I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr.
There is a word for this alternative biography's stirring message: Corrective. This book scrubs away the thick layers of symbolism as well as the ideological muck piled on King since his death in 1968, offering instead the raw materials of a man labeled as "the real Martin Luther King Jr."
Dyson's book is based on the idea that the reality of King's life and achievements are now obscured for most Americans at a time when King's struggles with racial injustice are desperately needed examples. Dyson wants King to be a "a useful hero, a working icon, a meaningful metaphor." And he succeeds with consistently interesting essays that reveal King's relevance to current racial issues and debate in this new century.
In the King tradition, Dyson is a Baptist minister and a learned academic, now a professor at DePaul University. And like King, Dyson's world is not limited to the ivory tower and church halls. He is a student of rap music's lyrics and sees a street-wise poetry of hope where rap's many critics see only gutter language rhymes full of anger, misogyny, and violence. Dyson's focus on rap is part of a role he has constructed for himself as defender of "our despised black youth."
His interest in young black people and their heroes led him to write an earlier book, Making Malcolm--The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X. In his new work, Dyson tries to defeat the common image of King and Malcolm as ideological opposites--the nonviolent integrationist and threatening separatist--by arguing that King really was in sync with Malcolm. The argument is a stretch and never quite convincing but still entertaining. To make his argument, Dyson breaks King's life into two parts--the soaring, integrationist battling southern segregationist (B.C. "before Chicago") and the angry, anti-war militant fightning big city segregation in the north (A.D. or after defeat in Chicago). This is the point at which Dyson sees a "useful King emerge.
The A.D. King carries an important relevance for today's black youth, Dyson contends. Here is King reacting to big city racial politics by making concrete demands for change rather than appealing to the good-hearted conscience of white America. "He once believed," Dyson writes, "that appeals to conscience would destroy racism. He later concluded that most American were unconscious racists ... if blacks could no longer depend on white goodwill to create social change, they had to provoke social change through bigger efforts at non-violent direct action."
Dyson concludes that the A.D. King is lost in today's discussion of race because too many people are busy twisting King's life into a soft, sweet palatable fruit with no real substance--or controversy--relevant to the lives of young people starving for inspiration and strategies for achieving racial progress. Also, Dyson has no use for King supporters who don't want to talk about King's sexual excesses and plagiarism. Dyson sees King's flaws as part of a human being, a flesh-and-blood hero who is relevant to young people trying to get past their own flaws and find their way.
Most of all, Dyson rails against conservative writers who use King's speeches to rebuke advocates of race-conscious policies, especially affirmative action. "I seek to rescue King from his admirers and his foes," writes Dyson. He insist that, "today right-wing conservatives can quote King's speeches in order to criticize affirmative action while school children grow up learning only about the great pacifist not the hard-nosed critic of economic justice." In this intelligent, readable burst of controversial focus, Dyson insist on King's relevance; and in that argument Dyson succeeds. In this, his third book of essays dealing with the complex social and historical issues facing African Americans today, Dyson heads up our list of Brothers on a Soapbox. Like Malcolm on the corner at 125th Street all those years ago, we might not like everything these brothers, including Dyson, have to say. But few of us can pass them by without stopping for a moment to listen.
Juan Williams is political analyst and national correspondent for The Washington Post.
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|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2000|
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