Out From the Shadow : Yolanda King spent her youth trying to be a substitute for her father, the late Martin Luther King Jr. Now, she says, ‘I only speak for myself.’
Students at Inglewood’s Morningside High gathered around Yolanda King the other day, seeking her pronouncements on Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, violence versus nonviolence and other subjects.
The eldest child of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. answered each politely but reluctantly. She does not try to influence public opinion, she explained later. “I only speak for myself; I only represent myself. I do not represent any group, or the black community, or women or even my father.”
She respects Farrakhan for having “probably saved many young lives,” but she is pleased that African American leaders are repudiating some of his attitudes. Jesse Jackson, she tells a student, is “working inside the system.” And she is passionately in favor of nonviolence.
But her talk to the student body, as part of the school’s celebration of Black History Month, was apolitical and focused on the individual instead of social issues. It was based on one of her father’s early sermons, stressing the importance of “healthy self-love; sharing that love with others, and the value of a connection to a higher power.”
King, 38, an actress and producer, regularly speaks at high schools and colleges to honor her father’s accomplishments and memory. She carries on his legacy, she said, but not exactly in the way most people expect.
She gave up trying to fulfill others’ expectations long ago.
Yolanda King was thrust into the role of successor at age 12, when she turned on the TV and learned that her father had been assassinated.
First there were family concerns. She’d spent more time with her father and knew him better than her three siblings, so she felt obligated to pass her knowledge on to them.
But the outside world usually seemed to expect more of her than she could deliver. She felt pressured; she felt guilty.
“For a long time I went back and forth between trying to please everyone and trying to be a real person.” The pleaser usually won.
In high school, she recalled, she tried to “just blend in, just be accepted, just be like everyone else.” But as the daughter of a slain icon, she was expected to be stronger, wiser, more politically correct than “ordinary” kids her age.
For example, since age 8 she’d been enrolled in what was then the only integrated drama school in Atlanta, run by Walt Roberts, father of actress Julia Roberts. But when she played in a teen-age production of “The Owl and the Pussycat” in 1972, she said, her hometown erupted.
“I was 15, my co-star was white, and the white community criticized it because they didn’t think (mixing the races) was right.
“The black community asked: ‘How could you disgrace your dead father’s image by playing the role of a prostitute?’ ”
The furor was so great that King said she was forced to stand up at church one Sunday and explain her actions to the whole congregation.
By the time she reached Smith College, her father’s public image had grown even more immense, along with expectations placed upon his daughter.
While most young women her age were finding their own talents and goals, King said she was trying to be what the world wanted--a substitute for her father.
“I was asked to join this, do that, work with all sorts of groups. It was a tremendous burden because people expected me to automatically know things, to have opinions and answers I didn’t have,” she said.
“When you come from this tremendous tradition, you feel obligated to pick it up and charge ahead. But I was floundering. It wasn’t happening. I was in a hole and couldn’t get out. I had no idea what I was good at, how I could contribute--or how to feel comfortable about myself.
“I’d do press conferences and people would ask me about the state of the world and what we should do about big social problems. For a very long time, I never said, ‘I don’t know.’ I thought that would mean I was inept or inadequate.”
About age 22, she said, she finally understood she’d been “putting up a front” and could no longer handle it. “I realized there are lots of things I simply just don’t know, and I needed to be able to admit that to myself and others. It’s great to be able to say, ‘I’m not sure; what do you think?’ ”
King said it took her “a little longer” than most people to get where she is today--”which is a really peaceful place. I know what I love to do, and what I do well.”
She was co-founder, with Attallah Shabazz (daughter of Malcolm X), of the Nucleus Theatre Company, which provides inspirational programs for schools and colleges. A one-woman show, “Tracks,” which she produced and in which she plays all 16 characters, has toured the country. She said she sees the play as an affirmation of her father’s philosophy of the importance of each individual in a socially responsible society.
A Denver Post critic lauded “Tracks,” calling King’s performance remarkable. When it played in 1992 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., a Washington Post critic wrote: “Although no Lily Tomlin, the actress exhibits a real flair for speech patterns and telling gestures. . . . King should have enough faith in her powerful stage presence to pare down, simplify and avoid the melodramatic and the maudlin.” She hopes to bring the production to Los Angeles.
King is working on a feature film about her mother, Coretta Scott King, who was an activist “before she ever met my father. It was not an accident that they came together.”
And it was no accident that she, her sister and two brothers turned out to be achievers, she said. It was due to her mother’s consistency: “One brother is a successful businessman, another is in Georgia politics, my sister is both a lawyer and a minister. We all live in Atlanta still, and we are all very close. Tragedy does that--it brings you even closer.”
King “can’t imagine not being married and not having children.”
“I’ve dated all sorts--white guys, Jewish guys and, of course, primarily African American guys. But when I settle down, I want to know without a doubt that this is forever--I haven’t come across such a relationship yet.”
She still grapples with some memory loss surrounding the years after her father’s death, created by what she explains as “a blocking mechanism” that the mind sets up to erase tragedy. She’s “trying to resurrect” those memories. At some point, she said, she may share her recollections with others.
Back at Morningside High, King said the student question that pleased her most was personal: “If your father came back today, what is the first thing you’d say to him?”
“I told her I’d never even asked that of myself,” she said. “I had to think about it.”
Then, recalling the simple, playful moments when her father hugged her and let her know she was loved, King told the student: “I’d probably just tell him how much I miss being able to feel him, really feel him.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.