2017 ESSENCE Festival Speaker Michael Eric Dyson delivers a compelling message for change.
In her powerful 2015 essay in this magazine, Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson, in response to what appeared to be an endless occurrence of violence against Black men and women in the U.S., described the Nadir: “We seem to be in a continuing feedback loop of repeating a past that our country has yet to address. Our history is one of spectacular achievement (as in Black senators of the Reconstruction era or the advances that culminated in the election of Barack Obama) followed by a violent backlash that threatens to erase the gains and then a long, slow climb to the next mountain, where the cycle begins again.
The last reversal of Black advancement was so crushing that historians called it the Nadir. It came after the leaps African-Americans made after enslavement during the cracked window of opportunity known as Reconstruction.” How, then, can we put into words midwestern working-class Whites’ switching parties and putting a reality star in the White House?
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Thankfully, we don’t have to. That’s in large part because of Michael Eric Dyson and his prescient new book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (St. Martin’s Press, $24.99). The ordained minister and distinguished professor of sociology at Georgetown University creates a sermon unlike any we’ve heard or read, and it’s right on time. He dedicated the book to Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Solange Knowles and Tina Knowles-Lawson, and at first we aren’t quite sure where Dyson is going to take us. But for those of us who are “churched,” we know that our ministers have an interesting way of going on improvisational riffs that always lead us home.
Weaving back and forth between the ills of enslavement and its lasting impact on the unrelenting stain of racism, Tears We Cannot Stop is an unapologetically bold plea for America to own up to its inexplicable identity anxiety:
“The election of President Trump was all about Whiteness. How Whiteness is ingeniously adaptable to a gross variety of circumstances. How it is at once capable of exulting in privilege while proclaiming it is the least privileged of identities. How it is able to hide in plain sight while detesting every other identity that doesn’t, and can’t, conform to its imperative to invisibility.”
There are passages and observations in the book that are equally perceptive and that simply dazzle. By the end there is no doubt that you will say, “Amen” and “Preach.”
This feature originally appeared in the March 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.