"Selma, Alabama, was not the only place where black people were unhappy. They were unhappy in many cities and towns. And they were protesting in some of these places. Sometimes buildings were set on fire. Many people were hurt. People were angry. When Jesse talked to them, they calmed down."
Published as part of a "Reaching Your Goal" series, Patricia Stone Martin's frankly inspirational "Jesse Jackson: A Rainbow Leader" may be no worse than most campaign biographies when it comes to avoiding crucial issues and glossing over inconvenient facts.
But wait a minute: Did I say "campaign biographies"? Martin's book is not a campaign biography but a children's book, one of at least three on a candidate whose impact on the presidential contest has variously astounded, delighted and infuriated millions. Once upon a time, a politician had to be elected before children's books would be written about him. But in this as in so many other regards, Jackson--no doubt, among all the recent candidates, the one who has spoken most often to audiences of children--is the exception.
Is it possible, or advisable, to publish in Dick-and-Jane prose the life of a political figure still on the rise? Opinions will surely vary, but this is just what Martin, writing for the very youngest readers, has attempted.
Dorothy Chaplik, writing for "young adult" (11 and older) readers, says right off that though Jackson "is a brilliant speaker with a magnetic personality," he "is often criticized." Anna Kosof, writing for the same age group, goes a bit deeper, telling the story of Martin Luther King's assassination and the young Jackson's questionable role in pushing himself forward as the movement's spokesman, wearing on TV the sweater allegedly stained with King's blood. He was called "an opportunist of the most cynical kind" by some, she says, a man who grabbed for public attention without having paid his dues in the movement. But in general, her book too is more inspirational than objective.
Kosof skims swiftly over Jackson's childhood and youth. Chaplik, by contrast, devotes much attention to the influence of birthplace and family on the boy Jesse. The bitterness of living with racism was "partly offset by the warm, tender atmosphere of Jesse's home," she writes. "Although he was the illegitimate son of a teen-age mother, his adoptive father and his grandmother provided a caring family. Encouraged to try his best in everything, he was brought up with discipline and religion. He started to work at age 6 and found jobs to carry him all the way through school and college. Good scholar and fine athlete though he proved himself to be, growing up in the South caused pain and anger and doubts about his own worth.
"Early on, his skill with words, his vivid and rhythmic speaking style, his ability to make clear and simple even the most complex ideas, made him a leader. And in the course of the civil rights struggle, and then his presidential campaigns, he has been able to create in blacks and in many whites, too, a sense of community and a passionate desire to work to make life better for all."
Both books for older readers give an anecdotal account of Jackson's work with the Civil Rights Movement, his creation of PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) and of Project EXCEL. They disclose complaints about poor organization and lack of followup, such as in the PUSH and Project EXCEL programs as well as Jackson's failure to account properly for funds. (Neither book properly assesses the charges.) Also detailed are his numerous trips abroad, such as his foreign missions to Syria and Cuba. Kosof also goes into the charges of anti-Semitism and quotes Jackson's apology for it at the Democratic convention in 1984.
All three books end with the 1984 campaign, and so none could make use of the significant development in Jackson's views and tactics or the greater evidence of his rich talents in the 1988 campaign.
Indeed, it would be fair to say that these books were written from the 1984 campaign rather than for the 1988 one. Classically, a campaign book idealizes the candidate's place in society to make him or her seem worthy of the presidency. These books idealize Jackson's place in politics to make him seem worthy of a distinctive position in society; the position, namely, of black role model and American culture hero. As such the books may offer a unique glimpse into Jackson's "second campaign," so to call it; and yet, whatever their extrinsic fascination, one may still regret the fact that none of them escapes the category of "information" books. Useful, yes, where they are accurate, but none lifted by a personal voice into something more or better.
Say politics and most young people snort in disgust. It has come to be a dirty word. Yet politicking is something we all do when trying to get what we want in a world of limited resources. As the art of the possible, a certain amount of it is practiced in just about every situation involving groups of people, small or large, whether it's a tenants' committee, a school faculty, a business office or a civil rights group. But young people will never learn politics from bland and worshipful biographies that simply chronicle events with little analysis of the social forces shaping the times and no sense of the complexities and contradictions of character in action.