When Keith Leonard, chair of the Literature Department, went to the 2007 Callaloo Conference, a meeting for the leading scholars in African American studies in literature, the opening speaker said, “Our expertise is racism.” Leonard says he remembers thinking, No, not quite. “I don’t want to feel always embattled. I want to validate, identify, and talk about the challenges and possibilities that African American writers represent,” he says. “I asked myself, ‘How do I contribute to this rethinking of what African American studies is about while holding on to my own priority of this affirming possibility?’”
The answer, Leonard says, is reemphasizing Dr. Martin Luther King’s notion of love, which he fears is being lost. “I think Martin Luther King’s phrase ‘judge not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character’ is emphasized to the exclusion of other things that King said.” Leonard finds King to be a great muse for research, because “he believes wholeheartedly in the power of love to make things happen.”
Leonard explores how the discourse of love among African Americans—starting with Martin Luther King—confronts the exclusion of minorities in the United States in his forthcoming book Black Love: Politics and Passion in Contemporary African American Literature. He believes King’s famous phrase from the “I Have a Dream” speech is often misunderstood. “People tend to focus on this one phrase, and I think that a lot of people read this phrase as King's wanting us to see each other as all being the same. He didn’t want to erase real cultural differences for the sake of this ideal. I want to recapture King’s ideal of love and show how the black tradition is being reworked and re-imagined.”
Leonard suggests a racial paradox since King’s assassination in 1968: What unites us can also separate us. “There’s still a very real anxiety in our culture about how an emphasis on difference will inevitably lead to exclusion or separateness or fragmentation. I think what Dr. King represents, for me, is a way of talking about valuing our differences without that leading to fragmentation – it can still be part of a source of unity for us,” Leonard says.
When asked how he would amend King’s famous quote, he is thoughtful before responding and chooses his words carefully: “’Judge not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,’ which includes all of the idiosyncrasies that make us who we are,” he says. We must become more tolerant, he says, of speech patterns that are different than our own, such as the use of slang, different styles of dress, and hairstyles, like dreadlocks.
As a type of litmus test, African American political activists often categorized each other by asking, “Are you a Malcolm X or Martin Luther King person?” Leonard says, “Although there may have been some truth to that question at that time, the further we move away from that time, the harder it is to sustain that opposition and the more complicated black people’s relationship to this nation becomes.”
While King represents an ideal, African American writers illustrate real problems in history, including violence and poverty. Langston Hughes’ poetry, for instance, talks about how jazz and the blues create a mask for, rather than a healing of, the alienation African Americans feel. “People often talk about jazz as this great music that brings black people together—the exuberance of it, the improvisation, and the mode of communal self-definition. That’s all very positive and powerful, but Hughes points out that there’s a ‘carpe diem’ cynicism or existentialism about it that doesn’t actually change the social condition.” Leonard adds that in Hughes’s later poetry he reflects back on the 1920s’ era of “speakeasies, elicit liquor, open sexuality, and interracial sexuality, but then the dawn breaks and everyone goes on to their separate homes” he says. “The moment of freedom is circumscribed by loss.”
Leonard also uses Toni Morrison’s book Beloved as an example of conflict in Black Love. Beloved is about how the “dehumanizing practices of slavery make love almost impossible,” he says. “One of my favorite moments in the novel is when a character, a slave who is in a slave work camp, chooses to love only a sapling, and sometimes he chooses to love the furthest star, because a person could be taken away from him at a moment’s notice by this empowered, white racist system. One of the things Morrision talks about in that book is what it means if you are prevented from loving?”
Leonard’s research resonates because scholars are rethinking their approach to African American studies in the wake of the 2008 election of Barack Obama. The subsequent references to Martin Luther King brought “the topic of racial unity back to the public discourse.” Some even speculated that his election represented a post-racial attitude. When Obama came to speak on campus, for example, students chanted, “Race doesn’t matter. Race doesn’t matter.”
“It seems that instead of becoming a symbol of overcoming racism, Obama’s become a lightning rod for stoking it, certainly not by any act or motivation of his—he’s been very quiet about it—but because there’s both a spoken and an unspoken debate on what his blackness as a president means. And because he evokes Dr. King, it’s a powerful moment to talk about Dr. King’s legacy. How do we emphasize unity and how is that image of unity causing division? I think Dr. King can act as a guiding light towards finding meaning in Obama’s presidency.”