The central myths a people tell about themselves and their world are the glue that holds a people together. They define who the people are; they reveal their hopes and - often unconsciously - their fears. Inevitably myths differentiate specific groups from others. This is the case whether one examines the founding stories of the Dine (whom we know as the Navaho), the Dinka of southern Sudan, the revolutionary generation that established an independent United States, or African Americans. These stories may have little basis in truth, but they establish realities - and are certainly truly revelatory.
But when applied to individuals, our myths diminish; they create legends and in the process, they deny humanity in all of its frailty and in all of its heroic glory. Whether it's Parson Weems' portrait of George Washington or our collective portraits of Charles Drew or the Harlem Renaissance luminaries, the idealized image leeches the color from the person, depleting rather than honoring achievement.
That many of us believe that Drew died as a consequence of the racist denial of medical attention after his car crash in 1950 says much about a larger American truth - and about ourselves. It even says something true about Drew's life, about living in a world of white supremacy; it says nothing true about the man's death, however. That many believe that the authors of the Harlem Renaissance were a band of brothers and sisters solely in the service of their muses and of a rising black America that challenged white America's racial constraints says much about our need to believe in ourselves. …