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Michael Eric Dyson

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[…]

Michael Eric Dyson on Rev. Wright


Michael Eric Dyson:  Well, there are many reasons why many white Americans in particular were shocked by what they saw with Rev. Wright, first of all, the vast ignorance and unfamiliarity with black life. It was Fannie Lou Hamer, the great social activist and civil rights leader, who said, “The mistake many white people made is that they put black people behind them.”  So when black people were put behind them for our survival’s sake we understood the rituals, the folkways, the mores, the habits, the dispositions, the skills, the abilities, the excellencies and the flaws of white America. We knew when to speak, when not to speak. We knew what was part of the culture and if you extend it to today we had to watch Friends. We knew what that was about but white America didn’t have to watch Living Single so that for our sanity and survival black people and other minorities have to know white America, have to know what turns them on, what turns them off, what sparks their imagination, what gives them a sense of joie de vivre and what depresses them. And we have to gauge ourselves accordingly, something that many white Americans don’t even have to be conscious of or think about, and it shows. We know much about the white church, many black people, but many white brothers and sisters don’t know about minority religious traditions and it is shocking that it was shocking that what Rev. Wright said was shocking, <laughs> that this is something that passes for pretty much the standard fare among the great prophetic preachers. Now that’s saying- that’s not saying that Dr. Wright is not extraordinary- exemplary of that tradition, which he is, but for the most part when you go in to a prophetic black church where black pastors are the conduits of cultural criticism and social critique lodged at a dominant society because they are the freest members of our community still--  They are not dependent upon white corporate support for their churches for the most part. They are free and independent thinkers who are paid by their own members to say what thus sayeth the Lord and also to give a kind of ongoing and continuing state of the race argument in their sermons. So we see the fusion of holy ghost theology with what happens with the gas tax. We see a relationship between the sacred and the secular. Our religious traditions in terms of our sermons and homilies are constant commentaries upon cultural land mines and social landscapes that need to be addressed and social problems and issues and ills that need to be addressed. So there’s nothing weird about having black ministers speak about social injustice, about what’s going on in Iraq, about what’s happening in Iran, about what happens with war, speaking about how AIDS got created and what some of the theories are and some of the conspiracy theories are or to talk about white supremacy, social injustice, economic inequality. That stuff is par for the course. I’m an ordained Baptist minister. I’ve been a reverend since 1979. That is the tradition on which I cut my teeth so the vast ignorance about that is pretty remarkable but it does reinforce the fact that we live, as Liston Pope, the Dean of Yale Divinity School, said years ago that Dr. King liked to quote, the most segregated hour in America is still 11 a.m. on Sunday morning, black people going to their churches, Latinos going to their churches, white folk going to their churches, black folk over here and so on. And as a result of that there’s never the twain shall meet, and the tragedy of that of course is that we don’t understand and worship with each other and many white Americans just don’t understand what goes on in black churches. I dare say to you that when most black people heard Jeremiah Wright’s sermon they said, “Did we miss the part that was bad?  Maybe they played it fast. Maybe we didn’t hear. Let me see. Rich white people run America. Oh. Oh, okay. Did we miss the memo?  Was it the poor Puerto Ricans?  Oh, maybe it’s the Dominicans this week. Oh, how about poor black people?  No, not them. Hey, maybe white Appalachians who are--  No, not them. Guess what. Rich white people in terms of presidents and governors and senators and corporate chieftains, they pretty much run America so that was uncontroversial to us.”  The notion of AIDS being cooked up in a laboratory somewhere to be spread as a virus to degrade and destroy black America--  It’s not so much that black people have to agree with that as the larger point being made there, that the imagination can scarcely capture what actually happens in America so that conspiracy has to fill in the blanks because we know that something nefarious and afoul has historically occurred in black America in regard to science. Who would think that white Americans would allow black people unbeknownst to them to have run out in the course- through its full course in their bodies syphilis without telling them?  They are unwitting guinea pigs. Of course, that would never happen, not in America, but it did. So suspicion and skepticism generated by black America toward that made us listen to Rev. Wright and go “Well, yeah. Tuskegee experiment was real and plus the last famous black person to say that was a guy named Bill Cosby.”  And Bill Cosby in the ‘90s put that theory forth. He said AIDS was created to get rid of people that people don’t like. He said that in the ‘90s in the New York Post and on television so I think that when we look at what Rev. Wright was saying and terror--  We don’t have to look beyond the borders of America to understand that terror didn’t begin for black people on 9/11. How about 1619, 20 slaves brought to Jamestown and thus beginning the slave trade here, the broader expanding and evolving American empire, the hegemony of western imperialism. All of this stuff is taken par for the course and our preachers speak about that because we live in a society where historically the freest and most educated person in the community was the pastor. That’s no longer the truth in terms of at least education. Now we have corporate chieftains. We have political figures going on to ivy league schools although many of the ministers have had that advantage as well, but when- there was a time when the ministers were educated because they had to go to school and theological seminary or have some kind of formal education about the Bible and theology. They were the lettered, tutored people of the community. Vast realms of eloquence were at their disposal and they deployed them with edifying grace and power and luminous intelligence to highlight, underscore and grasp hold of the most confounding problems in black America. So when we see that many white Americans were shocked it’s distressing because it just suggests they still haven’t come to grips with the vast majority of black people who go to church and the styles of black worship.


Question: Is there a chance that white America will start to listen?

Michael Eric Dyson:  Well, yeah. Now after white America gets scared <laughs> they are going to feel like “Oh, my Jesus. I thought they were talking about Jesus. Didn’t know they were talking about stuff like they’re talking about.”  Well, we talk about Jesus too. We love Jesus in the black church.  <laughs>  I love the Lord. He heard my cry and pitied every moan. Long as I live in trouble rise I’ll hasten to his throne. So we still talk about that but we also include the other stuff because we don’t think in the black church that if you’re talking about Jesus but not about the mortgage crisis in the prophetic black church that you’re really doing your job. And I think it is an opportunity for education all around ‘cause it’s not just white brothers and sisters, black folk too, some of whom were distressed by that got a lesson, and the vast majority of Americans associate now black religion--some would say fortunately and many would say unfortunately--with Creflo Dollar at its brilliant, eloquent oratorical peak with T.D. Jakes, but the prophetic black church has been obscured. And so yeah, it came roaring back and loudly articulated in the voice of Jeremiah Wright, but there are many others, Dr. Freddie Haynes in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Charles Gilchrist Adams in Detroit, Dr. William Curtis in Pittsburgh, Dr. Lance Watson in Virginia in a very powerful way, a young man who shared a ministry with me in Detroit, and many more, Dr. Vashti McKenzie, a bishop. And when you think about these figures, these are prophetic figures who articulate a serious and sustained vision of African American possibility and the way in which America must heal-- heed and yield to the prophetic voices of people whose blood has been mixed with the soil of America to produce what we are. Sprouting from that blood-soaked soil have been some of the most powerful embodiments of the ideals of America so it’s an insult to suggest that black people who criticize the nation are not patriots. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others in the prophetic black church practice critical patriotism and critical patriotism says we love the country enough to tell the truth, but we don’t make this mistake for the most part between- in blurring the vision between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is the uncritical valorization and celebration of one’s country right or wrong, regardless, with it’s right, I don’t care what you think, we’re going to go forth, this kind of cowboy imperialism that is embedded and embodied quite frankly in the Bush administration. before that in the Reagan administration, in a way that it was new Western frontier and America was the galloping horse that delivered the message of freedom for the rest of the world so that this silver bullet that we thought we could dispense from our machinery would somehow darken the world globally and be able to deliver a message of redemption and hope, and many people saw it as a message of terror. Another thing Rev. Wright said, “Oh, my God. Are we denying in America that we’ve done some things that have been quite inept, iniquitous, and certainly ultimately visiting terror upon other nations and other peoples?  My God, and we’ve done it to native Americans here in America. We’ve done it in terms of genocidal impulses toward our first nation’s people and slavery for African American people. This heinous holocaust of hurt and heartbreak and suffering has to be grappled with and dealt with, the enslavement literally, physically, and spiritually of so many despotically ruled over minority and vulnerable people.”  So all of that, which is to say it’s an opportunity for us to open up, to talk about nationalism on the one hand versus patriotism, which is the critical support of one’s nation by looking at it in light of its best values. If these best values of democracy, freedom, justice and truth prevail, then America is beautiful and good. When it contradicts those ideals for which it has been willing to fight, then they must be called on the carpet of conscience so to speak and done so in love but vigorously, and I think this is a grand opportunity to learn more about the black church, to learn more about its values, its virtues, its visions, about its visionaries, about its voice pieces and about those people who articulate with logic, rigor and clarity the aspirations of the masses of black people.


Recorded on: May 16 2008