By Muoki Musau
I admit off the jump that I don’t watch a lot of TV shows or movies. This isn’t to say that I don’t watch anything; rather, I do not prioritize finding things to watch. Luke Cage, however, caught my attention when it was released on Netflix, and, like many, I was intrigued by a dark, black, plain-clothes superhero wearing a sweatshirt riddled with bullet holes. The sweatshirt harkened to Trayvon Martin’s murder; the setting of the show, Harlem, NY, introduced a superhero to a “black world.” After having watched the show, I realize that Luke Cage was simply a cliché hero in a thick Harlem. He is a dark, black man, but—and here is my argument—Luke Cage is a post-racial hero who distances himself from his racial identity and community. He is just another run-of-the-mill, super-strength hero with a naive sense of vigilantism.
There is a religious implication here as well, which I will conclude with after the reflection on Luke Cage’s “post-raciality.”
What is Post-racial?
Kameron Carter makes the argument in “Post-Racial Blues and the Color Line” that the idea of a post-racial society was one of the aims of the American project from the days of the Founding Fathers. The post-racial society nevertheless amounted to a society whose norms and values were dominated and monopolized by Eurocentrism. Therefore, post-racial says, “Get with the program (“convert”), or get lost (i.e. enslaved, exterminated, excluded, etc.).” The myth of the post-racial in the twenty-first century is characterized by a confidence that racism and its friends are issues of the past because, for goodness’ sake, we had a black president—for two terms!
The post-racial is the attitude that racialized identity no longer plays a role—if it ever did in the first place—in the individual or collective formation in society. Anyone who would suggest as much is a race-baiter, someone who is blind to progress, and who is (for some) unpatriotic. I would argue that the post-racial society is an important tenet in the religion of American exceptionalism. So how does Luke Cage fit into this picture, you ask?
Luke Cage as the Post-racial (Black) Man
This aspect of our protagonist is manifest in the ways that Luke Cage is not only unconcerned with his racial identity, he seems almost unaware that it exists. This show is one among many that have black actors and actresses in lead roles, and which are also set in culturo-historically black settings—in this case, Harlem, NY. But Luke Cage stands over-against the cast in his unwillingness to “get in the funk.” He has been to prison. He is looking to re-establish his life, but he also wants to be completely separated from his past and exist as a solitary figure, i.e. “I just want to be left alone.” As far as character development goes, Luke Cage is a generic, one-world-fits-all type of hero who happens to be big and black. But it is his being big and black that is undeniable both in appearance and worldview, and it is this particularity which contradicts his militant “leave me alone” reluctant superhero ideology.
In one scene in particular, Claire Temple suggests to Luke, “Sometimes if you want justice, you have to go make it yourself.” Does she not know she’s talking to a tall, dark black man with a large frame? How has creating justice worked out for people like Luke Cage? Has justice been readily available for black men wearing hoodies? In an ideal world, that sentiment might be inspiring, but in a setting like Harlem, it rings hollow because justice in that place is a bad check marked “insufficient funds.” The problem with clichés such as these is that they fail to account for the fact that there is a peculiarity to black culture and history in America that is real.
That is why, for whatever visual effects Luke Cage’s bullet-ridden hoodie evoke, because Luke himself does not acknowledge the symbolic effect he has as a black man who cannot be killed by bullets, the show fails to realize its political potential. For example, Method Man reflects in the show after being saved by Luke Cage saying, “There’s something powerful about seeing a black man that’s bulletproof and unafraid…. [Luke Cage] is one of ours.” But nowhere in the show prior to or after that scene does Cage acknowledge the any sense of belonging to the black community except through scattered instances where he “flexes” his appreciation of black cultural history, e.g. the scene with Method Man.
Religion and the Post-racial
I have endeavored to demonstrate briefly that, as a black man, Luke Cage fails to be a one-size-fits-all hero because the world in which he lives (Harlem, NY) is not one-size-fits-all. Justice isn’t one-size-fits-all. As much as we would all want it to be the case, there is no “universal” expression of Christian faith that is one-size-fits-all. James Cone writes in Black Theology of Liberation, “God meets us in the human situation, not as an idea or concept that is self-evidently true,” which is to say that it is in the totality of our existence as gendered, ethno-racial, geographic, historical, finite beings that God is Immanuel (xix). There are the creeds, scripture, tradition, which ground us, but there is a historical-geographical aspect to faith formation that cannot be subsumed for the sake of “saving souls.” Such an attitude that disregards place, ancestry, values, and norms just to “save souls” belittles the concrete particularity of our bodily existence which, I believe, God has given us, and which we should be proud of.
It is undeniable that Luke Cage the character possesses political aspirations, for, ultimately, he is a black superhero. That he is a hero with a qualification bespeaks his symbolic potential. His aloofness and disinterestedness in himself, his past, and his people, however, model an attitude to one’s personhood that is insufficient.
James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010.
Muoki Musau is Kenyan born and bred, 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, especially 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.