Anakins of Sacramento

Or how Star Wars mythology explains the toxic environments we’ve created for our black children

Dr. Flojaune G. Cofer is an epidemiologist and the director of state policy and research for Public Health Advocates in Davis.

Dr. Flojaune G. Cofer is an epidemiologist and the director of state policy and research for Public Health Advocates in Davis.

Photo courtesy of Public Health Advocates

“Life course theory” is the idea that your health trajectory is impacted by previous generations, societal inequities, your physical and social environments, and your life experiences over time and at critical moments in your development. This concept helps explain the disproportionate black infant and child mortality rates observed in Sacramento County. I’m a Star Wars fan. When I began teaching life course theory, I realized that the story of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader is a perfect metaphor for the lives of many boys from disadvantaged communities.

Anakin is born a slave, which gives us some insight into his early life experiences. The impact of slavery on the family structure also may explain why his father is absent. As he progresses through adolescence, he is taken from his mother at 10 to become trained as a Jedi. Being separated from his mother at such a young age is a trauma for him that manifests itself throughout his life. Thus far, his life has more risk factors than protective ones.

When he is selected to receive a Jedi education, he is freed from slavery (an obvious benefit). Research suggests that a quality education in a supportive environment increases the likelihood of avoiding incarceration while establishing healthy friendships, strong career prospects and income. Anakin also has a trusted adult relationship with Obi-Wan Kenobi, which is critical for positive youth development. Unfortunately, he’s exposed to the violence of the Clone Wars and, because of his separation from his mother, he experiences increased symptoms of trauma: heightened arousal and fear of loss. The traumas he experienced are known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, and they increase the risk for poor behavioral and health outcomes in adulthood.

The Jedi had initial reservations about training Anakin, which is explained in the films as a struggle between the dark and light sides of the Force; in reality, they were observing trauma symptoms that worsen when children move through spaces that are not trauma-informed.

When Anakin enters adulthood, his story culminates as one might expect. He distrusts the people in his support system (Jedi) and begins spending time with corrupting influences (Sith Lord Sidious). He marries Padme, but their relationship has intimate partner violence and an unintended pregnancy (Luke and Leia). He eventually succumbs to the Dark Side, is severely burned and is exposed to toxins when the Death Star explodes. And, while there are 40 years of jokes about Darth Vader having asthma, given his early life conditions and chemical exposures, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder are plausible and likely.

Life expectancy is one of the core measurements of public health progress, so the most telling factor of Anakin/Darth Vader’s life story is how prematurely it ended. In Episode 1, Anakin is 9 years old. By Episode 4, he’s 41. The remaining two films happen in rapid succession, so he is 44 and 45, respectively. This tells us that the decrepit man revealed at the end of Episode 6 is only 45 years old. For reference, that’s 17 years younger than Denzel Washington and 11 years younger than George Clooney.

The most alarming thing about Anakin’s progression to Darth Vader and eventual demise is revealed in how the story is told. We often meet people in Episode 4 of their lives. We treat them as villains and demonize them. We analyze their behavior with no context. We have no idea what happened in the first three episodes of their lives. We don’t recognize why they struggled with the Dark Side or where our systems extinguished their light. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with you?” we should ask “What happened to you?” The answer would be far more illuminating.

In fiction, there is nostalgia in resurrecting familiar characters for a new generation. In real life, we must intervene early for our real-world Anakins to prevent retelling a story so universal that it even shows up in fiction.