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Plain Talk

JUST about all of the people we write about in the Gazette—high-achieving students, notable alumni, stand-out faculty members—are busy. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, the recently appointed Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities, is busy.

(A small example: When it came time to arrange a photo shoot for the story, our photographer, Bill Cramer, had to settle for 20 minutes snatched in the midst of Dyson’s whirlwind schedule. Luckily, Bill is not only very talented but a fast worker, and Dyson proved a lively subject. The short session yielded a wealth of striking images, from which we chose three.)

Dyson, who holds appointments in the religious-studies department and the Center for Africana Studies, arrived at Penn last fall from DePaul University in Chicago. He is a prolific author of books both popular and scholarly, including biographies of rap-artist Tupac Shakur and Civil Rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; equally at home writing an op-ed piece or a scholarly treatise; and a frequent guest on TV and radio programs from the Fox network to NPR.

What comes through most clearly in associate editor Susan Frith’s profile is the enormous energy that Dyson brings to his multifaceted career as a scholar and public intellectual. The title of the piece, “Make It Plain!” comes from a quote of Dyson’s—a teenaged father, Baptist minister, and Princeton University graduate—on his need to translate “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.”

Though Dyson calls Tupac Shakur “a hip-hop Jeremiah,” some alumni may question the value of devoting an entire course to the significance of one dead musician, just as they may doubt his version of a radical Martin Luther King (“a fiery icon whose hot breath continues to melt plastic portrayals of his social intentions”) removed from the popular preacher of integration and racial harmony. If so, Dyson is more than ready to debate with anyone—just come prepared. “I try to give as good as I get,” he told Susan.

According to Dyson, were King alive today, he would speak out against the looming conflict with Iraq. Our report of a gathering sponsored by Faculty and Staff Against War on Iraq in the last issue prompted several letters from alumni lamenting both the views expressed by the speakers and the absence of any voices supporting the need to go to war.

One such voice—which speaks loud and clear—belongs to Dr. Harvey Sicherman G’67 Gr’71, director of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank founded by Penn political-science professor and diplomat Dr. Robert Strausz-HupÈ in 1955 and affiliated with Penn until 1970. According to Sicherman, war, while “a lousy option,” is the only one remaining. In “Lines in the Sand,” he speaks with senior editor Samuel Hughes on the likely outcome of a U.S. invasion of Iraq, the reaction of Arab governments, and how regime change in Iraq might affect prospects for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Finally, in this issue we also pay tribute to the Honorable Walter H. Annenberg W’31 Hon’66, who died last fall at the age of 94. The lengthy front-page obituaries that appeared in leading newspapers were a testament to Annenberg’s central role in our culture, while also recounting in greater or lesser detail past controversies surrounding the legacy of his father and some of his own actions as a newspaper publisher. Our article, by freelancer Joan Capuzzi Giresi C’86 V’98, sketches in Annenberg’s biography but concentrates more on the impact of his giving to Penn and dozens of other institutions and causes—a truly staggering record of generosity that clearly marks Annenberg as a model of what he considered the highest compliment possible for an American, to be a “good citizen.”

—John Prendergast C’80

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