“She was a great kid when she was here,” Professor L. Sandy Maisel said of his former student, now 35. “What was most interesting to me was to see her come alive intellectually.”
That King has developed an ability to combine passion for politics with a teaching method that beguiles and energizes students isn’t surprising to Maisel, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government and director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College.
King pays tribute to alumnus Richard Abedon ’56 and his wife, Robin, whom she says were largely responsible for her attending Colby, and she heaps thanks on many others, including her family and the people of her upbringing in the Chad Brown Housing Project in Providence’s North End.
In speaking of that chapter of her childhood, she said, “People on the outside tend to erroneously believe that those of us who lived in public housing were devoid of morals and values.”
It wasn’t uncommon, she explained, for people of all races and income levels to give her “that fretful stare and grimace” upon learning where she lived until she was 10. “For me it was different,” King said. “I knew that my mom was a hard-working nurse’s assistant who worked the second shift. I also knew of my loving and supportive family who watched me after school so that my mom could honor her responsibilities at the Rhode Island Medical Center.”
She speaks emotionally of a chance encounter with her estranged father when she was a teen, as well as her reconciliation with him years later, of her loving mother and siblings, and, perhaps most emotionally, of her lifelong connection with the Christian church. Early in her adolescence, she started attending Allen AME Church in Providence. It proved to be crucial in her life.
“I loved worshipping at Allen, in part because it had such an active, vibrant, and exploratory youth ministry,” she said. “I also loved Allen because it felt like home. Because of the rich environment, I grew to deeply love God.”
That connection bubbles up in conversation and in her writings. After all, she argues, it is hard to ignore the fact that the most powerful movement for social change in the 20th century came out of the black church.
In her forthcoming textbook, African American Politics (Polity, May 2009), she devotes an entire chapter to the subject, writing that, “The most pivotal institution that spans the entire African-American experience in America is the Black church.”
It is not only the institution to which she pays homage, but also what it taught and teaches. In the tradition of some of the giants of the civil rights movement, including C.T. Vivian and Martin Luther King Jr. himself, she reaches for scripture, wielding with devastating accuracy the teachings of the prophet Isaiah or Paul’s letter to Timothy as messages of today’s need for social and economic justice.
Maisel, who has followed King’s career since she left Colby to do her Ph.D. work at Ohio State, says that the two or three top textbooks on African-American politics don’t put much stress on the importance of the black church, so King’s work “is an important contribution.”
Her emphasis on and writings about religion pull her off into that unexpected place for some people. In her case, a hip-hop Yankee doesn’t necessarily equate to an automatic Obama supporter. “My colleagues were appalled in June when I told them I was undecided,” she said.
“Barack Obama is not the second coming of Christ, nor is John McCain the devil incarnate.”
King said she examined the positions and policies of both Obama and John McCain and found herself grudgingly respectful of Sarah Palin’s political savvy. “Barack Obama is not the second coming of Christ, nor is John McCain the devil incarnate,” she said.
In fact, King didn’t make her final decision until two weeks before the election, when she underwent an Obama conversion.
Initially Obama’s lofty messages of hope and change rang empty to her, she said. She yearned for more substance and feared the consequences for young voters if Obama did not fulfill expectations.
“This is a fatherless generation, in some respects,” King said. “You have young people who are looking for a hero.”
She also was put off by the Democrat’s seeming inability to pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement that paved the way for Obama’s ascension to power.
That Obama did not acknowledge the civil rights icon who preceded him was, for King, “almost a deal killer.”
“I was a latecomer to Obama,” she said. “I’ve studied [Martin Luther] King for eighteen years, and I know [Obama] should have given credit to the man.”
Raised to show respect to elders, Kendra King kept waiting for Obama to acknowledge the leader to whom he owed so much. It didn’t happen. In the end, it was McCain’s reference to his opponent as “that one” at the third debate that tipped her to Obama. The comment was profoundly disrespectful, King felt. “That,” she said, “was what sealed my deal.”