Michael Eric Dyson on Faith, Blackness, and Jay Z’s Appreciation for Language
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story from Macmillan Podcasts. I love peanut butter. And I love chocolate. Which makes me the perfect customer for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which combines two great things that become even greater when put together. But not all my loves benefit from being combined. Take reading and music. I love to read, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has listened to this program. And I also love music, all different kinds. But if there’s music on when I’m reading, I find myself constantly losing my place in my book.
I don’t need quiet when I read—far from it. I can read on a subway, in a coffee shop, in Grand Central Station during rush hour. But I love music too much to consign it to the background, especially if that music has interesting lyrics that go with it. To ignore it is, well, like ignoring someone who is talking to you: Rude. Of course, not all lyrics deserve our attention, but great lyrics reveal themselves over time, telling me more about the world and myself every time I listen to them.
And recently I got to talking about the life-changing power of words from all different sources—books, poetry, scripture, lyrics—with today’s guest.
Michael Eric Dyson: I am Michael Eric Dyson. I am an author, a professor, a social provocateur.
WS: Michael Eric Dyson has written more than 20 books including Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, Tears We Cannot Stop, and What Truth Sounds Like. He just released his latest book titled Jay-Z: Made in America. He teaches sociology at Georgetown and is a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times. He’s also an ordained minister.
MD: I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. Born in 1958 in October, in what is known as the inner city, I guess now would be called the ghetto of Detroit, Michigan. One of five boys born to Addie Mae and Everett Dyson Sr. My father was an automobile industry worker. He was a master set up man for Kelsey Hayes Wheel, Brake & Drum Co. My mother eventually became a teacher’s aide and worked with the teachers in the public schools for 20 to 30 some odd years. So we had a very interesting childhood, my brothers.
WS: His parents shared with him their very different interests.
MD: My father insisted that we learn to box and play with go-karts and help raise dogs and so on. So I had that, you know, hyper masculine introduction via my father. My mother was an extraordinarily avid and voracious reader of novels; of some romance novels, a lot of mysteries.
WS: Soon, a gift from his neighbor, Mrs. Bennett, would open the door to a whole new world of literature for Michael.
MD: I remember when I was around maybe 13 or 14 years old, her husband died—Mr. Bennett—and she was going to give away his collection of books, the Harvard classics, to the local library. But she said, “Michael is such an intelligent young man and reads very well. I’m going to give those books to him.” And it was an incredible gift from Mrs. Bennett. I mean reading Two Years Before the Mast, the great prefaces of many works of literature, Gray’s Elegy in a courtyard:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
So I remember reading that, or Thomas Arno, Matthew Arnold’s father:
Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
Find thy body by the wall.
And reading Tennyson’s great poetry, especially Ulysses:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
So it was extraordinary to have those set of books in my own inner city home, pouring through the wisdom and the like.
WS: Through reading, Michael learned about far away places from long ago. But, it was his fifth grade teacher who would introduce him to African American business and cultural icons from the past and contemporary.
MD: Mrs. James taught us about Jan Matzeliger and the shoe lasting machine. Deadwood Dick, the great cow boy. Oh, you know, Leontyne Price, the great opera singer. And from her, I learned who James Baldwin was, and who Ralph Ellison was. And later of course I began to learn who Tony Morrison was when she began to write at 39 years of age. So it was extremely important.
WS: It wasn’t long before he stumbled upon a book by Baldwin that would change how saw the world and who he wanted to be within it.So I was in the church, committed to the church, but a free thinker.
MD: I found The Fire Next Time in the library. And it was so powerful. The use of the language. I didn’t understand all of it at 14, but I understood the flow, the beauty, the passion, the poetry of the use of commas and semicolons. This weird, unusual pattern; longer sentences, bigger clauses, sometimes brief, sometimes bursts, sometimes elongated, extended reflections. And it was just fascinating to me. I read it time and again: the power of it, talking about religion, speaking about not only black religion but what might be considered a sect or a marginal tradition of religion within African American culture. And Baldwin basically writing when I was a believer, when I was churched, when I was involved in the church, kinda in passing, I was fascinated by that because I had gone through my own passage and period of atheism myself. So I was attracted to him for still being riveted by and attracted to the language of the church, the language of faith.
WS: It took a frightening event for Michael to find his way back to the religion he questioned.
MD: I was reading John Paul Sartre Les Mots in translation. I wasn’t reading it in French, his autobiography. And I’m reading existentialism and I’m thinking, all right, does existence precede essence? Well, Sartre and other existentialists said existence precedes essence. You are who you make yourself to be. You create and fashion your identity out of the wherewithal of your intellectual effort. And so, you know, I was like, “Well, then there’s no God.” And my pastor, my mother was just up in arms: “Oh my God, what are we doing? I don’t understand what’s going on.” And then I wouldn’t comb my hair. I wore a tee shirt and jeans to church. It was just anathema to my mother. She was highly embarrassed. But my pastor of my church said, “Let the young man go through what he’s going through. Let him experience what he’s experiencing. Don’t discourage him. Don’t dissuade him.” And so, I can remember thinking all these thoughts, having debates with him and him allowing me to discuss my beliefs.
And then I went in the embrace of Sartre and existentialism. I went to the corner ghetto store, Mixons, owned by the Mixons family. I said, well, I didn’t smoke, I’ve never smoked, but I wanted to buy a cigar so I could think I was on the Rive Gauche. And so, let me go get a cigar in the cellophane. I’m not going to unwrap it, I’m just going to pretend like I’m a Parisian. So I go to the counter paying for a cigar and something hits me in my back and I turn around. I see a guy with a full length fur coat on. I should have known something was wrong: it was summertime. And he’s got a double pump, sawed off shotgun in my back and he tells everybody to hit the floor. Long story short, they were like three or four of them in the store.
First, Mrs. Mixon didn’t give him all the money. He said, “I know there’s more money.” She went back and got the rest of it. One of the robbers hit one of my best friend’s brother on the head cause he was looking up and he said, “Don’t be looking at me.” And the woman next to me was using my leg for an altar, you know, and I said, then: “Lord, if you let me outta here, then I’ll be a believer.” And of course I got out and the robber said—the one that put the gun in my back—he says, “When you go home tonight, tell your mother you’ve been robbed by some gangsters.” I certainly did. That changed my perspective about how short life could be and about how fleeting one’s own grasp of it was. So I was in the church, committed to the church, but a free thinker and always trying to challenge the given theological positions when I was eventually ordained as a minister.
WS: Michael would find himself needing his faith and sense of self to maneuver as he left his neighborhood for a wider world. When we come back from the break, Michael finds strength in his differences with the words of James Baldwin by his side.I had been awakened to race when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968.
WS: Michael looks back upon the community in which he was raised with affection and pride.
MD: It didn’t strike me that we were living in an all black neighborhood and an all black universe. It was normative to me going to a black church, you know, and there was something beautiful about that. There’ve been people who wax nostalgic about those days when there was deep and profound segregation and therefore perhaps we should return to those not economically. That one, the resource base was so devastatingly divided where black schools couldn’t get the same kind of support that white schools did. And therefore the books and the access to different implements of pedagogy and the like may have been relatively limited. But we compensated for that.
Well, teachers who dared us to be better, who dared us to reach our goals, who dared us to live up to our potential and living in a black universe. You know, when we eventually got a black mayor, that was normal, that that we should also have political power because I saw it economically in our own communities, even though we were in a poor community. When I went to church, I could see people who were upwardly mobile, who did well in their communities. That normative black universe, that cosmos of blackness that was unquestioned was amazing. It was beautiful. And it set the template for my own existence and gave me a sense of confidence. And the articulation and expression of that blackness because it was always tethered to excellence as it was always it once immediately signifying a commitment to truth and to opening up possibilities and opportunities for those who are least fortunate.
WS: But on April 4th, 1968, that would all change.
MD: I had been awakened to race when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968. I had never heard his name. I was in my classroom. We were told to go home later on—a couple of days after—because they were fearful of rights, but the day he was murdered, I was in my living room and my father was in his custom air chair, the big chair for daddy, and the newsman broke faith with the printed program and announced that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in Memphis, Tennessee. And I was like, who is it? Martin Luther King Jr. and then on the television there he was: [reciting speech] “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight we as a people will get to the promised land.
And so I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory.” And then he turns on his heels and rushes into the arms of his waiting compatriots, colleagues and ministers. Ralph Abernathy, his best friend on the one side. And Reverend Jesse Jackson, has young acolyte, on the other. And so that just blew my mind. I sent out the next day with my saved allowance for a 45 record, that 45 RPM record collection of his greatest tidbits of his greatest sermons and speeches. And I re-memorized them all: [reciting speech] “If you want us to end our moves into communities, then open these communities.”
WS: Michael would soon feel the weight of these words.
MD: One thing I did understand was when he talked about the grievous differences between black and white and how they were enforced in a culture that disrespected the fundamental premise of black humanity. And that I got a sense of as I continued to exist in the world, but especially when I got a scholarship out. I got into Cranbrook, which is a very elite secondary school.
WS: It was at Cranbrook, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, that he first encounter a kind of abuse that he’d never experienced so directly before.
MD: I was there during the time of Roots, the first showing of Alex Hailey’s extraordinary novel, autobiographical novel that became a powerful television series. And one day when I came home to my dorm, there was a tear sheet from a newspaper that was posted on my door from Roots. What the words appended to had written on, scribbled on it, n****r go home. So you know, that was quite striking to me. And then at that same school we discovered there was circulating an audio tape made by some of the white students there. Hey, what? We’re going, we’re not going a cigar fishing. No. What are we doing? We’re going n****r fishing and what’s debate hominy grits. So you know, feeling that kind of uh, nastiness, that viciousness, that vitriol. I remember reading Baldwin during that period.
WS: The Fire Next Time gave Michael the words to articulate his pain and confusion.
MD: It gave me a language I didn’t quite understand the way we do now that whiteness or race more broadly as a social construct. Well that’s technical jargonistic language. What in the hell does that mean on the everyday? And Baldwin gave me a sense of what that might mean. That race doesn’t have biologically determined characteristics, heritable characteristics. That is something we agree upon in society. And I didn’t understand all of that completely, but I began to understand it more and Baldwin’s language. Every time I read and reread that book with new experiences, the book wasn’t new, but I was. My understanding got deepened. And so the book showed me new things because upon my rereading of it, I was a different Dyson. I understood differently the world around me.
WS: His days at Cranbrook were cut short, though.
MD: I was kicked out, actually. Well, long story short, I was dating a girl. So my girlfriend when I went into the 12th grade was already at college. That was her first year and I missed her and wanted to visit her, and so on and so forth, at Western Michigan University. And I was at Cranbrook, so it was about three, four hours away on train. And so we found out a way to use the faceless phone, right? And young people won’t even know what I’m talking about. When you get a rotary phone where you had to dial it, they had a faceless phone so kids wouldn’t make calls out. But me and a couple other guys figured out a way to use the two prongs that stick up when you hang the phone up to figure it out. Like one meant one—hit it three times, that’s three, five times as five, nine times, that’s nine. So we figured out how to call out and of course we talked to our girlfriends and the bill was due. Oh, we didn’t think there was going to be a bill. And then they’re going to figure out, by who was called, who the heck was calling them. Didn’t take Nancy Drew to figure that out.
And of course the two white guys, their parents paid it off immediately. My bill, I had to take a third job. I had to work on the weekends at a place called Operation Get Down headed by Bernard Parker, a former Black Panther who was doing tremendous community work. And I had to take this other job working in a stocking liquor to try to pay off that debt. But I was already alienated from the place. I had a sense of vertigo. Three-hundred-and-some odd acres, the first of verdant landscape. The first time I had gone to school with white kids—so never gone to school with white kids. Then, when I’m 16, I go to school with some of the richest kids in the nation who had enormous academic preparation. I didn’t have the preparation in terms of the background. And so I did poorly. I was confused. It was racially charged, a lot of animus that I’d never seen that came to me directly.
WS: His life would take a meandering path as he worked his way back to school.
MD: I went back with my tail tucked between my legs. The golden boy tarnished and finished. In night school—I don’t even know if they still have night school in Detroit—I got a GED after going to a night school there. Then, quickly thereafter became a teen father, got married and then had my son at 18. And then eventually got divorced and didn’t go to college until I was 21 years old. For four years I was working in my father’s Alma mater, the Kelsey Hayes Wheel Brake & Drum Co., hustling on the street, making money cleaning up lawns, cutting laws. Painted houses, odd jobs, picking up steel on the street, measuring it down at the place downtown to be able to make money. That’s what we did and piece it together. And then, you know, with my son, I said I got to provide them a better future, so let me head back to college. I had gone to Wayne County community college and took a class. Wayne state maybe wants to take a class. So I wanted to get into college.
WS: He got into the historically black Knoxville College.
MD: I grabbed the arm full of Greyhound and went down from Detroit to Knoxville to begin my venture of a higher education. But I was 21 years old. By the time most people are graduating, I was just beginning.
WS: Michael went on to get his Master’s and PhD at Princeton University in religion, ethics and politics. But, he always kept close to his roots and the community where he was raised
MD: The thing I learned coming up in Detroit is that nothing is alien to me. I mean, if you’re going to, and I was old school, I was taught in the old school tradition coming up in Detroit with long before I got to Princeton. If you’re going to be an intellectual study, everything,
WS: His open-minded intellect inspired his most recent book, which explores the life and lyrics of American rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z.
MD: Jay has a remarkable appreciation and a respect for the English language, how it’s used. Now there will be more slang in Jay-Z’s lyricism, more colloquial expressions. But each of them takes up language as a means of articulating ideals, ideas, identities, institutional ways of thinking and individual ways against those institutions and the beauty and power to move the crowd, to make them think. [reciting lyrics] “God, forgive me for my brash delivery, but I remember vividly what these streets did to me. Imagine me allowing you to nitpick at me. Portray me like a pick a knee, a pickaninny like a buck dancing, enslaved African American. No, I’m a fully grown, independent, mature man.”
WS: The lyrics aren’t so very different from Baldwin’s words.
MD: Both of them use language to defend themselves, to defend their communities, to open up vistas and horizons of interpretation, to make people think, to go against the grain, to have fun, to have visceral pleasure, to engage in and indulge in what Roland Bart talked about called the pleasures of the text, right?
WS: The lessons from The Fire Next Time help Michael become the scholar and leader he is today.
MD: All the things that make you feel weird when you were coming up, the reason you were called sissy, the reason that you were so obsessed with literacy, will pay off. All that weirdness and difference. You felt all that marginalization, even though you loved your people in your family and your community, but you knew you were different. That difference was for a reason. It has provided you a margin of mercy, of identification with a multiple range and a multitude of people who are different, whether because of their sexual orientation or because of their religion or because of their skin color or because of their culture or because of the geography or the music they listened to. That is not for not, so hold on young man. One day, soon, it will pay off.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard with help from Cate Hynes. Thanks to Michael Eric Dyson. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.