Examines how representations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s character and persona in works of African American literature have evolved and reflect the changing values and mores of African American culture
African American writers have incorporated Martin Luther King Jr. into their work since he rose to prominence in the mid-1950s. Martin Luther King Jr., Heroism, and African American Literature is a study by award-winning author Trudier Harris of King’s character and persona as captured and reflected in works of African American literature continue to evolve.
One of the most revered figures in American history, King stands above most as a hero. His heroism, argues Harris, is informed by African American folk cultural perceptions of heroes. Brer Rabbit, John the Slave, Stackolee, and Railroad Bill—folk heroes all—provide a folk lens through which to view King in contemporary literature. Ambiguities and issues of morality that surround trickster figures also surround King. Nonconformist traits that define Stackolee and Railroad Bill also inform King’s life and literary portraits. Defiance of the law, uses of indirection, moral lapses, and bad habits are as much a part of the folk-transmitted biography of King as they are a part of writers’ depictions of him in literary texts.
Harris first demonstrates that during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, when writers such as Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) were rising stars in African American poetry, King’s philosophy of nonviolence was out of step with prevailing notions of militancy (Black Power), and their literature reflected that division.
In the quieter times of the 1970s and 1980s and into the twenty-first century, however, treatments of King and his philosophy in African American literature changed. Writers who initially rejected him and nonviolence became ardent admirers and boosters, particularly in the years following his assassination. By the 1980s, many writers skeptical about King had reevaluated him and began to address him as a fallen hero. To the most recent generation of writers, such as Katori Hall, King is fair game for literary creation, no matter what those portrayals may reveal, to a point where King has become simply another source of reference for creativity.
Collectively these writers, among many others, illustrate that Martin Luther King Jr. provides one of the strongest influences upon the creative worlds of multiple generations of African American writers of varying political and social persuasions.
Former J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Trudier Harris is a professor of English at the University of Alabama. She is the author, editor, or coeditor of twenty-three books, most recently The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South (a Choice Outstanding Academic Title), South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature, and The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature.
“Harris covers new ground in tracing the ways in which African American writers characterized Martin Luther King Jr. during his lifetime and since his death. Harris identifies King as a trickster—like Brer Rabbit, Tar Baby, or badman Stackolee—known for his cleverness, courtships, rhetoric, charm, and survival. She observes that during King’s lifetime thinly disguised portrayals depicted his preaching, winning personality, and activism as morally ambivalent or even negative. . . . Harris comes to the convincing conclusion that history merges with the ideal—and King is a hero who continues to stimulate inspiration and creativity. Highly recommended. All readers.” —CHOICE
“Trudier Harris’s study is an absorbing, informative, and significant contribution to the fields of African American literary, historical, and folkloric studies. Harris charts new territory in her scrupulously researched work. Her extended analyses of works such as Bullins’s The Gentleman Caller are seminal, and her treatment of new, contemporary authors such as Katori Hall will introduce the academic and nonacademic reading public to artists still wrestling with the legacy that King has left us. Analyses of established, canonical writers are also valuable because they will potentially draw readers beyond the standard academic ones. Last but certainly not least, the book complicates our preexisting and popular understanding of MLK, analyzing him not as a virtuous figure above reproach but as a flesh-and-blood one with foibles and even severe flaws. Harris does a good job of exploring the works that explore King in a measured way, without (re)deifying him or demonizing him.” —Keith Clark, author of Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson and The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry