Black Superman cover art by Jibola Fagbamiye
BLACK SUPERMAN by Professor A.L.I.
As a student of history trained by Eugene Irschick and Hamid Algar, I’ve been cognizant of the fact that human civilization may shift from various empires but that the behaviors inherent in our species remain the same throughout time. Therefore history is at its core, a study of these cycles and a historian is adept at pattern recognition. One such pattern has consumed my interest as of late and was the impetus for the creation of the song Black Superman, which pays homage to a multiplicity of social justice movements while also acknowledging the point at which we are in a historical cycle and based on recognition of patterns of behavior, ultimately predicts what has to come next.
As a disclaimer, I must state, that I am making no prophetic claims in the analysis to follow, but the argument that will be elucidated below is one that has been prophesized by others in the past, while even becoming a part of modern human mythos. I also don’t need to make a spoiler alert because that which I flesh out below should come as no surprise to anyone.
Throughout human history when one group has oppressed another for a length of time, ultimately the oppressors eventually face resistance in the form of a leader from amongst the oppressed who unifies them in opposition to the hegemonic structures that bind them. If this leader cannot be turned then they are killed, as in being murdered by stealth or publicly assassinated and transformed into a martyr. If the oppressor group is even more exact, they will try to eliminate the leader in such a way that they do not become a symbol for future resistance movements like an Emiliano Zapata became for the Zapatista movement and struggle in modern times despite his martyrdom nearly a century prior. However there are moments in history when the oppression becomes so obtuse and engorged by its own abuse that a leader emerges from amongst the downtrodden to successfully liberate the people. Figures such as these are seen as a necessary means to an end; they are the antibodies by which the aforementioned societal sickness is cured and the need for them is manifest in the consciousness of the oppressed and therefore they are logically foretold to come into being by elders, diviners and prophets amongst the people. These individuals are messianic in nature, promised deliverers of the people and their historic/legendary archetypes are manifest in figures like Moses and Krishna.
Truth be told, we live in such times that the people demand deliverance from oppression on systemic level in the form of a mis-education system, a prison industrial complex, a privileged system of justice and rampant police brutality—and in this day and age the people look to a special person to help deliver them from this state; perhaps they look for a Black Superman?
The Black Messiah
Black Superman is a song, which acknowledges a cold fact. Throughout the modern era, in the West, intelligence agencies whose purpose was to monitor and gather information had also sought out potential Black Messiah figures and attempted to eliminate them. This is because in the Western context, and in the United States in particular, one of the foremost oppressed groups is the Black population; these were the descendants of the brutality of chattel slavery, the façade of emancipation, Black Codes and Jim Crow, lynching’s leading to the Civil Rights Act (which, on its surface may seem to have had the right intentions, but ultimately leads to policy and actions that further disenfranchise the black community, exampled by this de-segregation leading to ghettoization of the urban black centers and the creation of habitual norms that make the government the sole community provider ostensibly eliminating the community network and framework that had existed prior), and the New Jim Crow, which takes us up to the world we live in. Throughout this time many leaders have emerged to lead the black community such as Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Noble Drew Ali, Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Huey P. Newton and Assata Shakur and all of them proved targets for their potential to galvanize the masses. Ultimately, while all of the aforementioned figures were influential their potential was either marginalized by policy, prison or through assassination and murder.
These women and men are synonymous with the concept of a Black Messiah or “Black Superman”, in that their intentioned goal was to deliver black folk from the bondage imposed upon them ever since their captivity began, through the policies that have kept the majority of the black community disenfranchised and ensnared in a web of oppression.
Thus its no wonder that the FBI and to a lesser extent the CIA utilized their information gathering mechanisms to try and stop a Black Messiah figure from ever emerging—J. Edgar Hoover, in particular was obsessed at finding and preventing this very thing from happening and directed the agency to utilized the very means of murder and assassination outlined above in order to effectuate this goal.
One could go further and make the argument that like the historic Pharaoh and Kans, who tried to slaughter children to prevent a prophecy of a messianic figure from emerging, modern day policies target young black men and women, effectively killing those who are resistant minded—and ultimately potential Black Messiahs. While this may seem like a stretch, its hard to deny the logic since history would dictate that it doesn’t matter if it’s a despotic or a pseudo-democratic system in place, since human behavior necessitates that those who inherit the privileges of power, which is born from oppression will not want to give it up and the most sinister amongst these will utilize any means to prevent that from happening.
Black Lives Matter to Black Superman
So when the #BlackLivesMatter movement came into being as a response to the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, and the incredulity of the black community to the events that transpired after the young man’s death, such as the lack of an arrest for well over a month of the murderer, to the a sham trial and a verdict that left Zimmerman free to live his life—there was a need for it to be said, that black lives mattered because it looked a lot like they didn’t.
Soon thereafter the hashtag started to link other murders and extrajudicial killings by police officers and pseudo-law-enforcement personal of young black men and women. Names like Aiyana Jones, John Crawford III and Tamir Rice linked with those that sparked larger outrage and movements like Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray.
However while the hashtag marked a special moment in history, in that social media was linking seemingly disparate events throughout the country and by doing so were elucidating a pattern everyone could recognize. And while additionally, #SayHerName reminded us that even within this pattern that patriarchy reigned supreme—these were not new things.
Any student of history would know that what was being reported was not new. It wasn’t new when Rodney King was caught on tape being beat and it even wasn’t new when the Black Panthers championed the case of Denzel Dodd. The sad truth is that these events had been happening ever since the first human being from Africa was monetized as chattel and brought to Western shores. The dehumanization was necessary in order to carry on economics of that nature and to maintain this structure, all potential rabble-rousers had to be eliminated.
While I would agree that it’s clearly not as simple as this—I mean, who knows what goes on in the mind of a police officer in a heated moment and not all police officers are the same, just as not all young black women and men are, yet, we all belong to a system of conditioning with those in positions of power in whose self interest it is to create a system that programs us to behave in a manner that forwards their aims. If the aim is to maintain the status quo of inequity then its clear that any figure that would attempt to lead a paradigm shift, let alone a full blown revolution would be a threat.
Earlier this year in Louisville, I met the first protestors in Ferguson and along with my brother, and fellow activist and artist Jasiri X and was inspired by them. What was clear was that Al Sharpton was not the leader of this movement, nor was it the Reverend Jesse Jackson—there was leadership but no clear leader. Even those who advance the movement like brother Deray Mckesson (Twitter: @deray), who has been tapped by the news media to speak on the protests and is prolific on social media and eloquent in his narrative, is not the leader of this movement. If a clear cut leader had emerged that leader like a Malcolm or a Martin would be a target and according to historical patterns eliminated because the powers that be have too much at stake and ultimately too much to lose.
What is clear in social media, to me, as a historian is that there are patterns and what people tweet and status update on this issue, is reminiscent of the prayers of the children of Israel. The demand for swift change is coupled with one for a messiah figure to emerge (both for the religious and irreligious) and deliver people from the bondage of the prison industrial complex, an injustice system and of these so called law enforcement agencies that break more laws than they enforce.
Superman by Professor A.L.I.
Superman was a modern myth created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster; some historians argue that Siegel and Shuster, both from a Jewish background, created the character in response to a Nazi perversion of a concept in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. In his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche had his character Zarathustra posit the Übermensch as a goal for human beings to aspire to. The concept of the Übermensch or the Superman was one that the Nazi party would build upon and argue about Aryan superiority.
The Superman mythos created by Siegel and Shuster, which found early opponents of Superman to be the Nazis themselves, follows very closely the Hebrew narrative of Moses. Moses is taken as a child as calamity befalls the children of Israel and is sent in a small vessel via the Nile and is found by the family of the Pharaoh and later imbued with great powers, which he utilizes to liberate his people. Moses is a messiah, foretold by the Prophets and elders of the Hebrew nation living in bondage in Egypt—a messiah that is synonymous with the idea of Superman as envisioned and re-imagined by Siegel and Shuster.
Siegel and Shuster made their character Superman an alien, born on the planet Krypton, and as calamity befalls the children of Krypton, his family sends him on a small vessel via space and is found by a family on Smallville, Kansas, on the distant planet earth. He later is imbued with great powers, due to the radiation of the yellow sun and his unique Kryptonian biology and uses this to enforce justice. Why must he enforce justice—not because his Uncle Ben is murdered and he feels great power must come from great responsibility, not because he watches his parents being murdered and promises to dispense justice so that no other children have to go through what he did, but as originally envisioned, Superman enforces justice because there is far too much injustice for law enforcement and the justice system on the planet to handle—in other words they are incapable of doing their jobs and there is a need for justice by the people who are victims of injustice and therefore a messiah is needed. Enter Superman.
The Prophecy of The Mahdi
Messiah stories are not new—there are as many prophecies of messiah as there are prophetic traditions. The return of Jesus Christ (Christianity) and the Kalki Avatar (Hinduism) are two well-known examples—in the Islamic world and amongst Muslims there is also the tradition of Al-Mahdi or Imam Mahdi, the awaited savior.
The narrative of the Mahdi has two branches. The Sunni Muslim (those who follow the life of the Prophet through narratives of people who lived at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and subsequent generations) perspective postulates that the Mahdi will be born and there isn’t an agreed upon emphasis or specification of what the family lineage of the Mahdi will be. Sunni Muslims may, like other groups look forward to the birth and rise of the Mahdi—but the mysterious nature of the Sunni narrations about who the Mahdi will be has also given rise to many false messianic figures like Usman Dan Fodio & Mirza Ghulam Ahmed to name a few (their positive impacts, if any, notwithstanding, my usage of the word false as an adjective lies in the fact that their titles were imposed by followers because they were waiting for such a figure to emerge—and later abandoned by the same followers after their demise or a shift in the movement they had sparked.) A title that can make a person an instant leader of the Sunni Muslim community, of hundreds of millions of people and perhaps even a billion, is certainly a great motivation for any human being and its not hard to imagine with so many problems in the Middle East and Islamic lands that many have gravitated towards usurping that title for themselves. I myself, as a young student of Islam, while a student at U.C. Berkeley encountered two men who claimed to be Al Mahdi and ironically both suffered from mental illness. The most egregious visual example of what I refer to can be as ‘the fervor to be Al-Mahdi’ can be seen on this live television clip of a man claiming to be the Mahdi on camera:
The 12th Prince
In the other Islamic tradition, Shia Muslims, or those who follow the family of the Prophet and some Sufi orders believe the Mahdi has been born and they rely on narrations from the family of the Prophet and the Qur’anic chapter “Al-Kawthar” or “The Abundance”, which is all about the Fatima bint Muhammad and prophesizes the abundance in her bloodline and legacy. Shia Muslims believe that the 12th Imam or 12th Prince, and foretold messiah figure would be born from the bloodline of Fatima, be named Muhammad, and look like the Prophet.
Imam Mahdi, as he is respectfully referred to was born and Shia Muslims believe him to be in occultation and that he will return with Jesus Christ (a belief they share with Christians); it positions Shia Muslims and Sufis differently that Sunni Muslims in that the former group believes they have to ready themselves for the return of Al-Mahdi while the latter are awaiting the birth and rise of the figure entirely. This may seem a subtle distinction but it gives rise to global movements like the ascendancy of scholars from cities like Najaf and Qom to worldwide leaders.
And there is one thing that makes this even more poignant and brings all the threads together in my mind, from #BlackLivesMatter to the Superman figure; Imam Mahdi based on historic records and narrations is a black man.
Black Messiah = Black Superman
The bloodline of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, is from the second branch of the Abraham, through Ishmael, and therefore through his second wife Hajar (Hagar), who was from Abyssinia (Africa). Hajar is African, which makes the bloodline of her descendants, in part African as well—while we are ultimately all from Africa and this was long before Muhammad himself was born, I wanted to start here to effectually diminish post-colonial angst by any Muslim readers, who I know may be conditioned to believe that “black” is an offensive term and may find my last statement that Imam Mahdi is a black man to be offensive. My hope is to remind readers that the woman who is buried next to the Kaaba, and through whom many of the acts of the Hajj/pilgrimage were based and whose grave must not be crossed during circumambulation of the structure during Hajj, lest one must repeat the circle, is Hajar, a black woman.
The bloodline of Muhammad, which survives solely through his one biological daughter (not his step-daughters, or adopted children), namely Fatima bint Muhammad is one that becomes increasingly African in subsequent generations—and less Arab. A habit of the household of Fatima bint Muhammad was to marry and ostensibly free women who were slaves, and many of these women came from Africa. In fact the latter Imams, from the 8th onward to the 11th all had African mothers from Nubia. The 9th Imam was so black, that the Arabs at the time claimed that he had “defective skin”. The parentage of the 12th Imam rests on two different narrative chains, one claiming his mother was from Rome (Byzantium, which was Rome at the time, was a diverse space—and she could still very well be African) and the second narration is that his mother was also African. Imam Mahdi therefore is a black man, and that truly problematizes notions of how people believe the Prophet Muhammad looked like (since they are supposed to, according to Prophetic traditions, look like each other).
A black messiah figure, that Shia Muslims are waiting for, at a time where black men and women are being slaughtered systematically—a slaughter that began with enslavement, followed by emancipation and modern policies that incarcerate or murder fathers and watch mothers and grandmothers raise orphans is oddly similar to the life of Imam Mahdi. Imam Mahdi’s grandmothers and mother were all slaves who were emancipated, his father spent his entire life incarcerated under the Abbasid regime and he was raised an orphan after his father was assassinated shortly after he was born. A black messiah with a narrative echoing the black experience at a time we are touting the fact that black lives matter in the New Jim Crow America we live in is serendipitous—and furthermore, the irony is that the only global Islamic leadership that even commented on #blacklivesmatter has been Shia.
The Song: Black Superman
So the artist in me saw the various patterns come together and I wondered, what if a black messiah figure emerged, what if it was Imam Mahdi, who helped lead those disenfranchised in the United States to find justice and usher in a new age built on empathy and peace… a real Black Superman—and this is how the piece was born—a tribute to lost lives, of various social movements and the idea that we are all connected in the struggle. My global blackness, was an obvious bias and as a West Coast based Hip-Hop artist, I used the beat from Above The Law’s, Black Superman to tell this story—this wasn’t intended to be commercial and this isn’t promotion for a new album, etc.; it is a reflection on the world as I see it and its imbued with hope for a better future, which I hope my children inherit –one that won’t find them waking to nightmares, or having to bury their friends to acts of murder and police brutality.
Black Superman by Professor A.L.I.
Moses from krypton, the twelfth son Babylon
The Panther’s song champion, so he battles on
Sabotage hegemons, as they brandish arms,
Fifteen Shabaan born to a banished mom,
Her anguish birthed son who vanquish cops,
Camaflouged messiah of the black Holocaust
Pigs fear he inspires so they cap us all
In our backs like Oscar Grant or Walter Scott
Kill at will, Its Emmitt Still, and Denzel Dodd
Aiyana and Tamir, even kids are shot!
Pop, pop like the spine of Freddie Gray,
And A.L.I. can’t wait till the DOJ
He don’t play and we pray, pigs burns slow
You can’t breathe hellfire fills torso
Pain eternal, this inferno, universal
Black Superman global, full circle
His grandmothers were enslaved then emancipated
His father spent his whole life incarcerated
His mother birthed an orphan, haters hated
‘Cuz he communicated, that their days were dated
Forsaken, His face impersonated by racists
They perpetrate desecration of the sacred like Satan
The fated prince who faded, we’re separated
Ever since then, false leaders speculated
While the meek have waited, to be liberated
From injustice like child with throat lacerated
Eric Garner chokes, and Louima’s broken
50 shots smoke, (Sean) Bell’s life stolen
Walmart coffin offered for John Crawford,
A plea bargain, for offing Trayvon Martin
Black Lives Matter, to the 12 Imam
A Crip suit, Blood cape, Black Superman