Academic journal article American Studies

Martin Luther King Jr., Heroism, and African American Literature

Academic journal article American Studies

Martin Luther King Jr., Heroism, and African American Literature

Article excerpt

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., HEROISM, AND AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE. By Trudier Harris. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 2014.

Trudier Harris has graced the academy with a magnificent career as a scholar of African American literature. Along with a fairly small number of others, the amazingly talented and prolific Harris has labored mightily to shove that literature from the periphery of the American canon onto center stage. While illuminating a cornucopia of writers, Harris helped catapult Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and others into the spotlight that they fully deserve. Studiously avoiding the postmodern fog that engulfed far too many for far too long, Harris writes ably for literary experts and nonspecialists alike.

In this book, Harris explores literature that engages, interprets, and re-invents Martin Luther King, Jr. She explains that, in early treatments of King, Ed Bullins and others portrayed him as excessively moderate. She notes that after King's assassination, "rejecting King's philosophy," Nikki Giovanni presented "a call to arms" (56) while Margaret Walker and Quincy Troupe mourned King, thus furthering a conversation that eventually elevated his memory above tumult and controversy.

The heart of this book lies in Harris's analysis of Charles Johnson's Dreamer (1998); his Dr. King's Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories (2005); and Katori Hall's To the Mountaintop (2011). Dreamer presents a fictional doppelganger who helps expose King's all-too-human yearnings and limitations. As Harris remarks, the alwaysphilosophical Johnson meditates on large dimensions of African-American experience, in part, by alluding to the troubling Biblical fable of Cain and Abel. In "Dr. King's Refrigerator," Johnson riffs on the midnight "kitchen revelation" that fortified King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Noticing a sermon illustration (that King borrowed from Leslie Weatherhead), Johnson brilliantly elaborates King's use of food as an emblem of global interdependence. Harris ably explains why these two books are among the gifted Johnson's greatest achievements.

In what Harris aptly characterizes as a "gynocentric play" (125), Hall invents a vulgar, yet angelic Camae, who coaxes a flawed, nervous King to ponder sex, God, and martyrdom. As Harris notes, Hall interprets King as highly reliant on women for (usually unsung) leadership throughout the civil rights movement, and also for friendship and sex. …

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