[Guest Post] The Importance of First Heroes

Monday, August 5, 2013

First Heroes

by Robert Edison Sandiford

My six-going-on-seven-year-old daughter has been asking me to write a story about her.  “A story with me in it,” she pleads.  Since I’m a writer, and she’s adventurous, this seems to me a reasonable, an inevitable request.  I doubt plumbers or lawyers face similar commissions: entreaties from their own small, inquisitive children to build bathrooms or legal cases for them.

“All right.  I’ll do it,” I say.  The setting will be Barbados, her country of birth and mine by descent; the place we both currently call Home.  I’ve already come up with the characters and a storyline.  The protagonist’s not named after her, but she is much like my daughter.  She is portrayed in a way that, I hope, will still give my daughter pleasure when she’s no longer so young and may be much less thrilled to have papa write about her.

R Sandiford

Photo by Carl Blenman

The story starts with an aborted trip to the moon then a stumble into the island’s coral limestone caves, where there are flying wooden buses taking people to unexpected destinations.  The protagonist has to find her truant younger siblings, who have gotten on one of these buses.  She is the hero—heroine.

Heroes and heroines are so important, especially when you’re young.  As it is with David, Marsha and Franck, the protagonists in my new novel And Sometimes They Fly, my West Indian parents, along with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even brothers and sister, were in many ways my first heroes (though I know for others their relatives were their first real villains).  For all their weaknesses, my parents’ efforts to do more for me, to be more for me, seemed super at times.

I have very clear Montreal memories of my mother coming down to my primary school to warn a bully not to trouble me anymore.  Years later, my mother would tell the wife of a priest in our church, whose actions seemed less than friendly toward me, that she took a threat to any of her children as a threat to her own person.

I saw my dad, ever known as a gentleman, get very angry one day over the phone at this stranger who kept calling the house asking for information on our family.  Other times, my father physically got in-between me and whatever danger he saw coming that I as a boy barely perceived: a racial slur thrown by an elderly man in a hardware store, feet-high waves crashing the sunny coast of Acapulco.

Batman and Cyclops were two of my favourite characters growing up, and I searched for their stories month after month on the comics racks of our local dépanneurs, but their costumed determination and ability were nothing like those of these two plainclothes Barbadian immigrants to Canada.  So I understand my daughter’s request: it is for the most familiar kind of story: the one featuring ourselves, at the very least people who resemble us in obvious ways.  It’s a request for the kind of story that isn’t always told with her reality in mind, even by her own storytellers.

Barbados has ten national heroes, all revolutionaries, one of them—a sports icon—still living.  Apart from village, community and city characters who are legend for their colour and brilliance or ingenuity, the country has a lively mythology of Anansi, baccou, heart man, and djablès stories.  Heroes and villains abound in our culture.

Many of our young storytellers, however, rely heavily on Japanese cartoons for their inspiration, or think of the epic only in terms of Marvel and DC Comics creations, and not necessarily old-guard representatives like the Black Panther, Power Man, The Falcon, and Black Lightning. They look to “World” fantasy and folklore that often excludes the Caribbean from its guides and maps.

These young storytellers might be reminded of the tales of Barbadian stick-fighters, who were like Jedi Knights before there were Jedi Knights; or of “myths” of brainy elder-mentors whose minds were as powerful as Professor X’s. But as it was with the storytellers before them, the family raconteurs and rum-shop griots up through to our greatest poets and novelists and spoken-word artists, the next generation of Bajan storytellers will have to find the courage of their own culture, the depths of heroism it—and they—contain.

Like the story I want to write for my daughter, and even the one(s) in And Sometimes They Fly, such discovery can involve a lonely quest. I often thought of my father, who died with Alzheimer’s over ten years ago, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson thought of the fading Ulysses: though he was no longer “that strength which in old days/ Moved earth and heaven,” that which he was, he was—“One equal temper of heroic hearts,/ Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/ To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” My mother has well outlived her two parents and only sibling; they all died in their fifties, decades ago. She’ll be a conscious and contentious eighty this December. Her resilience and ongoing social activism sometimes strike me as superhuman.

The quest needn’t be desolate. It can lead to hope and change: for my daughter, the next generation of Bajan storytellers, and for me. By that, I mean the kind of hope and change offered by the stories the quest conjures.

In a world resistant to the belief in a better society despite everyday action by good people, we need stories in which power is not just the preserve of the majority, however the majority is defined.  We all need stories in which people who look like us and behave like us matter, and not just to people who look and behave like us.  These are stories that remind us we do have a responsibility to our sisters and brothers, whether kin or not.  They remind us that when the mask, gloves and cape come off, our training should still kick in.  We should recognize the face of the hero as our own and, without hesitation, stand ready.


Robert Edison Sandiford is the author of eight books and co-founder with Linda M. Deane of ArtsEtc Inc. His novel And Sometimes They Fly was released in July by DC Books.


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