We look to heroes. We tend to want to see examples of how to be better than ourselves. We are aspirational folks, us Americans. We both reflect on and imagine greatness. Our heroes are both born—and made.
We look to our ancestors, sports players, musicians, teachers and politicians—yes, for what they did, but also for some hint of how they did it. We look at our heroes' and heroines’ accomplishments and wonder: How they managed to do it all?
In my life, I have set many goals. Yet, time and time again, it is most often what happens when I get stuck, knocked flat on my back, or in a jam that also comes to shape who I am. In American folklorist tradition, there is the story of the small triumphing over the powerful as recurring troupe. Horatio Alger, rags to riches stories.
We also celebrate larger-than-life characters such as American icon Henry Ford. We hear the stories of his triumphs with the Model T and the assembly line technique that he introduced. Yet, less is known about his prior two attempts and failures in 1901 and 1902 before organizing The Ford Motor Company in 1903 . Henry Ford was “an indigenous folk hero,” David Lanier Lewis in The Public Image of Henry Ford writes, he “appealed to millions of his countrymen because in their view, he succeeded through his own creativeness and hard work and by supplying a product to meet the public’s desires rather than by manipulating money or people…he reminded people of an earlier, simpler society.”
"Our heroes are both born—and made."
Ford started late in life at the age of 40; it wasn’t until the age of 51 that he became an “overnight international celebrity by more than doubling the wages of most of his workers” . He was considered very “controversial, paradoxical, colorful,”—“an enigma, endlessly fascinating,”— “an idealistic pioneer in some respects” and “a cynical reactionary in others” . This is our American legacy.
The American hero, like this great country, has many colorful and controversial figures. Some are imported, some are homegrown, some are discovered, some are fashioned, some emerge and some are elected. It is of important note that the American folk heroes of 2018 were an Irish-American man and African-American woman: John McCain III and Aretha Franklin.
The two back to back funerals of McCain and Ms. Franklin this past August sent a message: Here is a model for peace, America. Reconciliation.
The is also something to note: Both of their ancestors have been enslaved.
At a time when the bulwark of our freedoms—our free and fair election process—is compromised, looking to what it means to survive and hold onto one’s principles when faced with great adversity is what McCain and Aretha Franklin teach us.
Former Vice President Joe Biden remarked that McCain lived by “an ancient, antiquated code where honor, courage, character, integrity and duty were what mattered…But the truth is, John’s code was ageless — is ageless" . McCain’s code “was “grounded in respect and decency, basic fairness, the intolerance for the abuse of power .
McCain was one of the last great Lions of the Senate, elected officials who were forged in military battle. I am not one to glorify war. I do believe it is a necessary evil that can be kept at bay by democratic and diplomatic relations. The desire to keep the peace through civil dialogue, through rigorous debate is, I believe, connected to that honor code that Biden references. I do believe McCain’s stance does derive in significant part from his Irish-American heritage, well more precisely his Scots-Irish heritage (Read more on the Scots-Irishman tradition and influence on American Southern culture).
"What it means to survive and hold onto one’s principles when faced with great adversity is what our McCain and Aretha Franklin show us."
Anatol Lieven, in a Prospective Magazine article from 2008, writes “By ancestry, John McCain is a Scots-Irishman. That is to say, he comes from one of the oldest, most admirable and most worrying ethno-cultural traditions in the US. To a remarkable extent, that tradition is reflected in McCain’s character traits: his obstinancy; his tendency towards unshakeable friendship and implacable hatred; his hair-trigger temper; his deep patriotism; his obsession with American honour; and his furious response to any criticism of the US. These are not just the products of his military upbringing and experiences as a prisoner in North Vietnam, but also the result of his being the proud descendant of Indian-fighters and Confederate soldiers” .
As a Belizean-American woman, as a black woman, that last sentence is important to include. McCain has shown us time and again how to live: When we screw up, we are obliged to fess up. He acknowledged his ancestors’ Confederate legacy, AND apologized, acknowledging that there were groups “denied their freedoms by [his] ancestors.” He acknowledged “slavery as a grave injustice” and said that his ancestors “fought on the wrong side of history” .
I once heared that there is no word for “sorry” in the native American language. The closest approximation, as I understand it, is restitution: If you break something, you fix it.
McCain’s life’s work personally and professionally, has been dedicated to living out his creed, in his actions.
The symbolism in his funeral is as much a part of his farewell address as the letter itself: His pallbearers were ethnically and racially diverse as well as from diverse segments of the military; his daughter Mehgan’s outfit (when he was being flown into our nation's capital) had the image of a shining city on a hill, both a republican and a democratic president gave a eulogy. When we needed a hero, McCain was called up.
We have another heroine that has come to signify what it means to be American: Aretha Franklin. Our stories of heroines from the fairy tales many of us were taught as kids are of obedient, exceptionally pristine and submissive young women. Ethel Johnston Phelps in The Maid of the North presents folk heroines who are portrayed as “spirited, courageous and smart” . Those three qualities could equally be used to describe Ms. Franklin.
Aretha Franklin’s known for helping us to “Rock Steady,” taking us to church with her rendition of “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” and for her soulful call to R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The heroines that Ms. Franklin exemplifies have sass, know-how and a fighter’s spirit. Much is known about the style that the Queen of Soul has honed over a half century of singing. Less is known about the courageousness Ms. Franklin demonstrated in the face of adversity and her exceptional business acumen.
Aretha Franklin "was the first woman ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has won 18 Grammys (for several years, she had more than any female artist in history), and has sold a whopping 75 million albums over the course of a stellar career," Stereo Williams writes in his piece Aretha Franklin Deserves More Respect. It takes drive, fortitude and discipline to do what she did.
Like any of you, Ms. Franklin's outfits, gowns, jewelry and hairstyles caused us to marvel just as much as her singing or long list of accomplishments did. Her dazzling attire and sparkling accessories are part of what we come to look for in traditional fairy tale stories. Yet and still, while Aretha Franklin's gowns are as much a feature of her career as her singing, she also represents a long line of powerful ancestral figures—where it was understood that women hold the seat of power in their communities. In a time where women are wanting to see more images that represent them as leaders, that celebrate the diversity of body types and sizes, that show women as capable and astute, Aretha Franklin provides a shining example.
Born in the Rust Belt of America, Aretha rose to stardom starting from singing in church. She forged a career spanning six decades when many contemporary singers struggle to maintain longevity through the next news cycle. She transformed and remade herself over and over again. It takes fortitude and determination to continually be in tuned with current trends and to maintain a brand as recognizable as Ms. Franklin's.
Jane Yolen, America's Cinderella, laments that fairy tales like the Cinderella story are where we go to find a “rags to riches," when we should recast our heroines as “ riches recovered; not poor girl into princess but rather rich girl (or princess) rescued from improper or wicked enslavement; not suffering Griselda enduring but shrewd and practical girl persevering and winning a share of the power” .
Aretha taught us attitude. She taught us power. She could take a song and refashion it into a declaration of strength even while being immensely vulnerable: "You better think. Think about what you're trying to do to me ," she warns. Her story is one of a survivor—more than just a little bit.
At the age of six (6), she lost her mother. At the age of 12 she began singing on the gospel circuits of the 1950s. By the age of 14, she birthed two beautiful sons. She has seen her share of heartache and heartbreak. Yet, she persisted. In the era of the #MeToo movement women in the entertainment industry help bring awareness to the struggles women in business face and have had to overcome. Ms. Franklin did this a half century earlier. None matched her work ethic. That ethic was also seen in her championing of Civil Rights, marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"Aretha taught us attitude. She taught us power."
Folk heroes emerge during a time of culture-building to help provide a normative model for how to be in trepidations times . For John McCain, his code of honor, fealty to country and warrior ethic—while forged from his American military service can also be traced back to Ireland. For Aretha Franklin, her singing prowess, her sense of style, her righteous power and work ethic while forged in the churches of Detroit can also be traced back to African aesthetic principles.
John Willie Roberts in his book, From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom, talks about how cultural heroes in the black tradition are informed by their African heritage even while they emerge in American settings and contexts. He writes, "When we encounter the African American folk hero, we meet a figure whose actions reflect the transformed and, in some ways, transmuted values of African people shaped by situations and conditions in America” . The same thing can be said across the board about the range of ethnic communities that we have in the United States: We have been shaped by the New World while bringing in our Old World values—no matter which immigration wave your folks arrived on.
How to represent our forefathers' and foremothers’ labor, their dreams for us, their hopes for the future is what we are asked to vote on.
The folk heroes of yore are transitioning. As the new generation of leaders emerge, we have a glowing example of two American ideals not at war but very much at peace.