How Benjamin Sisko Spoke to My Immigrant Identity

Commander Benjamin Sisko from Season 1 of DS9

In America’s current political climate, immigrants from certain countries are constantly being portrayed in degrading and dehumanizing ways. As an immigrant, though not often in the immediate target group nor characterized by the cipher “illegal,” it’s anxiety-inducing to think of the ‘what ifs’ this climate creates.

My anxieties over the political climate led me back to one of my favorite resting places – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Though I don’t have a clear memory of the first time I saw Captain Benjamin Sisko on my screen, his presence meant a great deal when I first moved to the United States. At different periods in my life, Captain Sisko has given me hope for something better than “this.”  He offered a future that included people who looked like me, not just functioning as filler in the background, but thriving as their full selves.

We moved to the United States from Jamaica in the mid-90s. My pre-teen self did her best to adjust and compartmentalize what didn’t make sense. A lot did not make sense. I was shocked, for example, at how different the United States advertised on Jamaican media was from the concrete jungle I now saw day in and day out. The biggest adjustment was the isolation from most of my family members. My sister and I were on lockdown. Gone were the days when I could get on a “taxi” and go to my grandmother’s; Uber wasn’t a thought yet and I was only eleven years old.

Another aspect of this new American life that didn’t always sit well, but that I didn’t know how to articulate until I went away to college, was the way I saw black Americans portrayed in media. Don’t get me wrong, there were positive examples on television like Family Matters, A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Living Single. But as much as I loved those characters there was always a level of disassociation because they weren’t quite my experience. What I did see of Jamaicans were versions with laughable attempts at patois (looking at you, Cool Runnings) or violent criminals whom Steven Segal always seemed to best. None of these were the people in my family nor in the community that I had left behind.

The narrative that I’d known in Jamaica was one where I was celebrated and loved for just being. My parents were children when Jamaica gained its independence from Britain. As the second-generation post-independence, I was in the sweet spot when there was a clear intention of establishing who were as a people and pushing positive narratives that reinforce our identities. School readers included folktales of overcoming with characters like Bredda Anansi, who got into lots of trouble, but also outsmarted the bigger, stronger character and was basically winning. Miss Lou helped us be proud of speaking patois, where before you were always admonished to speak the Queen’s English. In those formative years I was surrounded by positive examples of blackness.

That strong foundation was part of my aversion to many of the images of black men and women that I saw on my American television screen at that time. This new narrative of what being black was supposed to look like just didn’t mesh with what I understood to be true.

That is why discovering programming that presented a possibility far into the future and away from America’s social norms was so welcomed.

In Star Trek’s Benjamin Sisko I found a lot of the qualities that were missing from many black TV characters. Sisko had the slyness of Anansi and used that trait throughout the series to best many an adversary. A favorite example of this was his interactions with Quark in the first episode “Emissary.” Knowing that he needed business on the space station in order to attract new people and to keep the few who remained, Sisko used Quark’s troublemaking nephew Nog as a bargaining chip. Using Quark’s family as a means to an end was genius and did the trick. Sisko took the Ferengi’s love of bartering and instead of looking down on them like in other Trek iterations, he used it to his advantage.

Sisko was the underdog sequestered at the ends of the galaxy. And just like Bredda Anansi, he used his wits to save the day. In the mainstream, other black leading characters would typically be portrayed as comical and would somehow bumble their way to the goal. Yet in Sisko the move to use Quark’s tendencies against him was strategic and proved his intelligent leadership from the show’s inception.

Avery Brooks also portrayed Sisko with a level of cool, unbothered swag that I instantly connected with as I’d seen it before in Jamaicans. There is a confidence in our right to exist which permeates any interaction. This confidence was in everything Sisko did and DID NOT do. For example, there was no need to justify why he was in such a high-ranking position or why he’d been chosen as the Christ-like Emissary.  Just like Picard and Kirk before him, it was understood that Sisko had earned it. This seems small, but to see his character have the right to just exist in an influential position without qualifiers was powerful. It says you have the right to do anything, and Sisko embodies this fully.

Brooks said about “Far Beyond the Stars”: “You can fix in this electronic box what you cannot fix in the world.” I firmly believe that his portrayal of Sisko accomplished this by showing a level of dimensionality that was not typical of black characters on TV at the time. He gave me a character that I still go back to for hope that our tomorrow can be better than our yesterday.

 

  1 comment for “How Benjamin Sisko Spoke to My Immigrant Identity

  1. Terry Folsom
    September 25, 2019 at 11:39 am

    First, I am glad Avery Brooks gave you a charachter that inspired you ! He did provide us all a great body of work and inspiration. You did provide me with several things to think about. The first of which was how many black actors have made the impact that Avery has. In film there are four men who have been presented academy awards (Oscars). In TV, the Emmys have had black nominees since 1956 no, I had to look that up, and a winner, Harry Belafonte in 1960. Some great actors, such as Redd Fox did great work but were never recognized. I was pleased to find a nomination for Taraji Henson, since I have never seen her in anything where her performance wasn’t great. There are no wins for Don Cheadle (come on guys!). Still, allot better performance for the (jury?) than I expected. I did have to reflect on your comment about imagining to be in the charachters place. You’re right, many role models set in today are not very inspiring. Perhaps it’s easier in the unreality of a scripted future, I don’t know. Here is a refference, with citations, I found interesting. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_black_Primetime_Emmy_Award_winners_and_nominees

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