Amazing Grace

By Amy Alexander
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Even as we mourn the passing of Coretta Scott King, it's hard not to wish that her legacy had been a bit more steel than magnolia.

No disrespect to King, or to the sacrifices she made and her important place in recent American history. But it's fair to ask whether this aristocratic daughter of the Deep South might have fared better in the legacy department had she possessed more of the grit and ruthlessness of some of her successors.

"Her passion was never spent in public display," Maya Angelou said during the tribute Tuesday. True enough. The classic image of King -- burned onto my 5-year-old's memory in 1968 -- is of a stricken widow, her lovely face spookily calm beneath that black veil. In that image, she is drained of passion, of anger. For me, King's kind of gracious reserve -- call it an African-American version of WASP emotional inscrutability -- is valuable.

But watching the array of prominent black women at that ceremony -- the varied forms of power represented by Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice -- one realized that King was indeed a product of her time, a woman whose well-born grace and well-earned dignity proved inadequate to some of the harsh demands of her later life. King's gentle manner concealed a steely core and a sharp intellect. Yet the sad state of affairs at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change -- ranging from financial problems to disputes among the four King children -- undoubtedly needed a forcefulness that she was unable to muster.

My mother taught me that a black woman has it plenty hard in America, saddled as she is with the double whammy of race and gender, and she needs above all to be strong. But the death of Coretta Scott King has made me ponder the question of balance. Is strength enough? Should we strive for a mix of softness and strength, compassion and a titanium-tough constitution -- a bit of Winfrey's hard-headed business sense and a dash of King's inherent grace?

The recent death of feminist Betty Friedan raised similar questions, but the issue is different, sharper for black women. Last week, for example, Boston Phoenix media critic Mark Jurkowitz published a long article headlined "Attack of the 50-foot Oprah" that posed the question, "Does Oprah have too much power?" That's hardly how such an article would have been framed for, say, Sandra Day O'Connor.

King never got tagged with the "strident feminist" label that was perhaps unfairly attached to Friedan -- and she dodged its unhelpful African-American counterpart, the "angry black woman," as well. But that came at some cost. She may have been trapped by her iconic standing, incapable of flashing the kind of power needed to straighten out the unhappy business at the King Center.

We must not forget her successes -- and they are noteworthy, including her symbolic status and the four children who so clearly loved her. As she aged, King's political bent became progressive enough to include the struggle of black gays, a subject that put her at variance with other, more socially conservative, black religious leaders. She was "one of the few civil rights leaders who truly understood equality," as Jasmyne Cannick of the National Black Justice Coalition wrote on popandpolitics.com.

I refuse to see King's singular grace as an unforgivable weakness. Seven years ago, we named our daughter Grace as a talisman that, we hope, will help her as she makes her way in the world. But though I'm confident of my ability to help Grace grow into strong black womanhood, I'm less certain of how to cultivate her gentler features.

In my mother's time, as in King's, an honorable woman's power was often found in her association with powerful men. The lineup of powerful black women at King's funeral shows the sea change in that regard. You needn't look any further than the 30-years-younger Winfrey, our National Conscience and Sista-Woman Media Goddess, to see the difference.

Winfrey's famous empathy is balanced by her image as a ruthless businesswoman. When she unsheathed her claws on James Frey, she had the resources to fend off the tag of "angry black woman." The rest of us, finding our way in a difficult world, definitely need to be able to wield an iron fist. But we also need King's brand of graceful inscrutability, a velvet glove big enough, and flexible enough, to enclose it.

Author's email: amalex505@aol.com

Amy Alexander of Silver Spring is writing a book about race and the media.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company