Updated: Jul 8, 2021
It is often said that there is no art without meaning. Every form of media you’ve ever consumed and will consume, be it written, visual, or otherwise, carries within it its author’s intent on every page or in every frame. Sometimes, the author or creator’s intent is easily decipherable, and other times, you really have to dig deep into material supplementary to the art itself to uncover the intention of said author or creator. Let’s analyze, for a moment, two pieces of visual media, each containing within it a message against imperialism.
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–2008) is widely considered one of the greatest animated series of all time, with its appeal reaching from the youngest children to the oldest adults. The reason its appeal was so encompassing of everybody is that while it was outwardly designed for children and preteens, the show contained within it mature themes including, but not limited to, gender discrimination, female empowerment, oppression, colonialism, war, and imperialism. There are perhaps no two episodes that communicate ATLA’s stance on imperialism more than season two’s "Zuko Alone" and season three’s two-parter "The Day of Black Sun." Widely considered one of the best episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, “Zuko Alone” captures the physical and psychological effects that imperialism has on oppressed peoples. For the first time, Prince Zuko, an aider and abetter of Fire Nation imperialism, sees the gravity of these effects for himself and is left with abject confusion about his place in the world as he ponders whether he is on the right side. The episode sees Zuko settle in an Earth Kingdom village as a refugee without the backing of his nation, where he befriends a young boy named Lee, as well as his family. When Zuko attempts to give Lee the dagger back, Lee tells Zuko he hates him. In season three's “Day of Black Sun,” Zuko gains clarity, and realizes that he cannot allow his father, Fire Lord Ozai, to commit genocide against the Earth Kingdom. He resolves to help his long-standing adversary, the Avatar, overthrow his father so that he may take the throne and lead the Fire Nation in a new direction of peace and justice.
Star Wars, very subtly, is a prominent piece of anti-imperialist visual media. The below video features Star Wars creator George Lucas in an interview with James Cameron, the director of Avatar (2009). Lucas explains to Cameron that the Original Trilogy was created as a commentary on the Vietnam War; the highly-mechanized, technologically superior Galactic Empire was representative of the United States, and the plucky but determined Rebel Alliance was representative of the Viet Cong.
This may come off as a sore point for Americans who did not know what exactly inspired to create what is today such an iconic film franchise. How can the evil Galactic Empire possibly have been based upon the United States, the citadel for freedom and justice in the world? How are the two in any way similar? How could they be in any way similar? To see the similarities between the two, one must set aside the notion of American exceptionalism, and the concept of America as a "shining city on a hill." After having done this, the person can then analyze things objectively, and come to the realization that America is exceptional not in its morality but its immorality. The fact of the matter is that the United States of America is itself an empire. It may not classify itself as such ala the British Empire or the Roman Empire, but it satisfies every condition of the definition.
An empire is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority." The vehicle by which a nation extends its power and influence, be it by military force, colonization, or otherwise, is called imperialism. The United States, a few short years after attaining its independence from the British Empire, emerged onto the scene as an aspiring imperial power. The Spanish and Dutch Empires had long before become satellites of the British Empire, which was dominant across North America and the West Indies. France was also jockeying for position under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, and for a brief period assumed dominance over a vast swath of continental Europe during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), but like Britain, it lost a key colony in the Western Hemisphere with Haiti winning its independence in 1804. Fast forward to the 1820s and Spain's colonies in Latin America were rapidly gaining their independence. The United States was in prime position now to make a move.
In 1823, President James Monroe issued his Monroe Doctrine, which decreed that intervention in the Western Hemisphere by European powers would be viewed by the United States government as a potentially hostile act. The United States would assume a hands-off policy where Europe was concerned, but it sought unilateral control over the Western Hemisphere. At the time of the Doctrine's issuance, the United States lacked the military might to enforce such a reign. However yet, time would be on its side. Nineteen years after the Civil War, representatives of thirteen European nations met at Berlin during the Scramble for Africa to partition the minerally wealthy African continent. The United States dispatched observers there to accept or reject the conclusions of the conference. They would accept them. The United States would become the first nation to recognize Leopold II's claims over the Congo, as part of a new policy to enshrine White supremacy within its own borders and abroad with the goal of avoiding conflict amongst White people wherever possible and becoming a commercial empire. The Basin of the Congo would become an "open door" to all commercial nations, so as to alleviate any potential territorial disputes between traditionally competitive nations:
Excerpts from Transafrican Journal of History, Vol. 19 (1990)
When you read the above excerpts, and then you stop and consider how Africa became a market for American goods and finished products, you'll see how America's post-slavery economy became so strong, so fast. Now seated at the big boys' table, America could pursue its own imperial ambitions. In 1897, William McKinley was sworn in as the 25th President of the United States. McKinley assumed the presidency amidst a Cuban war for independence against Spain. McKinley advocated Cuban independence, and with Congress' invoking of the Teller Amendment, the Spanish-American War began on April 21, 1898. The war lasted a measly three months and three weeks, during which the Spanish Navy was decimated. The 1898 Treaty of Paris saw Spain cede Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Phillippines, as well as temporary control of Cuba to the United States. The April 1898 Teller Amendment stated that the United States could not annex Cuba; they could only leave control of the island to its inhabitants. In spite of this, the government came up with the Platt Amendment in 1901, which lent legality to the United States' right to intervene in Cuban affairs "for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty." Among the provisions of the amendment were the right of the United States to lease or buy land for the establishment of naval bases and coaling stations and the inability of Cuba to either enter treaties with foreign powers or prevent the United States from imposing a sanitation program on it. Cuba had become a colony of the United States, which would determine when and if its people were "qualified" for freedom. American capitalists bought large swaths of land to use as latifundios (sugar plantations), destroying peasant communities and barring Cuban planters from access to capital. Sugar cane farmers were relegated to the role of colonos (tenants) on corporation-owned land, land they themselves owned previously. The hope of Afro-Cubans to achieve racial equality was quashed by the Platt Amendment. Their subjection to segregation and discrimination worsened under the U.S. occupation, a slap in the face considering their contributions to the Cuban war for independence. Antonio Maceo, one of the eminent Cuban generals at that time, who never lost a battle, was Black. His mother, Marianna Grajales Cuello, was an ardent Cuban nationalist who was appropriately termed "the mother of the nation."