TEARS: An Interview with Michael Eric Dyson

In January 2017 on the heels of honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and days before one of the nation’s most provocative demagogue replaces America’s first Black President, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson released the highly anticipated book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. This book, which Dyson regards as one of his most personal books to date, undoubtedly comes at a pivotal junction in history. True to his form as an unapologetic, charismatic intellectual, Dyson doesn’t bite his tongue as he tackles issues that are usually ignored or sugar coated.

I’m secretly hoping that this book is the intellectual version of Pac’s “Hit ‘Em Up.” I want to open this book and find that the first line is “First off, fuck ya bitch and the clique you claim.”

IMG: Tears We Cannot Stop. St. Martin Press. Fair Use

Griots Republic (GR): As the title indicates, your new book is addressed to White America. I’m secretly hoping that this book is the intellectual version of Pac’s “Hit ‘Em Up.” I want to open this book and find that the first line is “First off, fuck ya bitch and the clique you claim.” What do you say to readers that have this expectation for your book?

Michael Eric Dyson (MED): It will certainly feel that way to many white brothers and sisters who are not used to hearing the unvarnished truth from a black quarter with hopeful elegance and inspiration but with the ferocity of truth. What I’m trying to do is be as honest as possible about the plight and predicament of Black America and the ravaging and disparaging consequences of white racism. I’m trying to be as honest as possible in a loving a considerate fashion but straightforward and honest. I know many people are not ready for that. But I think on the other hand many white brothers and sisters desire that. In one sense I am in the amen corner of the millions of white people who want to tell the truth about racism but whose voices are obscured or muzzled by the Donald Trumps of the world. I think there is a rich and resourceful hearing out there. I think those people want to be both spoken to and to a degree spoken for. I’m trying to offer that in this book.

GR: So, are you speaking to or speaking for those white people who want to wear safety pins because they don’t know what else to do?

MED: I’m trying to get them to take the blinders off. The safety pins might be beautiful, but they might hold in place a temporary fix for something that is more permanent…or needs to be more permanent. I understand the symbolism of the safety pins but what I want to get to is the necessity of the bowling pins. And that pin is something that gets knocked down once we unleash the truth down the lane of reality and of our American life together.

IMG: Michael Eric Dyson. Photographer: Nina Subin. Fair Use.

I see what I’m doing as a way of bearing witness to the truth of what many black people have thought, felt and wanted to say to white Americans and at the same time encouraging white brothers and sisters to take up the argument among themselves and honestly address their own institutions, their own individuals, their own identities in ways that are helpful, uplifting and edifying. Not trying to teach black people what we should know or how to instruct us (black people) about how to act.

This is about interrogating and reflecting on what whiteness means. Many white brothers and sisters are not asked to think critically about the fact that they possess a race. They get defensive, resistant and find a way to avoid that truth. They find a way to avoid that truth and blame people of color for being obsessed with race when we attempt to hold them accountable for the way in which they have avoided race or at least try to render it invisible to make it neutral or universal …to make it the same thing it means to be human. What I’m trying to argue is that it is one among many racial options in the family of race. Whiteness itself has to be considered and contended with. The same way men, when they hear the word gender, think woman without knowing that we have a gender too.

GR: I appreciate you for this. I appreciate you sharing this so candidly. Often times when we hear discussions about race, it’s void of white accountability but full of Black forgiveness. The conversation always tends to go in the direction of what Black people can do, and how we should forgive (or other “shoulds”). It sounds like your book is speaking to something very different from what we are accustomed to hearing.

MED: Oh yes, it is! It’s a radical departure from that. What’s interesting to me is that we live in a country where Donald Trump has made a great deal of hay around the notion of let’s stop being politically correct. I say fine, but can you take it? Can you take the truth? If you want the unadulterated truth here it is (at least from one mind to the other). Let’s see. Those who claim that they want to have a politically incorrect dialog…let’s go for it. But it can’t be a one-way street. It has to go both ways.

GR: I love that you said that…but um white fragility. Folks are asking for something they can’t actually take.

MED: That’s why I am putting it out there. We have to ask them to engage in serious and sustained reflection on what it means to be a human being and a white brother and sister. We have to take them to task to speak for this sort of ostrich-like approach and pretending these things are not real when indeed they are.

GR: Speaking of Trump, you wrote: “Whether he wishes to be or not, Donald Trump is the epitome, not only of white innocence and white privilege, but of white power, white rage, and yes, even of white supremacy.” What do you mean when you say epitome of white innocence? What is white innocence?

MED: Innocence in the fact that they are not fully aware or engaged in the grievance history of race, like they are somehow unmarked by the rough passages of American identity that have bloodied this country’s history. That kind of insistent and willful innocence has been the bane of our existence as a nation and we have to reject and repudiate that in order to come to some awareness of the consequences and stakes of race for all people and the ways in which whiteness has benefited from it and perpetuated a legacy of inequality that needs to be addressed. A perfect example of that innocence and refusal to take responsibility is Donald Trump lambasting John Lewis as if he has no understanding (and he doesn’t) of the price that John Lewis, and symbolically that Black people, paid in order for this nation to become what it is. The country that Trump wants to make great again, those people like John Lewis made this country greater than what Trump could ever hope it could be. What Trump wants to do is take us back to a time where whiteness had its run and its say without being challenged. That kind of racial innocence is devastating and dangerous and that’s why we have to challenge it.

GR: How do you propose we challenge this for the next 4 (or 8) years?

MED: We have to keep telling the truth. Keep opposing the attempt to normalize what we see going on. We have to oppose it at every level. The rhetorical, the symbolic, the political, the social. Every instrument at hand must be deployed in order to resist this kind of colossal and (I think) tragic fantasy that the Trump presidency may represent.

We have to remember Trump is not the worst thing to happen us (we’ve been through slavery, Jim Crow, etc). We stood and survived.

IMG: Torn. Sergio Vassio Photography. Flickr. CC BY 2.0

GR: You wrote: “Donald Trump is not our final, or ultimate problem. The problem is, instead, allowing hopelessness to steal our joyful triumph before we work hard enough to achieve it.” How do we not allow any form of hopelessness to enter?

MED: My pastor used to say we have already come through what we have come to. We’ve been here before. The reason David was able to beat Goliath is because he was working on some big bears before Goliath. He called upon the memory of prior victory in order to encourage himself of an even bigger problem. But knowing that he could defeat that problem because he’s done it before. I end that chapter in the book by quoting Howard Thurman. He said we cannot afford to reduce our lives to the event that we are presently confronting. Life is bigger than that. Divorce, death, distress, sorrow those things cannot exhaust the infinite potential of hope and vision that reside within us…and within our history. We have to remember Trump is not the worst thing to happen us (we’ve been through slavery, Jim Crow, etc). We stood and survived. This means we have to be strategic, visionary and have solidarity with a range of people. We have to get out of our comfort zones.

We have to give up the privilege of our own bigotry within our own communities. Black people can’t afford to be homophobic in the face of Trump. Kim Burrell and Shirley Caesar must not set the tone for our response to our own sexual differences in the face of obvious bigotry under the presidency of Donald trump. It forces us to be real about what we are talking about too. How are we gonna say on one hand we’re going to fight inequality under Trump and turn around and beat up on a gay person next to us who happens to be Black? We have to interrogate our practices as well and that’s the beautiful thing about real truth and a real fight for justice.

GR: Do you interrogate our practices from the pulpit on Sundays in the black church where homophobia is sometimes disguised as religion or is this simply reserved for interviews?

MED: Go back and get my Howard University sermon where I preached about this in church on Sunday morning at Howard University chapel. I preached against black homophobia several years ago. So yes ma’am, I do. In my book “Open Mic”, I have a chapter about it. In my book “Race Rules”, I discuss the black church and sexuality and alternative sexual identities.

GR: This entire issue is about black excellence. Even in the midst of the hardest times, black excellence always prevails in so many different ways. Talk to me about what black excellence means to you and how do you see it prevailing, shining and just growing in the years to come?

MED: That’s a great point. Black excellence is its own reward. The beauty and power of doing something well and knowing you are operating at the top of your gifts and at the height of your capacity. Black excellence is the way that black people redeemed this country in the face of broad opposition. We knew we had to be twice as good just to participate. We walked in the door knowing we were superior to the people who thought we were inferior. Black excellence was a response to social injustice but it was also the attempt to maximize the gifts God gave us. Black excellence is a symbol and metaphor for operating at the height of your capacity, being in touch with your own skills, resources, and talents.

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