Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Lies That Bind’s Big Josh
Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word—voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.
- President Barak Obama's State of the Union Address, 2016
Today is the 30th anniversary of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., federal holiday. When you visit Washington, D. C., be sure to visit the Dr. King memorial on the national mall. Yes, Dr. King’s visage in granite is moving. You immediately discover tears forming in your eyes, a lump in your throat, your pulse racing, and a heaviness in your heart. But what is more moving than any sculpture are his words carved in stone all around you, expressing the eternal ideas those words capture so concisely, so sublimely, so profoundly.
Also, when in Memphis, be sure to visit the the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated. When we last visited Memphis, the museum itself was in its early stages. Even then, when the project was merely the motel and the rudimentary foundations of the museum across the street, it was exceptionally moving. We hope to go back soon.
Dr. King’s Influence on Big Josh
When I wrote the screenplay The Lies That Bind is based on, Barak Obama was not yet a national figure. At that time, black men were not portrayed in film and fiction as leaders as they are now. I created the character Big Josh in my book as the leader figure, part of a new American mythology depicting a racially harmonious America where people are equally recognized for their virtues.
A slave, simple-looking, speaking with a stutter, people in the antebellum South would have looked right through Big Josh, not seeing the man himself. Yet in the egalitarian DarkHorse partnership, where Durk Hurst and twelve uprooted slaves agree by a simple handshake to carve their own plantation out of the wilderness, it is Big Josh who is their true leader. Hurst, the white man, is merely the front man to whom the town, naturally, gives all the credit for their accomplishment. But, in truth, it took all thirteen men to make DarkHorse a success. As Hurst acknowledges, Big Josh is the heart and brains of their plantation—without whom DarkHorse would surely fail.
In essence, as I see it, Big Josh is the literary, mythological precursor to Barak Obama, the leader of America as a whole.
Symbolically, these thirteen men are rootless, finding themselves stranded in the American wilderness (Mississippi/Chickasaw swamp), and from there they must learn to work together to achieve security and prosperity for all. Isn’t that the challenge America has always represented and that we’re faced with today? Hurst had no family, no friends, no place to call home. But Hurst’s slave partners, and America’s slave population in general, could never return to Africa thousands of miles away either. Talk about being stranded. Perhaps that is why Hurst, being an outsider himself, was able to see Big Josh as a man like other men, black and white.
In his past, Big Josh ran the plantation for his drunken master and, thus, has the skills and knowledge for DarkHorse to succeed. That was pure invention on my part. However, in my recent research, I found there were, indeed, slaves who ran plantations for dissolute masters [see: The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South by John W. Blassingame].
So there were men like Big Josh in real life!
A great soul, like Dr. King, in the worst of circumstances—a slave society—Big Josh is the peacemaker in the DarkHorse partnership, always keeping headstrong partners Durk Hurst and angry Isaac from coming to blows. The novel shows in very practical, down-to-Earth terms why Dr. King’s own inspiration claimed that peacemakers—men bearing only unarmed truth and unconditional love—are blessed. Big Josh exemplifies that spirit.
Celebrate Dr. King’s life today, sure. But keep in mind his eternal ideas every day. After all, I seem to remember that Dr. King told us that he had a dream, didn’t he? And while we’re closer to that dream than we once were, we haven’t achieved that dream just yet.
See DelawareBlack.com: "New historical novel, The Lies That Bind, debunks slave stereotypes"