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Reviewed by:
  • Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership by Erica R. Edwards
  • Bryan Wagner
Erica R. Edwards. Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012. 288 pp. $25.00.

Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership interprets the topos of charismatic leadership as it has appeared in African American politics and culture. Across the book, Edwards candidly assesses the popular investment in singular and magnetic male leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Barack Obama, whose eloquence and personal vision are thought to be indispensable to the struggle for freedom. According to Edwards, there are three costs associated with this cult of personality. First, it equates leadership with normative masculinity, downplaying in particular women’s role in political history. Second, it reduces the heterogeneity of movement politics, underestimating the importance of everyday resistance to mass mobilization. Third, it introduces antidemocratic tendencies into political organization, promoting obedience rather than deliberative action.

Edwards brings these claims to bear not only on the problems of political representation and political organization but also on a variety of fascinating cases from African American literature and performance. As Edwards demonstrates, these works are staged in relation to the problem of charisma in black politics, supplying a skeptical and sometimes satirical commentary on the most common settings and tropes associated with the public performance of racial leadership.

The book is a remarkable work of synthesis. Historical coverage is convincing and substantial, demonstrating how the scenario of political leadership was changed, yet also left unchanged, by emancipation, disfranchisement, urbanization, migration, and civil-rights legislation. The book features close analysis of a remarkably diverse collection of texts and performances: speeches (from Frederick Douglass’s address at the Haytian Pavilion at the 1893 Columbian World Exposition to Oprah Winfrey’s 2007 Obama endorsement), pageants and protests (from UNIA parades and street-corner preaching in the 1920s to the Million Man and Millions More marches in the 1990s), novels (from Dark Princess to White Boy Shuffle), cinema (from The Man to the Barbershop films), and histories (from C. L. R. James’s Toussaint to Taylor Branch’s MLK).

Sometimes ambitious surveys, even useful ones, sacrifice attention to detail in order to place works in a general framework. That is not the case here. Edwards treats her examples in a way that makes them intelligible within the larger story she [End Page 487] is telling, but she also attends to their details and their formal attributes with admirable concentration. For instance, Edwards describes with commanding emphasis how the Exodus plot in Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) and Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1997) turns from epic to gothic as it is retold in light of the martyrdom of female characters, a transformation that runs counter to the uncritical celebration of the Exodus narrative offered by critics like Eddie Glaude and Michael Walzer. Edwards brings the same sharp attention to nontextual artifacts and performances, astutely reading, to choose but one example, the symbolism of the empty robe on display at the 1926 Convention of Negro Peoples, during which Garvey was imprisoned, as an expression of the suspended promise of salvation. Elsewhere in the book, careful attention is brought to bear on the use of ekphrasis in sermons and political speeches, on the overlapping implications of the term “hokum,” and on the farce that is made from the history of the civil rights movement.

Something especially great about the book is that it avoids the obvious choices when it selects examples for sustained chapter-length analysis. Edwards looks not to Do the Right Thing but to the Barbershop films, not to Invisible Man but to A Different Drummer, not to Beloved but to Paradise. The familiar cases are mentioned and assimilated into the argument, but interest is certainly piqued by the sustained attention that the book brings to these fresh examples.

Edwards derives her theoretical framework from a similarly inspired range of sources. In a very general sense, the book is informed by a theory that defines literature according to its capacity to sustain itself in the midst of contradiction. According to Edwards, African...


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pp. 487-488
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