Luke Cage and Frantz Fanon
By Muoki Musau and Matthew William Brake
While viewers familiar with the Jessica Jones Netflix series met Luke Cage in that show, Cage’s own series begins with him working in a barber shop in Harlem, owned by a respected man in the community everyone refers to as Pop.
Pop: You should be out there helping people, that’s all, like them other fellas downtown.
Luke: Reva used to say the same thing.
Pop: Yeah, well, she was right. You don’t ever think about all the people you could help? You should be more ambitious.
Luke: What if my ambition is to sweep hair, wash dishes, and be left the hell alone?
Pop: Well, that would be a waste.
Luke: You think I asked for any of this? I was framed, beaten, and put in some tank like an exotic fish. Came out with abilities.
Pop: Saved your life.
Luke: More like ruined it. Reva’s dead. I’m a fugitive.
Pop: So? Take my advice, brother. The past is the past. And the only direction in life that matters is forward. Never backwards. (Ep. 1)
There are a number of instances in Luke Cage when the protagonist cries out in response to the “call of duty,” the responsibility he never asked for to use his powers for the common good. Yet, as much as he despises his powers, he knows that he can’t return to his old life prior to incarceration.
Like most heroes, his powers were “given” to him, but uniquely to him, he got his due to the “prison industrial complex.” In that world of second-class citizenry, Luke was a loner, but in order to protect a fellow inmate, he agreed to fight in an underground no-holds-barred cage match. During a recovery session, things go awry and in the chaos of an explosion, he escaped prison, and is now in Harlem as an escaped convict with a new identity.
The symbolism in Luke’s narrative is clear: a large, dark-skinned, black man with a good heart inevitably becomes a part of the prison industrial machine. In the figure of Luke Cage—whose symbolic value allows this reading—he is thrust into a situation where he must either become that which the prison warden forces him to be, or put the lives of himself and his friend in jeopardy. He is shaped by his environment and the beliefs of the white gaze—in his case the warden. He becomes a typical violent (black) offender, against his own will and because he now knows no other way to live. He is—or rather, has become—an animal, a fighting animal.
Forced into such a situation, the black man finds himself a damaged self because he is perpetually straining to convince the white world that he is a human being, not an animal. This struggle is shaped by a general contempt for black flesh, which, as Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin White Masks, is an integral aspect of colonized society. He speaks of the black man who is “hated, detested, and despised… by an entire race” (98). Fanon makes the claim, which is central to this argument, that black people in colonized society—and those which derive their heritage therein—are molded to be disintegrated selves, and the forces by which this process occurs are embedded in the very culture itself. In other words, colonized society actually sets itself up to subjugate and, if met with resistance, destroy black flesh. Black skin, therefore, is an automatic checkmate in a colonial/racist worldview; for a black man to prove one’s humanity, he must do everything in his power to “act white.”
Although Luke Cage, as an inmate, can stimulate a discussion about incarceration , it is more important to reflect on the ways that black life and flesh are shaped historically and psychologically by white institutions. Not only is Luke shaped by being a felon, he is shaped by the white warden who views black men in general with contempt, and black incarcerated men in particular as fighting animals. (Django, anyone?) As Luke tells his prison counselor and future wife Reva, “The guards established a fight ring and the convicts fight until they’re broken, what happens to them after that I don’t know. That’s why my face looks the way it does” (Ep. 4). Luke is shaped by the institution of prison and the beliefs of his warden. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon writes that “the black problem is not just about Blacks living among Whites, but about the black man exploited, enslaved, and despised by a colonialist and capitalist society that happens to be white” (119). The narrative of the black man forced upon him is that he is incomplete, that he “is an animal… is bad… is wicked… is ugly” (93), and is “the archetype of inferior values” (166). As such, the black man is a creation of the colonizer: the beliefs that the black man is bad, ugly, or wicked did not originate from the black man, but instead are imposed upon him by the one who colonized him. The white man simply tells the black man, “you are…”
Fanon talks about how the forces that create the “myth” of the black man as ugly, bad, wicked, and so forth, are embedded in the colonialist culture. Children’s stories, for example, are not merely pedagogical tools to impart technical knowledge, grammar, and spelling, but also to subtly reinforce certain ways of seeing different kinds of people in particular ways. From a young age, children see that “the Wolf, the Devil, the Wicked Genie, Evil, and the Savage are always represented by Blacks or Indians; and since one always identifies with the good guys, [the black and white child] becomes an explorer, an adventurer, and a missionary ‘who is in danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes’” (124). Whereas mass incarceration is noticeable and obvious—that is, it is not a secret that black people comprise a small number of the overall population yet account for a larger number of the prison population—it is these silent, steady streams through which “gradually, an attitude, a way of thinking and seeing that is basically white, forms and crystallizes” (126).
What, then, is the black man to do against this “deep-rooted myth” from which there is no apparent escape? The reality created by colonialism is such that the black man is always a passive subject, being shaped, deformed, and manipulated, all the while not having the power to shape that milieu (190). As James Baldwin famously observed in “The Negro in American Culture” in 1961, “to be a relatively conscious Negro… is to be in a rage almost all of the time.” Given that assumption, the black man can, constructively, create a new identity from his brokenness into a self-respecting person. Before the colonizer came, the Malagasay man was simply a man, but now he suffers from an “unmistakable wound.” Now there is no returning to that past; the only way ahead is “to make [oneself] known” (95).
Luke Cage is the forward-facing solution to the life that once was Carl Lucas. Not only does Carl represent childhood and coming of age, he is also the accumulation of myths, stories, and lies that have been heaped on him from a milieu that rejects his self-assertion. The past, therefore, cannot be his guide to “the actual state of things” (200). Carl Lucas is “a creation of colonial society, a myth, a depository for the ‘negative’ values which Europeans imagine themselves ‘liberated’” (67). Luke Cage is the positive assertion of black life against “the real source of conflict, i.e. the social structures” (77). It is black life on its own terms, the “bearing down with all [one’s] weight as a man” the affirmation of life, black life, which simultaneously rejects “the indignity and exploitation of [human beings]” (197). This is the new situation in which, as Fanon’s reading suggests, black life asserts itself in the present towards the future, a life “spraying the world with his poetical power” (107).
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press. 2008.
Muoki Musau was Kenyan born and bred, and raised in Northern Virginia (Ashburn) from 2001-2013. He moved to Hamilton, MA, in 2013 to pursue seminary education at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he graduated Cum Laude in May 2016 (M.A. Religion and M.A. Theology). He served as the chair for the Black Student Association for the 2015-2016 academic year, hosting the first student-led panel discussion on discrimination and the black church experience. He is interested in reconciliation work, first pertaining to racial reconciliation, as a method for political action and activism. He is influenced by the work and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and draws on his thought extensively as it relates to Christian action and responsibility.
Matthew William Brake is a dual master’s student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. He is a contributor for Noetic (www.noetic-series.com). He has chapters in several philosophy-and-pop-culture collections, including Wonder Woman and Philosophy, as well as many other posts on this blog. Check out his own blog at www.popularcultureandtheology.com.