Airbent and Decolonizing

Maya Phillips, New York Times arts critic, joins a chorus of renewed plaudits: “‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Imagines a World Free of Whiteness.” Phillips’ smart piece said much of what I’d been rolling up my sleeves to say– though much more thoughtfully than I’d muster.

What Phillips extols about the 2005-2008 TV series, revived in popularity now that it’s landed on Netflix amid COVID-19 sheltering and antiracism movements, is its existence and quality as a piece of American pop culture not centered in cultural whiteness. Showrunners Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, two white creators, conscientiously mixed cross-Asian influences in everything from animation style to animistic spiritualism, from architectures to social structures. And they pulled off a fun, character-rich, morally and philosophically interesting, and ultimately satisfying epic.

What I’d add to Phillips’ strong case for the show is that, beyond positing an alternative to white- and western-centered cultures, the show also presents a family-friendly but devastating critique of colonizing ideologies that implicates white supremacy, the US, and lots of imperial Asian nation-states too.

I’ve been re-watching the series, which I’d binged on DVDs a while back. I’ve also since been following the ongoing stories in the exceptional graphic novels from Dark Horse, which deftly bridges characters and cultures from Avatar’s end to their continuation in the even more complex industrial modernism of The Legend of Korra, the successor series to ATLA.

What’s different this time… I’m watching the show with my daughter and my wife! And so, for us, this TV binge is a perfect meeting point of a few current circumstances:

  • It’s summer. And for the first time in forever, we’re not working. We’re not just looking for a light distraction, but an immersive world.
  • We’ve been sheltered-in-place for a good while. That means we’ve read many book series, caught up on all the shows, and stood hungrily in search of the right all-ages story morsel that can compel conversations and even grappling about big questions.
  • Specifically, it’s a good time for stories contemplating power and peaceable resistance. While we didn’t go out to march because of our health concerns, we’ve been working in our own modest ways to respond to the movement for Black Lives and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others, the cries of Black pain and the resilient struggle against white supremacy and unjust policing.

Which is a fitting moment for a show about a world where a particular people’s imbalanced power has warred against one kingdom, subjugated and decimated another set of tribes, and genocidally snuffed out a peaceful other group. (I nearly cry every time the show revisits the remains of the Air Nomads.)

And so, if you’ll allow for some non-malignant spoilers, around the first third of the third and final season, we begin to learn that the Fire Nation has been consumed by a belief in their own rightness, so convinced that the whole world would benefit from their order and rule that they justify death-dealing conquest under a colonizing rationality. A pax incendium, if you will.

The moral, spiritual, political, and social consequences of this arrogance is not only counter to balance and harmony among the world’s four elements and its peoples. It’s counter to the origins and ethics of the Fire Nation itself, as represented by General Iroh (my favorite character, hands down), Prince Zuko’s uncle and purveyor of tea and humble sagacity.

It’s a reminder of the self-destructive nature of white supremacy, how amok power not only ruthlessly takes precious lives, but corrupts the people and institutes who succumb to its falsehoods.

Avatar not only de-centers whiteness. It indicts white supremacy.

Groanings & the Hope of Glory

Our spirits groan for injustices committed against Black lives.

Last night, as Eastertide moved to Ordinary Time on the liturgical calendar, I resolved to stop using my phone in bed. Ironically, I haven’t had a night where I’ve had more reason to clutch my phone by my side more in a long time. Sheltered-in-place for months, then called to a citywide curfew at 11pm, helicopters overhead, sirens blaring as cars flew down the street right outside our bedroom window, I stayed glued to social media and the reports from people living nearby us, images of burnt Walmarts and rumors of home break-ins by looters (unfounded, I think… a “telephone” mix-up of actual news of “Home Depot” break-ins). The #SanLeandro trending Twitter posts sprinkled those rumors and reports with retweeted petitions for Emerald Black, miscarried last year after being kicked by San Leandro PD, and images of Steven Taylor, tased and killed by police at the local Walmart while wielding but a bat.

Learn more about Steven Taylor

So with mall break-ins nearby at the same time as nationwide grief over George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and more, peaceful protests and social uprisings, my protective dad-vigilance reared into high gear. It’s already been activated, as moral urgency and grief make me feel need to be on the streets protesting despite our household’s tighter pandemic quarantining. Last night, I stayed up, praying and watching out the window, refusing fear or weapons, concerned for our neighbors.

This morning’s lectionary reading came from Joel 2 about the years the locusts have taken and pouring out the Spirit, and Romans 8 about the creation groaning in frustration, longing for liberation from its bondage to decay. I wonder about the young-men-who-could-be-me-but-for-grace, risking something to get out there to that crowded Walmart on a Sunday night, whether spurred by fury or frustration or freeloading or fear, to steal goods and set fires.

We are, I grieve, suckered into a desperate consumerist culture that parcels us into purchasing agents, the only semblance of our significance we can feel. The economic insecurity, already there but now plummeted to fearsome lows, as every one of us knows someone close who is unemployed and scared.

And the rage is real. To listen to Nikole Hannah-Jones listening to men arguing whose anguish and contradictions are as sincere and painful as any people of conscience. I try to listen and learn, and I watch my partner doing that too. We listen to discussions, we read about marchers, we immerse in policy and history and narratives. It’s inadequate; it’s wrenching; it spurs action and restlessness; it’s also just more borrowed valor for those of us who get to choose when to identify and claim solidarity. For the Black, Indigenous, Latinx whose histories of oppression and dispossession at the hands of White American cops and governments and—yes—schools, it is hard to moralize about the righteousness of any actions from that rage. Maybe necessary, but wrong if you think it’s easy.

These pass through my mind as I sit by the window and watch and worry about my daughter and wife, our bed not ten feet from the street where police race to Bay Fair. It is for these sorts of groanings that Paul wrote Romans 8, right in the teeth of empire. For the gritted crises that Joel wrote that God promised God would restore and pour out.

The hope of glory that reminds us each of us are, even in the face of systemic death, worth God’s identification with us and our sufferings, we image bearers. George Floyd, image bearer. Breonna Taylor, image bearer. Steven Taylor, image bearer.