Hey! I don’t know if y’all have heard but, there’s an election going on. I know! Thankfully 3,000 of my Facebook friends have been posting about it nonstop over the last two years so I remembered to vote. But maybe you haven’t heard. So, if I’m the first person to tell you this, then let me inform you: 2018 is an election year. And this midterm might just be one of the most important midterms of our life. So you should vote.
If you haven’t voted yet, go out and do that right now. I’ll wait…
I hope everyone had a great Columbus Day weekend! I did not because I’m from Austin and as of last year, we don’t celebrate Columbus Day. So I had a fantastic Indigenous Peoples’ Day! Take that, Columbus! There’s some Montezuma’s Revenge for you – 500 years too late. This is my second episode in a two-part series celebrating indigenous history. Last week I told you why I wished I was an Inca – if you haven’t listened to that one, you should check it out. Today we’re going to travel further north to the land that will come to be known as the United States.
Many people around the country have come to the conclusion, after five centuries of careful consideration, that the destruction of millions of Native Americans and the enslavement of many of the survivors was… you know… bad. And, for anyone out there who is like, “Well but Columbus didn’t know he was bringing disease that would destroy two continents! He just started a process that he shouldn’t be responsible for!” Shut up. Yes he did. Christopher Columbus himself is responsible for the first transatlantic slave voyage, rounding up hundreds of natives into pens, selecting the best “specimens” and then taking them back to Europe to be gawked at and eventually sold. This included women who were sold into sex slavery and children.
So, that’s all the air time I want to give Columbus. Instead, let’s spend the rest of the episode talking about the people who never get talked about – the original Americans. Oh, you came over on the Mayflower? How cute. We walked across a freakin’ bridge of ice.
Two months ago, I traveled around Peru with twelve teenagers. We visited churches and underground crypts filled with artistic displays of human bones. We got altitude sickness and chewed a lot of coca leaves. We were tourists who had to stop and take pictures in front of every beautiful plant or succulent we saw. My fellow teacher, another Emily, and I tried to get kids to put down their phones and appreciate ancient rope art and oversized nose rings. We played with guinea pigs that would soon be someone’s dinner. We cooked with locals, learned to salsa dance, and decorated our own pottery. I brought twelve teenagers to Peru and they all came back alive. We survived and this is my story.
Early in the morning on September 16, 1810, a priest was warned that he would soon be arrested by Spanish officials. His brother and a band of followers took immediate action. They went to the local jail and freed dozens of prisoners, behind bars because, like the priest, they had also been planning to fight the Spanish.
That morning, the priest rang the bell of the local church, gathered his followers and addressed them from his pulpit. He called upon them to overthrow the Spanish empire, using a derogatory term for the Spanish peninsulares: “Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe, death to bad government, death to the gachupines!”
This speech, the “Grito de Dolores” named after the small town of Dolores in the state of Guanajuato where the priest was from, instigated the Mexican War for Independence. And although he was arrested and executed less than one year after his speech, and the fighting would continue for another 10 years, Father Miguel de Hidalgo is remembered as the father of Mexico.
As my husband continues to remind me, we are only a few days away from the start of a new football season. And usually I’m wholly uninterested in what goes on on the field. And I still am. But I am now highly interested in what goes on off the field. With a new football season, comes new questions about how the ongoing debate about players protesting racial injustice will be handled. Will they continue to protest? Yes. Will they get in trouble? Probably. Will Trump say something offensive on a semi-regular basis about it without any reference to the actual problems they are highlighting? Definitely.
During the Trump presidency, especially, activism among black athletes has intensified. Just in the past year, the SuperBowl champion Philadelphia Eagles were uninvited from White House after some players said they wouldn’t attend. The stars of the two NBA finalist teams, Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, both said they wouldn’t go to the White House if their team won. When Lebron later “talked politics” in a TV interview, Fox host Laura Ingraham told him he should “shut up and dribble.”
Side note: Lebron just announced that he is creating a Showtime docu-series that is going to explore exactly what today’s episode hopes to introduce: the role of athletes as activists. The name of the series? “Shut up and Dribble.”
On today’s episode, we’ll look at various theories on protest before diving into the rich history of black athletes speaking out on black issues that have come long before Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the National Anthem.
This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s get some historical context…
Act 1: The Boycott or the Bullet
If you are being oppressed, what do you do? How do you raise awareness and get support for your cause? Is violent protest ever appropriate? Does nonviolence actually work? How did the Civil Rights Movement do it? Should we still be doing it that way in 2018?
Now, this is a huge topic and there are a lot of competing theories about how to effectively resist oppression. Check out my last episode’s discussion on Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. Du Bois vs. T’Challa. But for today, I want to focus on probably the two most famous Americans that epitomize the two main sides of this debate.
On one side, we have Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You know him. He had a dream; Gandhi was there and told him not to be violent. Dr. King’s big idea was civil disobedience: break the law peacefully. Never resort to violence, even if violence is committed against you. Think about how hard of an “ask” that is, especially to a community who has been enslaved, then disenfranchised, lynched, and oppressed for centuries. Take the high road – be better than your enemy; and more than that, love your enemy. We’re from the future and we know that it worked so we don’t think about how radical that is. But whoa.
Now, we typically teach the Civil Rights Movement as the “MLK Show.” I get it – he was a huge part of this movement and deserves the attention. But, this is misleading because it makes us believe that Dr. King was THE voice of the movement. In reality, he was A voice of the movement – a really important voice, obviously, but just one.
Another voice that was critical to the Civil Rights Movement was also highly critical of Dr. King – see what I did there? Malcolm X disagreed with MLK. He didn’t believe in violence for the sake of violence; but he did believe that violence should be “on the table” as a possible tool for African Americans. One of his most famous speeches, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” basically tells the government: the ball’s in your court. You can guarantee our rights and our full equality – give us the ballot – or you can take the bullet.
Today, Malcolm X is often vilified or, possibly worse, ignored by US History textbooks. He typically serves as the character foil to our protagonist: Dr. King. I understand why people fall into this trap – and to some extent, that’s a really effective way to understand each of these men. But it really diminishes Malcolm X’s legacy. There were a lot of African Americans who like his message better than Dr. King’s. They were frustrated about being told to turn the other cheek, sit down and take it, from white racists as they burned crosses in their front yard and bombed their homes.
Both men had the same goal: to achieve full civil rights for African Americans. They met only once as they both attended a Senate debate on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They were both assassinated within four years of that meeting. So how did these two men come to have such different approaches to protest?
Martin Luther King was raised in the middle-class Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta. His father a pastor and his mother a schoolteacher, his dad – Martin Luther King Sr. – was an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement, heading up the NAACP chapter in Atlanta. King went to Morehouse College when he was just 15 years old. He later attended seminary in Pennsylvania and eventually earned his doctorate in systematic theology in Boston where he met his future wife: a young singer, also from Atlanta, named Coretta Scott.
In some ways, Malcolm Little had many similarities with King. (Malcolm Little was Malcolm X’s birth name. He changed his last name to “X” to symbolize his lost African name that was changed when his ancestors were enslaved.) His father was a lay preacher and also active in the early civil rights movement. Both Martin and Malcolm were gifted speakers. King was elected president of his predominately white senior class at seminary while Malcolm was elected class president at his high school. But their differences are more telling than their similarities.
First, whereas King’s father was active in the more moderate NAACP, Malcolm’s father was a leader in the Universal Negro Improvement Association. If you remember from last episode, this was the brainchild of black nationalist Marcus Garvey. He believed that black people should stop relying on white people to change their situation – they needed to take matters into their own hands.
Malcolm’s childhood in general was dramatically different than Martin’s. He was the 4th of 8 children and his father, Earl Little, was hunted by white supremacists to the point that he moved his family around, eventually ending up in Michigan. But even in the north, a racist mob set their house on fire when Malcolm was only 4 years old and, as he tells it, “”The white police and firemen came and stood around watching as the house burned to the ground.” His father moved the family again but just two years later, Malcolm’s father’s body was found on the municipal streetcar tracks.
Even though many believed a splinter group of the KKK called the Black Legion murdered Earl, the city officially ruled his death a streetcar accident, making it impossible for his family to receive the large life insurance policy Malcolm’s father had purchased in order to provide for his family in the event of his death. Never recovering from her grief, Malcolm’s mother was committed to a mental institution when he was 12. Malcolm was separated from his siblings and placed in foster care.
As a child, he was incredibly bright but when he told his English teacher he wanted to go to law school, their reaction was that he should be more “realistic” and consider a job in carpentry, instead. At that point, Malcolm was like, “Screw this. I’m dropping out.” So he did.
He moved to Boston where his half sister lived and he fell into a world of drugs, gambling, and crime. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Malcolm read as many books from the prison library as he could and eventually found the Nation of Islam – a small branch of black Muslims who used their faith to also support black nationalism. Even though he eventually left the more radical Nation of Islam to become a mainstream Sunni Muslim, this is just one more step in his life that causes Malcolm to feel, and be perceived as, an “other” in American society. While King adheres to many “typical” American values – especially Christianity – Malcolm is viewed as more foreign, more dangerous.
So it should be easy to see how each man came to his own, very different, conclusion about how to achieve civil rights. King, heavily influenced by his Christianity and faith in Jesus Christ, turned to love and peace. He believed that if black people loved their enemy and “turned the other cheek,” only then would true reconciliation and equality with the powerful white majority come about.
But it should be easy to see now why that argument might not work with Malcolm. Even though Dr. King also experienced intense oppression throughout his life, Malcolm had deeply personal experiences with racism. When his mother was pregnant with him, the KKK stormed their house with guns trying to find his father. He has known nothing but violence at the hands of white people. So why should they turn the other cheek?
It’s easy to paint King as nonviolent and Malcolm as violent, but that’s not right. Malcolm wasn’t violent for the sake of violence. He just didn’t think it was prudent to rule out violence as a tactic for African Americans fighting for civil rights. As he saw it, the South used violence against the United States to fight for their states’ rights to own slaves – why shouldn’t black people be able to use violence to fight for equality?
If you have the time, I really encourage you to listen to a speech by Malcolm X. He is an incredible – seriously, incredible – speaker. I listen to his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” with my students every year and still, every time, his words spark a heated passion in my chest that makes me want to go and fight oppression at every turn. And I’m a privileged white girl from the suburbs! I can’t even imagine how it must have felt to be an African American in the room listening to Malcolm preach about the importance of black communities lifting each other up, creating economic independence free from white control and, yes, using force if necessary.
Unfortunately, another similarity in the lives of Martin and Malcolm is the fact that they both were assassinated. After taking the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, and learning from the peaceful rhetoric of the Qur’an, Malcolm became more optimistic about the prospects of peaceful reconciliation for America’s race problems. He even said that America could be the first country to “have a bloodless revolution.” This movement toward peaceful resolution made him gravitate away from the Nation of Islam, which angered some of its members. He was shot and killed by radical black Muslims while giving a speech in New York City in 1965. Just 3 years later, Martin Luther King was shot by James Earl Ray, a white supporter of segregation, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
So the question remains, which approach worked? Was it King’s civil disobedience or Malcolm’s “violence if necessary”? On the surface, Dr. King’s philosophy won out. The boycotts, marches, Freedom Riders, and sit-ins of the 1950s and 60s all conformed to King’s vision of civil rights protest.
However, I would like to propose a theory: that King’s nonviolence would never have been as effective without the threat or possibility of Malcolm’s violence. Here’s what I mean by this: the epic legislation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed as Malcolm was gaining national attention before his death. I would argue that the threat of a turn toward a more aggressive approach for the Civil Rights Movement spurred many white moderates to push for legislation in order to avoid an all-out black revolution. It’s important to remember that Dr. King was not beloved by all in the 1960 – in fact, many saw him as dangerous to American society – but he was undeniably better than Malcolm, in the eyes of the white majority. So, would presidents and senators have given as much attention to King’s ideas if they hadn’t been worried that neglect might push more African Americans into the arms of a radical like Malcolm? I don’t know.
But no matter what you’re own personal beliefs are about various forms of protest and the possibility of violence, Martin and Malcolm set the stage for modern discussions about the voice of oppressed people in the U.S. and around the world. And who would have thought that the arena where these philosophies would play out in the future would be the world of sports?
Act 2: Athletic Activists
Black athletes have been an important voice for the African American community for decades. Think about it: in a century of segregation, oppression, and limited opportunities for advancement, sports was one of the earliest arenas where black people got a relatively fair shot. Compared with the corporate world or politics, sports is a meritocracy – the best player makes the team. Obviously there was rampant discrimination in the sporting world, too, but black athletes broke through the color barrier earlier than in other industries. Because of that, athletes were some of the first black celebrities to create wealth, fame, and, thus, a voice for themselves in general American society.
Jackie Robinson broke the so-called “color barrier” when he became the first African American to play Major League Baseball, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 – of course it was Brooklyn. Those hipsters are always trying to one up the rest of us. After retirement, Robinson became active in the Civil Rights Movement, especially in a regular column he wrote for the New York Post. He publicly called out political leaders, especially JFK – whom he saw as making too many compromises with white southern segregationists. When Kennedy got visibly angry over steel tariffs, Jackie Robinson criticized him for getting more emotional about the steel industry than black oppression in his country. “Why Mr. President,” he wrote, “Why don’t you get angry again?”
Throughout the 1960s, other athletes – many of them still competitive in their respective sports – became some of the leading voices in the Civil Rights Movement. Boxer Muhammad Ali famously refused to be drafted into the military in protest of both black oppression and the Vietnam War. Cassius Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali – evoking two of the most important early Islamic leaders in history, Muhammad the prophet, and Ali his cousin – when he joined the Nation of Islam. He had actually been recruited and mentored by none other than Malcolm X himself.
On being drafted into military service, Muhammad Ali said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs? . . . If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to twenty-two million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me. I’d join tomorrow.”
At 25, Muhammad Ali was sentenced to five years in prison, stripped of his championship title, and his boxing license was suspended. His conviction was later overturned but he was hated by many in the white majority across the country. Sports Illustrated ran an editorial calling him a “demagogue,” a popular TV host called him “a disgrace to his country.” Even Jackie Robinson criticized Ali’s actions saying, “He’s hurting, I think, the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers over in Vietnam,” Robinson said. “And the tragedy to me is, Cassius has made millions of dollars off of the American public, and now he’s not willing to show his appreciation to a country that’s giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity.” We’re hearing almost identical arguments today about Colin Kaepernick.
One year later, in 1968, the Olympics were held in Mexico City. First off, 1968 was an insane year in U.S. History. Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, the apparent Democratic candidate for president, were both assassinated within two months of each other. The Tet Offensive had escalated the Vietnam War, while strikes and other protests for racial and gender equality were almost constant at home.
Some black athletes got together in an attempt to boycott the Olympic Games to raise awareness about the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. but it never fully came together. Notably, O.J. Simpson – Heisman Trophy winner, world-record holding track star, and arguably the most famous black athlete at the time – refused to join the boycott. Speaking about black political activism he famously said, “I’m not black. I’m O.J.”
Although the boycott never got off the ground, the most famous image of those Olympic Games would be two black American sprinters on the podium, holding their black-gloved fists in the air as the National Anthem plays.
This was a carefully thought out decision. As Tommie Smith and John Carlos walked to the podium, they took off their shoes to protest poverty. They wore beads and a scarf to protest lynchings. And when the national anthem was played, they lowered their heads in a show of mourning and raised their fists in a Black Power salute that rocked the world.
John Carlos later explained that he had decided to unzip his Olympic jacket, in defiance of Olympic etiquette, but in support of “all the working-class people — black and white — in Harlem who had to struggle and work with their hands all day.” He had also deliberately covered up the “USA” on his uniform with a black T-shirt to “reflect the shame I felt that my country was traveling at a snail’s pace toward something that should be obvious to all people of good will. Then the anthem started and we raised our fists into the air.”
Smith and Carlos were suspended from the US track & field team and immediately kicked out of the Olympic Village. The International Olympic Committee called the protest, “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.” Side note: the IOC was led in 1968 by the same man who was in charge in 1936 – when they allowed the Olympic Games to be held in Nazi Germany. I guess they didn’t have an issue with the Nazi salute – just the Black Power fist. That’s reasonable.
As the 1960s came to a close and the nation sunk down, exhausted, into the 1970s, athlete activism also declined. For one, the Civil Rights Movement lost steam after 1968. But also, as the world of sports became more heavily corporatized – with sponsorships and a celebrity’s “brand” to consider, athletes were disincentivized from speaking out on divisive issues.
For example, in 1992, when Michael Jordan was asked to support a black Democratic candidate running for the U.S. Senate in his college state of North Carolina – Go Tar Heels! – he declined, saying, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
It’s important to note that for the last generation or two, the nation has gotten used to its athletes being typically loud on advertising and quiet on political issues. People are perfectly comfortable seeing athletes pushing McDonald’s cheeseburgers and Coca Cola – breakfast of champions – but it’s been rare to hear an athlete contribute to a larger, more impactful, national conversation.
Of course this has changed in the past few years and it’s freaking some people out. Whatever your thoughts are on the current protests and political statements by athletes, it’s important to understand that this is not new. Black athletes, especially, have a long and rich history of speaking up on issues facing their community – they took a break in the 80s and 90s to make some money selling shoes – but now they’re back. They’re picking up where athletes like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos left off – instead of black gloves they have Twitter open on their iPhone. And instead of standing on a podium, they’re taking a knee.
Act 3: The Kaepernick Effect
What has sparked this new generation of black athlete activists? In short, the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, I am in no way equipped to be the voice of the Black Lives Matter movement and I’m not going to attempt to cover all of their claims and goals in such a short amount of time. In a nutshell, the movement began in response to the deaths of black people, mostly young unarmed men, at the hands of police. For some more context, let me read to you how the group defines itself on their website – keeping in mind that the group is, by design, very localized and community-driven. Meaning, this description might not apply to everyone who identifies as part of the movement, but it covers the majority:
“Black Lives Matter began as a call to action in response to state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism. Our intention from the very beginning was to connect Black people from all over the world who have a shared desire for justice to act together in their communities. The impetus for that commitment was, and still is, the rampant and deliberate violence inflicted on us by the state.”
First, Colin Kaepernick was not the first nor the only athlete to protest injustices against black people in the United States. In 2012, Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and other NBA players word hoodies partially covering their faces in a social media post to protest the killing of unarmed Trayvon Martin, who was wearing a hoodie when he was killed by a neighborhood watchperson. Two years earlier, the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs wore jerseys with their team name in Spanish to show support for immigrant communities in their states.
In 2014, five St. Louis Rams players protested the decision not to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown by walking onto the field with their hands raised in the air, in reference to the claim by some observers that Brown had his hands up when he was shot. Although the St. Louis Police Officer’s Association demanded the NFL discipline the players, they were not fined because the team said they were exercising their freedom of speech.
But the most lasting protest, so far, began in 2016 when Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the National Anthem. No one even noticed until the third game at which point Kaepernick explained himself.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick initially said of his protest. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
After a backlash from groups saying it was disrespectful to veterans to sit during the National Anthem, Kaepernick and a teammate, Eric Reid, met with former pro football player and Green Beret Nate Boyer. At the meeting, the three men did what no one in our government or news industry seems to be able to do – they sat down and had a respectful, rational conversation about their different perspectives and came to a compromise. Out of that meeting, Kaepernick and Reid decided to kneel instead. He explained:
“We were talking to [Boyer] about how can we get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from fighting for our country, but keep the focus on what the issues really are. And as we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee. Because there are issues that still need to be addressed and it was also a way to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country.”
They’ve explained the decision to kneel as someone showing respect for an injured player on the field. Essentially, they believe the United States is injured and the decision to kneel comes from a place of respect and patriotism. Of course, not everyone sees it that way.
Other NFL players followed suit, as well as professional and amateur athletes across the country. Then-president Barack Obama notably did not come out in full support of the movement, which many activists were hoping for from the first black president.
His response tiptoed between both sides, saying, “I want Mr. Kaepernick and others who are on a knee, I want them to to listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing. But I also want people to think about the pain he may be expressing about somebody who’s lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.”
President Trump has taken a stronger stance, to say the least. At a rally, he stated, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
It was at this point, after the “son of a bitch” speech, that the NFL seemed – for a brief moment – to unite in support of their players. That next week, entire teams knelt or held hands in solidarity, even some team owners. But that didn’t last long. Houston Texans’ owner Bob McNair decried that “we can’t have the inmates running the prison.” As it turns out, comparing a group of mostly black employees to “inmates” is not a great move. He apologized. But then he made a statement that he regretted his apology. Oh god, get it together, man.
As a group, NFL owners came together in March of 2018 and crafted a new league-wide policy: if players were on the field during the National Anthem then they had to stand or else they would be fined. Players could choose to remain in the locker room, however, until after the anthem had played. It’s a sort-of compromise but it definitely favors critics of the movement by – literally – hiding away the protest behind closed doors.
For his part, Kaepernick hasn’t been signed to another team since the end of the season when the protests began. Now, I know very little about football statistics – by choice – and sports fans have different opinions on this. But what I’ve gathered is that, based on his stats alone, it is weird that no team has picked up Kaepernick. He’s no Tom Brady or… some other quarterback whose name I definitely know. But he has a higher pass completion rate, more rushing yards, and less interceptions than other quarterbacks currently playing in the NFL.
It would appear that Kaepernick has been unofficially blackballed by NFL owners. Even if it’s not a coordinated effort, there hasn’t been a team willing to pick him up since his protests began. But, based on what I’ve seen, it seems pretty clear to me that Kaepernick paid attention in history class. His protest is textbook King-style civil disobedience. So if he has studied the past, then he should be comforted by the fact that even though he hasn’t gotten to throw a football in a while, historians are already lumping his name in with names like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Not too shabby.
And now, I’d like to end this episode with a certified rant. If you just wanted the history and don’t want more of my opinion, feel free to switch over to another podcast now. But I just have a few things I’d like to get off my chest…
The reason I wanted to go into the history of debates about how to protest is because I want to make it clear that there are a lot of ways that people, including athletes, could choose to voice their opinion. And the ways that they have chosen to do that are, honestly, the mildest, most polite, option – short of not doing anything at all. I’m not at all discounting the gravity of their protests – I’m just saying that to people complaining about how these athletes are being disrespectful, unpatriotic “sons of bitches” (to quote the president) – pay attention to history. If you’re a critic who is concerned about this movement gaining steam, then you might want to listen to the guys quietly kneeling on the field instead of pushing against them so forcefully that some of them stand up and decide to take a more direct approach, a la Malcolm X.
Also, to all of the people telling celebrities to be quiet and not get involved in politics or social justice: what is wrong with you? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that American celebrities are using the platform they have to be a voice for a cause they care about? Isn’t that so much better than just selling us junk food or posting pictures of their vacations on Instagram?
For example, some people were outraged when Beyonce made a slightly political statement by dressing her and her dancers in Black Panther-inspired outfits during her SuperBowl halftime show (1. Black Panther as in, the political party – her back-up dancers were dressed up as Wakandans although that would have been incredible. 2. Does anyone remember that it was actually Coldplay’s show – but they totally got overshadowed by Beyonce and Bruno Mars. You don’t invite them to a party and expect anyone to look at you, Chris Martin). Back to Beyonce, here were running jokes about white people suddenly discovering that she was black and they were outraged. How dare you! Just sing your songs about being bootylicious and stop having a “message”, Beyonce!
Also, consider this: the two industries that generate the most widely known celebrities in our society – sports and entertainment – are also the two industries in which black people have been able to find themselves on relatively equal footing over the last 50 years. Out of the top ten richest African Americans in the country, 8 are either athletes or entertainers. So if celebrities are supposed to shut up and dribble, or shut up and sing (which makes no sense), then who does that leave the black community with who has the wealth and the audience to get a message out?
Church leaders still play an incredibly important role in this, but I would argue that their power is declining, especially with young people. Politicians? In all of U.S. history, we have had around 2,000 people serve in the Senate. Out of those 2,000 Senators, TEN have been African American. Ten.
Again, I’m not discounting the incredible work of non-famous, good-old-regular people who are out there doing the daily work of social justice activism. They are the most important part of these movements. But historically, movements with a face and a voice last longer than those without – just look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. Like, what was that about? Exactly my point.
If critics silence, or at least discredit, black athletes and entertainers, then they are depriving African Americans of some of the best tools they have for getting out their message. Critics know this, and the President knows this, which is why you will continue to see attacks against black celebrities taking a stand. But it’s also because they’re scared. Who knows? Maybe they realize the power of a Jackie Robinson, a Dr. King, a Muhammad Ali, a Malcolm X, a Colin Kaepernick because they have actually paid attention to history? Or not. OK. Rant over. Sorry, I’ll just “shut up and podcast” from here on out.
Y’all. I just got home from seeing Black Klansman and it’s necessary viewing. Set in the 70s, this movie is not a period piece – it’s not meant to depict a different time. It’s clear that Spike Lee sees parallels between the black experience in the past and our country today and he is not subtle about it. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil the movie for you because I want each of you to go see it. But it’s a testament to the power of movies to teach us about history.
But what if you need an escape from the intensity of the news? What if you don’t want to spend your free time being forced to learn about things that happened in the past? What if you’d rather watch fictional characters fly spaceships and parade in pageants to the death? Well then, today you’ve come to the right place.
I’m tired! I’m stressed! I’m anxiously anticipating starting a new school year next week! I needed a break; an opportunity to think about the lighter side of history. So I’m doing what all history teachers do at some point: “Ah, I don’t want to teach today. Let’s just pop in a movie.”
What are we talking about today? Entirely fictional movies that aren’t actually entirely fictional. Movies that have a totally made-up plot and characters but that draw inspiration from the past. These are my favorites because it’s like an inside joke for people who paid attention in high school. Everyone else is sitting in the theater thinking they’re being transported far off into a fantasy world; but you and I know that we’re actually learning history. Haha suckers! Marvel tricked you!
Today, I want to highlight my two favorite fictional historical movies. One came out earlier this year and gave us a glimpse into an incredible alternate history of the world. The other is a series that I think doesn’t always get the respect it deserves, but today the odds will be in its favor.
This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s get some historical context…
Act 1: Black Panther
First, SPOILER ALERT! Act 1 I’m going to be talking about Black Panther. So if you don’t yet know what a Wakanda is or how many war rhinos it takes to win a battle, you shouldn’t listen to this section yet. Skip to minute 24:00 to hear me rave about the Hunger Games, and come back to this section once you’ve watched the movie. And please watch the movie. OK. You’ve been warned.
I’m not the first to point out that Black Panther is INCREDIBLE. Oh my gosh I loved every second of it. But, as someone who isn’t sure if she’s ever actually seen another Marvel movie… Is Wonder Woman part of the Marvel universe? If so, then I’ve seen that. I loved Black Panther because it was so steeped in history.
But first, in case you don’t remember the movie very well, let’s go through a brief rundown of what happens.
Wakanda is a small country in East Africa that houses the world’s only stores of vibranium – a highly valued substance in the Marvel universe. In the 1940s, Howard Stark – fictional inventor, businessman and father to Robert Downey Jr. (I mean Iron Man, I mean Tony Stark) – discovered a tiny bit of the substance and used all of it to forge a shield for Captain America. Maybe you’ve heard of him? Punched Hitler in the face in the first edition of his comic book?
Anyway, Wakanda has tons of the stuff and has used it to become the most technologically advanced country in the world. But, in order to protect themselves, they’ve hidden away and presented themselves as a poor Third World country. When you think about it, isn’t this a really sad indictment of our general apathy toward African nations? The Wakandans know that if they just pretend to be desperately impoverished, no one will pay any attention to them.
The basic plot of the movie goes like this: T’Challa has become the new king after his father died. Meanwhile, an arms dealer and enemy of Wakanda since 1992 named Ulysses Klaue is working with a straight-up ripped Michael B. Jordan selling stolen vibranium on the black market. Ultimately, we find out that Michael B. Jordan doesn’t care about the vibranium, he wants to use Klaue to get to Wakanda. He kills Klaue and takes his body to the Wakandans as an offering.
When he gets a meeting with King T’Challa and his advisors, he tells them that he isn’t Michael B. Jordan, he’s actually T’Challa’s cousin. Whoa! After years as a Black Ops soldier – killing enough people to cover his entire body in meticulously spaced scars and to earn the nickname “Killmonger” – he has made it to his ultimate goal: he wants to claim the throne for himself. He challenges T’Challa to the ritual battle, T’Challa agrees and gets pushed off a waterfall. Killmonger, the new king of Wakanda, says that they are drastically changing their foreign policy. Instead of hiding away, they are going to send out weapons to black people all over the world and support them as they rise up and overthrow their oppressors.
But wait! T’Challa is alive because the hard snow broke his fall? I don’t get it. But a battle ensues between the Wakandans. Cue the WAR RHINOS! Ultimately T’Challa wins and Killmonger dies.
At the end of the movie, we discover that T’Challa has decided to open Wakanda up to the world – but not to spark a violent revolution. He sets up cultural and technological outreach centers around the world in predominantly black areas to help raise them up – In other words, he decides to teach them to fish instead of giving them vibranium fish. Right?
Let’s break down a few parts of this story as they relate to history because there’s SO MUCH. First, what is the historical basis for Wakanda? Yeah it’s a made-up place, but apparently after the movie came out Google searches for “flights to Wakanda” spiked so… yeah. People are dumb.
There are a few real places that have served as the inspiration for Wakanda depending on who you ask – comic book author, movie writer, movie director, etc. Fictional Wakanda supposedly borders Ethiopia – coincidence? I think not. Ethiopia was the only African country to resist colonization. Ever since they were the Christian kingdom of Aksum, they resisted conquest by outside groups – first the Muslims and then the Europeans. They actually defeated Italy in the Italo-Ethiopian Wars of the late 19th century.
Another inspiration for Wakanda was the country of Lesotho – you know this one. It’s the weird tiny circle in the middle of South Africa that you always thought was a lake they forgot to color blue on the map? Was that just me? Movie director Ryan Coogler visited the country that avoided the worst parts of colonialism and the apartheid segregation that surrounded them in South Africa.
But the most interesting possible inspiration for Wakanda is the country of the Congo in central Africa. The Black Panther first appeared in comic book form in 1966 – the height of the Cold War. The real world was watching another epic struggle between the US and the Soviet Union for the most powerful substance on Earth to power their weapons: uranium. And where was the richest deposit of uranium? Just as Albert Einstein, who, writing to FDR in 1939 about the possibility of developing an atomic bomb, told him, “The most important source of uranium is in the Belgian Congo.” Just 6 years later, uranium from the Shinkolobwe mine in the Congo was used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
When the Congo became independent from Belgium, the US and the USSR both tried desperately to control the new government. One part of the country seceded and civil war ensued. After new president Patrice Lumumba asked for help from the UN and was ignored, he turned to the Soviet Union for help. Eventually, Lumumba was assassinated and the US supported his opponent Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko. Remember him? He’s one of the African dictators and all-around-bad-dudes that I talked about last season. He’s the guy that stole so much money from his own country that political scientists coined his government a kleptocracy. Anyway, the US supported Mobutu in an effort to indirectly control the uranium-rich country.
So… Wakanda’s tactic makes a lot of sense historically. If you are a country in the southern hemisphere, you do not want the West to find out that you have valuable natural resources. Just look at the silver mines of Potosi in Peru, the gold and diamonds in southern Africa (negative shout out to Cecil Rhodes), the spices of India, or the tea/silk/everything else luxurious in China. Good call, Wakanda.
But that’s what makes Black Panther such an interesting premise. It gives us a look at what might have happened to Africa if they had avoided all of the history I’ve been talking about. What if their men hadn’t been enslaved and shipped across the ocean? What if they hadn’t been colonized? What if their wealth hadn’t been stripped from them and sold to profit outsiders? What if they hadn’t had to send soldiers to fight European wars? What if they hadn’t been pitted against each other for hundreds of years, making it incredibly difficult to establish a new independent country in peace? What if?
My favorite moments were all of the references to imperialism woven throughout the dialogue. You might not have caught them the first time you watched the movie, but I highly encourage you to rewatch it now that you are a history expert. Let me just quickly point out a few of my favorites:
First, the scene in the London museum is perfection. Michael B. Jordan stands looking at an exhibit on African art. The irony of the white female “expert” on African art is not lost on Jordan, especially when she misidentifies an artifact that he knows is actually from Wakanda. Take your art history degree and shove it, lady! When he reveals to her that he plans on taking some of these artifacts off her hands and she accuses him of overstepping, he responds: “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price or did they take it like they took everything else?” *slow clap*
Later, after he becomes king, Jordan/Killmonger flips the script, saying, “The world is going to start over and this time we’re on top. The sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire.” Awesome call back to the British Empire – but also, does that make him just as bad as them? We’ll get to that debate in a second.
Klaue, a white British arms dealer and an also straight-up ripped Andy Serkis – like, I wish Gollum had gotten more screen time in Lord of the Rings now that I’ve seen his enormous biceps. “My precious,” indeed. Anyway – focus, Emily. Klaue repeatedly calls the Wakandans “savages” who don’t deserve vibranium. This is exactly the justification Europeans used to colonize Africa in the first place – and kind of the argument Americans used to take the land from Native Americans – they’re “uncivilized brutes” who aren’t utilizing the land and resources as fully as they should be.
But the two best moments come from the ladies, obviously. Little sister and proof that girls like science, too, Shuri, jumps when Martin Freeman wakes up in her lab, saying “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!”
During a shootout and car chase in South Korea, Okoye scoffs at the white peoples’ weapons. “Guns… so primitive.” Think about it: this is an amazing table-turning moment. When Europeans showed up in Africa, they were so technologically advanced. They had guns while the Africans were fighting with spears. But now, fierce warrior woman and wig-hating Okoye takes down multiple men at a time with what? A spear. So good.
Before we move on, a quick note about Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman. I love this. The film has completely subverted the typical Hollywood movie with a main cast of black actors and just two “token” white guys. And those two white guys get pigeonholed into one-note characters: they’re either the thuggish dealer or the boring but affable guy who mostly stands in the background to add a little diversity to the screen. Man I love me some Martin Freeman. This is what has been happening to black actors, and really all actors of color, throughout movie history and it’s so great to see them literally flip the script.
There is, obviously, a ton of other of African culture that pop up throughout the movie. A big one is reverence toward the ancestors and the belief that the afterlife is an ancestral plane where you will be reunited with your loved ones. This was an important fact for slave traders who tried to prevent slave suicide by cutting up the bodies of those who died so they couldn’t travel to their homeland in the afterlife. Brutal.
But, I’m definitely not an expert in African culture and there are a lot of people who have done a much better analysis of the art, fashion, and other cultural elements of Black Panther, so I’m going to leave that to them. The last thing I want to talk about is the central conflict of the movie: What should be Wakanda’s relationship to the world, especially the global black community?
This conflict boils down to three opinions. Most conservatively, T’Challa wants to keep Wakanda completely closed off to protect his people from the outside world. To this, Killmonger has the wonderfully historical rebuttal, “Didn’t life start right here on this continent. So aren’t all people your people?” Shoutout to East Africa, cradle of humanity!
In the middle, Nakia – beautiful, badass Nakia – wants to open up Wakanda because it’s too hard to keep turning a blind eye to the suffering in the world when she knows that Wakanda could help. Obviously, the woman is ultimately right and this is the path T’Challa chooses – although he presents it like his own idea? Typical.
The most radical perspective on the conflict comes from Killmonger (and his father – RIP Sterling K. Brown). They both have “watched for too long” as black people have continued to be oppressed. Remember, Killmonger grew up in Oakland in the late 80s/early 90s. In the 80s, the crack epidemic caused Oakland to be one of the most crime-ridden cities in America. Oakland was also home to anti-establishment hip hop and rap artists like Tupac Shakur. Side note: Tupac was named after the last Incan emperor – a person of color who rebelled and fought against white oppression. While T’Challa was safe, protected, and raised as a prince, Killmonger saw the real world and what was happening to black communities.
Black Panther hits at a debate that has been ongoing throughout African American history: how to resist oppression. We’ve seen this in multiple forms, especially since emancipation, but I think the movie is best represented by the debate that was occurring at the turn of the 20th century. In the south, Jim Crow was firmly entrenched. Reconstruction had ended and white southerners had taken back the reins of power – passing laws and supporting groups that disenfranchised, intimidated, and killed black people. And black leaders had different opinions about how to overcome these obstacles.
Booker T. Washington – he’s our T’Challa, for the sake of this conversation – was an African American educator, author, and the most prominent black voice in the Jim Crow South. He gave a famous speech called the Atlanta Compromise that essentially proposed that black people should not directly challenge segregation and disenfranchisement through protest or the court systems. This was a compromise made with white southern leaders who said that they would allow blacks to gain a basic education and economic opportunity, if they stopped pushing for full political equality. So Washington, like T’Challa, argued a more conservative path – first gain economic independence through education and entrepreneurship. This is similar to the compromise that T’Challa and the previous kings had struck with the world – if you leave us alone and let us build up our economy and our technology, we won’t get involved in the global political struggle.
Booker T. Washington’s compromise was popular with middle class African Americans and sympathetic whites who saw him as the least threatening of the black leaders. But many people, especially poor blacks, saw Washington as a traitor for telling them not to fight for their political rights. They saw Washington as a coward, hiding away behind his books – choosing a path that was the safest, and slowest, route to equality. T’Challa, at the beginning of the movie, tried a similar tactic. He wanted to keep his people safe – similar to Washington, who saw outspoken black activists being arrested or, worse, lynched – and so he hid away in the utopia of Wakanda.
W.E.B. Du Bois was the most outspoken critic of Washington. They were contemporaries and Du Bois actually spent a large portion of his book The Souls of Black Folk – an incredible read, really – devoted to taking down Washington and his Atlanta Compromise. Du Bois believed that black people should settle for nothing less than complete equality. He was the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard and he was one of the founders of the NAACP. Through this organization, he pushed for a sustained political resistance – in the courts and on the streets – to improve the lives of black Americans.
Nakia is my Du Bois. She wants Wakanda to get out there and start really helping people. They both don’t believe in outright violence or revolution, but they believe that they should be doing more to promote equality. Nakia could also be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. if we wanted to shift this debate ahead about 50 years. I’m going to talk about him and his ideas a lot in a next episode, though, so for now, we’ll stick with the early 1900s.
Finally, we have Killmonger. As his nickname suggests, he is not opposed to violence as a form of resistance. Probably his best historical counterpart would be Malcolm X – the philosophical opponent of Dr. King. Malcolm X argued that violence could be an appropriate tool, especially when you are fighting against a violent regime. He gave a famous speech called “The Ballot or the Bullet” in which he argued that white leaders had a choice: they could either give blacks complete equality, or they could suffer the consequences of a violent revolution.
A quick aside on the Black Panther – comic book hero – versus the Black Panthers – political organization. They actually both were formed in the same year – 1966. Technically the comic book came first but the same name in the same year appears to just be a weird coincidence. The Black Panther Party was founded at first as an armed citizen patrol to act as a check on the Oakland Police Department. Again, very intentional that Killmonger was raised in Oakland. Images of young black people in berets carrying guns terrified many, and *fun fact* prompted the NRA to support a ban on open-carry weapons in California just one year after the Black Panther Party was founded. I’m not even going to get into the hypocrisy of that one…
Marvel actually tried to rename their character “Black Leopard” to distance themselves from the political affiliation but it didn’t stick. The Black Panthers were painted as a violent organization – which wasn’t untrue – but they also created community centers and provided social services to the black community that had been ignored by the government.
Besides the obvious links between Michael B. Jordan’s character and Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, I think Killmonger is also really similar philosophically to a Jamaican activist – and predecessor to Malcolm X – named Marcus Garvey. He was also a contemporary, although slightly younger, of Washington and Du Bois. Garvey’s big idea was black nationalism.
Garvey believed that the only way black people would gain power was if they ruled their own country, separate from white people. He was a separatist – believing that blacks and whites would never be able to live in the same country peacefully. Du Bois called him, “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America.” Garvey established the Black Star Line, a shipping company that would establish trade between Africans around the Atlantic Ocean and could send African Americans “back to Africa” to reconnect with their historical roots.
We see this idea – pan-Africanism and black nationalism – throughout Killmonger’s story arc. He sees himself as part of a global community of black people. He laments that, as a U.S. soldier, he “took life from my own brothers and sisters on this continent” just so that he could eventually defeat T’Challa. He is furious that Wakanda has hidden itself away: “Where I come from when black people started revolutions they didn’t have the firepower… where was Wakanda?” And, “2 billion people around the world who look like us. Their lives are a lot harder but Wakanda could liberate them all.” T’Challa responds to this argument by pointing out that, if Killmonger goes through with his plan – to arm black people and help them overthrow governments – then he is no better than the colonizers. But Killmonger – like many black people throughout the post-Emancipation era – doesn’t see it that way.
Ultimately, Killmonger – like Marcus Garvey – sees black-white compromise and coexistence as impossible. And he would rather die with his people, as a proud black man, than live in a world of compromise. And he wins the award for best last words: “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships because they knew that death was better than bondage.”
In the end, T’Challa chooses the middle path (obviously, the one his lady friend has been telling him to choose the whole time. Just listen to the woman!) The last scene shows T’Challa and Shuri in Oakland, where he is going to establish the first Wakanda International Outreach Center. Like his counterpart Booker T. Washington, T’Challa emphasizes the importance of education. But, like Nakia’s W.E.B. Du Bois, he chooses to take a more active role in uniting black people around the world and creating pride in their African heritage. It doesn’t hurt that he lands his “Bugatti spaceship” in the middle of a basketball court – that’s a good start.
The ending of Black Panther is really beautiful. An unknown young black boy – playing on the same basketball court where Killmonger was playing when his dad was killed – gazes up at T’Challa in amazement. Talking about the spaceship, “Is that yours? Who are you?” You can see in his eyes how important that moment is.
Allow me to get preachy for a minute, this scene is getting at something that people have been talking about a lot in the last few years: representation. Seeing someone who looks like you in a position of power – like the boy sees in T’Challa – or on a movie screen – like so many black people saw in Black Panther; representation is so important. By opening themselves up to the world and showcasing the strength and talent of Wakanda, they are showing black people the possibilities and the promise that exists for people like them.
I’ve been preaching something similar across Season 1 – representation in history matters, too. Understanding the rich history of Africa makes a difference in how we view Africa today. It’s the reason why I love this movie so much: as a historian it’s a fascinating alternate history and thought experiment – What if imperialism had never happened? But it also sends an insanely critical message about the importance of telling everyone’s story – not just the traditional narrative that says that Africa is a poverty-stricken continent that needs our help. There’s always another story – an alternate history that exists alongside the textbook version. So go on, Google “flights to Wakanda.” It doesn’t hurt to keep looking for that alternate reality.
Act 2: The Hunger Games
If you listened to Season 1 or you are a former student, then you had to know we were going to talk about the Hunger Games at some point in this podcast. I use this movie throughout the year to explain topics across world history. I love it. Let’s go.
Setting the scene: for those of you who haven’t read the books or watched the movies. What have you been doing with your life? Listening to podcasts? Turn this off and go educate yourself! But, obviously, another spoiler alert: I am going to talk about ALL of the books and movies. You’ve been warned.
“War, terrible war.” The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian civilization in North America called Panem. Decades ago, there was a rebellion by the districts against the Capitol – the rebels lost and the Capitol responded with the Hunger Games. Every year each district sends two children to fight to the death on live TV. You know, typical stuff. The winner gets wealth and a life of comfort – *ahem* until Book 2.
OK even just with this premise there is so much from history. For one, in the Hunger Games, social hierarchy and division is extremely important. The districts are made to compete against each other to take attention away from corruption in the Capitol. Also, to prevent them from ever joining together to rebel against the Capitol again – good luck with that.
We have seen this throughout history – leaders have tried to divide civilizations to keep them from uniting against them. In the Postclassical Era, the early Islamic caliphate led by the Umayyads declared Islam an ethnic religion and split their empire between Arabs, who were allowed to join the faith, and non-Arabs, who were not. They were overthrown because of this, by the way.
We’ve seen this type of thing so many other places in history – the Chinese Confucian system and the Five Basic Relationships that strictly regulated everyone’s “place” in society; the Indian caste system introduced by the Aryan invasion; the castas in colonial Latin America who were divided up between mestizos, mulattoes, peninsulares, and creoles, all with different rights and responsibilities.
Beyond social division, the economic system in the Hunger Games is similar to mercantilism during the Early Modern and Modern eras. All products are produced by the outlying districts but go through the Capitol, which retains most of the wealth. Also, each district aligns its entire economy around the production of one cash crop or industry which means that on their own they wouldn’t have a fully functioning economy or enough food to survive. This is imperialism. District 12 can’t eat coal, just like American colonies couldn’t survive on sugar and tobacco alone, although between junk food and vaping, teenagers are trying their best.
Moving away from the basic premise to the names. Y’all almost every name in the Hunger Games is historically significant. Panem, the name of the country in the Hunger Games, is “Bread” in Latin. In the Roman Empire they instituted a policy that they called “Panem et Circenses” or “Bread and Circuses” – basically if they kept the people fed and entertained, they would not pay attention to the corruption and power plays amongst the political leadership. Sound familiar?
The leader of Panem is President Coriolanus Snow. He is named after Gaius Marcius Coriolanus a brutal Roman general who got into politics but he was so unpopular that he was eventually deposed. (Um, spoiler alert.) Coriolanus was exiled and led enemy troops to besiege the city of Rome. He is depicted by Shakespeare as siding with the wealthy aristocrats against the common people. Damn Donald Sutherland.
Cinna – sweet Lenny Kravitz with your gold eyeliner – Cinna was a character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He was an artist who was mistaken for another Cinna, the politician believed to be involved in the assassination of Julius Caesar, who also happened to be his son-in-law (awkward). In the play, poet-Cinna is killed by a mob because he is seen as a traitor to the Roman Empire. In the Hunger Game, Cinna is also an artist who eventually is murdered because of his fashion statements against the Capitol.
Cato was a Roman senator known for his conservatism and military service, just like Cato the Career from District 2 who trained and supported the whole idea of the Games until the very end.
Notice in general that the Roman names are found in the Capitol (the wealthy part) but the poorer districts have more unique, nature-based names. Rue is a medicinal herb, for example – kind of like the leaves she puts on Katniss after she’s stung by all of the tracker jackers. And Katniss is an edible plant that is part of the genus Sagittaria – named after Sagittarius, the constellation also called the Archer. Whoa. Triple name meaning.
“I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!” This statement, and the fact that the contestants in the Games are all called tributes has a lot of connections to historical empires. Many different empires set up tribute systems, meaning lesser states had to pay tribute, or give gifts of wealth, crops, or other valuable items as a sign of their subservience. The Tang Dynasty that ruled China from 600 to around 900 established a powerful tribute system. The ruling classes in nearby Korea and Vietnam both paid tribute to the Tang Emperor – Vietnam gave them strains of fast-growing champa rice that were partly responsible for China’s massive population growth, for example.
But no one took this idea of tribute as far as my guys, the Aztecs. The tribes of central Mexico all had to pay tribute directly to the Aztecs, mostly crops to feed their soldiers. But the Aztecs also had an incredibly high demand for sacrificial victims. In many of their rituals, it was necessary to sacrifice a soldier captured in battle and so perpetual war was a key component of the Aztec worldview. “War, terrible war.”
In times of peace, the Aztec ruler would often meet with some of his allies – nearby powerful tribes – and they would arrange a predetermined war for the sole purpose of gaining people to sacrifice. These so-called “Flower Wars” were scheduled by the various leaders because they all needed men caught in combat to give to the gods. Perpetual war is also a great way to keep your people united and focused on a single cause or enemy. President Snow knows this – he realizes the double importance of the Games. It entertains the masses and prevents them from spending too much time dwelling on the fact that most of their lives are miserable. But it also provides a small ray of hope – maybe they could be the one who would make it and live a life of fame and riches. And President Snow knows that, “A little hope is effective… A spark is fine as long as it’s contained.”
The Aztec Flower Wars are in some ways really similar to the actual Hunger Games. It was a scheduled conflict that served a specific political – and for the Aztecs, religious – purpose. But the Hunger Games are also very similar to the Gladiator fights and other forms of entertainment in the Roman Empire. Emperors like Nero are famous for using the Coliseum to eliminate enemies to the empire (especially Christians), which is exactly what Snow will do in Catching Fire by putting all of the surviving Victors back in the Games. Roman Emperors would also add extra elements to heighten the suspense, like animals (like the creepy dogs with human eyes at the end of Book 1). One emperor filled the Coliseum with water to simulate a naval battle – Quarter Quell, anyone?
The pageantry of the Games was very similar to that in the Roman Coliseum. Some gladiators became celebrities. We’ve found ancient graffiti on the walls of Rome praising a gladiator or talking smack about another. Some fought so well that they won their freedom, although this was rare. And some gladiators weren’t slaves at all – they were free men seeking glory and fame, kind of like the Careers from Districts 1 and 2.
In the aftermath of the Games, after Katniss and Peeta call the gamemakers’ bluff and attempt suicide, head gamemaker Seneca Crane is forced to kill himself by eating the poison berries from the arena. “That’s nightlock Peeta! You’d be dead in a minute!” Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, Seneca was a Roman statesman who was a favorite of Emperor Nero. After he was linked (unfairly) to a plot to assassinate the emperor Seneca was ordered to commit suicide by poisoning. Now that’s just straight up historical plagiarism, right?
The final reason why I love the Hunger Games is the way that it flips traditional gender roles. Going all the way back to prehistory, men have hunted and women have gathered. Women needed to stay closer to the home to care for young children. (I mean, biologically the only thing men can’t do is breastfeed. But somehow they are physically incapable of changing a diaper? I don’t get it.)
In the Hunger Games, everything is flipped. Katniss has the masculine traits. She is the breadwinner of her family; she doesn’t show emotion easily; she doesn’t think about relationships – even Gale, who is for the most part a pretty typical male archetype – mentions that he might want to get married someday (HINT HINT Catnip!). Katniss is the traditional male hero.
In walks Peeta. Sweet, sweet Peeta bread. Peeta takes on the traditionally feminine role – he is the quintessential “damsel in distress” throughout all of the movies. It’s infuriating and adorable. Katniss can hunt. What can Peeta do? Paint himself to look like a tree. Our own little dystopian Bob Ross. Peeta freely shares his emotions; he is artistic and sensitive; he is constantly in mortal peril and needs to be saved by Katniss.
But the perfect moment that encapsulates this point is the scene right after Katniss and Peeta are reunited in the arena. They go in search of food and Peeta says, “I’ll take the bow… I’m just kidding, I’ll go pick some stuff.” PEETA IS THE GATHERER AND KATNISS IS THE HUNTER. I see you Suzanne Collins – flipping those Paleolithic gender roles.
While I wanted to mostly focus on the first movie/book, there are great allusions to history in the others as well. The creeping fog that stings Katniss in the rainforest arena during Catching Fire is incredibly similar to soldier’s descriptions of poison gas attacks in the trenches during World War I.
The third book and last movies, Mockingjay, is really a great depiction of the anatomy of a revolution that we talked about last season. People are unhappy with the current regime and they join together to overthrow the leader – President Snow. But the new people in power – Alma Coin and former Gamemakers – are not much better and don’t institute enough change. So a more radical revolution takes place – spoiler – when Katniss assassinates President Coin.
In the end, the survivors have to determine what to do with the perpetrators of the oppressive regime – the citizens of the Capitol. Again, war and revolution are much easier than peace. There is a round table debate amongst the leadership and the surviving Victors about what to do – do we forgive them or do we punish them? Katniss votes for a WWI/Treaty of Versailles-style punishment – this makes sense. She has never been a very empathetic thinker anyway and now she’s hardened by her experiences. She wants to make Germany – I mean President Snow – pay.
But others, like sweet sweet Peeta, see that this will only perpetuate the divisions in their society. He votes for a more moderate, forgiving response that focuses on moving past the violence – similar to President Wilson’s Fourteen Points or even the treatment of Nazi Germany after World War Two. Good call, as always, Peeta.
The epilogue – of the book, not the terrible version of the epilogue in the last movie – lets us know that Katniss ends up choosing Peeta because of course she does, thank God. And she has an interesting inner dialogue as she holds one of her children, thinking about how she will tell this story one day. The end of the Hunger Games series contemplates history and how it is created, which makes sense considering “History is written by the Victor.”
There are obviously so many other movies I could talk about in this episode. Wonder Woman made me cry and has also provided a perfect clip to show my students when teaching about trench warfare. Gal Gadot strutting across No Man’s Land, deflecting German artillery, is iconic.
Star Wars might be the original fictional history movie. I mean, Darth Vader’s soldiers are called Stormtroopers. That’s literally the name of Hitler’s personal army. But, interesting, Vader is not Hitler. Emperor Palpatine’s rise from chancellor to dictator does mirror the Nazi leader’s slow climb in the 1930s.
But George Lucas himself has said that his main inspiration for the film was Richard Nixon. “It was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.” The adorable Ewoks were inspired by the guerrilla fighters the Viet Cong.
There are also tons of allusions to the Roman Empire and the Jedi are like the medieval monastic soldiers of the Knights Templar or Japanese samurai. And, I mean, Reagan’s whole plan to shoot Soviet missiles out of the sky was nicknamed “Star Wars.” There’s so much in those movies that someone could write a whole book about it. In fact, someone did – in 2012 there was a book called “Star Wars and History” by Janice Liedl and Nancy R. Reagin – not that Nancy Reagan, although that would be incredible, right?
The other incredible example of a work of fiction that draws on history is my first and truest love: Harry Potter. I can’t even get into this series right now or else we would all be here for the next four hours. I’m not joking – ask my husband, who has to pull me out of my one-year-old’s bedroom as I try to keep him awake so that I can read him more of the Goblet of Fire. I’ll have to do an entire episode on J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece as soon as I’ve gotten over my grief about the series ending.
For now, go back and watch Black Panther, watch the Hunger Games. Find movies that claim to be fiction and see how much they all lovingly plagiarize from history. And then smugly tell all of your friends about it so that they know how smart you are. People love that.
In 1223, Genghis Khan’s army invaded the territory of the Kievan Rus. They established the Khanate of the Golden Horde and most of eastern Europe fell under Mongol control. It was under this oppressive regime that one principality rose to unite the people of Eastern Europe against Mongol rule.
Ivan III joined the various princes together and they overthrew the Khanate. He went on to triple the size of his territory, creating an empire. When Ivan married the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, he established his new territory as the successor state of the Roman Empire. His main city, Moscow, was nicknamed the “Third Rome.” Ivan the Great and his two successors, his son Vasili, and his grandson Ivan the Terrible, expanded Russian territory and centralized power as an authoritarian ruler. Since then Russia has been a land of conquest, corruption, and control. It took just three generations to create the Russian Empire under the rule of the all-powerful tsar, and 500 years later we’re still dealing with the consequences.
Tired of hearing about Russia in the news everyday? Sorry, I can’t help you there. But if you vaguely know that you’re supposed to hate Russia and think Putin is bad, but you aren’t completely sure why – then I got you. Today we’re looking at Russia since the end of the Cold War. Sorry – no Rocky references in this episode, but I will reference Putin shirtless no less than twice.
Welcome to Season 2 of Anti-Social Studies. I’m calling it Historical Context and it’s my opportunity to talk about whatever I feel like talking about, thank you very much. I’ll pick out a new topic each week and give you the backstory. Maybe you’ll understand the world today. At the very least, I hope you’ll be able to pepper your cocktail party conversations with facts that trick people into thinking you know what you’re talking about. That’s the key, kids.
Today’s episode is “Russia, or ‘What the Helsinki?!’” This is Anti-Social Studies. I’m Emily Glankler. Settle in and let’s get some historical context.
Friends, we’ve done it. We’ve reached the final episode of Season 1: The Big Picture of World History. Let me tell you, my original plan was to make six episodes. Six. One for each era in world history. But it turns out that a lot of things have happened over the last 12,000 years. Who knew?
So just as a recap: Global empires have risen and fallen twice. That’s the way we should understand political history. Ancient kingdoms grew into classical empires that fell apart into a period of relative chaos, when people tried to sort themselves out into a new type of organization. Some did this through religion – like the Islamic caliphates – others did it through trade – like the African kingdoms – and others never fully united back together again – like in Europe. China was always there, just trucking along, selling its stuff to the world.
Then the process started all over again. European kingdoms rose and came to dominate the globe during the age of industrialization and imperialism. And it all came crashing down in the 20th century thanks to a few world wars and independence movements in Asia and Africa. And throughout this process, the economy has continued to be more and more interconnected. Silk Road 1.0 fell apart but was reunited by the Mongols. Ocean trade began with just India and the Mediterranean, but then expanded to include the Atlantic and, then, the entire world.
So, the question I have for you is this: are we still in Unit 6? In my class, I divide the year into six units for the six eras of world history. But I’m not sure where to include the last 25 years. Are they part of the Late Modern Era that began in 1914 with World War I? The era that was known for nationalism, ethnic violence, and cultural clashes during the Cold War? I don’t know. I think we may be living in a new era. A Unit 7, if you will.
I think it’s possible that the last era ended around 1990 when the Soviet Union fell apart and the Internet became a thing. Or maybe it ended on September 11, 2001. Either way, I’m pretty convinced that we’re all living in a new era of world history. But the trick is that it will take a solid 50 years before we can look back and know for sure. It’s almost impossible to see the big picture when you’re experiencing it, but let’s do our best, shall we?
Act 1: The 1990s
Act 2: The 21st Century
Act 3: Future History
I want to end Season 1 with a thought experiment. Imagine yourself in 20 years. It’s 2038, Kanye West is the Emperor of New America, and you’re having a history textbook beamed into your consciousness rom your Apple iBrain. There will be a chapter about right now. There will be bold words for terms that we are currently creating. What will they be?
Think about it this way. The Library of Congress is currently preserving peoples’ tweets. The same organization responsible for preserving the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is also cataloging every single public tweet. Not just the president’s. Yours, too. Every tweet, every Facebook post, every hashtag, is now a primary source that people in the future will use to understand early 21st century society. Graduate students in 500 years might write their thesis on the true meaning of “covfefe” or the influence of dabbing on American culture. It’s upsetting to think about.
If I’m betting, here are some people or events that are going on right now that I think will be bold words that my son will learn about one day in his history class.
In the section on the 21st century Civil Rights movement:
Black Lives Matter
The Me Too Movement
Women’s March on Washington
In the section on post-Obama politics:
Hillary Clinton email controversy
March for Our Lives
Anthony Scaramucci. Just kidding. But, man, he was fun while he lasted, right?
In the section on American culture:
Post-modernism. (In case you’re wondering, this is a set of values that emphasize quality of life over concern with material gain. Examples include preservation of the environment, promotion of universal health care and education, or all your friends wasting their college degrees working as yoga instructors because they want to “follow their passion.”)
Beyonce. That’s all we really need.
Let me reiterate this one last time, in a way that’s as preachy as possible. What’s our bold word that’s going on right now that we will have to answer for? Because people are going to judge us the way we judge Roman emperors, or conquistadores, or everyone in the 1930s. Is there some injustice happening that you’re ignoring? Or something that is just “the way it is”? When future generations ask us, why didn’t you do something about ______________, make sure you have a good answer.
Think about the Middle East. They’ve been controlled by Persia, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Caliphates, the Ottoman Empire, and now the European mandate system. The last 60 years have been the first opportunity various ethnic and religious groups in the Middle East have had to sort themselves out since 600 BCE. And they’re doing it within borders drawn by Britain. What could go wrong?
Today we’re going back to the 20th century Middle East, or as I like to call it, “Who knew religion was so important to people?!”. We’ll look at Israel, Palestine, Iran, and the roots of modern terrorism. And I’ll do my best to not get myself in trouble while doing it.
Act 1: Israel/Palestine
Act 2: Iran
Act 3: The Rise of Islamic Terrorism
It’s important to understand that these conflicts and terrorist organizations arose in response to the Cold War politics of the 20th century. As we’ve seen, the Middle East has dominated world history and continuously been one of the massive, united empires in almost every era of world history. The last 100 years, people living in the Middle East have experienced the epic decline of the Ottoman Empire, control by European powers, and intervention from the west even after independence. And this is all occuring while each state is trying to figure out its new national identity, which is especially difficult considering a lot of their borders don’t make a lot of sense, mixing of Sunnis and Shiites, splitting up ethnic groups, you name it. So, similar to Africa, the perceived chaos in the Middle East right now is, as far as I can tell, temporary.
More broadly, across the “Third World” and the Middle East, Cold War politics came to a head against centuries-old issues relating to land and religion. Latin America tried to assert its own identity, but the United States wasn’t having any of it. Southeast Asia fought for its independence from western imperialism and the Indian subcontinent broke apart after millennia of forced unity. Africa inherited the legacy of colonial governments, with mixed success. The Middle East, given its first opportunity to determine its own borders and identities since Mesopotamia, erupted.
Next episode, we’ll end this epic saga of world history… for now. We’ll figure out what the heck has been going on in the world in my own lifetime. What were the 1990s about? (Spoiler: no one knows.) How do you win a War on Terror? And what is the history that we are currently living through today that someone else will make a podcast about in 50 years? Only time will tell.
Today we’re going back to the 20th century and Decolonization, or as I like to call it, “Don’t Let the Door Hit You On The Way Out”.So remember about how WWII discredited the idea of empire? The Allies spent the war fighting against the Nazi empire in the name of freedom and self-determination. Which backfired when European colonies or mandates were like, “Um… Can we get some of that, please?” Plus, Europe was broke and couldn’t really afford to maintain land overseas anymore. For all of those reasons and more, Asian and African nations got full independence, sometimes for the first time in thousands of years. But it wasn’t easy and the stink of imperialism hasn’t fully worn off yet.
Act 1: Thanks Gandhi! | India & Pakistan
Act 2: Thanks Mandela! | South Africa
Act 3: Decolonization in Africa
In our mind today, we look at the news about Africa and see mostly negative things. We’re like, “Come on, Africa. Get it together!” But remember: they haven’t been able to completely rule themselves since the postclassical era. The slave trade decimated their population, imperialism structured their economies to benefit the leadership and foreign companies, and often the independence movement exacerbated tribal tensions. Not to mention the fact that their borders, based on the Berlin Conference, make absolutely no sense.
Africa is a great case study for the entire future of the so-called “Third World.” All of the places that have been the subjects of imperialism – Latin America, Africa, and Asia – are still trying to find their place in the new globalized world. They haven’t had a lot of time to figure it out yet and the so-called developed world isn’t doing much to make it easier. Think about it: they come into independence right at the moment when the west is trying to break down barriers to trade. That’s fine for the U.S. and Europe, but there’s a reason those barriers are called “protectionist.” They’re meant to protect domestic economies from being overrun by outsiders who are more developed.
So they finally push their way out of colonialism, only to have the industrialized world telling them that the only way they can get loans or have businesses set up shop in their country is if they open up their economy to the new globalized trade. And then their economy gets flooded with cheaper products from the U.S. and China so that their own producers can’t compete.
Add on to this the fact that they became independent right when the environmental movement was gaining steam. International groups are pushing for all countries to lower their pollution rates. Meanwhile, Africa is like “Oh come on! The U.S. and Europe have had 300 years to pollute all they want during their Industrial Revolutions! We just want to build one coal plant to try to catch up!” Now, for the record, I’m totally anti-pollution, but this is just a really good example of how exasperating it must be to be a country in the southern hemisphere right now.
All of this is to say: give them time. Think about how long it took Europe to recover after the fall of Rome! And things are already looking up in Africa. They have a young population with a growing labor pool; and jobs are growing 1% faster than the workforce so there’s going to be a lot of opportunity. Urbanization and increasing consumption is making Africans a new, highly-sought-after consumer for global companies. Finally, since Africa doesn’t have a ton of established infrastructure to work around, they’re weirdly well-positioned for the new technological advancements that are coming. East Africa is the global leader in mobile banking and Smart Phone ownership is expected to rise from 2% in 2010 to 50% in just 10 years. Finally, spending on infrastructure in Africa has doubled over the last decade.
Anyway, it’s important to look at current events and see them as a continuation of history. Humans want to look at the world and think of it as the way it is, the way it has been, and the way it always will be. But history shows us that it’s the exact opposite. Things are always changing. Just 75 years ago, the idea of self-determination was laughed at by many. The thought that the world map would look so complicated, with so many different nations, all trying to assert their own sovereignty, would have seemed crazy. Remember, most of world history has been ruled by massive empires. Individual rights, individual voices, and the right to live under a government that looks like you and represents you – these are all experiments that we’re trying out. So, everyone keep your fingers crossed! Or, if you prefer to be ruled by an emperor, let me know and I’ll start my global campaign a few years earlier than planned…