Posts Tagged ‘civil rights movement’

Katniss Everdeen

Katniss Everdeen (from the UK "Hunger Games" video game)

    When the rules no longer exist and  “life as we know it” is over,  will human intelligence and resourcefulness still win the day?

     Civilizations have wondered “what if” since before the Visigoths and Vandals had their way with the Roman Empire. (Exhibit one: the Mayan calendar.)   Modern society has had a profound incentive to ponder “what if/then what” since the advent of the nuclear bomb.  The allure of what happens after the worst-case scenario has given rise to a modern archetype, the post-apocalyptic hero: an individual who survives when confronted with a dystopian society and constant, mortal danger.  If you are an archetype geek as I am, the notion that archetypes continue to form as society continues to evolve is a dazzling one. (They didn’t stop with Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung? Oh, joy!)  To that end, Dr. Eric Dodson  of University of West Georgia has crafted a thorough profile of the post-apocalyptic hero here.

     It’s easy to see that the post-apocalyptic hero and her/his environment breed with gusto in the modern public’s imagination: consider the wild popularity of Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, Robert Neville of I Am Legend, and Max Rockatansky of the Mad Max/RoadWarrior trilogy to cite but three.  Furthermore, there are more post-apocalyptic video games today than I can even begin to name.

The post-apocalyptic hero is not confined to an imaginary future civilization ravaged by corruption and mass destruction, however.  Arguably, both Nazi Germany and the pre-civil rights era American South make valid settings for the post-apocalyptic hero.  I submit that the following men are two of the most compelling heroes in modern literature precisely because their stories are true:


Maus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Few would argue the apocalyptic nature of Nazi Germany. The horrible fates inflicted upon those of Jewish descent during the Holocaust suit  “apocalypse” to sickening perfection.  The central figure of Maus I and II, Vladek Spiegelman, is a post-apocalyptic hero in that he devises ways to survive in a society gone criminally insane.  Although the Germans are bent on the destruction of any Jew, Vladek’s cunning responses to situations in the camps ensure his survival.  For example, shortly after arriving at Auschwitz, Vladek encounters a prison camp guard who wants to learn English.  Vladek offers to aid the guard, who appreciates the instruction and takes steps to protect him (Spiegelman, 32).  Later in his confinement at Auschwitz, Vladek overhears a high-level prison guard complain about his damaged boot. Vladek quickly offers to repair the boot, falsely claiming that he had been a shoemaker before his imprisonment (Spiegelman, 60).  Vladek manages such a clever repair of the boot that the officer is delighted.  Vladek receives special protection from that officer, as well as more cobbler work from Gestapo officers.    Vladek’s wiliness in this instance results not only in his survival, but also in a comparatively luxurious standard of living for him at Auschwitz: he regularly receives extra food in thanks for his handiwork.   Finally, Vladek has the presence of mind to carry a blanket aboard with him one of the Nazi “death trains” (Spiegelman, 85).  Forced by the hundreds into a railcar meant for livestock,   many debilitated prisoners suffocate, are trampled, or succumb to disease. Vladek, however, uses his blanket to rig a makeshift sling in the train car. Able to stay in a virtual hammock above the fray, he survives many days of imprisonment.  Clearly, Vladek Spiegelman is a textbook example of a post-apocalyptic hero in his crafty survival of the Holocaust death camps.

Another apocalyptic scenario occurs in John H. Griffin’s Black Like Me (BLM).   A factual story set in the South in the mid-1960s, BLM chronicles Griffin’s journey through the deep South while disguised as a black man. The virulence of Southern backlash against civil rights legislation from Washington puts black society under constant mortal threat: it is true dystopia. Judges refuse to prosecute those who lynch blacks, while violent crimes against blacks are investigated loosely, if at all.  Vicious, racist activists have carte blancheto destroy anyone of color.  Griffin finds that he, in his role as a black man, is subject to that same peril, making him a post-apocalyptic hero.   Little time elapses after Griffin’s skin color transformation before he receives the first of many “hate stares” from a white person. Describing the stare, Griffin observes, “It shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you” (51).   Griffin quickly adopts coping strategies in his dangerous existence, showing the reader his post-apocalyptic heroism. Seated on a bus with a surly, racist driver, Griffin endures the driver’s cruel cat-and-mouse game when the driver refuses to let Griffin off at his stop, pausing instead eight blocks later (Griffin, 44).  Subsequently, Griffin seeks out the publisher-activist P.D.East, whose aid assists him in dealing with rampant bigotry in the civil-rights era South (Griffin, 72).  Furthermore, Griffin cleverly aligns himself with East as well as with Sterling Williams, a street-smart shoeshine man: these strategies enable Griffin to avoid confrontations with Southern whites who would cheerfully kill him if they disliked his facial expression. Having survived his experiment, but obviously shaken by it, Griffin writes, “The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men… I could have been a Jew in Germany” (preface).  Confronted with the brutal reality of life as a black man in the white-supremacist South, Griffin contrives to survive with a post-apocalyptic hero motif.

Black Like Me

Black Like Me (Photo credit: Amazon)

Both BLM and Maus I & II are set against backdrops of dystopian, apocalyptic social fabric. Each story, therefore, has a post-apocalyptic hero whose actions not only highlight the hideous environment in which he must function, but also deliver powerful meaning about the ugly truths of  “worst-case” scenarios.  John Griffin and Vladek Spiegelman are good men who act constructively in the face of unrelenting, mortal danger: each has a profound message to share.  Each character is a potent example of the post-apocalyptic hero archetype. Each is more compelling than any hero in theaters today because his story is not fantasy, but fact.

You might also enjoy Archetypes: Surprising “Warrior”, Archetypes: The Rebel in Multicultural Literature


Dodson, Eric. Post-Apocalyptic Film and the Postmodern Apocalypse. University of West Georgia.

Griffin, John H. Black Like Me. New York: Signet, 1996.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus II.   New York: Pantheon, 1986.


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