Hero Worship
Feb 11, 2013

Allowing our historical leaders to be great...as themselves

I can remember the exact moment when my father lost his Superman status.

It was a small thing, really. Family tradition was that my house was the official party spot on Christmas Eve, so my parents spent most of the day cleaning and cooking, preparing for the onslaught of relatives, laughter and presents later in the evening. This year, I was either 5 or 6 years old, and while my parents were being domestic, I was in my room counting the coins I'd saved since my birthday a few months earlier. I'd heard my father say something about running out to the store to pick up a few extra things, and I was hoping to tag along and buy myself a little something too. The details get fuzzier in my head after that, but I know that I handed over my bank to my father, told him how much was in it, and asked if I could come run errands with him. He took the bank, said something about giving me back cash for my coins and flew out of the door. Well, I never saw that cash again. Christmas and the family came and went. There were presents. There was love. And my Mickey Mouse bank returned to its cherished space on my bookcase. But I distinctly remember feeling cheated because my father never handed me cash to replace those saved coins. I never got to buy a few records, or a new pair of jeans, or some other dreamed of treat. That money disappeared into a pot of forgetfulness or need. And all at once, my father became a regular man.

I felt some of that familiar disappointment in the tone and comments of some of our panelists and audience members during the WURD Speaks Black Power Babies discussion about the legacy of Martin Luther King. There were several elders in the room who took great offense at the play's portrayal of Dr. King as an ordinary man. Though there was plenty of reference to his magnificent oratory skills, vision and leadership in the script, those qualities were offset by allusions to King's smoking, drinking and love of the company of women. Traits that my father also shared. So, like my father, I have considerable respect for how much King contributed to the freedom that I now enjoy. But I don't see him as perfect, or excessively holy, or anything other than a regular man who did great things. Other people need for King to be remembered as saintly. As someone who strugged with demons because he carried the weight of his people on his back and, as such, deserves extraordinary consideration and a delicate examination of his humanness. I understand that perspective. I just don't share it. I have relieved our historical leaders from the burden of being perfect in order to better understand and study them.

Perhaps we might see more of a legacy of leadership in today's young people if we encouraged them to live by the conviction in their vision, instead of an unattainable ideal of perfection. That we'll still worship the hero, warts and all.

Here is last week's playlist: