Why we still need folk heroes / "The most potent freedom dreams ... Durant raises the fundamental to new poetic heights"

{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}

{image via Designshak}

This past week, NBA all-star Kevin Durant took his talents to Harlem’s legendary Holcombe Rucker park. Historically, Rucker park has been the site where streetball legends and could-have-beens collide with the pros, often demonstrating how thin the line is between the guys with multi-million dollar contracts and the neighborhood legends. It’s a space where a Pee-Wee Kirkland or God Shammgod hold the same level of reverence as Tiny Archibald or Stephon Marbury. In the black American tradition, these counterpublic spaces, whether in sport, music or infrapolitics, have historically been sites where the most potent freedom dreams have been created. The juke joints, storefront churches and segregated sports leagues have allowed the black community to bare witness and testify to the greatness of its many folk legends.

{image via John Henry iOS app}

Durant’s virtuosic 66 points performance echoed back to an era where the line between elite and vernacular was always blurry. A product of Prince George county in Maryland, which houses both the largest black middle-class in the country and a growing number of poor folks being gentrified out of Washington, DC, Durant embodies the modern day version of this tension in the black community. Lacking the otherworldly athleticism of a Lebron James or the impossible bulk of a Dwight Howard, Durant’s hoop aesthetic is rooted in the minimalism of a different era. Simply put, he is a jump shooter.

Built like Reed Richards from the Fantastic Four, Durant uses his almost never-ending reach to use one of basketball’s most basic skills with near surgical precision. His skinny arms repeat the same motion with a yeoman like consistency. In this way, the smooth, uncomplicated move that everyone who has ever played basketball knows how to do; yet, in the dare-you-to-stop-me consistency, Durant raises the fundamental to new poetic heights.

On the other side of the popular culture spectrum, Marvel Comics has decided to introduce an African-American Spiderman. Following the death of Peter Parker in the Ultimate Spiderman series, a new hero, who is of black American and Puerto Rican ancestry, will step into the webslinger’s shoes and become the new neighborhood friendly Spiderman. Marvel has historically been on the cutting edge of the comic book industry with regards to writing about heroes that faced discrimination. In recent years, however, Marvel has struggled in all but a few attempts to grapple with the legacy of racial, gender, and sexual oppression. Some critics have rightly articulated a near white-washing of American history (The New York Times) in order to make their major motion picture films more palatable to a larger audience.

Introducing a new Spiderman, not only as a black man, but as a person of African descent with ties to several points in the Black Atlantic, introduces a more complicated, “post-soul” notion of black masculinity. Where some writers, most notably Dwayne McDuffie, have consistently troubled the retrograde representation of African-Americans in comic books, few have sought to expand what it means to be black in the mythical realm of superheroes. While some may argue that there are more serious battles to be fought, if not in our political culture, at least in more rigorous realms of popular culture like music and film, think about this: What have been some the highest grossing major motion pictures of the last 10 years?

In an era where we have only recently begun to destabilize the whiteness -- especially white masculinity -- as the default norm in popular culture, the battles occurring in sports and comic books continue to show the staying power of white fantasy in our cultural imagination. In this way, it makes perfect sense that as more and more people of color occupy positions of power in the real world, wars over seemingly insignificant cultural spaces will also flare up. And, while it sometimes appears as though the cultural mainstream will always be heavily mediated -- by power, capital, or simply the limits of the mainstream imagination -- there will always be space for alternative freedom dreams amongst the rhythm and rejoice of the folk.