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Lessons from fictionalizing King

Charles Johnson

CHARLES JOHNSON is the Pollock Professor of English at the University of Washington and a winner in 1998 of a prestigious "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. His novel, "Middle Passage," won the National Book Award for 1990 and his short fiction is much anthologized, including on the Internet.

An accomplished screenwriter, book reviewer, and comic artist, Johnson has recently completed a novel called "Dreamer," centering on events in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Before the novel was published in the spring of 1998, he discussed some of what he learned about King, and what he discovered about himself and society in the process.

Johnson talks about being impressed by the young King: MP3

Searching for the hidden Martin Luther King Jr.

I'd like to share with you some of my own questions about the novel I'm writing in hopes that it might shed some light on what I think is the process of writing creative historical fiction.

The first question to ask is, why a book about Martin Luther King Jr.? We have many libraries of documentation and historical material on this man. And by writing about someone so many of us remember, a writer takes on a tremendous risk because the subject's friends and relatives are still alive and will certainly have something to say about any book concerning King.

He is someone who we think we know. He was the nation's preacher and our most prominent moral philosopher, although he is only now being examined as an ethical philosopher. His photograph is on display in elementary and secondary schools all across America; and it's difficult to visit a major American city and not find a street or a public building named after him. Most of our states honor the national holiday established in his name.

But despite the overwhelming presence of this man in our lives, he is strangely absent. Even though I grew up in the 1960s, and even though I remember the day he was killed in 1968, I realized a few years ago that I really didn't know this man, I realized that, although I invoke his name often, I knew absolutely nothing about his intellectual development. I knew the end result of his political thinking but nothing about the steps that led him there.

I knew, of course, that he was a preacher. But I did not know, for example, his favorite passages in the Bible, or in what ways he agreed or disagreed with the religious thinkers he studied, people like Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich; I discovered I didn't even know what novels and motion-pictures he enjoyed. I did not know until recently how deeply racial politics was in his blood, that to give you but one example he imbibed resistance to injustice nearly every night at the dinner table, where King Sr. discussed politics with his family.

I did not know his father counseled Martin against feelings of class superiority, or that he did manual labor during the Depression, and from his childhood was unable to make his peace with capitalism.

And this was only the beginning of my ignorance about King. I realized I didn't know his personal habits, his likes and dislikes, his idiosyncrasies, his deepest feelings of shame and triumph, his obsessions and compulsions.

For example, what did he like to drink? (Apparently, on one occasion it was orange juice and vodka.) How did he shave when he got up in the morning? (From what I have read, Martin's skin was too sensitive for a razor, as my own skin is, and he shaved with a smelly powder that many black men today still use.) Given the lack of my specific knowledge about King, I wondered if there was any way I could claim to understand him, or his position at the time of his death, or what he means to us today.

I came to see that if I really intended to probe deeper into King's vision and values, I would also be compelled to probe into a by-gone period of black American cultural history one that my father, who turned 70 recently, understands very well, but one which I only understand in a second-hand way, through people like my father and mother and their friends from South Carolina and Georgia because their world was fast slipping away by the early 1960s when I came of age.

Finding the meaning for ourselves

In 1998 we have canonized King. He is both the creator and creature of a moment in history. He is the American symbol for the struggle against segregation, and the ideal of integration wears his face. But I think it's clear that the private man over time has become a cultural object difficult to grasp in its individuality, in its humanness, and in the minutiae of its daily life, and this is ironic because these are the very foundations from which the public life arises.

The question is whether the entire man can be recovered in a work of fiction. I sometimes wonder if this is even possible when we seem to have such difficulty understanding even the lives of those people closest to us. Perhaps it is more important, then, to capture, if possible, the eidos (or essence) of his life.

What intrigues me about King is the same thing that engages the imagination of philosophers who find that our explanations all too often obscure the very subjects we are trying to understand. As writers, I think we are obliged not so much to always add new layers of interpretation onto what we know as we are to strip away as best we can the official interpretations that prevent us from undergoing a fresh experience with our subject.

This obviously cannot be an abstract or academic enterprise. It is crucial in any historical novel to experience the world as your subject experienced it.

In this book, I want to know the comparisons and connections that King drew when he gave his sermons; I want to know the compositional logic of the way he used language, and I want to know as well all the sources behind his rhetoric, sources such as the sermons of J. Wallace Hamilton, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Harold Bosley, and those of King's own grandfather.

I say this because what is at stake in the Martin Luther King story and in the story of the Civil Rights Movement are not only questions about American race relations but also deeper questions, older questions about the nature of moral action, about what it means to be human, about cultural identity.

When I look at King, when I think of the portrait of him that my parents had in our house in Evanston, when I consider that his sacrifices and those of thousands of others in the civil rights movement made it possible for me to attend college, I realize that I was a child of integration. It was an ideal I took for granted all throughout high school and college.

Yet it was replaced in me by black cultural nationalism before I fully had the chance to subject the black American goal of integration to philosophical examination. What that means is that I have not been living an examined life. And I don't believe I will ever live a fully examined life until I return to those last years of Martin's life and take up the problems and passions that concerned him on the day he was cut down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

As with all philosophical questions, what is at stake is the very practical matter of how I will live the remainder of my life, and what I honestly feel I can teach my children about the social world, and about what is good and what is evil.

About the novel

This novel, "Dreamer," looks at King's life in the years between 1966 and 1968 when he brought the Freedom Movement to the Chicago area.

I'm interested in the King who came away from that campaign less than satisfied with his success in Chicago, the King who was the target of 50 assassination threats, who had a $30,000 bounty on his head, who lamented the death of Malcolm X, despaired over the growing racial polarization in America, and who saw young black power activists like Stokely Carmichael making deeper in-roads into urban black America than he could, though King kept expanding his agenda for realizing the "beloved community" by taking on the war in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson, and threw himself into organizing a massive poor people's march on the nation's capitol.

I want to know the King who walked across this minefield for 13 years and toward the end said to his long-time friend and ally Bayard Rustin, "Bayard, I sometimes wonder where I can go from here ... What can I do now?" And last of all, I want to know from the inside the King who believed in the interrelatedness of all things and the "inescapable network of mutuality" that binds all people in "a single garment of destiny."

But although the goal I have with Dreamer is to deliver details about Martin, which are apparently unknown to the generation born after 1970, King himself is not the protagonist of this novel. That role belongs to a character who is King's double, a black man who looks enough like him to be his twin, but who has in 1966 led a very different life from King's in a housing project, Altgeld Gardens, on the southside, which is where my wife grew up.

I think some people who are nostalgic about the '60s often forget that the level of violence was so great at that time that the government was considering what to do in the event of civil war specifically, race war. And the '60s was also a time of theatre and television culture. Partly for these reasons, the man recruited to be King's double will learn, like an actor, how to stand in for Martin Luther King Jr. He will spend months preparing for the role.

At first, he simply has the job of being on hand when Martin gives a speech so that his presence, his physical similarity to King, can confuse potential assassins.

And slowly, as he learns how to "stay in character" as King, then to imaginatively extend King's character, his ideas, and the logic of his life, it will become increasingly hard for those around him to distinguish the imposter from the model, even for the double himself. The realization of Martin right down to his smallest tics and social gestures will be so complete by April of 1968 that when the fateful gunshot is fired from the high-powered rifle we shall not know nor will our narrator which man was killed in Memphis.

However, one man does live on in Dreamer. And the question that King asked Rustin, "Where can I go from here?" can be pursued if not on the pages of recent history then in the theater of a novel that will test and probe the possibilities of this life as it is projected beyond the 1960s and into our own time.

There is a line in the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, that will serve as the epigraph for the novel. "Here cometh the dreamer. Let us slay him and see what becomes of his dream." It is my hope that a work of fiction framed in this creative fashion might give one answer to that question.

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