Michael Eric Dyson on Automortality
Michael Eric Dyson, named by Ebony as one of the hundred most influential black Americans, is the author of sixteen books, including Holler if You Hear Me, Is Bill Cosby Right? and I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. He is currently University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Michael Eric Dyson: Well, autobiography is the narration of one’s life. Automortality is the narration of one’s death. Dr. King was obsessed with death. As I said before, his wife sitting there knowing that he was going to die, knowing that-- She said, “I believed in my heart he would be killed” as well. Martin Luther King Jr. used the inevitability of death as a means to push America along. He used it as a means to rally the troops in the bloody trenches of racial warfare as America fought for the defense of what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Dr. King used death to rally his troops to say, “Look. We may die but we must keep going.” He turned a necessity into a virtue. Since we must die, some of us, and since that death will be focused more than likely on some of the most valiant but also visible members of the community, then let’s use that certain death in ways anticipatorily to both warn America of the limits of its practice of democracy but also to win converts in to this army of moral opposition to American failure to be truly democratic. And so Martin Luther King Jr. also used death to remind his followers that “Look. I may die and you may have to die but the movement will go on,” and automortality is narrating one’s own death. King was ingenious at that. You remember that he was in his own pulpit. “If you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral and if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention I have a Nobel Peace Prize. That isn’t important. Tell them not to mention I have three or four hundred other awards. That’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I want you to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody, tried to be right on the war question, tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to say I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for peace,” because he was preaching a sermon about America’s drum major instinct, which was I must be first, I must be supreme, our nation must rule the world. And he said, “God did not call America to do what she’s doing in the world today,” and when he said that he was narrating his own death so to speak. He’s anticipating his own death. This all to [ph?] mortality is spoken in the future moral anterior, what should have been true about my life, so the future anterior is what? Looking forward to an event that will occur and then looking at its past so that he anticipates what will come, the event of death, but then looking back upon his death from a perspective almost of a kind of ubiquity but no, more than that, an omniscience because he has shattered space and time and in- outside of his own body, outside of his own life, he looks back over the course of his life to narrate for us now what will be true once he dies and what should have been true about his life once we see it through his own eyes. That’s an amazing-- That’s an Einsteinian moment. That’s an Einsteinian paradox of time and space that King was shattering and he was engaging in some of the most interesting forms of expression that allowed him to anticipate his death, look at its inevitability, transform its perception, and alter and shape how people should view his life once he was no longer here.
Recorded on: May 16 2008
Michael Eric Dyson explains the concept of "automortality" and how it applies to Dr. King.