“It is by now generally understood that the formation of nation-states and political reigns precipitate the development of founding myths-myths of origin…”
“Founding myths were substituted for history….Endlessly elaborated, these myths are produced by ideologues who identified with the dominant creed.” (1)
––Cedric J Robinson, Black Marxism
We’ve all seen this movie before.
A slave society with a superior military rules over a colonized labor force. One exceptional individual possesses the ability to lead a rebellion but must first enter into the mythical unexplored fringe. Violent revolution is the only force capable of destroying the slave society, and the hero the only one who can harness it.
Star Wars? The Matrix? No. Well, yes, those too, but also movies geared towards younger audiences, like The Lion King and The Hunger Games, both of which we’ll be taking a closer look at in this piece. Together we’ll explore how they depict labor, how they codify race, and what relationship they have to our living history.
In examining these specific works, I’m really asking where the transcendent significance of these stories comes from. Is the relevance of The Matrix, for instance, the slog of office work? Was it born in the belly of skyscrapers or the very real and violent slave societies of the Americas leading to our own? Is the slavery casually depicted in these stories purely incidental, or is its depiction––and acceptance––an intrinsic part of their ethos?
I’m interested in Campbell’s notions of universality but I’m suggesting there are specific cultural events that inform the design of many stories in the West, and furthermore, that “ideologues” articulate dominant myths within these stories, reinforcing existing power structures.
I believe these dominant myths obscure our relationship to our past, allowing for notions such as Black Nationalism as a force localized to the 21st century, as Cedric J. Robinson describes. In particular, I believe their depictions of exceptional individualism and the naive citizenry of their respective societies obscure the widespread, diffuse nature of resistance to slavery and our own relationship to power. We see these myths, among other places, in the depiction of Civil Rights movements being essentialized to individuals like Malcolm X or Rosa Parks. We see these myths in the stories we tell our children.
I owe a great lot to Cedric J. Robinson, his monumental work, Black Marxism, and the sources he references within. Let’s start with an extremely brief background of rebellion in the Americas and then, as promised, we’ll return to The Lion King and The Hunger Games.
From the moment there was slavery, there was rebellion. And, as historian Barbara Kopytoff writes,
“…Wherever there were slave plantations, there was resistance in the form of runaways and slave revolts; and wherever mountains, swamps, or forests permitted the escaped slaves to gather, they formed communities. These ranged in size from Palmares, in Brazil, with over ten thousand people, to the handfuls of runaways who hid on the fringes of plantations in the American South.” (2) The term for these escaped slaves is maroon and the communities they formed were maroon communities.
While the size and location of these communities may have differed, their motivations for leaving were fairly universal; according to Stuart Schwartz, slaves in Bahia (Brazil), “suffered from a policy of punishment and terror as a means of control. Plantation owners believed that only by severity could work be accomplished and discipline maintained, especially when the ratio in the fields was often forty slaves to one white sharecropper or overseer.” (3)
It’s not hard to imagine why Indians in New Spain who were forced to eat shit and piss (4) and branded “slave” on their foreheads (5) when their bloodlines were raped to visual indistinguishableness would flee their encomiendas and join African fugitive slaves in marronage.
The Wikipedia article for Mocambo, the Portuguese term for a Brazilian maroon village, describes them as parasitic economies mostly composed of theft, extortion, and raiding that were threats to the slave regime. While one might question who the parasites are in this equation, it’s generally true. Separate groups of maroons sometimes found each other, uniting to plague the colonial rulers even more ferociously, forming fortresses (7) of African and Indigenous syncretism (8), and producing new societies such as the Bush People of the Guianas and Suriname (9), and religions like Obeah, both of which still exist today. (10)
Maroon communities were sometimes able to sue for peace and recognition as independent nations, through violent resistance. Judging by available evidence, including the fact that two of the initial leaders of the Haitian revolution were maroons (11), we can tell maroons were integral to the revolution’s success.
Both Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman were escaped slaves. African and Indigenous resistance to the brutality of Western rule began when Spaniards landed on Hispaniola, and the forms of thought it produced extend to the George Floyd protests of last summer and beyond.
On to the movies.
The Hunger Games
Though the logic of this world must be supremacy, we aren’t ever let in on what the belief system entails. We learn that a rebellion happened years before, that The Hunger Games are an elaborate form of institutionalized brutality, and that the districts each produce different products for the Capitol. We also know, from the books, that the Districts are separated by race. District 11 is the “dark-skinned” district––an agricultural producer where whipping for minor offenses is common–that author Suzanne Collins is said to have described as the “Deep South.”
District 11, with its Antebellum era clothing, extreme brutality, agricultural production and, well, Black people, most obviously resembles an American plantation. But the truth is that all the districts are plantations. They all serve different manufacturing needs of the rich in this world. The world of Panam is inhabited by colonized slaves, conditioned by violence. When Katniss’ love interest suggests they run away and live in the woods she dismisses him. “They’d catch us. Cut out our tongues or worse.”
By the end of the series, Katniss arrives at a mythical District 13 that had been rumored destroyed. She learns that the colony had waged a war against the Capitol 75 years before and successfully negotiated for their recognition as an independent state. Since then, District 13 had been the only free colony in Panam.
We talked earlier about Palmeres, a maroon state in Brazil that by 1678 was estimated to number between 15,000 to 20,000 (12), and will also again mention here the formal peace achieved through warfare by the Bush Peoples of the Guianas and Suriname (9).
As a part of the deal with the Capitol, District 13 has agreed to go literally underground so that the Capitol can claim to the rest of the Districts that they were destroyed. Katniss Everdeen changes everything because only she can lead the movement.
Before I continue, let me say that Katniss Everdeen *is* special. She sacrifices her life for her sister’s, an indisputable act of bravery. This courageous familial sacrifice is something nobody else has ever done in her district. We learn of the cowardice of most of the slaves, of their mass obedience. Meanwhile, in neighboring districts, other slaves are educated in killing academies and then volunteer for the honor to die. One might wonder why such a well-trained, militaristic population wouldn’t rebel against the Capitol, but the slave is offered as a crude concept so that Katniss can be exceptional.
Lastly, I’ll (somewhat) neglect to mention that The Hunger Games was released eight years *after* Battle Royale, a Japanese movie where the government forces a group of children to kill each other one by one on an island as punishment for rampant juvenile delinquency.
The Lion King
The lions are the superior race that rules over the herd. The herd animals’ bodies are produced for consumption by the lion elite; their grazing can be equated to labor since the product is their own bodies. While the animals of the savannah still live what seem to be fairly bountiful existences, depictions of the happy slave, the hyenas are banished to the literal darkness to gnaw bones. This is apparently an accepted part of the status quo “Circle of Life”.
The hyenas are an underclass coded as Black living off bones in a graveyard for unclear reasons. Originally voiced by Whoopie Goldberg and Cheech Marin, they turn from giggling, stupid characters to vicious beasts at the drop of a hat. They encompass dominant myths of Black people as being both brutal and dumb. Their labor is conscripted by Scar to seize the throne. It’s not hard to convince them to help––they’re starving.
The animals in the herd are just as responsible for the hyenas’ needlessly deprived existences as the lions are. And when the hyenas attack, the rest of the herd is conditioned for rule by might. In the lexicon of the plantation, the herd are Sambos, “docile, submissive, terrorized individual[s], broken by the omniscience of psychological and physical pain.”(1) They’re indifferent to the exigencies of those with violent authority; they’ll sacrifice their lives for whoever’s in charge.
Timon and Pumba are maroons. They’ve escaped the “Circle Of Life,” with its brutal, repressive logic, and found refuge in the emotionally mature Hakuna Matata philosophy. By the time Simba leaves them, we’ve been told Hakuna Matata isn’t enough to animate a full life. In order to serve one’s purpose you must take your place in the Circle of Life, and that circle doesn’t include living peacefully in the forest.
Nala shows up. After they fuck, she insists Simba has a responsibility to take his place as rightful King…
You’re starting to sound like my father. ––Simba
Good, at least one of us does. ––Nala
In two lines the benevolent supremacist leader of Pride Rock is enshrined. Simba is determined his heir, and though this harkens to African notions of authentic authority, we have been instructed that the animals of the savannah are helpless and the only hope is an exceptional individual.
Look at yourself. You are more than you have become. You must take your place in the Circle of Life. Remember who you are. You are my son and the one true king. Remember who you are… ––Mufasa’s Cloud Ghost
We’re given a monarchist vision and the relevance of the monarch to us now is the president, the CEO, the celebrity, the entrepreneur. These exceptions to the rule of turgid labor forces are the only hope to lead us to the salvation of, in this case, the perpetuation of a slave society.
The truth of The Lion King is that places ruled by mandate and superiority will always find an opponent, either from without or within themselves.
Cedric J. Robinson describes how when a middle-class forms, its next goal becomes the reinforcing of its own interests.
“…[The Middle Class] was bound by a class strategy that narrowed their political range: the protests of the masses of Blacks could not be allowed to move beyond a diffuse state but at the same time must give the appearance of racial solidarity.” (1)
I can’t help but think about this in regards to empty gestures in the discourse; Juneteenth as a national holiday when we’re still dealing with the legacy of what that day meant. We were free, but what freedom awaited us sleeping naked in the fields, as DuBois said, “without land, tools,” (13) or a penny of the wealth we’d “primitively accumulated”? The nation marks the creation of its second great homeless population after the displacement of the many sovereign Nations of Indigenous peoples. White America will now celebrate Juneteenth as an ending point. It wasn’t the beginning, and it was certainly not the end.
The so-called police reforms after the George Floyd Protests.
Would banning chokeholds or tear gas have stopped Laquan McDonald from being shot in the back, or Sandra Bland from being lynched in her jail cell?
The handwritten “Black Lives Matter” signs in mansion windows I pass in Lincoln Park, filled with families whose babies are pushed around the park in strollers by Black and Brown women while Dad spends his morning deftly moving money around before golfing on in-city courses where the expensive fence segregates him from homeless Black men and women sleeping in the part of the park left for the rest of the public.
One day soon I hope we stop worshipping lions.
- Cedric J. Robinson, “Black Marxism”
- Barbara Klamon Kopytoff, “The early development of Jamaican maroon societies” William and Mary Quarterly 35, no. 2 (April 1978): 287
- Schwartz- The Mocambo op. cit. 317
- Aguirre Beltran, “Races in 17th Century Mexico,” Phylon 6, no. 3 (1945): 215
- Colin Palmer “Religion and Magic in Mexican Slave society, 1580-1650,” in Stanley L. Engerman and Eugene D. Genovese (es.) Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Quantitative Studies, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1975, p. 311
- Wikipedia for mocambo
- Davidson, David. 1966. “Negro Slave Control and Resistance in Colonial Mexico, 1519-1650. Hispanic American Historical Review 46, no. 3.
- Syncretism- the fusing of cultures. Dominant western cultures had no place for syncretism in the colonial Americas. The goal was to destroy all culture and past, so as to reduce the labor force’s potential for rebellion. Collective myths are substituted for history. As Cedric J. Robinson writes, “And, as we have already suggested, the collective myth denied the possibility of Africans’ resistance to slavery through its reliance on manageable characteristics: “docility” and “enterprising”.
- Richard Price, The Guiana Maroons)
- It was a West Indian slave named Tituba, imported to Massachusetts and likely trained in Obeah, who initiated the Salem Witch Hunts. https://www.nytimes.com/1972/09/10/archives/obeah-is-a-fact-of-life-and-afterlife-in-the-caribbean-obeah-a-fact.html
- Boukman and Jean Francois
- (R.K. Kent Palmares: An African State in Brazil Journal of African History 6, no. 2 (1965): 167-69.).
- W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, P. I Of Our Spiritual Strivings