The Black Hero Complex<br />

When Pope Benedict XVI announced his surprise resignation earlier this month, he attributed his decision to the frailty of his humanity. Before a private church body in Vatican City he cited his waning physicality, saying, “my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” But on Twitter, the former Cardinal Ratzinger admitted spiritual weakness, tweeting: “We are all sinners, but His grace transforms us and makes us new.”

Though the Pope is 85 years old and a human being, both were startling admissions.

Presiding over an approximate one billion Catholics around the world, the Papal Office has taken on an almost mythic, superhuman quality reinforced by the institution of the church itself and the followers that look to the Pope for spiritual guidance and affirmation. In other words, though he is mere mortal, he is a hero; and heroes come with powers that don’t succumb to fleshly realities like old age. Right?

Public figures regularly deal with the conundrum of reconciling fleshly realities with the expectations associated with their heroic status. And since there’s no show without an audience, we, the fans, are complicit in making demi-gods of the religious leaders, politicians, athletes, and celebrities we love.

Reverend Omari Hill, Associate Pastor at Redeemer Church in Manhattan says we tend to deify public figures because, “I think people instinctively know that all is not right with our world and we want someone who can relate to us, imagine a different world, and then help bring us there.”

Heroism is governed by an unspoken covenant in which the hero must maintain the heroic narrative or lose the rewards of fan worship like cultural relevance, for example. Failure to uphold this covenant—particularly failure that cuts right through the heart of our hero’s mythology, as was the case with the revelation that champion cyclist Lance Armstrong had won the Tour de France an epic seven times using illegal doping methods—can be disappointing to the core.

Reverend Hill remarks, “It’s painful when a person puts all his chips—identity, deepest hopes, love, etc.—into one place only to watch it crumble under the weight of normal life,” adding, “The frailty of the human community is exposed when the cream of the crop spoils.”

In the Black community, this covenant between our heroes and us mere mortals is arguably more sacred.

Dr. Richard Orbe-Austin, President of the New York Association of Black Psychologists explains, “we as African-Americans tend to feel that we don’t have as many heroes that are lauded within the society as a whole.” Because of this, the doctor continues, “we feel a greater emotional connection to those who do have the opportunity to breakthrough.”

In the Black community, this covenant between our heroes and us mere mortals is arguably more sacred.

This connection becomes intensely personal, Dr. Orbe-Austin says, illustrating a familiar scenario: “You listen to the news and you hear someone is a suspect…and the hope is that the person is not, you know, an African-American; and if they are, then there’s some level of guilt or shame almost by association to the race.”

Our racial association can put us on the defensive whenever anyone dares suggest our hero of choice may have feet of clay. On the other hand, we can tend to ignore or gloss over heroic failings due to racial solidarity. Ex-Los Angeles cop Christopher Dorner, for example, found support for his retaliation murders among some Blacks who could relate to his charges of racism against the LAPD. Satirical cartoon series The Boondocks famously lampooned the support R. Kelly received from some Blacks during his child pornography trial in 2008. Kelly was ultimately acquitted, but only because the teenaged girl allegedly seen in the videotape refused to cooperate; essentially, even folk who believe the singer is guilty of child molestation continue to hold him up as a hero. 

Barack Obama is probably the biggest hero of the Black community in America, and worldwide. For crashing the mother of all glass ceilings, hardened by generations of oppression—twice—President Obama has earned a hallowed place in the Black Hero Hall of Fame alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, and Denzel Washington. Meanwhile, Cornel West and Jesse Jackson have endangered their own spots in the Hall with their public critiques of the president.

While this elevation to legend status is gratifying on some level, it comes with a crippling pressure to be perfect or at least project perfection. The President may or may not have quit smoking, for example, but good luck trying to find a recent picture of him lighting up. Conversely, when, back in ’07, Mrs. Obama revealed in an interview with Glamour Magazine that then-Senator Obama sometimes neglected to pick up his smelly socks, some criticized her for revealing these personal details that distracted from his perfect image. In response to the Smelly Sock flak, Mrs.