), their son Hru (Horus), and their enemy, the usurper Set. That story is the prototype for Cain and Abel, Moses, and myriad other tales that have inspired mythology and religion.
So I sought to create a novel that could embody all the above. My allegory would be three-way: telling a modern story that would parallel both the foundational Egyptian myth, and the founding of the Five Percenters. And through it, I’d dramatise the reality and necessity of rites of passage for boys to become men, via the fictional (allegorical) Africentric mystery school, the Alchemists.

And the shaman would be named Yimunhotep Ani, AKA Brother Moon. 

The Alchemists of Kush has gotten intense and widespread acclaim. Ishmael Reed says, “It was only a matter of time before the hip hop culture would invade the literary world. With The Alchemists of Kush, Minister Faust is leading the invasion. His novel is possibly the first hip hop epic. Hip hop has a short attention span on most occasions. The Alchemists of Kush gives it gravitas.” 

The ebook is only $2.99, and the paperback is only $14.99.

You can check out the book trailer and an author interview/walkabout below.


4 comments:

Clarence Young said...

The only related Shaman figure I can think of is Ben Sisko from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and that's primarily due to the conscious qualities Avery Brooks slipped into the role to break away from the non-threatening space Negro zone and bring a black man truly into the final frontier as the seasons went on. His role as Shaman to his son and the "alien" boy, Nog, weren't focal to the series but were some of the best, most memorable moments to me. But as far as someone aiding a hero's journey, I can't come up with a single person of color outside the excellent list you've presented, and that's sad. Even in comic books, the Black Panther never had a Robin. Maybe others better read, more movie saavy and with better memories than me will chime in and fill this list out. I hope so. Brothers and Sister, geeks and philosophers: where are you? Chime in!

Clarence Young said...

Silverado: Danny Glover's character Malcolm. To me became a shaman with one simple line uttered to show he wasn't about to take being treated unfairly because he was black (and by doing so raising the consciousness of his compatriots: "That ain't right." But again, this is stretching things.

Warren Bonner said...

I offer up a lyrical versus a theatrical Shaman: James Brown.

"Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud."

"I don't want nobody to give me nothin, open up the door, I'll get it myself."

"I don't know karate, but I know krazor."

Tupac was deep, but James Brown was at the center of the earth with a few simple boogie-down lyrics that asserted black manhood and determination.

Kazi said...

Excellent 'peace' bro. Faust. A theme dare to my heart.

Keep shining the light!