Dyson, Singley trade riffs

Two dynamic speakers from two generations with two very different life experiences took the podium in Huntsman Hall Auditorium on January 13 to speak about race in America.

The standing-room-only crowd heard Penn’s Michael Eric Dyson, Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities, and former Temple Law School Dean Carl Singley in a program sponsored by Philadelphia magazine and the Wharton School. Kenneth Shropshire, David W. Hauck Professor of Legal Studies at Wharton, hosted the forum.

Editor Larry Platt had used the January issue of Philadelphia to kick off what he hopes will be a year-long discussion of race in Philadelphia in the pages of his publication and in programs open to the public.

From 10 minutes to 80

Since this was the first program, Platt asked Dyson and Singley to talk for five minutes each about guidelines for racial dialogue before the public discussion began. What followed was an 80-minute survey of the history, psychology, sociology, language and politics of race in America that drew both laughs and murmurs of assent from the multiracial, multigenerational audience.

“Today,” Singley said, “[the struggle] is a battle about words” and that’s what makes any racial dialogue a minefield. He described the now-empty ritual of denunciation, apology, sanctions and celebration that has played out again and again. “But nothing really changes.”

If Singley represented the older generation that lived through the civil rights era, Dyson announced that he represented a new generation, with different life experiences. “Like the great jazz musician Miles Davis,” he said. “I’m going to riff off Carl Singley.”

Dyson’s extended improvisation ended with three guidelines. “Understand the context of race by knowing the history, understand the pretext of race because we don’t all have equal access, and understand the sub-text of race because in terms like ‘affirmative action,’ racism is in the language.”

With only 20 minutes left, there was only time for a few questions from the audience. The conversation had just begun.

Originally published on January 29, 2004