Black Camelot

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

BLACK CAMELOT: AFRICAN-AMERICAN CULTURE HEROES IN THEIR TIMES, 1960-1980 is a witty essay, focusing specifically on two lively decades in American culture, though also providing a fascinating glimpse of the much longer traditions of race relations in politics, sports, music, books, and movies which led to the creation of ethnic heroes.

William L. Van Deburg starts with an analysis of the iconic stature of John F. Kennedy who, he notes, fulfilled the two basic requirements of a modern-day cultural hero: a traditional heroism combined with a mass-marketed celebrity. Kennedy serves as a near perfect paradigm because his extraordinary power over the popular imagination in his day and thereafter reflected the powerful need of the populace for leaders with a combination of paradoxical qualities: physical charm and extraordinary courage and competitiveness, but with a universal appeal to the ordinary person.

The great expectations symbolized in the title BLACK CAMELOT were those of African Americans in the civil rights and Black Power periods. When the Kennedy assassination killed both the president and his Camelot vision, black culture heroes, Van Deburg argues, filled in some of the void for many people. Though their overall contributions to American society have not received full recognition, these athletes, musicians, urban badmen, and fictional “superhero” detectives provided the psychological boost necessary for many.

This “Black Camelot” has gone the way of the other Camelots before it, Van Deburg concludes, but a residual influence remains. What makes his study so fascinating to read, however, are the acutely observed details and analysis of the ways in which even real heroes need propaganda techniques to be recognized and followed, as well as the differences between “mainstream” and “ethnic” heroes.