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Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership

Erica R. Edwards

Publication Year: 2012

Social and political change is impossible in the absence of gifted male charismatic leadership—this is the fiction that shaped African American culture throughout the twentieth century. If we understand this, Erica R. Edwards tells us, we will better appreciate the dramatic variations within both the modern black freedom struggle and the black literary tradition.

By considering leaders such as Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Barack Obama as both historical personages and narrative inventions of contemporary American culture, Edwards brings to the study of black politics the tools of intertextual narrative analysis as well as deconstruction and close reading. Examining a number of literary restagings of black leadership in African American fiction by W. E. B. Du Bois, George Schuyler, Zora Neale Hurston, William Melvin Kelley, Paul Beatty, and Toni Morrison, Edwards demonstrates how African American literature has contested charisma as a structuring fiction of modern black politics.

Though recent scholarship has challenged top-down accounts of historical change, the presumption that history is made by gifted men continues to hold sway in American letters and life. This may be, Edwards shows us, because while charisma is a transformative historical phenomenon, it carries an even stronger seductive narrative power that obscures the people and methods that have created social and political shifts.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Series: Difference Incorporated


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xxii

It was in the immediate wake of destruction, loss, and dispossession wrought by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina that performing and recording artist Erykah Badu stopped the clock on the progress of black public protest. Called to stage to sing her own “Time’s a Wastin” at a televised rally organized by the Millions More Movement to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Million Man March, ...

Part I. Charisma

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1. Restaging the Charismatic Scenario: Fictions of African American Leadership

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pp. 3-34

A sustained engagement with the multifarious experiences, perspectives, movements, stories, and players that make up the contemporary history of black American movements for social change and political progress requires both historicizing and disposing of the fiction that social transformation is impossible in the absence of singular charismatic leadership. ...

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2. Leadership’s Looks: The Aesthetics of Black Political Modernity

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pp. 35-74

When literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. lamented that that black Americans could not seem to “agree on what leadership should look like” as the twentieth century neared its close, he signaled a century-long anxiety about how race men would look while representing the race.1 ...

Part II. Contestations

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3. Moses, Monster of the Mountain: Gendered Violence in Zora Neale Hurston’s Gothic

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pp. 77-104

One of the most compelling fictions of twentieth-century black political culture is the fantasy of charismatic leadership, the idea that political advancement is best achieved under the direction of a single male leader believed to be gifted with a privileged connection to the divine. ...

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4. Disappearing the Leader: The Vanishing Spectacle in Civil Rights Fiction

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pp. 105-132

In a chilling scene at the end of William Melvin Kelley’s 1962 novel, A Different Drummer, a slick Northern preacher is forced to sing and dance for a mob of white men who have decided that the black residents of their Southern town who have followed the silent, puzzling actions of a quiet, boyish twenty-two-year-old ...

Part III. Curiosities

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5. “Cyanide in the Kool-Aid”: Black Politics and Popular Culture after Civil Rights

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pp. 135-166

The story of the African American freedom struggle most often invoked in contemporary popular, mass-mediated accounts of the civil rights movement features a series of charismatic spectacles that build on the ancient symbology of the Exodus myth, the cultural repertoire of black political modernity, and the news reporting of post–World War II black protest. ...

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6. Claim Ticket Lost: Toni Morrison’s Paradise and African American Literature’s Holy Hollow

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pp. 167-186

Days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the U.S. Gulf Coast in September 2005, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dispossessed as the scenes of New Orleans under water captured television sets and newspaper headlines, I was having a conversation about the “active abandonment” of black New Orleanians ...

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pp. 187-194

When Oprah Winfrey, charismatic in her own right, officially joined the campaign for Barack Obama’s presidential bid in December 2007, she made back-to-back appearances in Des Moines, Iowa, and Columbia, South Carolina, lending her formidable cultural authority to electoral politics—as she called it, “stepping out of her pew”—for the first time in her decades-long career. ...

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pp. 195-198

I owe thanks to so many who have enabled and in every way enriched the writing of this book that began as a dissertation at Duke University. Maurice Wallace was this book’s earliest and most earnest supporter and helped me discover the best in my thought and writing. ...


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pp. 199-232


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pp. 233-249

E-ISBN-13: 9780816680221
E-ISBN-10: 0816680221
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816675463

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Difference Incorporated
See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 792688100
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership