Michael Eric Dyson
is no stranger to tough conversations about race.
From his place in academia (he’s a professor of sociology at Georgetown University) to his presence on bookshelves (the brother has written more than a dozen books, including 2017’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
), he has a knack for weaving seemingly-disparate threads into a tapestry that illustrates the plight of what Langston Hughes called “the darker brother.”
Dyson’s latest offering, What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America
(St. Martin’s Press, $24.99), tackles the subject of witnessing the African-American experience as a basis to craft policy that not only reverses the rigged fortunes of our people, but also fixes the entire country.
This remix would truly make the nation great in a way that 45 and his acolytes would likely abhor.
From sanctuaries to streets and testimonies to protests, witnessing has a hallowed place in our culture. The power is on display in the opening scenes of this tome, which uses a 1963 meeting organized by acclaimed writer and “spokesman for Negroes” James Baldwin as the backdrop. At the behest of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, Baldwin assembled
Black artists, thinkers and activists in a New York City apartment.
Among the group were actress Lena Horne, actor and activist Harry Belafonte, playwright Lorraine Hansberry
, scholar Kenneth Clark and Freedom Rider Jerome Smith. Kennedy entered the room hoping to get the crew excited about the meager things his brother President John F. Kennedy had done in the name of civil rights and to enlist help in creating a strategy that would quell unrest.
What he got was far different.
Dyson writes: “[They] were there to tell Bobby about the trauma that had scarred each Black person in that room, that had scarred or killed people they loved….Baldwin and his activist friends demanded that Bobby witness them, that he actually hear the rage he claimed to want to understand. They forced him to reject the White supremacist beliefs that hobbled even policies meant to relieve Black suffering.”
Dyson masterfully uses this forced reckoning as a point of departure to illustrate the roles that four groups—activists, artists, intellectuals and politicians—played during the Civil Rights Movement and continue to play today.
The result is a confident, nuanced take on how the new guard can achieve justice for Black folks.