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.
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.”
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. 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.