Sidney Poitier: Quiet Revolutionary

© 2013 Rick Hutchins

The word revolution suggests noise. People will do a lot to draw attention to their cause; yelling and shouting is usually the least of it. But some revolutions happen quietly, peacefully, inevitably. All Sidney Poitier had to do to change the world was to be Sidney Poitier.

His humble beginnings did not in any way suggest greatness. A premature baby born to a poor farming family from the Bahamas, he survived infancy against the odds. His early life in the islands, in Miami and in New York was an anonymous one of farming and odd jobs, primarily washing dishes. He did not learn to read until his late teens. After a stint in the army, he simply went back to washing dishes. While he was able to gain a spot in the American Negro Theater, his early appearances were not applauded.

Then things changed. One successful role on Broadway led to another, which led to a notable role in the film No Way Out, which led to more Hollywood successes. Suddenly this quiet, perseverant man was a star — the first Black actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award, then the first Black actor win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

But he was more than that. In the tempestuous 1960s, in the midst of the Civil Rights Era, a time of race riots and student protests and a counter-cultural overturning of tradition, a time of clashes between generations and ideologies and bewildered bystanders, a time in which the pent-up anger of centuries came to a head, Sidney Poitier found himself to be a role model. Without any ambition to do so, he touched the lives of millions.

You could hear a pin drop.

This is not to say there was no controversy; nothing and no one is immune to that. There were accusations of tokenism, of appeasement. With his serene manner, his gentle voice — even after all these years still informed by a gentle island lilt — and his general thoughtfulness, this gentleman was deemed by many to be inadequate to the revolution. As the only major Black actor of his time, he was encouraged to take stronger, grittier, more controversial roles — in the parlance of the age, Blacker roles.

Poitier was conflicted. He did not disagree, since, as does any artist, he thrived on challenge. But, in his thoughtful way, he determined that living up to his own expectations as a role model was more important. He did indeed tackle the great racial issues of his time– a man of his character could do no less– but he did it his own way.

In the classic film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, a movie whose theme of the marriage between a Black man and a White woman (miscegenation!) was still unspeakably scandalous to much of the nation, his character quietly said to his father, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”

And that was it. While others accused and attacked, he led by example. While others incited passion, he incited peace. While others were fighting battles, he won the war by teaching us that the entire conflict was based on a lie.

Of course it’s not over, even after all these decades; the troubled times are not behind us. There is still racism and chauvinism, still confusion and chaos, still antisocial throwbacks and self-serving crusaders. Even so, standing serenely above them all is a giant named Sidney Poitier– actor, director, author, diplomat– a role model for those with sincerity in their hearts, a leader for those who will listen.

Sidney Poitier, you see, is not too quiet — the world is simply too loud.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and is a regular contributor to this blog.  In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

Two of Hutchins’ previous essays on heroes appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

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The Heroic Companionship of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In our Heroes Book, we discuss the remarkable story of Karl Merk, a German farmer who ten years ago lost both his arms in a farming accident.  In July 2008, Merk was the recipient of the first double-arm transplant, conducted in a 15-hour surgery at the Munich University Clinic by a team of 40 doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologists.  Today, after three years of intensive physical therapy, Merk has regained significant use of his arms and is acquiring more function every day.

Merk and the medical team that is treating him are an example of companionate heroes — people who are dependent on each other for their heroic qualities to surface.  Usually, but not always, companionate heroes consist of a person who needs considerable help to survive, and another person who has the perfect skill-set to assist him or her.

Perhaps the most famous companionate heroes of the 20th century were Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.  When Keller was 19 months old, she contracted an illness that left her blind and deaf.  She was imprisoned in a dark, silent world, and no one in her family could reach her.  Keller’s parents hired 20-year-old Anne Sullivan to perform the seemingly hopeless task of educating Keller.  Sullivan was the perfect person for the job.  Visually impaired herself, Sullivan was empathetic, patient, resourceful, and persevering.

Sullivan first tried to teach Keller basic language skills by using her finger to spell words on Keller’s hand, but Keller did not understand that each object had a different name.  A breakthrough occurred on April 5, 1887.  Sullivan led Keller to a water pump and splashed water on one of Keller’s hands while spelling the word water on the other hand. Keller later recalled, “We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honey-suckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.”

Sullivan next tackled Keller’s atrocious table manners. Keller had the habit of eating with her hands, grabbing from the plates of everyone at the table, and throwing a temper tantrum if anyone tried to stop her.  Sullivan punished Keller’s tantrums by refusing to “talk” with Helen by spelling words on her hands.  Soon Keller developed impeccable manners and learned how to perform everyday tasks such as getting dressed and brushing her hair.
Thanks to Sullivan, Keller was transformed into a bright, curious, lovely young woman who was destined to make a positive mark on the world. The bond between Keller and Sullivan grew into a beautiful friendship that lasted for 49 years.

Keller was the first deaf and blind person in America to graduate from college, and she later became a prolific author of many books and articles on a variety of social and political topics. Most importantly, Keller became a world-famous advocate for people with disabilities. The 1962 film The Miracle Worker inspired millions of people with its story of Keller’s triumph over disability and Sullivan’s selfless devotion to helping Keller fulfill her vast potential.

“Helen Keller was a fighter,” said Keller’s grandniece, Keller Thompson-Johnson. “She didn’t hide from her problems. She knew that to become a better person and to show other people that they too could overcome their disabilities, she had to be a fighter herself.”  During her lifetime, Helen Keller was consistently ranked near the top of almost every Most Admired list.  In addition, Anne Sullivan deservedly acquired the reputation as a legendary teacher.  Keller and Sullivan are forever linked as heroes who brought out the best in each other.

Below is a rare clip of Anne Sullivan explaining how she taught language skills to Helen Keller.

Does the Villain’s Journey Mirror the Hero’s Journey?

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In an earlier blog post, we outlined the various stages of the hero’s journey in mythology and literature as described in 1949 by Joseph Campbell.  In the prototypical hero story, he or she is called to an adventure, sometimes reluctantly, and is swept into another world fraught with danger.  In this strange world the hero undergoes many tests and trials, gets help from unlikely sources, and is often distracted by a romantic interest.  In the end, the hero overcomes great obstacles, returns home as a person transformed, and is the master of both worlds.  It is a timeless story structure that has assumed countless forms in hero tales across the globe.

But what of the villain?  Nearly every hero story has one, yet far less attention has been devoted to understanding the life story of the prototypical villain in myth and legend.  Do heroes and villains travel along a similar life path?  Or do villains experience a journey that is the inverse of that of the hero?

The answer to the first question appears to be, yes, there are parallels between the lives of heroes and villains.  Christopher Vogler, a noted Hollywood development expert and screenwriter, once wrote that villains are the heroes of their own journeys. Vogler believed that whether a character is working toward achieving great good or great evil, the general pathway is similar.  Both heroes and villains experience a significant trigger event that propels them on their journeys.  Heroes and villains encounter obstacles, receive help from sidekicks, and experience successes and setbacks during their quests.

While we do not disagree with this general parallel structure, we’ve observed that many stories portray villains as following the hero’s life stages in reverse.  We first came across this idea from writing expert Greg Smith, who found an interesting writer’s web discussion board post by an individual going by the username of RemusShepherd.  The idea is compelling:  Whereas heroes complete their journey having attained mastery of their worlds, the story often begins with villains possessing the mastery.  That is, hero stories often start with the villains firmly in power, or at least believing themselves to be superior to others and ready to direct their dark powers toward harming others.

Examples abound.  Consider the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, the shark in Jaws, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, and Annie Wilkes in Misery.  In these examples, the story begins with the villain securely in power, the master of his or her world.  The heroes of these stories, in contrast, are weak and naive at the outset.  Only after being thrust into the villains’ worlds do these heroes gather the assistance, resources, and wisdom necessary to defeat the villains.

The villain’s story is thus one of declining power while the hero’s story is one of rising power.  But before this pattern is made clear, there must be one or more epic clashes between the hero and villain, with the hero embodying society’s greatest virtues and the villain embodying selfishness and evil.  In defeat, the villain’s mastery is handed over to the hero.  The villain’s deficiencies of character have been exposed; the hero’s deficiencies have been corrected.  The two journeys, one the inverse of the other, are completed.

And so here we see that Vogler and RemusShepherd may both be correct – heroes and villains may follow similar life journeys but these journeys are often staggered in time within the same story structure.  This temporal staggering may create the illusion that heroes and villains follow inverse paths.  Consider the opening act of a typical hero story; the naïve and deficient hero is just beginning his journey while the villain is at the height of his powers.  Movie franchises may later release prequels that reveal how the villain acquired such power in the first place.  In these prequels we witness a villain backstory that parallels the first movie’s portrayal of the hero’s journey.

A fine line often separates heroes from villains, a line that is clearly delineated in their opposing moral ambitions.  But the line can also be blurred when we recognize that all transforming journeys — whether for good or for evil — must share many common storytelling elements.

References

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2008). Deifying the Dead and Downtrodden:  Sympathetic Figures as Inspirational Leaders. In C.L. Hoyt, G. R. Goethals, & D. R. Forsyth (Eds.), Leadership at the crossroads: Psychology and leadership. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Allison, S. T., & Hensel, A. (2012).  Sensitivity to the changing fortunes of others.  Personality and Social Psychology Connections.

Goethals, G. R. & Allison, S. T. (2012).  Making heroes:  The construction of courage, competence and virtue.  Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 183-235.

 

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Harriet Quimby: Aviatrix One

By Rick Hutchins

In the early 20th Century, men and women were considered quite different animals and the social roles assigned to them reflected that belief. Women were expected to keep house and raise children while the adventures of invention and exploration were left to the men. Going beyond those expectations was not encouraged, and often punished. Most people conformed to those limitations, but some were not content to be grounded–- some, like Harriet Quimby, felt compelled to find new horizons.

Long before being bitten by the aviation bug, Quimby led an independent and liberated lifestyle that was the envy of many women of her day. An unmarried woman in New York City, she was a successful writer, turning out articles for the magazine Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly for many years, as well as several screenplays for DW Griffith in the early days of Hollywood. She was an “old maid” of thirty-five when she attended an international aviation tournament on Long Island and met famous aviator John Moisant (whose sister was to quickly follow in Quimby’s footsteps). Her first flying lessons soon followed. A headline in The New York Times, typical of the attitudes of that era, stated “Woman in Trousers Daring Aviator; Long Island Folk Discover That Miss Harriet Quimby Is Making Flights at Garden City.”

A year later, in 1911 (more than a decade before Amelia Earhart), Quimby became the first woman in the United States to earn an aviator’s certificate. Her friend Matilde Moisant became the second shortly thereafter.

But Quimby was not yet finished with making history. The next year, in April of 1912 (the day after the sinking of the Titanic), she became the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the English Channel.

Sadly, her next milestone was a tragic one. In July of 1912, she attended, and participated in, The Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet at Squantum on Dorchester Bay. While circling Boston Harbor, with event organizer William Willard as a passenger, her plane experienced unexpected turbulence and both pilot and passenger fell to their deaths, the plane crashing on the beach.

A century has now passed since the untimely death of Harriet Quimby. The romantic figure of the first aviatrix in her distinctive purple flight suit is all but forgotten. But thanks to her and others like her, the opportunities for women in society have expanded to a degree that few in her lifetime would have believed possible. Yet it is still true, well into the 21st Century, that both women and men are pressed to limit themselves to roles defined by their gender. Most will conform. But some will not be content to be grounded. And thanks to those like Harriet Quimby, their flight may be a little smoother.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

This is Hutchins’ fifth guest blog post here.  His first two, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards,  appears in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

Can Dogs be Heroes? The Day A Dog Saved Me

By Scott T. Allison

One of the most memorable moments of my life occurred when I was about 10 years old.  At that time, I walked about one mile each day to school – Woodlake Avenue Elementary School, located in the suburbs of Los Angeles, California.   I just googled the school and sure enough, 40 years later, it’s still there.

One morning I was walking to school and was no more than a block away from home when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, I was startled to see a large, brown, and very angry dog running directly at me at full speed.  I stopped in my tracks, terrified.  The dog rushed at me with fuming growls, snarling teeth, and unmistakable hostility. There was absolutely nowhere for me to run or escape.  No tree to climb, no shelter available.  I was sure that I was about to be ripped to pieces.

When the dog was about ten feet from me, a second astonishing thing happened.

From the right, another dog, a different breed but just as big, appeared.  This second dog also seemed to appear out of nowhere, and it instantly positioned itself between me and the attacking dog.  The second dog snarled and barked at the first dog and did not allow it to harm me.  The two dogs squared off, barking and growling at each other.  Each time the first dog tried to lunge at me, the second one cut it off and sent the attacking animal backwards.

Perhaps 15 seconds passed as I watched in amazement, and relief.  One dog was doing everything it could to save me from another.  I gradually recovered from the shock of the situation and resumed my walk to school, at a quick pace, looking back over my shoulder to see what was happening.  When the first dog attempted to follow me, the second one blocked its path.  The two dogs continued to bark and snarl at each other, and soon their noises faded and they were both out of sight.

One remarkable fact about this incident is that I had never seen either dog before that day.  And I never saw them again afterward.  Where in the world had they come from?  And where did they go?

A skeptic might say that the second dog was not protecting me.  Perhaps I just happened to get caught in the middle of a showdown between the two canine superpowers in the neighborhood.

I’m certain this isn’t the case.  I am absolutely sure that the first dog was directing its anger at me, and me alone.  It had made a bee-line toward me, it made clear eye contact with me, and it’s intention was to do harm to me.  And I am equally certain that the second dog’s sudden intervention surprised the first dog as much as it surprised me.  That big beautiful second dog simply would not allow the first animal to hurt me.  There is no doubt in my mind that second animal arrived on the scene to protect me.

There is one intuitive gut feeling about this incident that I must also share.  And I must confess that while this is a leap of inference from the facts that I have just described, it is a powerful feeling that I can’t dismiss.  As I stood there, amazed that a second dog had arrived to thwart the attack, I could sense an amazing presence of love and goodness in that second dog.  It was doing everything in its power to save me and protect me.  I sensed pure selfless love.

I felt, and still feel, overwhelming gratitude toward this altruistic animal.

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For the past three years, I’ve had Google send me every online story it can find involving a hero saving someone’s life.  Every day I get stories from all over the world.  The vast majority are stories of humans saving humans.  But several times each month, there is a story about a dog saving a human life.  A dog who barks in the night to wake her owner because of smoke in the house.  A dog who drags another injured dog off of busy highway.  A dog who alerts someone when his owner falls unconscious.

Yes, there are cat hero stories, too, but they are far fewer in number.  Dogs seem to be hardwired to love and protect people, and there are numerous stories of dogs saving people.  Some of them are amazing and quite moving.  You can read some of these stories here, and other ones here.

Do you have a story about someone who has saved you?  I’d love to hear about it.  It doesn’t matter to me if the creature saving you was a human being, an animal, a god, or a martian.  I’m interested.

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You can contact Scott Allison at sallison@richmond.edu.

Death and Heroism

By Scott T. Allison

“Death throws life out of balance, and it’s up to us, the living, to try to bring that balance back.” - Rick Hutchins

Recently, I’ve been mulling over the link between heroism and death. Last spring, two events in Richmond, the city I love and call home, sent my heart and my head into a state of grievous yet hopeful pondering.

On May 10, 2014, two of my colleagues at the University of Richmond died tragically in a hot air balloon accident. I knew one of the women, Ginny Doyle, the Associate Head Coach of the women’s basketball team. She is described by everyone who knew her as the shining light of the university. She was a stellar athlete and even better person.

The same praise is being heaped upon Natalie Lewis, who also perished. Natalie was a natural leader, a young woman with so much promise she was named Director of Basketball Operations in her early twenties. She exuded kindness and had a smile that lit up every room she entered. These two individuals are gone but not before leaving an indelible imprint on our small but loving campus community.

I think about Ginny and Natalie the same way I think about my sister Sheree, who succumbed to cancer only a few months earlier. In a flash, our short lives can be rendered shorter than we could ever imagine. We had best be mindful about how we use what precious time we have.

I wrote about my sister and called her, “the quiet hero.” The same can be said about Ginny and Natalie. They quietly touched the lives of many people in ways that will have a ripple effect throughout eternity. Kindness begets kindness, I am sure of it.

Death has a way of humbling all of us. Before they died, it’s quite possible that few would use the ‘hero’ label to describe Ginny, Natalie, or Sheree. Part of this may be due to death heightening our evaluations of those who pass. But I also believe that death amplifies our sensitivity and appreciation of the inherent goodness in people. Death directs our attention to what really matters in life – love.

In the end, our loving actions define us.

If love is paramount, then it is especially heart-gutting when someone dies while performing an act of love. This is precisely what happened here in Richmond in late April of 2014. Eight-year-old Marty Cobb was playing outside when he saw his older sister being attacked by a 16-year-old boy. Marty rushed to help her and died at the hands of the older boy while trying to protect her. Marty’s sister recovered from her injuries. But Marty is forever gone.

It is unthinkable for a precious young boy to die from any cause, but when the boy dies while saving his sister’s life, the pain is — to paraphrase Rudy Giuliani — more than any of us can bear. Marty didn’t just live a life of a hero, as did Ginny, Natalie, and Sheree. He died a hero. There is no nobler way to go.

Marty’s selfless act of ultimate sacrifice has only compounded the outpouring of grief, love, and heartache that Richmond’s citizens are now feeling. Summing up Marty perfectly, a makeshift sign placed outside Marty’s home reads, “Pound for pound, year for year, few greater heroes if any.”

The multi-layered connection between death and heroism exists for a reason. We all are called to pause and reflect about the loving lives of those who have been suddenly wrenched from us. Their lives inspire us all because they call us all.

Three beloved Richmonders are no longer with us. Drawing attention to their immense love deepens our sadness but also instills a joyous recognition that their heroism, quiet and otherwise, is an extraordinary gift fated to reverberate throughout eternity.

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Your Life Purpose? Go on the Hero’s Journey

By Scott T. Allison

What is your purpose in life? This question is as old as the human race itself. Some argue that our purpose is to find happiness. Others say our purpose is to love others, to become the best version of ourselves, or to follow God’s will. Still others say there is no purpose to life at all.

I believe that our lives do have a purpose, and that the clues are all around us in plain view. You can’t miss them. Our purpose is so deeply imbedded in our culture that we easily overlook it or take it for granted.

Put simply, your purpose in life is to live the life of a hero.

The hero’s journey is captured in all the great stories in literature, and in all the great movies we enjoy on the big screen. Hero stories endow our lives with meaning and reveal how a human life is meant to be lived.

Hero stories illuminate your true purpose in four ways:

1. You will go on a journey. At some point during your life, you will journey away from the comforts of your familiar world. In The Wizard of Oz, a tornado sends Dorothy to the land of Oz. In The Fault in Our Stars, cancer sends Hazel to Amsterdam. The hero’s journey can be real or metaphorical. Sometimes heroes choose the journey; sometimes the journey is chosen for them. Brace yourself – your life always includes some type of voyage, fraught with discomfort but crucial in revealing your life purpose.

2. You will grow from adversity. Overcoming obstacles and failures is a central part of your life journey. Children’s fairy tales prepare us for adversity by featuring heroes who grow from their setbacks. The three little pigs find a way to outsmart the big bad wolf. Bambi overcomes his mother’s death to grow into a great leader. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure,” observed mythologist Joseph Campbell. Heroes use adversity to better themselves. When you are challenged by the darkest of life circumstances, know that your journey is fashioning you into a wiser, more resilient individual.

3. You will assemble a team of allies. You should never undertake your journey alone. Heroes find a way to attract sidekicks, friends, and mentors to help them overcome obstacles. Matt Langdon of the Hero Construction Company calls it “building a team around you.” Often the person who helps you is someone you least expect. Remember that the point of the journey is to transform you into a stronger, better person. Trusted allies will guide you through adversity and will assist you in becoming forever transformed by your journey.

4. You will give back to society – The hero’s journey is far more than mere personal transformation. Once you return from your journey, you will use your new-found gifts to make the world a better place. In 12 Years a Slave, the hero Solomon survives his ordeal as a slave and then works to end slavery. In The Odyssey, Odysseus endures his turbulent voyage home and then becomes a wise ruler of Ithaca.

Your life purpose is to use your own personal transformation to help transform society. Once mentored by another, you will now mentor others. Your selfless service to the world will forge your place in the human chain of love shown by people who came before you and by people who will follow you.

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The hero’s journey is not just illustrated in fiction but in the real lives of the world’s greatest heroes, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  These three legends lived the four truths of heroism outlined above and used their gifts to forever change the world.

You may not be on the life trajectory of a Gandhi or a Mandela, but rest assured you are on a hero’s journey that has momentous implications for yourself and for the world. Perhaps you are in the process of overcoming cancer, a difficult childhood, a financial setback, or some major transgression. As you struggle, remember that regardless of the outcome, you are fulfilling your life’s purpose. Each human life is meant to be a heroic life.

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Liz Murray: The Hero Who Went From Homeless to Harvard

By Jamie Bieber and Katie Matta

People do not need to possess superpowers to be heroes. All humans are equipped with the ability to summon up the necessary resilience and resourcefulness to overcome adversity, and in extreme cases these efforts can be a heroic inspiration to us all. No one illustrates this idea better than Liz Murray, who transformed herself from being a homeless person into a Harvard graduate.

Born to loving, yet drug-addicted parents, Liz Murray suffered through a turbulent childhood in which most of the money that came into the household was spent on drugs. Murray recalls moments where her mother stole her birthday money, the Thanksgiving turkey, and the family television for cocaine and heroine. Lacking basic resources such as clean clothes and food, Liz Murray had to learn at an early age how to shoplift.

Due to her poor circumstances and having to care for her sick mother, Murray attended school irregularly. Soon her mother died of AIDS, and then her father abandoned her and her sister. The two children had no choice but to live in a homeless shelter. There seemed to be no future for either of them.

Despite these dire circumstances, including hunger and homelessness, Liz Murray chose to structure her life around education. She made the decision that she would become a straight A student and graduate from high school. Sleeping on underground trains, park benches, and her friend’s couch, Liz Murray studied for exams anywhere that she could. She overcame the downward trajectory that many teenagers in her situation follow by believing that every day represented an opportunity for growth.

As a result of her hard work, Murray managed to win the New York Times scholarship for kids in need and, with the help of a dedicated high school teacher, was accepted into her dream school, Harvard University. As her heroic story was passed along to Oprah Winfrey and other sources, the media promoted her heroic story to mass audiences. The cable TV channel Lifetime produced an original movie re-creating her heroic journey.

In their research on heroism, psychologists Scott Allison and George Goethals have found that heroes typically excel in the areas of morality, competence, or both. As a teenager and young adult, Murray distinguished herself on the heroic dimension of competence by dedicating her life to receiving an education. After she graduated from Harvard, she began to show great morality by using her success to inspire others to follow their dreams.

She wrote a book describing her harrowing upbringing and her decision to prevail over her circumstances. Her autobiography is aptly subtitled, A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard. The book speaks to all of us by teaching us that anything is possible if you make every day count toward achieving our goals.

Liz Murray is also a hero for sharing her story in her role as a motivational speaker. The focus of her speeches is on helping children and teens avoid drug addiction and gangs, and to strive to complete their education. On her Facebook page, she describes herself as “a believer of possibilities, creativity, audacity, passion, fun, and a global community.” This could be the motto of all heroes.

Below is a clip of Liz Murray describing her story.

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Jamie Bieber and Katie Matta are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

Josephine Baker: Bronze Venus

By Rick Hutchins

Pulp Fiction abounds with larger-than-life heroes who seemingly achieve more than any mere mortal could hope to accomplish in one lifetime. Mainstream society rejects such notions as mere Romanticism and advises us to set our sights lower — however, such people do exist.

This is the story of one such person.

The woman who would become known as the Bronze Venus was born into a life of poverty in the Negro slums of St. Louis in 1906, the daughter of Vaudeville performers. She did not intend to follow in her parents’ footsteps. However, abandoned by her father and abused as the domestic servant of a wealthy family, she found herself homeless and starving on the city streets; so, when dancing for pennies on the corner led to an invitation to perform in a local chorus line, she was not slow to accept.

Her natural talents quickly became apparent. Before she was out of her teens, she had moved to New York and had become the highest paid chorus girl in Vaudeville. By her early 20s, she was charming audiences in at the Folies Bergère in Paris with her uninhibited eroticism and comedic antics.

Josephine Baker quickly became one of the most famous women in the world. Her success allowed her to be financially independent, quite rare for a woman of that era and unheard of for a Black woman. As an artist, she was an innovator. In addition to pushing the boundaries of eroticism and nudity, even by the standards of the Roaring 20s, she was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture and is credited with introducing the Jazz Age to Europe.

After more than a decade of increasing success as an exotic performer (complete with pet cheetah), mitigated only somewhat by experiences with racism in the United States, Baker had become a French citizen and did not hesitate to answer the call when World War II broke out. She was recruited by French Military Intelligence and, later, the French Resistance to obtain and conduct information vital to the war effort.

Her celebrity status allowed her to rub shoulders with movers and shakers at embassies throughout Europe and her charm allowed her to gather data about enemy airfields, harbors, and troop movements, which she would then convey written in invisible ink on her sheet music and in notes pinned in her underwear. She was, in short, a spy. In addition, her home in the south of France became an unofficial headquarters for the Free French movement, where operatives could obtain visas.

Throughout the war, Baker also performed freely for the troops and worked as a nurse for the Red Cross. Many Allied soldiers remembered her generosity and healing ministrations throughout the remainder of their lives.

For her efforts, she was awarded the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.

After the war ended, Baker’s celebrity status was heightened by her wartime heroism, and she was not afraid to use her newfound clout. Returning to the United States after many years, she refused to perform for segregated audiences– most venues, most notably in Miami and Las Vegas, gave in to her demands, resulting in a sold-out national tour. She was named the NAACP Woman of the Year in 1951 and May 20th was declared Josephine Baker Day. A parade was held in her honor.

All was not wine and roses, however. She was turned away by dozens of hotels for being Black and received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. A confrontation at the New York Stork Club (in which she was befriended by Grace Kelly, a hero in her own right), resulted in the revocation of her visa for several years.

Nevertheless, Baker continued to work with the Civil Rights Movement, and was an ally of the NAACP and Martin Luther King. She spoke at the historic March on Washington in 1963 (the only woman to do so) and was heartened by the sight of so many Blacks and Whites standing shoulder to shoulder. “Salt and pepper,” she said. “Just what it should be.” When Doctor King was killed, she was offered the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement by his widow, but she declined. By then, she had a family to think about.

Her family at that time consisted of her husband, Jo Bouillon, a French conductor, and a dozen adopted children who she called her Rainbow Tribe (as well as a menagerie of exotic pets). The children were of a variety of backgrounds– European, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern– and were a testament to Baker’s belief that “Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”

Josephine Baker died in 1975 from a cerebral hemorrhage, following a retrospective performance in Paris that was attended by celebrities, royalty, and dignitaries from all over the world. She received full French military honors and a public funeral attended by tens of thousands.

Today there are parks and streets that bear her name, she is the subject of multiple books, movies and plays, and there are museums and memorials from Missouri to Monte Carlo that pay tribute to this underprivileged Black woman from the streets of St. Louis who championed sexual freedom, provided a role model for independent women, fought the Axis, stared down the Klan, and set an example of human fellowship that is still needed today.

Mere Romanticism indeed. Such people do exist.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and is a regular contributor to this blog.  In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

Two of Hutchins’ previous essays on heroes appear in our book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

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Our 3rd Book — Reel Heroes: Volume 1

Our third book, Reel Heroes: Volume 1, is now available in paperback and on the kindle. In this book, we describe the elements of the classic hero journey and offer reasons why heroes are psychologically important to us all. Inside you’ll find:

* A new classification scheme identifying movie heroes as Lone Heroes, Duos, or Ensembles.

* A review of 75 movies released in 2013, showing you which movies excel in portraying the hero’s journey and which movies fall flat.

* Our choices for Best Movies and Worst Movies in 2013, along with the year’s Best Movie Heroes.

Our analysis of Five Great Truths about movie heroes.

* A Forward, written by Matt Langdon, the founder of The Hero Construction Company. Langdon discusses the link between movie heroes and the hero journey in classic myth as outlined by Joseph Campbell.

 Reviews of ‘Reel Heroes: Volume 1′

“Bravo! Film analysis at its finest. Smith and Allison have done a masterful job in providing a challenging yet insightful critique that goes right to the heart of the hero’s journey in contemporary cinema.” – Jason Roy, The Hero Construction Company

“Smith and Allison offer a refreshingly robust analysis of heroes and heroic action, showing us what we should have known all along, namely, that the hero journey makes the movie. Their innovative work is a must-read for all fans of heroes in the movies.” – Dr. James Beggan, Professor of Sociology, University of Louisville

“Smith and Allison get to the heart of the matter, and show us that it is the heart that matters. They go beyond the CGI and the 3D and drag the enduring human values out into the light of day.” – Rick Hutchins, Author of The RH Factor

“You can get more from movies than just a couple hours of fun. You can also learn how to be a hero and how to help others become more heroic. Let Scott and Greg take you deeper into your favorite movies and show you hidden lessons in heroism that you might have missed. Their humorous and thoughtful writing style is almost as entertaining as a summer blockbuster and their book costs less than one trip to the theater.” – David Rendall, Author of The Freak Factor

“A must for movie buffs.” – Jesse Schultz, Author of Alfheim.

“I applaud Smith and Allison for continuing ‘the hero’s journey’ by giving all of us the opportunity to apply movie scenes to the our own personal journeys of being a hero for others!” – Mike Dilbeck, Founder of RESPONSE ABILITY Revolution

“An ingenious approach to understanding effective storytelling in movies and literature.” – Dr. Robert Giacalone, Professor of Business Ethics, University of Denver

“If you want to see movies that will stay with you long after you leave the multiplex, then taking advice from these two on ReelHeroes.net is a great start. If you want to get a sense for what’s important in a successful story, read this book.” – Matt Langdon, Founder of The Hero Construction Company