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Make it Plain! continued

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Michael Eric Dyson steeped himself in philosophy and religion as an undergraduate at a Baptist college and as a doctoral student at Princeton University. But his first encounter with theodicy—this reckoning over why bad things happen to good people—came when he was nine years old and heard the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. announced on the TV news. “I lived in a house in the ghetto of Detroit,” he explains during an interview at his campus office, where a bare-chested Shakur stares down from the wall poster. “We had a balcony upstairs. And I remember being very afraid to go up there. Because I figured if they killed him on a balcony in Memphis—and of course this is a kid’s mind—then they could kill me.”

The death of this gentle icon “made me feel vulnerable,” Dyson adds. “And as I began to learn about King, that issue of social justice and the disjunction between what you get and what you deserve, and why that occurs, certainly was jump-started for me.” Dyson cited King’s messages in a grade-school oratorical contest, which he won. He has been sounding off ever since—not just about King’s misunderstood legacy but about reparations for slavery, notions of “black authenticity,” and U.S. militarism, as well as attitudes toward women, gays, and lesbians in the black church, hip-hop culture, and society at large.

Dyson, who last taught at DePaul University in Chicago, has found many forums to express those views. He’s been a newspaper and magazine columnist; a commentator on CNN, Good Morning America, Oprah, National Public Radio, and Politically Incorrect. He is the author of eight books, including, most recently, Why I Love Black Women and Open Mike. The former, explains Dyson, is “an unabashed love letter to black women, who have been bashed in hip-hop culture, and put down as bitches and hos, and assaulted in the broader culture as well, as welfare queens and mammies and jezebels.” The latter book is a collection of scholarly interviews of Dyson over the past eight years for a variety of publications, addressing philosophy, race, and theory; cultural studies; and theology.

Because of his high-profile image and writings for mainstream audiences, some have questioned Dyson’s status as a true scholar. In Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene, political scientist Adolph Reed criticized Dyson and other black public intellectuals for leaving the “left intellectual ghetto” in order to assume the “status of Black Voice for the American mainstream.”

Dyson says he feels obliged to span both worlds, producing critical scholarly works alongside books and commentaries that are accessible to the broader public. “I didn’t get a Ph.D. to wow people with my esoterica or my ability to engage in a jargon-ridden discourse,” he says. “Although I’ve done quite a bit of that, and I’m capable of deploying those terms. I want to join different discourses and rhetorics—those that concern highfalutin theories of philosophy and identity to those that are concerned about pop culture and how people get along, morally speaking, on a day-to-day basis.

“You know I’ve got to translate that,” he adds. “I’ve gotta, as they used to say—you know I’m a Baptist preacher—‘Make it plain! Whatcha sayin’ boy? Make it plain!’”

The man who makes it plain occasionally ruffles a few feathers.

“I can’t staaand him.” The voice coming out of Dyson’s mouth—an imitation of one listener on a radio call-in show—seems to represent the elderly black woman in the silk hat in the second pew, who thinks that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood for Integration and Racial Harmony. Period.

Not the King in Dyson’s biography, I May Not Get There With You, who had radical ideas about fighting poverty and spoke out against the war in Vietnam. Not the King who came to the sad conclusion later in his life that most white Americans are unconscious racists. And surely not the King whose sexual foibles and musings on his own mortality gave him anything in common with the gangsta rappers reviled by many of the Civil Rights generation.

The talk-show caller, like several others before her, had not bothered to read Dyson’s book. “So I had to come up with a Jesse Jacksonism,” he says:

If my book you do not read,
Do not attempt to make me bleed.

Dyson is not afraid to tweak icons and institutions—or to tinker with people’s perceptions of historic figures like King.

“King was much more dangerous” than the sanitized images of him that are now used to sell burgers or win votes, he writes. “He is a much more demanding hero, a fiery icon whose hot breath continues to melt plastic portrayals of his social intentions. King meant nothing less than to change the world. He was out to make America behave against its will.”

At a January symposium on King’s legacy, organized by Penn Faculty and Staff Against War on Iraq, Dyson described King as a “critical patriot,” adding, “That meant that he loved his country enough to tell the truth.” Were he alive today, “I think that Martin Luther King Jr. would be opposed to this war,” Dyson said, referring to the possible conflict. The only way a lasting peace can be forged “is by our willingness to forgo the immediacy, the almost orgasmic release of beating up on another country in the name of defending global human rights, when, indeed, right here, the contradictions are ever present.”

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 02/28/03

 

“I’m a paid pest. I can’t rest too easy on any tradition or position. I’ve got to challenge them all, and challenge myself, and continue
to grow.”