Monday, February 18, 2008

Hero Worship

How well do you know your heroes?

If you're at all like me, than you probably don't know them nearly as well as you think.

I'm plowing through Taylor Branch's massive tomes on the Civil Rights era and I must admit it has changed the way I view many of my heroes. While reading Branch's detailed portrayals of luminaries like Adam Clayton Powell, Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin and, most importantly, Martin Luther King Jr., I've become used to the idea that I know very little about those I would have previously called heroes.

I did not know for example that King was such a meek and mild-mannered man, easily bullied by his father and always so afraid of offending others. He was a man of impressive inner strength, but he was not the ferocious lion he often appears to be in his amazing speeches. He was far too conciliatory, too confused and terribly conflicted. As I read of his widespread failures and often seemingly lucky successes, I'm struck by just how haphazard the careers of many heroes really are.

It's not a totally new concept. I was raised as a Christian and still believe in that faith so I've read the Bibles tales of horrifically flawed prophets and leaders who were the goat just as many times as they were the hero. Moses' craven fear of punishment led him to make his brother Aaron the first spokesman for the Hebrews, and David was willing to commit murder to satisfy and then hide his lust. There is no shortage of tragic heroes in the Bible; men whose glaring weaknesses often bring their strengths into sharper focus.

However, what I've found is that it's still easy to create this fairy tale world where those we admire or respect lack flaws. We imbue them with all the wonderful characteristics we wish we had and then carefully gloss over any blemishes that would mar our personal portraits.

It's hard to let go and admit that our heroes are really just humans, besieged by the same demons as many others.

But, it's also refreshing.

What I've found in reading these books is that if men as flawed as the ones I'm reading about could leave a lasting impact on the world, then so can I. I know that sounds corny, but in the past I've often wondered if I had the moral and mental strength to be great. Looking at the accomplishments of those we as black people see as legends, it has been hard for me to even imagine myself joining their illustrious company.

But, that's changing, particularly since I'm no longer convinced that perfection is a prerequisite for greatness.

Dr. King, Malcolm X, Asa Phillip Randolph, Dubois, Washington and Garvey were all deeply flawed men but they did not let those flaws prevent them from staking a claim to immortality.

Greatness is a journey fraught with peril.

Heroes are those willing to make that trip.


heroworkshop said...

That's a great realization that perfection is not a job requirement for heroes. It's true of every hero that they have flaws. Too much emphasis is placed on exposing those flaws these days.

As you say, knowing that is a great encouragement to all of us little folk who want to change the world.

Big Man said...

Thanks for the comment and read.

Raving Black Lunatic