American “heroism” in times of crisis highlights just how disposable we are to the state
American heroics are myths, fables and tall tales whose form twists however the state requires to endorse its crimes.
by Donnie Moreland
As a boy, I remember learning about firefighters. I found their work as spectacular as the graphic novels, and Saturday morning superheroes, which crowded my daydreams. There was no difference between the cape and their fire helmet. And there were enough Black men, dawning the garb and colors of the local fire departments, that I could distinguish between the play, of performance, and relative possibility.
I also remember the morning of September 11, 2001, being evacuated from school by my father, waiting for my mother to return from her work in D.C. and the quiet of my grandmother’s kitchen as we counted the seconds between when American Airlines Flight 77 erupted the walls of the Pentagon—where my grandfather worked—and when he arrived home to us, having saved lives and lost colleagues not far from the impact point.
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I also remember the afterlife of that day. The freedom fries, political punditry, the terrorist threat advisory scales and the miles and miles of valorous imagery related to first responders. First responders meaning not just the responsibilities of the people tasked with arriving immediately at the site of emergency, but a new moniker for the specific E.M.T’s, police personnel, fire fighters and civilians who, like my grandfather, countered these sites of destruction with small acts of compassion, duty and sacrifice.
But righteous intent is easily corruptible, in America. Soon, first responders, at least the visual politicking of it, was no different than the fantastical leagues of ficticious superheroes (The Avengers, The Justice League,etc.) which offered an aesthetic familiar enough to an already xenophobic voting public, to propagandize a war effort against poor, Southwest Asian populations foriegn to the villains of 9/11, married only by skin color.
These First Responders were no longer just the people who suffered unimaginable psychological injury having witnessed the worst of such calamity, but instead the patriotic, morally supremist super humans calling for our hand in war against evil forces.
The story of the First Responders operated, and operates still, as all American Civic Religious iconography does, as a fragile historically revisionist veil for polluted histories of white violence, fear mongering and a justification for ethnic pogroms.
By the time I had to come to consciousness on the politics of 9/11, I no longer revered firefighting as heroic, but as a service and one which has often abandoned, or been used in the public abuses of Black folks. And many of these firefighters retired from service post-9/11 went seeking support for 9/11 related illnesses, dying on the doorsteps of representatives who once wielded their caricatured bodies as banners of modern patriotic offering.
From this, we learn something about the oxymoron of American heroics. Something we as Black folks know well. How to have our names warped into weapons and be left with the boot heel of the state as compensation. Something we will observe, in real time, as first responders to this global pandemic—COVID-19–are martyred as hero, even our kin who, in truth, have become an inconvenient cost of political psychopathy and white ineptitude, as part of the Empire’s method of premeditated myth making.
I’ve offered words to the idea, or processes, of American myth making and heroics, in previous contributions. I’ve tried to inquire what we give up to become folklore, to become heroes, but there is another question which I struggled to even conjure until stories of COVID-19 related abuses against essential workers and first responders, especially Black folks, began to shape as common narratives. It’s the question of why heroes are needed; more, what heroes offer.
I thought I understood what heroics mean, what heroes represent to any institution, as matters of propaganda, as I attempted to explore in the article, From John Henry to James Evans: Black men married to hard labor in the white American imagination. I recognize, especially as Black folks, how our imagined work and war ready Black bodies have been illustrated to galvanize white folks who have no spiritual context for altruism, or humility. I can even gather how representations of us not contributed to by a visual language of surveillance, as an evolving legacy of fugitive slave ads, might draw our reaction and participation in political enterprise.
But what is offered, by the hero, with post-Watergate cynicisms in mind? It cannot be to stir a public ignorant to the objectives of Empire. Referring to the imagined post-9/11 First Responder, I would posit that American heroics offer a sacrificial lamb and a type of evidence which necessitates colonial schemes.
It is saying, “Look at who’s had to die because our powers are checked.” Look at the First Responders who sacrificed, because we can’t openly bomb the Middle East. Look at the essential workers who are dying, because we can’t open the economy or steal from research labs, abroad.
Logic is inconsequential, here. It’s about the bodies, especially for the white voting majority, in this country. If giving over political autonomy means interrupting the inconvenience of horror, then Middle America—as it has proven time immemorial—will bleed us dry of options to defend ourselves, specifically Black folks, from the close potentiality of totalitarianism.
They will do so everytime and say it was for the good of the sacrificed, the heroes and not the creature comforts of privilege. The hero, post 9/11 and in the storm of COVID-19, is no longer some parodic moral defender of American ethos but an interchangeable face, in a body bag preparing to be zipped.
But as Black folks can attest, there are no heroes here—only villains and victims. No matter what is offered up, there is no just return. Whether it’s Marcy Borders passing from the cancer cells which most likely activated as the towers collapsed, while first responders like her, continue to fight congressional dismissal of government support. Or as one example, of too damn many, Deborah Gatewood—a Detroit nurse who passed from COVID-19 related illnesses after being refused care by the very hospital where she worked.
We know the score. Always have. American heroics are myths, fables and tall tales whose form twists however the state requires to endorse its crimes, and shield away its frailty. And the fantasy endures because accountability spoils the illusion.
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In the documentary, 9/11: Falling Man, filmmaker Henry Singer posits that idolizing heroics in moments of catastrophe absolves the public of its responsibility to the dead. As the deaths surmount, and the states loosen their restrictions as the federal government eases its efforts for comprehensive relief efforts, we will see more heroes, stories of death offerings in a time where “heroes are needed now more than ever.”
But these aren’t heroes. Especially, if Black hands are in the fray. These are victims, as heroes often have been, of the states insidious design and murderous histories. Much like the anti-American sentiment which catalyzed the events of September 11, 2001, the COVID-19 virus was not an inevitability of “evil,” but a consequence of a failed oligarchy and yet, it’s the provisional citizens, often marginalized, who are called to bear the cross and smile while doing so.
We don’t need heroes, we need tribunals.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.