Morehouse College’s A Candle in the Dark Gala is an annual fundraiser for Morehouse College, a private historical black men’s liberal arts college in Atlanta, Georgia, whose mission is to “develop men with disciplined minds who will lead lives of leadership and service.” At the Gala, the Bennie Awards, named in honor of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, were presented to distinguished alumni. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays (August 1, 1894-March 28, 1984) served as the sixth president of Morehouse College from 1940-1967. Dr. Mays was also a Baptist Minister, a civil rights leader, and a trusted advisor to presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Jimmy Carter. How did the son of former slaves rise above challenges to become a revered leader and scholar? Dr. Mays' successful life was primarily due to prayer, dedication and elements of the Hero’s Journey. Let’s discuss…
What is the Hero's Journey?
In summary, the Hero's Journey is a common story structure that takes place in three stages. The Hero's Journey became very popular due to Joseph Campbell's book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. This book illustrates the hero archetype that exists in all cultures. Joseph Campbell was influenced by Carl Jung and his teachings on the collective unconscious. George Lucas consulted the book when writing Star Wars. Most stories follow this pattern such as Star Wars, Superman, Spiderman, The Wizard of Oz, The Matrix, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Cinderella, and the list goes on and on.
The hero is the main protagonist in the story who must go on a journey of self-discovery. The hero faces several challenges on the journey including near death experiences, villains and trials. If the hero is successful, he/she returns to their community with newly acquired skills which makes the community a better place. I believe the hero's journey is not just for stories and movies but it is the adventure of life that we all experience based on our environments.
The Hero's Journey can be explained in three acts:
- The Call to Adventure - The hero is in a world that does not fully meet their needs intellectually, spiritually or socially. Dorothy Gale in the Wizard of Oz was looking for 'somewhere over the rainbow.' Thomas Anderson in The Matrix was searching for the real world. Luke Skywalker wanted to leave a family farm and join a space academy. There are obstacles that heroes must face and overcome before they can leave. However, if successful, they answer the call to adventure and leave the familiar world for the unfamiliar world. Dr. Mays left his home to pursue higher education.
- The Initiation- This unfamiliar world has tests and trials to overcome. In this world, the hero usually meets a mentor who helps him/her maneuver this new world as well as tricksters or villains who impede their progress. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker's mentor was Obi-wan Kenobi. The villain was Darth Vader. Dr. Mays had to learn how to live and survive as an Afrian-Amercan man seeking higher education shortly after the emancipation of slaves and at a time when lynching was prevalent.
- The Return- The hero returns to the familiar world with newly acquired knowledge to share and benefit the community. After completing his education and working in the north, Dr. Mays returned to the south with a mission to make it a better environment for all. "It may be that this New South was called to lead Americans to an understanding of what true democracy is." (Mays, 70).
Knowledge helps us to understand the 'whys and because' of things. Do you want to know how to nurture environments to cultivate more leaders and heroes in our communities? One way is to understand the Hero's Journey and use it as inspiration to become a mentor or supporter. Also, the Hero's Journey may help you to understand events in your own life so that you won't feel alone on your journey. Also, understanding the hero's journey may help you become more empathetic for those who suffer from challenges in their lives through no fault of their own.
Heroes go beyond only serving self-needs to serving the needs of their communities. Technological advances over the years made it possible for computers to go from the size of an entire room to fit in the palm of our hands. In contrast, social problems such as poverty, world hunger and mass incarceration are still issues in our communities. We need more heroes to continue the work.
Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays' Hero's Journey
The Call to Adventure- Both of Dr. Mays' parents were born into slavery. His mother could not read nor write and his father could read print but not script. His father rented 40 acres of land for a two-mule farm or sixty acres for three mules. The rent was two bales of cotton for every twenty acres rented. Susie, Dr. Mays' older sister, taught him how to read and write, so when he attended school at six years old he was ahead of his peers. From his book, Lord, The People Have Driven Me On on page 2, "At the one-room school, students respected me because I knew more than they did, and the teacher thought I was something special. She often "bragged" on me, and I liked it. In fact, I fell in love with my teacher; therefore; I had to continue to do well, because she was my teacher and my first love."
Dr. Mays' familiar world was his community in Ninety-Six, South Carolina. The community was majority poor African-American families but who had a sense of pride about themselves. His family was farmers and Dr. Mays worked as a fieldhand. Susie, Dr. Mays' oldest sister who had a fourth-grade education, taught him how to recite the alphabet, to read and to count. Susie was influential in Dr. Mays' desire to pursue education because she started the process by teaching him at home.