A Reading for African-American History Month


On February 28th New Trier High School on Chicago’s North Shore will offer its students a day-long seminar “Understanding the Struggle for Racial Civil Rights.” Invited guests include the acclaimed novelist Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad (2016) and John Ayden, a collaborator with Congressman John Lewis on March, an illustrated account of the civil rights struggle in which Lewis played an active role. The seminar, for which the school district is spending $30,000, also includes numerous sessions that students can select, on topics ranging racial stereotyping in Disney movies, urban food deserts, and inherent bias.

Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and an ordained Baptist minister, would no doubt be pleased. Dyson praised Georgetown’s recent efforts to make reparations for the institution’s use of slave labor through increases in minority scholarships. I think he would find commendable the efforts of this affluent and predominately white school district (whites are 87% of the population and African-Americans are fewer than 1%). Would that many more school districts would take the same initiative.

I’m speculating that he would also be amused and angered by the responses of a small number of New Trier parents who believe that the seminar is unnecessary and, as one parent has said, “flagrantly and unquestionably politically extreme.” The Chicago Tribune, which has covered this development, also cites a statement by another parent: “I personally do not like the term white privilege. I find that highly offensive. I just don’t think that there’s racism in the New Trier area.”

Dyson is the author of numerous books on the African-American experience, widely ranging from works about hip-hop artists/prophets like Tupac Shakur to black entertainers like the discredited Bill Cosby to personalized portraits of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. His most recent work, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America comes in the form of a jeremiad, a familiar genre in religious oratory. The aim of the speaker is to remind the wayward community of its moral commitments and its founding ideals. It’s to present to the beloved community, often in strident terms, an inventory of its failings in the hope that the errors can be addressed and remedied.

While Dyson’s work is most pointedly directed at the New Trier father who evades if not outright denies white privilege, he seeks to address all Americans not fully informed about the complicated history of black-white relations and the current terror and suspicion that black people, even the most accomplished university professor or president of the nation, fall under. While not intended primarily as an attack on Trump’s brand of white nationalism, the book minces no word in saying that Trump is “the literal face of white innocence without consciousness, white privilege without apology.” Dyson excoriates the millions of Trump voters who would imperil the ship of state for the opportunity to seek revenge against a black man who had the audacity to become president of the United States. It pains Dyson that Trump’s victory signals the rejection of any solidarity with, and perhaps even a contempt for, the dispossessed of society. Trumps victory affirms the notion that it’s no longer necessary to try to empathize with “the other,” if it ever was.

Trump’s election is also a sign that among certain Americans, African-American history is inconsequential and unnecessary. How else to explain Trump’s remarks at a ceremony marking the start of African-American history month 2017. Of Frederick Douglass, arguably the most import black leader and orator of the 19th century, a former slave who vehemently challenged President Lincoln’s timidity about abolishing slavery yet later consulted with Lincoln in the White House, the obtuse and benighted Trump said the following: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job that is being recognized more and more, I notice.” In one sentence we find a fatal combination of ignorance (or as Dyson says, “the willful refusal to know”) and narcissism.

While candidate Obama had to present himself as twice as good, to avoid any suggestion of impropriety and do a careful dance around his own biracial identity, candidate Trump emerged primarily because he was a white man with money. Numerous and outrageous lies, the slandering of other politicians, business disasters, and moral failings were insufficient to scuttle his advance to the White House. From Dyson’s point of view, Trump’s on-steroids version of white privilege and power is emblematic of a general social condition.

Anyone confused or troubled by the term “white privilege” would be wise to read Dyson’s thorough examination of the concept, a reality that many white Americans, like the New Trier father, prefer to deny. He insists that his white readers recognize that white privilege is baked thoroughly into the American cake. He will not let his listeners shift the discussion from an examination of social systems to the personal histories of the citizen, as when some Americans cop a plea by saying that they never owned slaves or never personally discriminated. He skillfully shows that all-white ethnics like the Irish or Italians were once thought to be a subhuman threat to the purity of their new country, yet their pigmentation enabled them to be reclassified as “white” and to enjoy the fruits of American prosperity. And enjoy the knowledge that there is always a group lower than them on the social ladder. African-Americans were victimized by slavery and especially by Jim Crow legislation that injured them in multiple ways from voter-suppression to denial of mortgages in certain red-lined neighborhoods to the absence of a social safety net when worked disappeared as a result of supposedly neutral market factors.

White privilege works silently whenever whites draw from the social favor bank, preferring to do business with their own. It works perniciously when whites believe that every African-American student in a college classroom is there as a result of affirmative action or that, as a cousin of mine posted on Facebook, the crowds at the Obama library were so larger because the new administration was giving out food stamps. Bountiful statistics about white drug addiction, rises in white suicide rates, white-on-white crime do little to put into perspective the dysfunction in African-American communities or to serve as a unifying factor that would join together all despairing peoples with low expectations and little trust in the government.

And privilege is most visible in the disparities in the social justice system. Dyson provides examples from his own family’s history of the cloud of suspicion that hangs over every black man in public and the unwarranted arrests that occasionally escalate into unwarranted violence directed at the alleged African-American criminal. His three children have six degrees, two of which are from Ivy League institutions, yet his anesthesiologist son was arrested for talking on his cell phone when he was simply picking the cell off the floor of the car he was driving.

Dyson treats a number of other related topics: color consciousness and homophobia in AA community; the creative re-appropriation of “nigger” and the varied means of “nigga;” and black; and black-on-black crime. Through it all Dyson is conversant with all of the debates and arguments in and about black culture and he is as comfortable referencing the Wu-Tang Clan as W.E.B Dubois. And he’s a marvelous “code-switcher,” moving easily from jocularity to sadness to righteous indignation. This work might be best encountered in the audio version.

As a life-long educator at a host of institutions (including for a brief time Chicago’s DePaul University) Tyson has a clear aim: “ I seek to fix the warp that racial bigotry can bring. I want to challenge one brain and body at a time, the poisonous precincts in which some of my white students were bred.” And sliding easily from educator to pastor with a religious mission he believes that “black dissent will redeem white innocence” and that “black humanity continues to be the only salvation White American humanity has.”

Every jeremiad has an exhortation. Some of Dyson’s are as follows: 1) Immerse oneself in the scholarship of slavery and Jim Crow (like Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns about the great migrations of the 20th century) and read the new breed of Black Intellectuals, like Ta-Nahesi Coats whose Between the World and Me I reviewed in July of 2015 and 2) Create your own Individual Reparations Account with which you can pay a black tradesman or service employ 20% more than customary and with which you can pick up the textbook purchases for a struggling college student.

At a time when the president seeks to blur the lines between nationalism (which promotes a blind devotion to country) and patriotism (which encourages, indeed requires a healthy dissent), Dyson’s book is especially needed. At a time when the president intimates that America was once great, presumably at such time before the expansion of civil rights, Dyson’s insistence that black and white American history are deeply intertwined is welcomed. He invites us to “reject the denial of history and to live fully in the complicated present with all the discomforts it brings.”







About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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