The Aesthetics of Charisma in the New ‘King’dom;
Wednesday, January 23, 2008.
By Erica Edwards
On December 11, 2004, an estimated 25,000 people participated in a march called “Reigniting the Legacy,” a procession from Atlanta, Georgia’s Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change to the city’s Turner Field in support of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
The story of this march, led by Bishop Eddie Long, the pastor of a mega-church outside of Atlanta, and Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. and an elder in the church, illustrates how the charismatic political aesthetic is put to use to police African American sexuality, to align black religious groups with the ‘family’ or ‘moral values’ agenda of the right, and to keep ideas of manhood tied to or tangled up with a model of religious and political leadership that relies on unyielding categories of sexuality and gender.
Charisma, most clearly defined by the sociologist Max Weber, refers to “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which [a leader] is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.”
In the political context, it is a mixture of sacred and secular impulses—it is a structure of group relationship centering around one exceptional man (usually) perceived to be gifted with a privileged connection to God. This individual’s right to rule is always held to be the function of divine ordination.
For Weber, charisma represents a revolutionary force that opposes old, sedimented forms of rule. Notwithstanding the potential of charisma to ‘do a new thing,’ I want to question this identification of charisma with the new and examine its implementation of a revolutionary conservatism, a radical return to an older, putatively stable order.
What I’m calling the charismatic aesthetic here is the assemblage of performative and symbolic elements that produce the charismatic scene, things like spectacular oratory, the masculine (or masculinized) body, and the positioning of the leader in front of or above his followers.
For black Americans, charisma as a form of political authority has become an organizing myth for ideas of political mobilization. While social historians have distanced their scholarship from “Great Man” theories of history, the history of black social movements as the byproduct of charismatic leadership continue to circulate widely in popular culture.
Clayborne Carson’s essay on Martin Luther King’s charisma suggests that in popular civil rights history, “a Great Man is seen as the decisive factor in the process of social change, and the unique qualities of a leader are used to explain major historical events”.
The leader is history’s indispensable protagonist: without him, history (what is believed to have happened) and historical narrative (what is said to have happened) are impossible.
Carson goes on to suggest that King has functioned as the necessary protagonist in the public narrative of civil rights and is seen as the exemplary political spokesperson and miraculous history-maker. He embodies, for post-civil rights black culture, the quintessential charismatic leader and Great Man—the king, as it were, of black history and black politics.
King’s role as charismatic exemplar was at the center of the “Reigniting the Legacy” march’s claim to social authority. The use of the King Memorial as the starting place at which the leader lit a torch from the memorial’s eternal flame, the circulation of King’s rhetoric in quotes included in publicity and speeches, and the location of the march in King’s childhood home, Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood, all exemplify the organizers’ deliberate alignment with the cultural memory of King. The march made a bold investment in the political capital associated with King’s idealized status in the nation’s imagination.
The march’s goal was reportedly to “get back into the conversation of the nation,” to introduce black Christians as vocal participants in the national discourse on marriage and sexuality. Quoting King’s warning against the “appalling silence of good people,” the march’s publicity describes its goal as the “protection of marriage,” including “strategic policy direction for a constitutional amendment to fully protect marriage between one man and one woman.”
The march being framed, ironically enough, as a coming out story, participants in news photographs wear shirts reading “Stop the Silence” and the event is touted in news stories as an opportunity to speak in “one voice,” to articulate “a unified vision of righteousness and justice.”
In a moment less than a month after voters in 11 U.S. states, including Georgia, approved of state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage and in a state that had passed a Defense of Marriage Act nine years prior to the march, the march’s leader, ostensibly alarmed by the suppression of anti-homosexual sentiment, told reporters:
“This is our coming out day. We are here to stay and will be heard.” Passing a counter-demonstration of 50 gay rights activists, the march proceeded from the King Center to Turner field, where a recorded speech by Bishop Long played over the loudspeakers to greet the marchers entering the stadium.
In her introduction to Long, Bernice King said: “I believe this day will go down in the history books as the greatest showing of Christ and his kingdom in this century” and designated Long “the prophet appointed by God to speak the mind, heart, and gospel of God.”
The march’s primary message was a call to crystallize rigid categories of sexual and gender identity, to buttress conservative family values in the name of historical ‘legacy’ and civil rights. As a literary critic, I’m as concerned with the form of the march—its architecture—as
I am with its content or message. I’d like to draw our attention to the aesthetics of this religious, political event, that is, to the various symbolic ingredients that produce the performance of charismatic authority. To raise the question of the aesthetic is to ask: What makes a thing good, true and beautiful; what makes it appeal to the senses?
Charismatic authority is, at its heart, is a question of aesthetic value: Ann Ruth Willner’s extensive research on the subject suggests that “it is not what the leader is but what people see the leader as that counts in generating the charismatic relationship” . Charisma is constituted by a cycle or dynamic of perception and performance, a relay of symbols between leaders, followers, and observers.
As far as I can gauge by journalists’ reports, The “Reigniting the Legacy” march made use of at least four powerful symbols in its production of the charismatic scene.
First, the site of departure, King’s burial site, indexed a primal source of mourning for African American leadership. The march tapped into what Willner calls “postmortem charismatic authority,” authorizing its social claims by making the memory of King do necessary political work in the present.
Indeed the march can be read as a tomb-raiding mission that dug up the remains of King’s authority for its own use, hence Keith Boykin’s assessment that the march “hijacked” King’s dream. The fact that the march was a raising of the dead dressed up as a ritual of mourning was shored up by the all-black attire of the majority of the marchers.
Next, Bishop Long’s own physical presence added to the symbolic tying of charismatic authority to the male body. The domain of charismatic authority, particularly in the civil rights tradition, is most often a masculinist sphere of influence—Steve Estes suggests as much in his recent book on manhood and civil rights when he argues that the masculinist rhetoric of political speakers “rallies supporters by urging them to be manly or to support traditional ideas of manhood”.
In this instance, charismatic performance—the acting out of a privileged connection to the divine—plays out as a bourgeois, heteronormative family romance: Bernice King gestures to Long as her deceased father’s substitute and successor, and in the drama, Bishop Long plays father not only to her but to all.
As much at is purported to “reignite” the legacy of civil rights, the march represented an Oedipal performance that demanded the slaying of King’s dream of egalitarian social life and the coronation of Bishop Long as father figure or new king for the race. The public family drama fortified the march’s homophobic appeal to the union between one man and one woman as the prime marker of “righteousness” and “justice.”
Finally, the torch and the march forward, like the tomb and the bishop’s physical positioning, functioned symbolically to attach charismatic leadership to a rigid, masculinist, heterosexist conception of black Christian identity.
The torch is a common emblem of enlightenment and tradition that signifies the transferability of power—the Olympic torch, for example, is carried along from one location to the next to signify the passing on of unquestioned eternal values (like unity and tolerance).
In this scene, King’s power is kept alive eternally in the memorial flame; Long accesses it in order to possess King’s authority. The march, in the end, ignited the bishop’s own power, his position as new spokesperson for the ‘good people.’
Further, the historical function of the march for blacks in America, Eddie Glaude has suggested, is to perform or “to continuously retell the story of bondage, the march toward liberation, and the discipline necessary to remain free.” The torch confers the power to free and to discipline, to liberate and to police the criteria for living freedom out.
A strange mixture of funeral procession, soldier march, Olympic opening ceremony, worship service and political rally, the “Reigniting the Legacy” march placed charismatic authority on center stage. It showed how charismatic leadership, often masking itself as a ‘natural’ expression of black religiosity and political consciousness, actually produces itself through self-conscious performances of authority that are tied to a narrow, patriarchal and homophobic conception of manhood.
The question, perhaps, for those of us interested in engaging the church in a radical critique of heteronormative masculinity is: is charismatic authority an acceptable means or the only basis for the creation of an egalitarian religious body?
If Kelly Brown Douglas is correct that “the change in attitude toward sexuality within the Black church and wider community must begin not at the top with Black church leadership…but at the bottom with the people who sit in the pews,” it also seems right to call into question of the church’s social architecture and what appears to be a patriarchal investment in the metaphysical distinction between leaders and followers.
With thanks to Mark Anthony Neal at Duke University.
Erica Edwards is an assistant professor of literature at the University of California, Riverside. She has published pieces in Transforming Anthropology and Women & Performance and is currently at work on a book entitled 'Contesting Charisma: Fictions of Political Leadership in Contemporary African American Culture.' She can be reached at email@example.com
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