Michael Eric Dyson, a Black author and Georgetown professor is one of my favorite activists and orators. Since I had not heard anything about him in the news recently, I decided to Google him. Immediately, I saw the headlines Michael Eric Dyson Slams Cornel West At NAN Convention: ‘You Ain’t That Important’ on April 4th, 2014 and Michael Eric Dyson: Obama “Failed Us Not Only As Black People But He Failed The Nation on August 19, 2014. Now, I know Dyson to have been an avid Obama supporter (I even quoted him in a recent paper on Politics & Race in the Obama Age), so I was interested to see what had sparked this change in feelings.
In April, Dyson came to Obama’s defense against Dr. Cornel West, a Harvard-educated author, socialist and activist in the African American community. West, who has said that President Obama “posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit”, criticized Dyson and others earlier this year, saying that he was blindly supportive of Obama. Specifically, West claimed that Dyson had been bought by the “Rent-A-Negro” network, MSNBC, after speaking publicly there about his support of President Obama. Dyson, with his distinctly swagged out delivery, put West in his place; saying that while West was entitled to his opinion, his opinion was not the only opinion, and that his inflated ego caused him to launch a “personal assault” on Obama, instead of a “principled critique.” He says:
“I’m not mad at principled critique, but you still could be wrong. But when you start indicting my soul like I’ve given my soul over to Obama or the devil — now you’re tripping. You ain’t that important. You’re not God to be able to leverage the divine assignment of privilege or punishment.”
Now, Interestingly enough, I had just had a similar conversation with someone around the disrespect that Obama seems to endure from press, Black America and White America simultaneously. While George W. Bush endured his fair share of taunt, the “personal assaults”, as Dyson put them, did not seem as severe as they have with Obama.
So why, in a matter of months, had Dyson changed his tune? Well, turns out he really hadn’t at all.
On August 12, 2014, three days after Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri, the White House issued a statement. Naturally, the President offered his condolences to the family of the teenager, but failed to take a stance on the racial divide that was quickly forming in the depressed community. Many were disappointed, and have been throughout his Presidency, about Obama’s soft stance on racism. The confines of his carefully constructed, “colorblind” Presidential campaign may have spilled over into his Presidency; even after won his second and final term.
So Dyson spoke up:
“He failed to deal with the particular instances not only of Michael Brown — he doesn’t have to deal with Michael Brown. The president said, I don’t want to put my thumb on it too much to weigh the scales of justice. Don’t even talk about Michael Brown. Talk about what led to Michael Brown. Tell us as a nation what happens when festering rage in a community then begins to ignite and then begins to consume not only that community but the people around the nation who are empathetic. So I think the president has a lot more latitude. Does he have opposition? Yes. But when he opens his mouth on Iraq, he’s opposed. When he opens his mouth on the environment, he’s opposed. When he opens his mouth on gay marriage, he’s opposed. He’s opposed every step. Don’t use this as an excuse to not speak about race.”
And I agree.
We all understand that had Obama run a campaign touting “Black Power” and promising to right the wrongs of racial injustice in this country, he never would have been elected. We all understand that he had to play the game to get his foot in the door…but what happens when he is legitimately elected a second time to the highest office of the land? I understand that without a Congress he can depend on, Obama is concerned about leaving a legacy that can mean he did something…but I do feel that he has a responsibility for taking up the cause that his children and grandchild and great-grandchildren will one day face as Black people. That is part of being a President for all Americans. Black people are Americans, too.
So, in closing, Dyson did exactly what he said one should do- he offered a principled critique. He didn’t call him the antichrist, speak ill of his wife and children or call his supporters house negroes, but he spoke his mind in a respectful way, which showed that he can be both deliciously articulate AND objective. Mix in there that he listens to Tupac Shakur, and you will understand why I find him so prolific.