Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In Dreamer, Charles Johnson puts forward a bizarre speculative scenario: What if Martin Luther King, Jr. were not an entirely singular person? At least, that is, in terms of appearance—what if there were another man who was basically his twin, so like him visually that only the closest loved ones could tell them apart? This double that Johnson creates is named Smith. But his first name is Chaym, “life” in Hebrew. Part of the mission offered to him, once his extreme resemblance has been noted, is to be available to give his life—to serve as a body double for King in the most dangerous situations. The idea of actual and possible sacrifice, of one’s identity to be taken for another man, and of one’s whole life dedicated to a cause dominate the novel. After Smith accepts the idea of doubling for King, he realizes he has in one sense disappeared. Although he can absorb partially what is offered to King, in some ways those complex emotions are suffocating Smith because of
the love and admiration showered on his famous twin, seeing the Good but powerless to be it, lost in his littleness . . . King’s double was undergoing a kind of living death . . .
Taking the reader inside the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s mind, the author speculates on the motivations that push Dr. King to continue in his civil rights work, constantly taking the messages of equality and justice to different communities, to inspire and motivate as much as to effect legal and social reform. As King regroups in Chicago, where he has recently arrived, through his exhaustion he reflects on the journey. The nonstop efforts, with constant traveling, sleepless nights, and worries over threats are all taking their toll, as he admits he is not in control of his own life. While his own goal was not to achieve the kind of singular status he now has, part of him feels predestined to have had a calling. In emanating a light that can guide others, he is wasting away, like a candle burning down.
His life had always belonged to others. For ten years, he’d been God’s athlete, traveling nearly eight million miles . . . back and forth a country as divided as it had been during the Civil War . . . More tired, hated, acclaimed, jailed, and hunted than any other Negro in history, but living this close to death was as inevitable as his being ordained a minister when he was eighteen . . . [F]rom the moment he donned his robe the laws governing his life were different from those of the vast majority of men; indeed, it was no longer his life to do with as he pleased. The world owned him long before he could own himself.
Matthew Bishop is presented as a stark contrast both to King and his near-twin, Smith. While working at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) office, when he meets Dr. King, Bishop describes himself as anything but noteworthy, as being chameleonic in blending into any crowd. This trait makes him an ideal observer, as he himself will go unobserved.
I knew I left no lasting impression on people who met me once (and often two and three times) . . . I had no outstanding features, no “best side” to hold in profile. During SCLC meetings, a demonstration, rally, or march, I blended easily into the background, as bland and undistinguished as a piece of the furniture, so anonymous most people forgot I was there . . . I was nobody. A man reminded of his mediocrity—and perishability—nearly every moment of the day.