The Problem Of King, Obama And Heroic History

As a lot of you know my interest, of late, has dipped toward Reconstruction and immediate post-Reconstruction black America. One side effect of a lot of my recent reading is a reevaluation of some of my childhood prejudices toward the South. I started school just 13 years after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Whenever we had Black History Month, his legacy was simply dominant. I don't just mean King the man, but the portrait of black people during the King era, and especially black Southerners. According to the films we saw, all black Southerners, in King's era, were Christian, law-abiding, nonviolent, salt of the earth types besieged by hooligans. In those days, Malcolm X wasn't talked about at my school.

Anyway, you hear about the Edmund Pettis bridge enough times, and you come think of the rest of your history as a kind of Dark Age, peopled with a few peanut scientists, heart surgeons, and traffic light tinkerers. All those folks are complicated in their own right (read this piece on Garrett A. Morgan) but they got reduced to a list of "firsts" and one sentence deeds. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, rises Martin Luther King, who redeems the country, and saves us all.

But you get no sense of agency from people in the meantime. You get no sense of how and why the world had changed over the course of a century. And most of all, you get no sense of the complicated people who laid the path. I thought about this this morning, because I was reading about P.B.S. Pinchback, whose colorful biography I would only disservice by summarizing. But my point is that the world comes alive so much more when you can see the past in detail, and not always and only as a narrative of black Messiahs triumphing over white racists.

I worry about Barack Obama being discussed in this same King-like way--as though nothing changed among the people to make him possible, or no actors before existed, like Jesse Jackson, for all his flaws, didn't make Obama possible. This isn't a shot at Obama or King, as much as its a collection of rather random thoughts and observations. I'm just walking my way through some things.