Heroes: Talismans of power; Beautifully human, complicated and contradictory

{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}

Beautifully human, complicated and contradictory
by Robert Bland (Intern, The Liberator Magazine)

I have two 22x34 inch posters that overlook my work desk. On one side of the clutter of books and student papers hangs a black and white photograph of Muhammad Ali submerged underwater. Arms raised and en garde, Ali’s stance cuts a striking contrast to the tranquil, aquatic backdrop. One cannot tell if he is at peace with the world or ready to strike out against it. Maybe both.

{photograph by Flip Schulke}

On the end of my work station’s entropy is an image of Otis Redding singing his heart out. Eyes closed and on his knees, Redding eschews any semblance of a cool pose. Scrawled across the poster are the words “try harder.”

While both of these men are infinitely more complex than a mere photograph, it is impossible to avoid the allure of a poignant symbol. Malcolm by the window, Angela Davis and her blowout, Michael Jeffrey Jordan caught mid-flight; all of these images have profound resonance in our cultural imagination.

{poster by Jason Lazarus}

But what about when an iconic image limits our ability to dream? This past week, Google included this image on its front page in honor of Rosa Parks’ central role in the Montgomery bus boycott.

It is on the one hand a touching and incredibly powerful reminder of how much the world has changed in the fifty-five years since that epic day. It also, however, speaks to our inability to imagine Rosa Parks as a dynamic, if not an outright radical, figure in her own right. While the symbol of Mrs. Parks as quiet, dignified woman who was just “too tired to give up her seat that day” has become a central piece of our public memory that Americans of all political suasions pay some respect to, elevating her to this sacred plateau actually prevents us from understanding who Rosa Parks was and what she believed.

In the essay “A Life History of Being Rebellious: The Radicalism of Rosa Parks” Jeanne Theoharis shows parks being part of a radical tradition before Montgomery as she and her husband got involved in a number of cases where African-American women and men were victimized by the Jim Crow order in Alabama. Parks was both a firm believer in self-defense, self-determinism and black nationalism as well as a quiet, dignified, "respectable" woman.

As we return and re-explore our favorite symbols, let us not simply hold them as talismans to provide power in our own struggles (although at times we will need to call on the strength of our ancestors). Rather, in full honor of our heroes from longer struggle for human freedom and dignity, let us allow our most powerful symbols remain beautifully human, complicated and contradictory.

What symbols do you find yourself returning to for inspiration?

Originally Posted 12/9/2010