When I received the call about writing this blog post, I was watching last week’s episode of Game of Thrones for the second time. I wanted to catch up before Sunday’s season finale. Full disclosure: I was also wearing my “House Stark – Winter is Coming” T-shirt.
Yes, that is how much of a nerd I am.
Apparently, I’m not alone.
The HBO medieval fantasy series is a big hit with many young African Americans and Latinos, despite the fact that there are few people of color on the show. Those of us who’ve read the books and watch the show don’t care that none of the central characters looks like us.
Tapping into “Game of Thrones” hip-hop generation fanbase, the network is promoting a mixtape, “Catch the Throne,” based on the show’s characters and featuring Common, Big Boi, Daddy Yankee and other rappers. Conventional wisdom says hip-hop fans, like other viewers, gravitate to the show for its take on power and its gratuitous violence, sex and nudity. (The show has been slammed as misogynistic.)
For me, the show’s appeal is elsewhere. African Americans and Latinos know all about being underestimated and disenfranchised, about being second-class citizens. Our parents and grandparents told us the stories while growing up. As a Chicagoan, I heard stories about how the Ku Klux Klan marched down Pulaski Road. If you’re Latino, you may have heard why your grandparents left Mexico or Central America to come to this country.
Two “Game of Thrones” characters tap into that experience: Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf who is the son of a powerful patriarch, and Jon Snow, the out-of-wedlock offspring of another formidable patriarch. They, too, are disenfranchised and underestimated. Week after week, Tyrion and Jon struggle to find their footing in a world that challenges their right to exist.
The “imp,” as Tyrion is derisively called on the show, shrugs off his second-class status with a quick wit. But he finally unleashes his pent-up frustration during his trial for the murder of his nephew, the king. Tyrion is innocent, but his real crime, he says, is that he is a dwarf. My people have been similarly railroaded in America’s criminal justice system.
Like many people who migrated to this country for a better life, Jon also left the only place he ever knew. Since he didn’t have the Stark name–his father’s name–Jon wasn’t going to inherit anything. So he decided to find his place in life with the Night’s Watch, a group of outcasts who defend the northern frontier of the kingdom.
In the first episode of the show, Tyrion gives Jon some harsh advice: “Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor. Then it can never be used to hurt you.”
As an African-American male growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I can relate to that advice. My mother collected art of people in blackface eating watermelon. As I got older, I noticed that most of it was near the front door of our home. One day, I asked her why. She said the art was a reminder of what the world really thinks of us. She wanted me to keep that in mind whenever I left home.
Years later, seeing what happened to Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and Jordan Davis, I see why she did it. No matter how many advanced degrees I have or the work I’ve done, to some, my race is a reason to treat me like a second-class citizen.
Like Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister, men of color persevere when society says otherwise.