What does Easter Sunday, Batman vs. Robin, and the Civil Rights Movement all have in common? Well to start with all three were integral parts of my weekend. I guess because I religiously identify with Christianity Easter weekend would inevitably be linked in with whatever I did last weekend. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that the new DCAU film Batman vs. Robin was officially uploaded to one of my favorite anime websites. I took the opportunity to view it on Friday night (highly recommended). As for the Civil Rights Movement, much of my life the last several weeks has been devoted to better understanding the Civil Rights Movement since my trip across the Mississippi Delta and to Tennessee. As I have tried to analyze all three with respect to each other, admittedly a daunting task, I have come to a realization. Batman vs. Robin, The Civil Rights Movement, and Easter Sunday are all connected by the theme of identity politics.
I will preface this section by divulging one bias and one disclaimer about the animated film Batman vs. Robin. This section may contain spoilers, and the film has quickly made its ranks into one of my top favorite DCAU films. For starters as I reflect on the film it should be more aptly titled Damian Wayne vs the voices in his head. For those who do not know Batman vs. Robin is the follow up to Damian’s film debut in Son of Batman. Damian Wayne is the newest addition to the list of Robins, which has included Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Tim Drake. The 10 year old batmanprotégé has a complicated past to say the least. He was raised by his biological grandfather Ras al Ghul to be the next head of the League of Assassins. He is also the current ward of his biological father Bruce Wayne who is…well Bruce Wayne. Batman has worked incessantly to reverse the psychological influence of Ras al Ghul. Damian constantly hears the voice of Batman telling him “justice not vengeance.” However, this mantra becomes complicated when he meets the mysterious Talon. Talon seems to strongly resemble batman with the exception that he does the one thing that Batman does not…KILL.
Talon’s influence creates yet another voice in the head of the young Wayne heir. Throughout the entire film both Damian and Bruce Wayne must answer challenging questions. For example, are biological similarities enough to create a father and son? However, the biggest questions that Damian faces are questions of his identity. His relationship with Bruce Wayne is complicated by the fact that he must keep it a secret that he is Bruce’s biological son. Tired of the restrictions placed on him by Batman he becomes the protégé of Talon. Even then he does not find a resolution to his crisis because he does not fully agree with Talon’s methods. Simultaneously, Damian wrestles with his training from his grandfather Ras al Ghul. Thus although Damian Wayne takes on the identity of Robin he does not truly know who lies behind the mask. Unfortunately, for Damian by the end of the film he still has no answer, rather he is even more resolved about finding himself and discovering his true identity.
Damian Wayne’s quest for identity, however, is not a new phenomenon. In fact, I contend that the Civil Rights Movement can be better understood if we examine it as a quest for identity, or rather the reclamation of an identity that was forcefully taken away from a group through variously reinforced methods of hegemony and oppression. In fact, even the name Civil Rights Movement can be problematic in helping to fully articulate what exactly the movement stood for and what it was up against. Charles Payne takes up this argument in Debating the Long Civil Rights Movement. He argues what has been termed “civil rights” came to be a summary term for the struggle of the African Americans after World War II that culminated with the Black Power Movement of the late 60’s and 70’s. Payne maintains that after seminal civil rights legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 certain parts of society (namely white America) could not understand why so many blacks were still angry about their collective status. Many stated the mantra “you have your civil rights, so what’s the problem?” Here in lies the problem.
The notion of civil rights undermined the larger struggle that many African American were fighting for. The real struggle for African Americans was to reclaim a place and identity for themselves in a society that had tried everything to prevent this. Forging a pathway to claim natural rights to a shared humanity was the true essence of the movement. Ascertaining public accommodations through protests and courts rulings served as only as the tip of the iceberg. To do this by achieving civil rights could only be a starting point. Economic participation and self-assertion were the bigger aims of the movement. Protection from homelessness, equal chances at economic opportunity, adequate medical coverage, and food for starving minds, bodies and souls, have always been at the core of the movement. The language of “civil rights” is inadequate in that that the work of activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, Ella Baker, and Annie Divine was about helping blacks obtain their “civil rights,” which they did not have. However, these women strongly believe that the movement struggle was about expanding American democratic sensibilities to a much larger audience. It is in this expansion that many were able to find their voice and identity. Native Americans, Chicanos, women, prisoners and various other groups were able proudly assert their identity and fight for human dignity and respect in all aspects of their lives. Thus the movement can be understood also as a quest to reclaim identity in the midst of forces that vehemently opposed this struggle.
Reflecting on the history of the Civil Rights movement leads to a further analysis of our everyday context. In this case it forces an analysis of what it means to celebrate the Easter holiday and all of its festivities. I am not one tousually to embrace any holiday, but I do like tracking the emotions and feelings of those who choose to do so. As I scrolled through Facebook pages I noticed that many of my friends made reference to Easter or pointed out a particular message from an Easter service. As I was in church on Sunday I could not help but notice how much fuller the service was compared to other Sundays. I realized this trend was not particular to the church I chose to attend, but rather was indicative of what happens to many churches on Easter Sunday. I could not help but wonder why so many people concern themselves with paying special attention to what happens on Easter Sunday? I believe that the answer is that Easter has become a symbol which many Christians can feel the most free to exert their Christian identity. The triumph of the Crucified God over the forces of evil speaks hope to believers all over the globe. Is there any other narrative more central to typical conceptions of the Christian faith?
Just as Damian Wayne and movement leaders found out, discovering one’s identity is no easy task. In a religious context, Christians depend on Christ for our identity. In a world where what it means to be Christian changes from denomination to denomination and even from congregation to congregation, how does one find their Christian identity amidst Christianities? In Batman Vs Robin, I noted above that Damien Wayne felt connected with Batman (the drive for justice) and Talon/Ra’s Al Ghul (the drive for revenge). Damien is committed to the League of Assassins as a community just as much as he has committed himself to the BatFamily although they have what seems to be conflicting values. Who is Damien held accountable to? Whose voice does Damien listen to? For Christians, we strive to listen to Christ, yet do we listen to Christ who healed the sick and lived in solidarity with poor? Or do we prefer to sing of a Triumphalist Christianity? It is critical to question the dominant Resurrection narrative that is a staple of Easter sermons and the entire Easter weekend festivities. What must also be emphasized are other qualities that allow one to identify as Christian, namely the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ identity does not solely lie within the realm of a Resurrected savior but also as a socio-political revolutionary. He was someone who took up the divine call to be committed to justice and equality. Easter weekend should be a time to embrace these aspects of Jesus’ narrative as well. How different would an Easter service look when the message from the pulpit to the pews embraces a divine call for social and economic justice for all? Situating Christian identity is far more complex and nuanced than what can be written in this piece. However, this conversation can be started by expanding narratives from which Christian identity is approached particularly during those rituals and festivities that many Christians find most filling such as the Lenten/ Easter season.
Photo Description: From Amazon.com, Batman & Robin Volume 1: Batman Reborn, photo has Batman and Robin on the cover in front of a red and green car. Damian Wayne is Robin.