William L. Van Deburg: Black Camelot

William L. Van Deburg
Black Camelot: African-American Culture Heroes in Their Times, 1960-1980
University of Chicago

MOTHER TERESA? NO thanks--just trot Diana out and tell us how the late princess helped all of the people of the world with little more than her smile (although those legs never hurt either). And while it is well documented that the Kennedys used their money to rig many an event--elections included--their memory always brings back warm patriotic smiles. When did this celebrity-become-hero trend begin, and is it necessarily a bad thing?

William Van Deburg would argue in the negative, tackling this subject with aplomb in Black Camelot: African-American Culture Heroes in Their Times, 1960-1980. Pointing to 1960 to 1980 as a time in U.S. history when boundaries between celebrity and hero were effectively blurred, Van Deburg surmises "it became obvious to all that culture heroes no longer could be conceptualized as exclusively male and macho, white and wise." In other words, static heroes in the tradition of F.D.R., Charles Lindbergh, and Frederick the Great could no longer come to the fore in a know-all society where news would change on a daily and even hourly basis.

The cultural frontier represented in the new forms of the national media would be pioneered by African American celebrity heroes like Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Pam Grier. And these figures would use their public achievements to bring new values and beliefs in the civil-rights and Black Power movements onto this changing societal landscape. As St. Louis outfielder Curt Flood noted, "When you have answered insult and rejection with a .340 batting average, you have done something more than philosophical--your achievements have emancipated you."

Van Deburg chronicles numerous such first-hand accounts in the book, as well as other anecdotes, memoirs, and ephemera. Not all convey the empowering bravura of Curt Flood; along with "Hammerin'" Hank Aaron trading cards is one "fan letter," a poem sent to the slugger as he closed in on Babe Ruth's record of 714 lifetime home runs: "Hank Aaron/With all that Fame/You're a Stinking Nigger/Just the Same." Ultimately, this is popular history with a personal flair: Much of this memorabilia--from the Malcolm X T-shirts and Black Panther Party pamphlets to the catalog pages illustrating "Superfly-influenced clothing"--is taken from Van Deburg's private collection. The man is obviously an enthusiast.

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