Michael Eric Dyson to speak at UC San Diego about maintaining hope for social change
It was Michael Eric Dyson’s fifth-grade teacher who first planted and watered the seed of understanding his shared worthiness and value as a Black person in America. Despite it not being an official part of the curriculum, Mrs. James, a Black woman, taught her young, Black students their history.
“(She) was a deep and profound inspiration to me to move forward with the study of Black history that she taught us in our classes,” he said. “She taught us on and on about great, Black figures who were crucial to our culture and establishing American society as the stalwart and paragon it is among the nations of the world today. We had a lot to do with America’s popularity around the world, and Mrs. James began my quest to deepen my understanding about Black history, Black culture, Black politics, Black studies in American society.”
Dyson is a renowned public intellectual, writer, and professor who’s penned more than 25 books on race, history, and culture, and is currently a distinguished professor at Vanderbilt University. He is also the featured lecturer in UC San Diego’s EDI lecture series from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday, where he’ll speak on the topic of “A Force for Change” (registration for this free event is currently at capacity). He took some time to talk about the kind of social change he finds necessary, the 50th anniversary of hip hop and its place in agitating for progress, and why he chooses to be a “prisoner of hope.” (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. )
Q: Can you give us a brief preview of what “A Force for Change” means in terms of what you’ll be focused on in this lecture?
A: We need serious and significant change, fundamental and forceful change. In light of the assaults upon African American studies from states like Florida, which just announced that they’re going to instruct teachers to say that Black, enslaved people gained some skills to be able to help them in life, during slavery; that they were victims of violence and they were perpetrators of racial violence. I mean, these are the kinds of distortions that need to be corrected by serious and engaged interactions with the history of this nation as it relates to African people in America, and Indigenous folks and Latino folks, Asian folks and the like. The force for change I perceive in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action, the gutting of DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] in many states, the formal and informal policies that have been enacted, call for a force for change in the opposite direction. We have to keep insisting that this nation pay attention to those that it has marginalized, those that it commits genocide against — Indigenous people, Black people that it enslaved. So, what must we do to revive a robust, rigorous conception of history, in light of the manifest attacks on a serious engagement with the past that has been launched by the right wing? That’s what I mean.
Q: You’ve written dozens of books, you teach at respected universities, and are routinely sought out to offer your perspective on social issues which would seem to make you a force for change yourself. What would 10-year-old Michael Eric Dyson think of where you are today?
A: Well, he would be astonished that he was able to reach the heights he did, but not surprised that he should aim for such because [Dyson’s fifth-grade teacher] Mrs. James gave us a sense of what was achievable by putting us into context with great figures from the Black past and if they could it, we could do it. If they could aim for it, we could aim for it. If they could be extraordinary, we could be extraordinary. It was a remarkable use of pedagogical intervention by a Black woman, who equipped her students with knowledge about their past so that they would not be misled by the distortions of an American society that failed to grapple with the nuanced, complicated interpretation of our people, our history, and our struggle.
Then, when I was about to turn 10, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn., and that had a profound effect on my life. I have written two books on Dr. King; I believe he’s the greatest American who ever lived, and that profoundly changed my life and motivated me to get involved a year or two later in oratorical contests that I won on the local level and the regional level for the Optimist Club. So, I began speaking in public, writing the speech at 11 and memorizing and speaking at 12. Since 12 years old, I’ve been out in public orating, articulating my ideas and beliefs. That 10-year-old Michael Eric Dyson is amazed at what I have become and what I have done, but not surprised that I might be able to achieve it in light of the paradigm of excellence provided by my fifth-grade teacher, and the inspiration to fight for justice inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Q: And what motivates you to continue these conversations in so many different forms?
A: I think those experiences as a youth, and then I became an ordained minister. Look, I was a teen father, lived on welfare, hustled in the streets of Detroit, worked in factories in the automobile industry, a janitor. Because I was a teen father and didn’t go to college until I was 21, my development and formal education was a bit delayed. As a result of that, I was deeply appreciative of what could come of that when I eventually went to college at the same age that most young people are graduating. That gave me a sense of profound commitment to the process of education. Also, by that time, having become a licensed and then ordained minister, I pastored three different churches in Tennessee and got kicked out of the last one because I was trying to ordain three women as deacons of the Baptist Church. I said, ‘Well, maybe I heard God wrong. My ministry is not, necessarily, in the church as a pastor, but perhaps in the classroom as a teacher.’ So, when I graduated (I started at Knoxville College, a historically Black college in Knoxville, Tenn., then transferred to a Southern Baptist school, a White school, Carson Newman College), I then went on to get a master’s and a Ph.D. in religion. That convinced me that I should be a teacher and a professor who is thinking about these ideas, who’s making contributions to our understanding of notions of race and gender and class and sexual orientation, and how issues of social justice could play out in the academy, as well.
Q: Your 2021 book, “Entertaining Race: Performing Blackness in America,” you explore the depths of Black performance both as creative expression — whether it was an outlet for ourselves or forced upon us for the amusement of White audiences—and an everyday existence we’re tasked with navigating. As I think about the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down the use of affirmative action in colleges and universities, I’m reminded of a section from your book: “Black folk became obsessed with the quality and character of Black American performance. They worried whether a given person was a coon or a Tom whose performances were mindless updates of blackface minstrelsy or sellout behavior, on the plantation or at the political podium. This held true whether figures were fictional … or true life, like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who practices chronic betrayal from the bench.” What is your perspective on Thomas within this context of “performing Blackness” that you outline in the book, particularly as it relates to this recent ruling on affirmative action?
A: I’ll double down on what I wrote there (thanks for reminding me that I said that). The chronic betrayal that he practices from the bench is ever more apparent. This is a man who climbed the ladder of affirmative action to his perch as one of the preeminent and most powerful jurists in the nation, and certainly now the longest serving Black person on that bench, and he has done untold harm to the legacy of Thurgood Marshall and has eviscerated many of the arguments for progress and the legal precedents of racial enlightenment and engagement and justice that have allowed us to move from enslavement, to Jim Crow, to not being able to vote (and not being able to have a hotel room or go to a hamburger stand and the like), to the present day where we have enormous freedoms, but also the enormous limits that are imposed upon us, still, to this day. The gerrymandering of political districts, the anti-voter registration drives, the voter suppression methodology being deployed by right-wing Republican politicians across the nation. Then, Clarence Thomas helping to helm a bitter, rightward drift on the Supreme Court that has rendered the political value of democracy vulnerable among African American people as a result of the judgment and the decisions of the court. He has done nothing but reinforce our vulnerability and done nothing to uplift, legally, the vital principle of justice that should prevail, and has really helped to eradicate some of the enormously important gains, especially through affirmative action, that Black people have made. So, I double down on his treachery and his betrayal of Black progress in America.
Q: In your 2020 book, “Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America,” you trace a history of violence and anti-Blackness to illustrate the roots of systemic racism and its sustained growth. It’s among a number of books that do similar work to educate folks on how history shapes the present; yet, we are continuing to see this intense push to rollback progress achieved for the LGBTQ community, Black people, women, people of color, in voting, book bans, and more. What do you make of this return to regression despite this increase in information and greater access to diverse perspectives?
A: It suggests to us that it takes more than information to have knowledge. That knowledge is the product of grappling with information, under the discipline of wisdom, to understand the accumulation of insight that will make a difference in the lives of those who have gained access to such knowledge. We’re living in a world that has been deeply impacted by social media. The exponential increase in the speed of access to information on the Internet; what used to take us weeks at a time can be done in five minutes. Technology has transformed our access to information, but it hasn’t yielded greater knowledge because the political struggle against Black identity, the anti-Blackness deeply entrenched in American culture, has discouraged a sophisticated and nuanced engagement with that culture, and learning and understanding, as we progress in new theories, new ways of understanding the world, new understandings of enslavement, new understandings of the enslaved, what kinds of things we did, what kinds of things we were allowed to do, what kinds of things we manage to do under the most extreme and egregious pressures.
All of that is for naught in a culture where, with [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis, in particular, we are making enormous attempts and strides to empower a parents’ rights movement among students’ parents, which is all out of shape and all out of kilter. They have no idea about what books should be read by their children. They’re politically motivated and motivated by rumor and, therefore, incapable of making sophisticated choices about what books our children should read. They’re not educated, they’re not trained, they’re not gifted in those particular arenas, and yet they are empowered to ban books and to have curricula be determined by politics and ideology more than knowledge and wisdom.
In that sense, we’ve got to continue to struggle against the denial of opportunities to know Black history, to know Black culture, to know theories of Black development educationally, morally, socially, politically, economically. What we must do in order to sustain our attention to issues of anti-Blackness and racial injustice in this country and how we must continue to fight back against the erosion of those benefits, advantages, and rights that were so bitterly fought for in the 1960s that behooves us to keep moving, to keep struggling. As I argue in that book and in many others, White supremacy, social injustice, structural inequality, and systemic racism that we talked about in the aftermath of George Floyd, has evaporated under the heat of anti-Black struggle by jurisdictions and legislatures — like those in Florida and Texas and Arkansas and Georgia—that have bitterly resisted our conception of Black progress and Black studies and the need to be free of the ideologically-driven curtailments of freedom of expression, as well as freedom to learn, that should be the birthright of every citizen who is a student in American society.
Q: This year, 2023, has been the year of celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip hop and you’ve written a number of books on the music and the culture, including works on Tupac Shakur, Jay-Z, and reflections on rap. How have you come to understand hip-hop itself as a force for change? And do you see an expansion of that in today’s hip-hop?
A: I think, 50 years on, this enormously influential art form has had a profound impact on American society. I mean, the Pillsbury Doughboy was rapping. We’re taking the styles and patterns of speech popularized in certain hip hop cultures, in commercials and predominantly White society. More than that, the style, the fashion, the engagement with lyrics, poetry, and the capacity of young Black people’s literacy to literally transform American culture through their musical appetites and ambitions, and through the evolution of their project of self-definition in a culture that obviously and often didn’t encourage a positive reflection of who we are as a people—hip hop has done all that and far more. It’s been on the cutting edge, for younger generations, of developing and generating social conscience.
We go back to 1982’s “The Message”: “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder, how I keep from going under. Broken glass everywhere, people pissin’ on the stairs, you know they just don’t care. I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise, got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice.” So, here’s a socially conscientious song near the beginning of the commercial emergence of hip hop, that sets the tone for at least one long lasting trend of trying to grapple with social ills by means of the lyrics and the culture of hip hop, and fighting back against the insistence that Black people are stupid and dumb and have no creativity. That the music has degraded African American culture. Well, when you’re taking the instruments out of classrooms and you’re slashing arts budgets, it’s difficult for poor, young Black students to be encouraged to experiment with the arts, but hip hop opened up space and place for the opportunity for self-expression and it has been rather remarkable.
Then, when you think about the issues of police brutality, whether you’re thinking about a Kendrick Lamar or KRS-One, or Jay-Z, who said [in “A Ballad for the Fallen Soldier”], “Bin Laden been happening in Manhattan, crack was anthrax back then, back when police was al-Qaida to Black men.” Or, KRS-One [in “Sound of da Police”]: “Woop-woop! That’s the sound of da police.” Or, Kendrick Lamar speaking about police brutality, hurt and harm, in his videos and the like. Hip hop has been extraordinary in its ability to articulate social desire and the ambition for social change that was often never far from the lyrical expressions of some of the greatest artists in hip hop culture. Think about Tupac [in “Point the Finga”]: “I got lynched by some crooked cops, and to this day, them same (cops) on the beat getting major paid. But when I get my check, they taking tax out, so we pay the cops to knock the Blacks out.” Or, “F— the police, comin’ straight from the underground. A young brotha got it bad ‘cause I’m brown, and not the other color, so police think they have the authority to kill a minority” as Ice Cube rapped on “F— the Police.” There’s been a fertile ground for the cultural articulation of Blackness and the political expression of resistance to cultures of assault upon Black identity that can be identified within hip hop.
You know, I’m an old man at 64, so older heads often look at what they call “mumble rap” and go, ‘Oy vey, what the heck is going on?’ But, what has been pejoratively termed “mumble rap” is understood by those who say it among each other; they’re generating another language and another means of communication among themselves, generationally, that older Black people may not understand, that people outside of the culture don’t understand, but that they understand. It’s like a blues, as well. The tonality is what’s important, the flow is what’s important, the sensibility is what’s important. So, it’s like the blues in that regard, even though the blues had tremendous lyrical articulation of a sense of comedy and tragedy joined together in human existence.
There’s no doubt that there has been an evolution within hip hop culture, especially with the melodies of contemporary artists, but I think, alongside that, there was always an attention paid to lyrics by those from Drake to J. Cole to Kendrick Lamar, who understand the importance and value of before, like Queen Latifah or MC Lyte or Lauryn Hill. These artists, who are women, especially, have helped change the perspective of Black people in America. Then, when you look at, now, Megan Thee Stallion or Cardi B or after Lil’ Kim, thinking about Nicki Minaj, and so on—these artists have expanded the register and range of identities that Black people articulate. Some of them are controversial and some of them are reinforcing a certain kind of heroic conception of Black creativity, but regardless, the point is that it has continued to evolve and grow in so many areas that were not anticipated, that now bear the imprint and the mark of hip hop culture.
Q: When you think about the kind of change you’d like to see, what comes to mind? And what keeps the cynicism from creeping in?
A: I have hope. I’m an ordained Baptist minister for over 40-some years and I believe in the potential and possibility of Black people to forever change and transform. In my book, “Long Time Coming,” I talk about the distinction between the White “again” and the Black “next.” White culture wants to have it again — if we had slavery once, let’s have it again. “Make America Great Again.” So, “again” is a watchword of the White duplication of contexts of superiority, erosion, assault, and dominance that have really ridiculed the prospects of American democracy, where the Black “next” is, after stuff gets ripped off and appropriated, what do we do next? After we face one challenge, what do we do with the next challenge? So, it’s both a watchword for creativity and an impetus to continue to change, grow, and evolve as we fight the forces of injustice in our culture. That gives me hope that we continue to evolve and grow and persist, no matter what is done to us. Howard Thurman, the great prophetic mystic said, and I’m paraphrasing him, to refuse the temptation to scale down your dreams to the event that you immediately confront. That event — whether it’s divorce or children disobeying you, or problems at school or trauma at work — this particular reality won’t last always. And, he said, “You can do two things: you can be a prisoner of the event that you confront, or you can be a prisoner of hope.” I choose to be a prisoner of hope.