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Reviewed by:
  • I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr by Arthur Flowers, and: Beholding Bee by Kimberly Newton Fusco
  • Deborah Stevenson, Editor
I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. by Arthur Flowers; illus. by Manu Chitrakar

There's no shortage of Martin Luther King biographies for young readers, but this is a truly unusual work: a graphic-novel-styled blend of text by Arthur Flowers, professor, writer, and griot, with illustrations by Manu Chitrakar, a Patua scroll artist from Bengal, India, created out of a workshop that brought the story of Martin Luther King's life to village India. The result, a work originally released from Indian publisher Tara Books in 2010 and now more readily available in a new edition in partnership with Canadian publisher Groundwood, is a compelling biography that reawakens a life story readers may feel sure they had already exhausted.

Flowers employs a vibrant storyteller's voice, using a blend of colloquial grammar ("This what make Martin Luther King special") and sophisticated vocabulary ("The factions thought they had in King a malleable instrument") for a free-wheeling, deeply contextualized account that frames King's life as being directed by a Dahomean Fa, or destiny. The pulsating and incantatory style of the narrative results in phrases that will echo in reader's heads (Rosa Parks "sat there on the hard rock of destiny and found it to her liking"), and the text is outspoken, pithy, and at times ruefully witty ("The Great Migration—a mass movement that turn a troubled rural folk into an equally troubled urban folk"). The book gives background for the civil rights movement and King's own family traditions and covers the famous leader's involvement in events such as the Birmingham bus boycott, the march on Selma, and the Memphis strike. While a couple of historical references are slightly misleading, Flowers is refreshingly clear-eyed about his subject, identifying some of King's actions as failures, describing the tension between him and younger, more radical activists, and briskly acknowledging his womanizing ("Boy got a weakness for the flesh"). Altogether, it's an impassioned, sympathetic, and dimensional portrait of a man more complicated than he's usually portrayed.

The illustrations, a view of King's life by an artist who'd never previously heard of the man but had his own relevant contexts, have a invigoratingly global perspective: Bengali script appears as often as English in signs, the stylized treatment lends an otherworldly weirdness to Ku Klux Klan outfits, and the Asian aspect of many crowd scenes offers a tacit tribute to King's inspiration, Gandhi. The strong colors in translucent tones, thickly outlined and touched with patterning, recall early John Steptoe, and their intensity and clarity of design echo the text's percussive rhythm. The design is what really brings this work together, interjecting text [End Page 365] in crisp outlined boxes that give it poetic beats, breaking into pages and spreads of stark white text against inky black for dramatic framing of important quotes, and sequencing the scroll images on pages.

The result is a piece that's both dramatic and informative, a combination of rolling narration and striking visuals that suggests theater and cinema. Its creative approach will help veteran readers discover King afresh and draw those resistant to more orthodox (and sometimes staid) biographies; additionally, it could inspire them to loosen up their own biographical efforts and embark on creative projects. The book concludes with a glossary of historical concepts and names mentioned in the text, an explanation of the genesis of the book, and a description of Patua scroll painting. (See p. 376 for publication information.)

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pp. 365-366
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