Last week I asked people on social media(Facebook and Instagram) their opinions on villains and heroes. When I asked about personifying social problems into a villain, I didn’t get many answers. I could only assume that was because social ills are also complex. To think of a villain who personifies one takes research and a lot of thought, and deep-thinking into a social problem can be traumatic, especially if one has personal experience with it. One commenter mentioned rape, an obvious example of a traumatic subject.
I asked this question because I model my characters, both heroes and villains, after themes. Achilla Johnson, the main protagonist, answers what would happen if a black Wonder Woman had no Justice League to hold her back. Athena and Apollo represent different schools of thought within the Black Community. Ailina Harris, the main antagonist for much of the series, represents the sexual exploitation of black men from slavery on and abusive relationships, both parental and romantic. Ares Harris represents white and male supremacy in America and all the abuse it entails: psychological warfare, beatings, rape. Leo “Xerxes” Skorupski represents the flaws in capitalism by doing whatever is necessary for a profit, including human trafficking. Every character serves a purpose , but some have relatable traits. Ailina abuses Achilla because Ares abused her. She never learned how to love, but when it matters, she risks her life to save her daughter like any decent mother would. It doesn’t make her less of a sociopath, but it shows that she has deeper layers than just antisocial behavior.
Artemis Harris, successor to Ares, has an understandable reason for her anger toward the Johnsons after Achilla killed Ares and failed to save Artemis’ mother. However, Artemis also personifies a social problem so traumatic it gave me a nightmare in the course of researching it; the current surge in white nationalism in the United States. Artemis showed signs of racism in Words of the Serpent, but in Book Five she takes it to another level just like America has as of late.Per the Southern Poverty Law Center, we now have 917 hate groups in the U.S.,130 Ku Klux Klan groups, and a 197 percent increase in anti-Muslim groups. White nationalists aren’t a new school of thought in American history. Andrew Jackson, the KKK, neo-Nazis, they all championed the ideology one way or another in the past, but after Barack Obama became the first black president it rose up again as a response. This is a typical cycle in America. Whenever people of color advanced, white nationalists respond to defend their privileged status in society. That’s why Jackson bombed Negro Fort, the prison industry boomed after the abolition of slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan rose to power during the Reconstruction. Barack Obama’s presence in the White House prompted white nationalists to step up their bigotry, and they did with over a thousand hate groups during his term, and they’re gaining ground again as Donald Trump( a present-day white nationalist’s dream as president) sits in the Oval Office with his Jackson portrait. Hateful people and groups like Dylann Roof in South Carolina and The Crusaders in Kansas bookended Trump’s campaign filled with hateful rhetoric toward Mexicans and Somalis and calls to ban all Muslims from entering the country.
Artemis’s story starts in Miami, moves to an orphaned, homeless life in Minneapolis, and stops in Connecticut, birthplace of its own white supremacist organization called the White Wolves who made national connections with other groups but thankfully didn’t earn the notoriety of the Klan. Their founders weren’t much older than Artemis when she arrived in Connecticut(she was fourteen and they were in high school), so her story and theirs holds a loose connection. Still, I needed more for this character than a few racist punks could provide. Diving into the hatred necessary to mold Artemis into the personification of a savage, racist American tradition, even in groups as small as the White Wolves, was jarring. Reading Roof’s remorseless testimony, researching groups like the Crusaders or the League of the South(who vowed to create a Southern Defense Force), speaking to former neo-Nazis Christian Picciolini(for another project, but it still helped) gave me some clarity on the white nationalist ideology and the fearmongering and propaganda required to maintain it. Even if it kept me up at night at one point, it gave me an idea of the language Artemis would use and the messages her sidekick, Tania Laetner, would send on social media to recruit more followers and troops in their vendetta against the Johnsons.
One must wonder how the spell of white nationalism lasted so long. The simple answer is that it went unchecked. We’ve changed laws, but we haven’t addressed the hearts behind Jim Crow and the Birth of a Nation messaging that influenced them. It’s an American culture deformity that has hung around for so many generations that some of my relatives are convinced that it’s an inherent trait for white people, but this is an incomplete assertion. There’s no reason to believe people of European descent have a genetic disposition toward hatred or oppression any more than anyone else, but whiteness as a social construct is designed to separate people into a Western racial caste. Take one look at how Irish or Italian Americans are treated now versus the abuse they suffered when they arrived, and you’ll see that immigrating from Europe doesn’t make you white unless America says so. Once you’re accepted into the higher step on the ladder, you enjoy the fruits you couldn’t reach before. That’s not genetics. That’s social conditioning, and it’s designed to divide by giving some just enough to keep them happy and others bitter. As both parties clash for scraps, the upper crust laughs all the way to the bank. This is the purpose white privilege serves, and it hurts everyone else in the long run as you’ll see in Book Five.
Artemis embodies this unchecked cancer with her relentless attacks against the Johnsons. Achilla had a chance to kill her but didn’t, giving her room to gain more power in the shadows until she met Tania and developed their propaganda strategy. And while she leads a white nationalist charge, she is not fully European. She’s the daughter of an Asian woman. It’s unclear if her conception was consensual, but Ares was incapable of love. Yet Artemis loves him and his supremacist legacy. She gravitates toward his power and models herself after it, and while she shows an emotional soft side for her mother, she doesn’t revere her like she does Ares. She blames Achilla for both of her parents’ deaths, but only Ares’ death makes her feel like she lost the hero of her life, one who preached superiority and dominion over everyone around him.
Personifying something as sick as America’s oldest and most persistent form of bigotry isn’t easy, but I’m up to the challenge. As much as most of my countrymen would rather not look at something so grotesque, we must. We can only exorcise demons properly when we recognize them and all of their ugliness. Like Nina Simone said, it is an artist’s duty to reflect the times. If the image we see makes us uncomfortable, that means we must change it from the inside out instead of running from it.
Accept the challenge, my friends.