John Carlos, and it got me thinking about hero worship again. Hence, this post. A few months back, we had a great discussion on our podcast, reflecting on our thoughts of Malcolm X in light of Manning Marable's new book on Malcolm. One of the main topics we discussed was hero worship on that podcast. We talked about what it is to be a leader, and why it is problematic to engage in hero worship - not only is it not what our beloved leaders would want, but it is also potentially dangerous to the movements they seek to help. Hero worship, of course, has happened to many who we admire. The backlash to Marable's account of Malcolm was a prime example. Instead of recognizing Malcolm's flaws as a way to remind us that he was, indeed, human (which should have actually brought us closer to him), there was anger at the idea that Marable would tear down our hero from his exalted place in our hearts and minds. This, of course, had something to do with Haley's Autobiography, which wasn't entirely accurate and definitely separated Malcolm from us.
What is a consequence of hero worship? Again...we create an almost-superhuman image of a person we admire. This often means we exaggerate their positive traits, but almost definitely hide away any of their flaws. What happens, thus, is we see them as doing little wrong, which is in stark contrast to us. We commit so many mistakes, unlike (supposedly) our heroes. We are at a lower level than them. We cannot ever be like them.
See the problem happening? Instead of seeing people we admire as just extraordinary-but-normal people, we make them Kal-El. Since we don't come from Krypton (pardon the Superman references), we'll never be able to be like them. This is wrong, of course, and not at all what most of our heroes would ever want.
You think most of them even want to be "heroes"? What does it mean to be a hero? Frequently, it means being the kind of person who takes a stand against something wrong and unjust. Well...to be heroic means there needs to be some injustice to fight against. And...I think most of these folks would rather be anonymous and not have those injustices present in our society.
They also want people picking up the mantle and continuing to fight like them. That becomes challenging when people think they'll never be like their heroes. They don't want to be separate from us. They want to be one of us....because they are one of us. We often propagate the problem by putting them up on a pedestal, when they'd rather just lead with many of us. I wrote a piece after the death of one of my political mentors, Howard Zinn, that touched upon this issue.
This leads me back to John Carlos - and, btw, if you're wondering how sports and politics mix, check out our recent podcast on the topic here, with the always-awesome Dave Zirin and Brian Fredrick. So...do you know John's story? If you don't know the name, you definitely know the image at the top of the post. Yes....John Carlos was one of three men (Tommie Smith raised his right fist, Carlos his left, and Australian Peter Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights pin to support Smith and Carlos) who had the courage to turn the 1968 Olympics into a larger statement about injustice, at great consequence to their own lives. John's touring with Dave Zirin, promoting his memoir, The John Carlos Story. Buy the book and check out an event if there's one near you.
John's story is pretty incredible, as he was always connected to larger struggles related to injustice in the world. John Carlos was one of the great athletes of all-time. But his commitment to help others makes him the greatest Olympian of all time, as far as I'm concerned - Charles Barkley also agrees, btw. Of course, I can't find the clip online, but on an ESPN broadcast, when asked if Michael Phelps was the greatest Olympian ever, Barkley immediately responded that John and Tommie Smith were for their courageous act in 1968.
But John's just one of us. He just happens to be athletically gifted. But to John, his athletic gifts afforded him an opportunity to do things (like walk barefoot to symbolize poverty and wear beads to symbolize America's history of lynching en route to the podium that fateful day) that he held to be far more important. That moment is iconic and forever etched in all of our memories. But everything he did leading up to that moment, and all he did afterwards, make him a hero. He's more than just the black fist. He's a fighter against injustice, period, and he always was. He's one of our heroes not just because of that fist, but because he was a real-life Robin Hood as a kid, stealing 50 pounds of food from freight trains and giving it away to the poorest folks in Harlem. Seriously...a real-life Errol Flynn...while he was only a teenager...because poverty didn't make sense to him.
And...he's one of us. Just like Howard Zinn. Just like Malcolm and Martin. Just like countless other men and women who we all admire as our heroes. But what makes them heroic? Not that they're superhuman. No...it's actually the opposite. What makes them heroic is that they take a step down the ladder and are....human. They commit themselves to humanity. They see the struggles of others around them, they empathize with them, and they use that to act on their behalf. They are our heroes because they stay human. And you know what? That's something every one of us can do. Whether that's volunteering at a soup kitchen, working with grassroots organizations to oppose gentrification/media consolidation/the death penalty/erosion of civil liberties/pick your issue, occupying Wall Street and committing acts of civil disobedience, running a blog to inform people about current events, or doing whatever you can to try to leave the world better than you found it.
Heroes are heroic not so much for what they do, but for the things they stand for. We can all be human. We can all stand for things. We can all be heroes.