Michael Eric Dyson, the popular Georgetown professor and bestselling author, was at Dominican University in River Forest on Feb. 11 — his first time speaking at the school since he delivered the university’s MLK lecture 20 years ago.
On Tuesday, Dyson delivered a spirited lecture/sermon/meditation on the African American experience in this country, improvising on themes in his 2018 book What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America. With his trademark wit, Dyson also riffed on some hot topics in news and popular culture — from President Donald Trump’s impeachment to the row between rapper Snoop Dogg and journalist Gayle King over King’s questioning former WNBA star Lisa Leslie about the late Kobe Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault case.
Here are some of the most memorable lines from Dyson’s Dominican lecture — often delivered in his characteristic merging between multisyllabic academic jargon and Ebonics.
On what ‘truth’ is, or isn’t
Truth is not some big T, but it’s what we produce in some engaged conversation; that we struggle to clarify the noble means and ideals for which we live, the existence that we engage on this earth … Truth is the product of human struggle to clarify noble means and ends and these are things upon which we agree …
And so, when we ask about truth, we can take it on that philosophical level. We can be here all night trying to figure out what are the philosophical bases, or the religious bases … What God is the mediator of truth? What conception of God is beyond human cognition. That’s the ultimate conundrum; that you are evincing a notion of God as a human being talking about something you ain’t never seen, which is interesting because a lot of folk get real judgmental about God and you don’t really be knowing. Evangelical brothers and sisters will tell you that if you don’t support the current president then you are against God. Really? Then I must be an atheist. To tell you the truth, I think God is an atheist. God doesn’t agree with this theological hokum we’ve made up.
On Trump’s Department of Justice
When we look at where we’re at now, we know wer’re in trouble. Just today, four members of the Department of Justice, two of them resigning, two of them withdrew, because the President of the United States of America tweeted out that the potential sentencing guidelines for Roger Stone were too harsh and unfair, so now they are suggesting more lenient recommendations. What more do you need to substantiate and validate a claim of extraordinary interference in the executive branch with the ostensible objectify and neutrality of what appeared to be the judicial branch …. that ain’t your personal lawyer homeboy!
Sometimes America is more nobly defended by those who are seen as outsiders. Here, these xenophobia, this recrudescent bigotry that we live with in this country, so that one man doesn’t like Mexicans and Muslims and gay and lesbian and transgender and bisexual people. He don’t really like black people that much at all either … The horrible things that are said, the nasty vituperation, the consternating, ignominious hatred that issues from the voice box of a lethally unenlightened human being. A man proud to be unmolested by enlightenment.
On unsung veterans
In the aftermath of King and Baldwin and Fannie Lou Hamer and JoAnne Robinson and Septima Clark and John Lewis and Diane Nash — noble souls of the 1960s. These freedom fighters! When we stand at ball games to celebrate those who are part of the military, those who have fought, those who are veterans, we should thank veterans in America’s war for its future in the 1960s, as well. Because they fought despite the fact that bigots didn’t want them to be here. White supremacists thought they were inferior. But I must say. One of the great things about the present president is that he has obliterated the notion of white superiority. That’s dead.
On former President Barack Obama’s inability to deal directly and honestly with race
[Obama] had that possibility and yet because of the variety of circumstances, did not prosecute that case, did not press it as hard as might otherwise have been true. Now, we know it was unfair. If he had had a white Russian drink in the oval office, they may have impeached him. Now we got a white man drinking with a white Russian in the White House, making all kinds of strange noises — just poohtin’ [play on Putin].
On the riff between Gayle King and Snoop Dogg
We get into trouble when we try to judge and beat up on other folks and deny them the truth of their own journeys and aspirations and desires … Recently, when a famous rapper disagreed with a famous black journalist, called her out of her name and I dropped a 10-minute Instagram post. I had my Lakers hat on to represent Kobe. And so we’ve got to push back on that. We’ve got to embrace as broad and diverse an understanding of our humanity and our citizenship and who we are as a nation. When we get to the point where we start judging people because they don’t hew to our ideals. They ain’t hurtin’ nobody, they ain’t interrupting anything except our wrong presuppositions about who they are.
On free speech and ‘Cancel Culture’
People think they speak from the mouth of God, ex cathedra, pronouncing what thus saith the Lord. I think there is a continuum. Left and right, progressive, center and so on … When you’ve got people out here marching and hating and wanting to shoot people and run them over, that ain’t free speech, that’s free chaos. Ain’t no thing as absolute free speech. Threaten the president. You will go to jail. … But I think we have to be more tolerate of and engage with one another. Part of the problem is cancel culture and social media. I don’t want to sound like no old dude: ‘That damn internet! Facebook! We used to face the book and read it!’ That is true, though. I can’t lie. ‘We didn’t swipe right unless we were trying to get our peanut on the bread!’ … I think sometimes, social media just gives people digital courage. Talking mad stuff. We say stuff, we’re nasty, vicious. …
I’m glad the internet is democratized, everybody got an opinion, but that doesn’t mean everybody should be heard. You’re stupid, just amplified. Sorry. Just because we got the democratization of articulation don’t mean you’re saying something. You’re just stupid by yourself and stupid with 100,000 followers.
On mumble rappers
Now they have mumble rap. What in the hell is being said? I have no idea [mimics mumble rappers] No what I’m saying? No! Not at all. I have no idea what you’re saying. The only part I understood: ‘Walk it like you talk it, hey!’ … The truth is, one of the reasons they began to mumble, is because when they were clear and articulate, they still died at the hands of police. The truth is, when it sounds like you’re young and black in America, the police still disproportionately hurt and harm you … the people we expect to protect us don’t. This is not to beat up on police. Don’t nobody call police more than black people … We love the police. We just want them to know, when they show up, who the criminal is. Don’t criminalize us.