The Black Hero Complex<br />

The Black Hero Complex

From Barack to Beyoncé, why we want them to be perfect—and why we need them to be real

by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, February 18, 2013

The Black Hero Complex<br />

Obama didn’t back down, saying “Barack is very much human. So let’s not deify him.”

Smelly socks notwithstanding, it is President Obama’s seeming perfection that captures the collective imagination. Poking fun at the president’s unflappable composure, for example, comedians Key and Peele have created a hilarious “Anger Translator” named Luther. Luther is based on the assumption there must be a more human side to the President that reacts to GOP shenanigans with outbursts and four letter words. The humor is hinged upon the fact the president would never publicly act like Luther.

Entertainer Beyoncé Knowles has visibly struggled to reconcile her heroic status with her humanity. Her third studio album I Am…Sasha Fierce seemed to directly address it, splitting the star’s artistic persona into her restrained “I am” self and the “fierce” sex symbol she projects on stage. In recent weeks, the singer’s battle between her larger than life image and her humanity has dominated the headlines.

As she serenaded President Obama at his second inauguration, her rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” was almost unanimously applauded as “flawless” and “stellar” in a live commentary across the Social Mediasphere. Hours later, Lip-Synch Gate was burning up Facebook, Twitter, and the blogs as speculation sparked by a Marine Corps Band statement suggested the singer had mimed her act.

Beyoncé remained tight-lipped about the so-called scandal as chatter reached fever pitch.  Finally, more than a week later at a press conference hyping her then-upcoming Super Bowl halftime performance, the singer admitted she had indeed lip-synched, explaining “I am a perfectionist, and…due to the delay, due to no proper sound check, I did not feel comfortable taking a risk.”

With the debut of her HBO documentary Life is But a Dream, the private pop star is reportedly ready for the risk associated with highlighting the humanity that co-exists with her heroic talent and career achievements. Oprah said of the film Beyoncé edited and directed, “[She] let[s] us see her vulnerable side, she became for us not just the mythical goddess Beyoncé, she became a real woman to me.”

Many Blacks who aren’t public figures wrestle with this hero complex too. Our history of struggle against stereotypes and gross misrepresentations, combined with the notion that success hinges on being better than our counterparts of other races, can lead to putting up a front of perfection—and the debilitating stress that comes with it.  

Dr. Orbe-Austin says managing this pressure comes down to “understand[ing] that we can’t necessarily represent the whole race…that is really an impossible task to take up.” He adds, “ all we can really do…is to hold ourselves to high standards, and hope through our actions and our words that we do reflect the best qualities of ourselves and our collective culture.”

Likewise, when it comes to heroes, Dr. Orbe-Austin says, the healthier way to relate to the powerful and talented in our society is to stop thinking of their gifts as the only things that define them. “We should identify the qualities of that individual that we admire…[asking ourselves], what is it that I admire about this person? Is it their fame? Is it their actual talent? I think we run into this difficulty of conflating the two.”

Once we can see them as human beings, we may be better equipped to collaborate with them to achieve the great hopes we project onto politicians, religious authorities, athletes, and celebrities.

Dr. Orbe-Austin points out, “We tend to want just one leader, one messiah, when all of us should take up that responsibility. We all have the ability to be leaders, but it’s really being courageous enough to step up and say that with the heroism comes the risk of failure.”                     

Society needs heroes. Seeing people overcome overwhelming odds or achieve seemingly impossible goals inspires us with the truth that the possibility exists for us to do the same. That said, we need a new covenant with our heroes that takes the pretense of perfection off the table. Because, really, what’s most compelling and useful about the narrative of heroism is the reality of how the hero got there—human frailty and all.

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel Powder Necklace and founder of the blog People Who Write. Follow her on Twitter @nanaekua.

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