Can an African-American character even go on The Hero’s Journey?

Posted on | September 6, 2015

Here’s a provocative thought.  Joseph Campbell defines The Hero’s Journey this way:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

In my last post of black writers and Paranormal Romance, I wrote that black writers “already live in a world of immanent, anarchic threat from vast and powerful forces,” namely white America.  I added that when white characters deal with paranormal forces those threats are beaten back, often comprehensively, but for black writers, the idea that the evil in which they live might be vanquished is childish Disney fairytale stuff.

The coming of the new Star Wars movie with a black Jedi character is intriguing as hell.  The setting is one that allows anyone to go through the Hero’s journey, and the Star Wars universe carries enough cultural cachet that we will allow anyone in it to go through that journey, so long as the story is told well and with sufficient polychrome.

Star Wars is a special case.  When The Hunger Games came out, Twitter erupted in protest that Rue was cast with a black actress, despite the character in the book clearly being black and being from a primarily black district.  The idea that a black character can enter a topsy-turvy world and learn to harness its forces (what screenwriters call the fun-n-games part of the plot), then return to bestow boons on his fellows is deeply threatening to the fundamental American psyche, or at least that portion that indulges in convenient racismthe ones who say “I’m not racist but…”

Which, unfortunately, is a lot of people.

They’re not racist but America was better before women, gays, and minorities started to agitate for equal rights.  They’re not racist but they prefer it when they don’t have to think too hard about whom to trust, skin color is a sufficient proxy.  They’re not racist but the convenience of having a community that can be exploited and abused with impunity was really, really nice.

A black person completing the hero’s journey is oxymoronic to these people.

It didn’t used to be this way.  Eddie Murphy was a brilliant example of this: Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop are both classic hero’s journeys, and the former ends with Billy Ray Valentine not only holding onto his fabulous powers, but successfully sharing them with his fellow man.  (A caveat, though, is that Murphy’s character never shares his earned power and authority with other black people.  In a lot of cases, other black people barely exist.  Even Trading Places makes much more noise about Valentine being poor, rather than black.)

As black equality demands center stage, as a black president enjoys his “lame duck” status while getting a lot of stuff done, the white audience for the idea that black people deserve even the opportunity to go on a hero’s journey has shrunk appreciably.

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