Michael Eric Dyson Wants to Provoke Just Enough White Anger

A scholar, radio host, and ordained reverend, Dyson's Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, is as elegant as it is timely.

Michael Eric Dyson (Photo by Nina Subin)

Given the polarized political climate that characterizes our age, no political book is immune to the same predictable tensions. Will it preach to the choir and cause people who were already nodding at its message to nod more vigorously, as those who need to hear its message the most escape the words once again?

In a sense, this is as true of Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America as it would be for anything by, say, Ann Coulter. But upon reading Dyson’s cri de coeur, that tension melts away and other, more pressing matters surface. His book implores white people to disinvest themselves of their attachment to whiteness and reclaim their humanity instead, moving through what he calls the white stages of white grief: ignorance, denial, appropriation, revision of history, and dilution. Of the Black yearning to demolish racism and the white acquiescence to its continuation, Dyson writes, “We are two historical forces meeting, and the velocity of that history is so strong that it can break the bonds of individual love.”

So it almost doesn’t matter whether a person is a Breitbart reader or a PBS devotee: Whiteness is whiteness, and white people benefit from a system of “racism without racists” irrespective of their personal political beliefs.

“Sometimes, what ends up happening is that people discover, ‘Oh, my stereotype of or belief about the white conservatives and what he or she believes may be more resonant in me than I had heretofore known or believed,’ ” Dyson says, ventriloquizing a white liberal reader. “It’s a bit sharper, the edge that punctures the illusion that there’s an essential difference between us and them.”

“To be sure, there are tremendous differences,” he adds, “but whiteness does flow more like a river as opposed to like a fan. In that sense, it’s more all-enveloping, and it’s trickier to negotiate through and around. I wanted people to get that sense from [Tears We Cannot Stop].”

We’re speaking three days before Dyson’s scheduled appearance at Berkeley’s Hotel Shattuck on Jan. 19. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He’s at Earlham College, a smaller Quaker institution in Indiana, where he’s preparing to give a speech commemorating and contextualizing the occasion.

Having read the book, I suspect Dyson’s oratory is virtually indistinguishable from his writing. Although it’s judicious in its use of thunderbolts from on high, Tears We Cannot Stop is structured the way its subtitle makes plain: like a sermon. At a little more than 200 pages, it’s dense with historical facts and personal anecdotes, yet compellingly readable. And considering how contemporary its references are, it feels as though it poured out of Dyson over a weekend in mid-November. (He wrote 16 hours a day for three months, he says, “straight from my heart and my gut.”)

The result is calibrated to elicit exactly the right amount of white anger, and no more.

“You got to tamper with it a bit,” he says of the book’s tone, “to make sure the temperature is high enough to cook the food but not burn it.”

Throughout, he exhorts the reader to reconsider the American judicial and political landscape as one characterized by white supremacy above all else. Touching on Bill O’Reilly, Colin Kaepernick, Rudy Giuliani, a strange phone call with O.J. Simpson, and his own expulsion from college, Dyson is unafraid to lay bare hard truths. In one passage, he refutes the noxious talking point that because “Black-on-Black crime” is so prevalent, any deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement are comparatively minor — and then he throws out the number of murders of white people by white people, to admonish conservatives for freaking out about Islamic terrorism before getting their own house in order.

But anger — though present — is not the salient emotion; sorrow is. “We pray to God for our sanity,” Dyson writes in the chapter titled “Coptopia.” “Yet the aggression buried deep inside us sometimes blocks our belief and makes us functional atheists.”

Mull that one over for a second. This is a man who’s been a Baptist minister for nearly 40 years, confessing that racism presents such a seemingly insuperable hurdle, and well-intentioned white engagement such a pitiful response, that he effectively loses his faith.

“It is a crisis that is provoked, a faith crisis,” he says. “Because at the end of the day, this is not simply about consternation or grief or sorrow over the loss of a certain kind of racial privilege. It’s about the cosmos. It’s about how the world operates. It’s about the weight of existence under the pressure of a faith that is ostensibly committed to bringing sense to the world — and has so often been the opposite, the chaos of un-enlightenment.”

Although the book’s grace notes address Donald Trump, Dyson would have written this book even if Sen. Bernie Sanders had been elected and progressives had swept government at all levels.

“Bernie Sanders shares some of the traits of Donald Trump,” he says. “God forbid, nothing like his political conservatism or his ability to be nearly opportunistic in the expression of bigotry, but I think Bernie Sanders has a kind of blind side when it comes to race, as well. He wants to subsume mostly everything under class: ‘Let’s get past identity politics.’ Sir! You’re involved in whiteness in a way you don’t understand, either. John Lewis says he’s not going to the inauguration; some other politicians say they’re not going. You ask Bernie Sanders? ‘Yes, I’m going.’ He still doesn’t get it!”

This world is what it is, but Tears We Cannot Stop is not a despairing book — even in spite of a number of ugly personal stories it tells involving police officers and even racist children. Urging white people to join Black America in “hymns that rally us against the fantasy of our erasure,” Dyson addresses the reader through-out as “Beloved,” which is a nod to Toni Morrison’s magnum opus and to an enduring sense of brotherhood and sisterhood across racial lines.

“That is the straightforward rhetoric of evangelical affection that one believer bestows upon another,” he says, “or that one bestows upon those who may or may not believe what one chooses to believe. So ‘Beloved’ is a stance and a disposition of affectionate outreach to the other, and to acknowledge the other as my brother and sister. It’s a deeply rooted religious sentiment and passion that resonates in that language.”

Days before the transfer of power from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, it is also a stark act of generosity. So many conflicts are framed as “us vs. them.” Instead, Dyson has chosen “us and you,” and the result is mandatory reading for every white American.

Berkeley Arts & Letters presents Michael Eric Dyson, Thursday, Jan. 19, 7:30 p.m., $12, at the Hotel Shattuck’s Crystal Ballroom, 2086 Allston Way, Berkeley, booksmith.com

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