I love Star Wars. I grew up watching the movies and love them even more now. Unlike many Star Wars nerds I like the prequels. Revenge of the Sith (Episode 3) is my favorite by far. I was re-watching it in anticipation of The Force Awakens, and I had a startling discovery. I painstakingly empathized with Anakin Skywalker.
Vader is a monster. However, as you watch the prequels he is not so much monster. In fact, he is a skilled, ambitious, learned, cunning, crafty, abled, strong -willed Jedi. He has flaws, but above all he is quite likeable. Anakin falls in love, and through a series of events, betrays the Jedi order (his religion), turning his back on friends, mentors, teachers and even political ideology.
Anakin sheds the Jedi code, as he believes he has no choice. He believes his wife is going to die, and will do anything to save her. He completely compromises his Jedi indoctrination to save her. When watching, I could not help but sympathize with Anakin because that is the world I grew up in. Many of my friends made these same fatal mistakes as we struggled for survival in Detroit to help and save our families.
Drugs, poverty, schooling that ultimately lead to factory jobs, crime, broken families and broken homes where on the periphery of our existence. It was inescapable. Many of us did not make the mistakes that Anakin makes, but many of us did. I can recall seeing drug dealers driving nice cars, picking up the pretty girls that we so admired. I remember my good friend’s brother Speedy, driving a Cadillac that was more expensive than any car an adult owned, and Speedy was 17.
I remember being confronted by guys asking me to take a package down the block; saying that I would get $40 up front and another $100 when I delivered it. That person told me. “You need to help your mother out. She works hard every day, and does not deserve to wait in the Detroit cold for a fuckin’ bus.” I remember friends dropping out of high school to live the fast life. I vividly recall friends who got A’s and B’s, buying guns because they were afraid of pushers and addicts alike. I recall friends dropping out of school to sell drugs, because Dads had disappeared, Mom was working hard, but not making enough to make ends me. We were only doing it to help our moms. That is, until we figured out that a few extra dollars here and there, was nothing compared to doing the drug game full time. Similar to Vader getting drunk on power and slaughtering all the Jedi, including the younglings.
One would never defeat one’s circumstances by working and saving one’s pennies, one would never by working acquire that many pennies, and besides the social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed in order to be free, something more than a bank account….James Baldwin Fire Next Time
We ultimately compromised our beliefs because what we saw was more powerful than what we taught, as what we were seeing in the streets. The drug dealers and people with money were not using the values we were raised on. Was George Lucas raised in the hood? Because neither did Anakin. Palpatine tells a confused but good-hearted Anakin that there is a ways to stop people from dying, but that Anakin could not possibly save people from dying under the guise of the values he was espousing as a Jedi.
Anakin wants to stop someone from dying, so he takes on a new code of deceit, treachery, tyranny, murder, selfishness, spousal abuse, and on and on. In the end, Anakin loses everything, including the wife/family that he desperately tried to save. In turn, he becomes imprisoned in a body of armor that ironically he cannot survive without! If Lucas was not raised in urban America himself, he must have had hidden cameras capturing the essences of our inner-city struggles as Black boys.
Anakin is an archetype of morally conflicted heroin: Dante, Atticus Finch, Macbeth. I know there are precedents for it outside of my growing up in Detroit. But Anakin’s fall resonates because of the genius of Lucas’s storytelling. When you watch the original Star Wars movies, they appear to be about Luke. When you put all six movies together, they are about Anakin: his growth, fall and eventual redemption.
For us who work with inner city boys, what does any of this mean? I remember a Talib Kweli quote that says, “It’s tragic you in the streets cuz you ain’t got no avenues. If at all possible, I think the original six movies are a great way to talk about choices. Anakin/Vader’s decisions are juxtapose to Luke’s decisions. They are confronted with the same choices. Vader makes poor choices, Luke doesn’t.
It is a referendum on our need as teachers to make school more boy friendly. To help our boys see school as a vehicle of change and social justice. They need to be given choices in school. I don’t mean choices as to what courses they take. That’s trivial. I mean choices as to what social/personal change they can manifest. They have to believe that their is an alternative to the streets, that the do have an “avenue”. It has to be an environment they embrace, and not see as a place to languish in until they are old enough to dropout. They need to be coached through the decisions, and know that others have been confronted with those same scenarios. But they chose to stick to the bath in which school is part of a viable plan that will allow them to contribute in meaningful was to their communities and the world.
I end with another Baldwin quote from The Fire Next Time “I no longer had any illusions about what an education could do for me; I had already encountered too many college-graduate handyman…”