- Martin Luther King Jr., Heroism, and African American Literature by Trudier Harris
Recent work in African American literary and cultural studies—notably, by Michael Awkward, Erica Edwards, Rolland Murray, and Robert Patterson— has turned a fresh eye to the civil rights era, its dominant narratives, and its iconic personae to theorize a range of phenomena including intensified racial dis-unification, crises in teleological political faith, the costs and rewards of charismatic leadership, and cultural investments in heteropatriarchy Trudier Harris’s Martin Luther King Jr., [End Page 66] Heroism, and African American Literature joins this emergent body of scholarship, offering new thoughts on the contours and contradictions of racial heroism, while showcasing the author’s characteristically rich bibliographical knowledge. Much of the monograph’s labor is genealogical: its chapters trace the development, across an expanse of nearly sixty years, of creative figurations of King in a multigeneric archive of black American writing. Proceeding chronologically, the book posits that African American literature’s orientation toward King “moves from skepticism if not downright derision at what he espoused, to grudging acceptance, to outrage following his death, to reflective moments about what his life provided that was lost by the early 1980s, to canonization, to traditional literary subject matter” (24). Alongside this literary history, Harris offers an informative and at turns surprising commentary on King’s amenability to several prominent tropes of African American folk heroism—the trickster, the preacher, and the badman hero. Rather than focusing on the commonsense claim that King’s cultural deification is a measure of his influence, Harris is most interested in how writers have apprehended the leader as politically misguided, rogue, or morally fallible. She argues that such irreverent characterizations of King reveal a counterhegemonic African American hero-concept that is ambiguous and tolerant. “The notion of heroism in African American culture,” Harris writes, “is a fluid concept that depends upon extenuating circumstances and context, which do not in and of themselves necessitate a negative judgment on the actions of characters and individuals who might not, in other contexts and other cultures, be considered heroic” (11).
Martin Luther King Jr., Heroism, and African American Literature is structured by genre as well as chronology. The first chapter analyzes two “message plays” written in the 1960s; the second chapter surveys many poetic representations of King from the seventies, eighties, and nineties; the third chapter performs an extended close reading of Charles Johnson’s 1998 novel, Dreamer; returning to drama, the fourth chapter interprets Katori Hall’s 2011 play The Mountaintop as a harbinger of twenty-first-century literary writing on King Harris is at her best in the second chapter, “A Pantheon of Poetic Portrayals of King,” whose impressive breadth demonstrates both King’s ubiquity in contemporary black poetry, and the author’s remarkable facility with handling a vast and eclectic archive. Although the chapter describes a progress narrative of grief, moving from disavowal and rage to the acknowledgement of love and loss, it also strains against that structure of containment, registering a degree of enduring inconstancy in African American affective, political, and ideological responses to the loss of the iconic leader. Indeed, Harris opines that irresolvable mixed feelings toward King-as-hero have become the most generative sites of literary exploration—a point she revisits and elaborates upon in her later celebration of Hall’s play as part tribute, part feminist critique, and part irreverent sendup.
Informative, succinct, and written in accessible and fluid prose, Martin Luther King Jr., Heroism, and African American Literature will appeal to specialists, students and lay readers interested in King’s imprint on the African American literary tradition. But although the book performs many rich readings and proffers the intriguing premise of a countermythography of black heroism, readers seeking a metacritical discussion of Harris’s intervention in the field may find themselves frustrated by the author’s overwhelming preference for engaging with biographical and primary texts. This approach results in the deferral of a number of critical and contextual questions that might have added dimensionality to the monograph...