Remembering Our Myths
By Thomas E. Bowdich [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This article was originally published on March 30, 2017.
I first learned of the folktale of John Henry from reading Superman comics. In the Superman mythos, there is a character named John Henry Irons, a genius engineer who creates a high-tech suit of armor to defend Metropolis in Superman’s absence. When he dons the suit, John becomes Steel and is basically a black version of Iron Man, just without the billions of dollars. His suit of armor allows him to imitate some of Superman’s powers, including flight, limited invulnerability, and super strength. Shaq even played him in a campy live action movie that should serve as a grateful reminder to how far superhero films have come in the past two decades.
Being that there are so few black superheroes, I strove to know everything I could about Steel. Seeing a black character with the iconic “S” on his chest gave me someone whom I could imagine myself being. As much as I love Superman, the dude is very white. I don’t care how fast your super-speed is, if you’re a black man changing clothes in a phone booth, people will probably call the cops and report you as a suspicious person. After a little bit of research, I quickly learned Steel was based on the folklore of John Henry, the man who outpaced a steam-powered hammer in a race to drive steel into a railroad. The legend states that though John Henry won the contest, his heart gave out from the stress.
The story of John Henry is more than just a fable. It represents the strength, tenacity, and endurance of black people. In discovering the folklore, I had found a tale that has been told through generations to inspire persistence. This revelation provided me with a new appreciation of the comic character of John Henry Irons and made me imagine that I too could be a man of steel. Stories matter because they preserve the continuity of a people. We use stories to immortalize our ancestors and forebears.
The Akan people of Ghana created myths of a spider deity known as Anansi to emphasize the importance of stories. Anansi was known as one of the wisest of West African gods, making him a trickster spirit and the Prince of Stories. The stories of Anansi cross the Atlantic through the slave trade and was used to inspire hope on plantations. Anansi’s tales were combined with tales told by Bantu-speaking slaves from Central and Southern Africa of a trickster figure known as Br’er Rabbit, and the two had very similar adventures, even occasionally meeting. Anansi’s tales even crossed over with Native American myths of comparable tricksters such as Coyote and Raven.
Though Anansi was a trickster spirit, he was not in the same vein as more popularly known trickster gods such as Loki. Whereas Loki sought to destroy Asgard and to rule the universe, Anansi endeavored to stump abusive authority figures. In the stories told on plantations, Anansi was often outwitting slave masters. Similarly to John Henry, Anansi is a symbol of defiance. But whereas John Henry represented defiance against physical challenges, Anansi represents defiance against mental difficulties. Anansi rarely achieved victories through physical means. He preferred to use his guile and intellect to outwit his enemies.
As a lover of mythology and writer, Anansi is one of my favorite characters. I appreciate his meta symbolism and his status as the weaver of tales. This is why a few months ago I got an adinkra symbol representing Anansi tattooed on my left shoulder, the ananse ntontan. The ananse ntontan translates from the Twi language as, “spider’s web” and represents wisdom, creativity, and storytelling. For centuries, the Akan people have used adinkra symbols to visualize significant concepts and values such as wisdom, strength, bravery, and love.
I received the ananse ntontan as a reminder that I am a storyteller. Within the negative space of the web are other adinkra concepts representing principles I seek to live out. The symbol at the top of the web, gye nyame, means “I fear no one except God.” Next to it, clockwise, is the nsoroma, “child of the heavens,” symbolizing my God’s protection and the legacy of my ancestors. After that is the dwennimmen, “ram’s horns,” representing strength must be tempered with humility. Next is the akofena, “the swords of war,” representing my commitment to be courageous and live a life of valor. The second star next to it is called the sesa wo suban, “morning star,” representing transformation and my dedication to push my limits in my aim of growing stronger and better, always in all ways. Next is the bese saka, “cola nuts,” representing using wealth to help others and build community. Lastly is the nyame nwu na mawu, “as God does not die, I do not die” representing the eternity of God and my soul.
As these symbols have very strong spiritual significance for me, they are all within the ananse ntontan to symbolize that my life is a story, and I must seek not only to make sure my story counts for something but to elevate the stories of those who came before me so that those who come after me may gain wisdom. Remembering our stories prompts us to remember who we are. That we are not just who society tells us we should be nor are we simply the sum of our circumstances. We are part of a continuing legacy of strength, defying oppression, and persisting through difficulties.
Marquise Griffin is co-Editor-in-Chief of the Black Diaspora Project. He is a native of St. Louis, Missouri and earned a Bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis on Literary and Cultural Studies at Kalamazoo College in 2015. He is now working on his Master’s degree in Education at the University of Missouri-Columbia. His degree program is Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis with an emphasis on higher education administration. Marquise will graduate with his Master’s in May of this year and plans to use his degree to increase the educational competency of historically marginalized communities.