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Cultural Reflections V

15 Feb 2019 1:51 PM | Ron Wynn (Administrator)

New Dyson book is political primer

By Ron Wynn

Michael Eric Dyson has been a distinguished,  prolific and often controversial figure over his extensive career as an educator, author and "public intellectual."  He initially came to prominence  with the 1993 release of his first book "Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism." 

He's since penned over 20 additional volumes, and appeared on countless radio and TV shows. He currently contributes to ESPN's "The Undefeated" website, The New York Times opinion section and The New Republic, while also being University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University.

Dyson's latest is "What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, And Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America (St. Martin's Press).   Its starting point is a historic meeting held between then United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and a group of activists  including author James Baldwin, playwright Lorraine Hansberry and Freedom Rider Jerome Smith in the spring of 1963.

Kennedy was expecting a pleasant intellectual conversation, but instead was engaged in a manner that was anything but congenial. The group was concerned  he didn't fully understand or appreciate the depth of rage among Blacks nationwide,  and was too reliant on traditional political strategy in a period when Southern Democrats had a stranglehold on American legislative politics.

But more importantly, they saw Kennedy as the embodiment of the white liberal, someone who sounded good, but was far from ready to really combat America's inequities, most notably white supremacy as well as economic disparity, voting suppression and police brutality.

The group spoke frankly, without diplomatic concerns, and Smith in particular seared Kennedy with his frank dismissal of overtures to gradual improvement and civic duties, while disavowing any notions about patriotism and loyalty.

Though often angered and dismayed by their responses, ultimately that meeting proved a catalyst for Kennedy to look inside and see he needed to change his views on race, and recognize the necessity for radical action. Though he would be killed five years later, over that last portion of his life, Robert Kennedy greatly changed his approach.

He began to emphasize in his speeches and during his run for President the need for America to undergo radical transformation in its attitudes and policies rather than incremental reform.

Dyson pivots off that meeting to examine a wide variety of issues and personalities in the remaining chapters. They include political and cultural figures, such groups and movements as Black Lives Matter and #Me Too, and even a section on the film "Black Panther."

As always, there will be areas where some will agree, and others strongly disagree. He has far more faith for example in what a Hillary Clinton presidency would have meant than others. While in agreement with him about the dangers of discouraging folks from voting, I am surprised there wasn't more discussion about the Sanders candidacy and how it was undermined by Democratic Party insider politics.

He also is unafraid to criticize fellow intellectuals and political colleagues, though anyone seeking his views on the necessity for a "Black Agenda" won't find them, at least if you define that by the express use of that phrase.

Dyson would no doubt argue everything he's discussing are remedies and solutions to the problems plaguing Black Americans, but those who insist  any and all political and intellectual figures discuss the issue specifically using that term will be disappointed.

The other issue he did not address, probably because it hadn't emerged in the forefront at the time he was writing the book, was the question of whether Blacks who are direct descendants of slaves can be represented by those who aren't. That is one of the criticisms some have aimed at  Kamala Harris, a person he supports.  I am sure Dyson will address that in the future.

But overall,  as per usual in a Michael Eric Dyson work, there's lots to assess, ponder and discuss in "What Truth Sounds Like." I'm fairly certain Dyson would gladly admit he doesn't expect consensus, just thorough scrutiny and objective examination of his viewpoints and ideas.


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