How do you keep black people from finding out something you don’t want them to know? Put it in a book.
Many such self-hating, defeatist jokes rattle around the black community like dry bones. Unfortunately, there’s always a grain of truth in even the most painful “joke” (scratch the word “black” and you’ve described Americans in general), and this one is no exception. In the case of Martin Luther King, Americans of all races actually think they know everything about him—whether or not they’ve read the books. After all, his birthday is a national holiday, his I Have a Dream speech stands as one of the great orations of all time, and people the world over stand up to tyranny with his words on their lips. Only the most die-hard racists and red-baiters would deny King his place in the pantheon of American saints. This, according to Michael Eric Dyson, however, in I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr., is exactly the problem.
Those whose agenda is served by filtering MLK down to an easily digested one-dimension (“a metaphor of our hunger for heroes who cheer us up more than they challenge or change us”) have, Dyson argues, hidden the “true” King in plain sight. By invoking his “dream” constantly and heaping honors on a haloed legacy devoid of actual content, the evil and the lazy have rendered King meaningless. Worse: mute, beyond the endless loop of those four words and a few fulsome phrases. Dyson’s aim is to flesh King out, from his philandering and sexism to the full sweep of a revolutionary social and political agenda that gets airbrushed from the résumé of the humble preacher. Dyson claims MLK was, in fact, a radical who would have been down with Tupac and Biggie.
Dyson offers I May Not Get There With You as a work of bio-criticism, “a critical investigation of King’s career and cultural impact through the analytical prism of biographical details and life episodes.” Nonlinear and fairly theoretical, this is not the book to start with if all you know about the Civil Rights Movement is Rosa Parks and Brown v. Board and I Have a Dream. While not entirely persuasive, the book is intentionally provocative. Dyson wields his largely clear-eyed reverence for King to connect King’s intellectual and moral dots and to speak for him on pressing racial issues of the day.
You don’t have to be either a liberal or black to wonder what else MLK said beyond those four fateful words (Dyson proposes a 10-year moratorium on their invocation)—or to wonder what he really would say were he alive today. Would he really oppose affirmative action, identity politics? (No, Dyson would say.) On the other hand, how can we revere a certified plagiarist and adulterer of Clintonian proportions? Can he be both sinner and saint and command our affection? (Absolutely, Dyson would say.) We like our heroes (and our villains) simple in America.
Witness white people’s meltdown over the duh-inducing knowledge that Thomas Jefferson almost certainly schtupped his slave (and half-sister-in-law) and fathered her many children. Blacks watched in amazement as their white brethren jammed their fingers into their ears and screeched, “La la la, I can’t hear you!” like a child being told that her parents have sex. During his lifetime, MLK (who was far from universally revered) was excoriated for invoking that ugly past and linking it to the present (“Most Americans are unconscious racists,” a conviction the matured leader held firm for the last four years of his life). Blacks are expected to love and respect the same George Washington who owned slaves, but whites have firmly blocked any attempt to determine (duh) whether he dropped his pantaloons in the slave quarters, too. What is that but identity politics? Dyson points out that King confronted the identity politics charge repeatedly. He was often met by signs reading “They don’t want civil rights. They want special rights.” If we can forgive the founding fathers their transgressions because of their overwhelming achievement, why not MLK? They only had to face loony King George; MLK faced Hoover, Bull Connor, and Malcolm X.
With a man of MLK’s intellect and fire for justice, we’re right to wonder if he wouldn’t see things just a wee bit differently than the conservatives who prop the MLK paper doll up to deliver his catchphrase every January or whenever they need to extol “color blindness.” Dyson puts King in context. He tells you about the other things MLK said and did (“A nation that put as many Japanese in concentration camps . . . will put black people in a concentration camp. And I’m not interested in being in any concentration camp. I been on the reservation too long now”)—the stuff Ward Connerly, who chose King Day 1997 to launch his National Campaign Against Affirmative Action, doesn’t want you to open a book and find out about. Dyson (whose earlier book, Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line, I criticized in the Washington Post) has certainly overreached in some parts of his thesis. King was pretty bourgie; any links between himself and modern gangsta rappers would have most likely been hotly decried by the man himself. His chapter-long, tiresomely deconstructionist apologetic exegesis of King’s doctoral plagiarism really comes down to this: “. . . no one, not even King himself, knew then that he would become MARTIN LUTHER KING JR . . . that his failures, like his successes, would gain such wide attention.” In other words, before he knew himself fully, King (who began college at 15) was weak and made bad choices. It is a testament to the tirelessness of King’s foes that Dyson felt such a need to explore the psychological ramifications of King’s plagiarism—it can’t be excused, but is it really so hard for any former student to understand? After he reached maturity, it was mostly Coretta that King hurt with his obsessive womanizing, the squirm-inducing extent of which Dyson spares neither King nor the reader. Instead, Dyson dares us to rise above our own pettiness and take the bad with the overwhelming good in what Dyson calls King’s “sublime mix of the profound and the profane.” Dyson’s vigorous love for King has inspired him to write harder, dig deeper, than in some of his other work. While overwrought, it ought to shame blacks and progressives who have sat cowed while the usual suspects repackaged lies as the truth and slander as biography. King, flawed and fallible as he was, was an activist, not a dreamer, and he deserves more followers who roll their sleeves up and do battle with the enemy.