What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America.
Michael Eric Dyson.
St. Martin’s Press, 294 pp. $24.99.
Reviewed by Todd Steven Burroughs
This review admittedly asks an unfair question: If Michael Eric Dyson had written the 1961 film version of “A Raisin in the Sun” instead of the play’s creator, Lorraine Hansberry — one of the genius wordsmiths the former has written about in his new book—would Beneatha, Walter Lee Younger’s younger sister, have turned her face toward Africa? Would the young intellect, channeled through Hansberry, have seriously considered as a suitor Asagai, that African brother with the smooth rap who talked about the (African) future they could both have? Or would she, under Dyson, have discovered the not-as-struggling-as-they-used-to-be Black magazine writers like the pre-Autobiography of Malcolm X Alex Haley, and proudly announced, “I’m gonna hustle this Negro Civil Rights thing and make some loot!”
This is asked because time and time again, Dyson, one of the nation’s most popular culture critics, has made it clear that the public, thus-far failed work of Black intellectual thought, such as nationalism, Black Marxism and Pan-Africanism, is not for him. Black American history — and only that — exists just to make comparative points about the similarities of the current environment and its players, not to analyze the many successes and failures of Black liberation. He’s not trying to create intellectual clarity on the nature of an oppressive world, as a world citizen; he’s just a Black American liberal with a powerful, self-generating megaphone. His goal is to lead any national Black barbershop talk as a Black opinion journalist without a Black magazine, forever carrying a bag of large syllables and endnotes.
So this current book, which deconstructs well the 1963 meeting between U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Black luminaries, including James Baldwin and Hansberry, is a perfect Dyson book topic. Here, on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s June 1968 assassination, he can talk about Black history and culture in safe, comfortable ways—cut from their radical edges as sharply as unwanted sandwich bread crust. This book is designed to help white people understand Black agency and rage, and, along the way, allow him to critique current white and Black modes of thought by using the meeting’s “success” as a guide. The gist: Robert Kennedy’s eventual redemption can be White America’s too, Dyson argues, if it just chose to listen. This is clearly important to Dyson and other Black public intellectuals, because if White America doesn’t listen, how can they sell books by touring the nation and getting on MSNBC, C-SPAN, National Public Radio and elsewhere so they can explain why whites should listen? Because that’s the game, right?
Lip service is given to artists and intellectuals fighting for the world they imagine, but no one wants to be the terror-to-terrorized Paul Robeson, who, along with his journalist wife, had an actual political imagination, so, not surprisingly, Dyson refers to his “tragic” downfall. The author’s discussion of 2016 presidential politics contains powerful, pragmatic clarity: Dyson poo-poos any alternative political thought, tactic or strategy, even selective voting. Isn’t the purpose of Black scholarship to discuss, access and promote alternative ideas and modes of being in never-ending resistance to the status quo, whether Democratic or Republican? Isn’t that what Baldwin and the other de-colonizing artists at that Kennedy meeting did?
Perhaps and perhaps not. The Baldwin and Hansberry he profiles — who, along with Kennedy initially, were happy that the people in the meeting were not from the Civil Rights leadership club, not from “official and safe lines of thought,” at least until the meeting started — are frozen in that 1963 moment of angry pleading. But that’s not the chief crime committed here. Somehow, Dyson misses perhaps the most important part of the meeting’s exchanges: Jerome Smith, the Freedom Rider who the artists invited, and who shocked Kennedy because he talked about possibly getting guns and defending himself. A (Black) scholar who was trying to parse the various modes of radical resistance to white supremacy in, say, a post-modern white nationalist era of open, naked white violence toward, and harassment of, Blacks led by a white nationalist president, would have gone into the whole history of that thought instead of just discussing Kennedy working through unedited Black rage. But alas, that’s the wrong author, because the Essence Music Festival and other high-class Black venues might change their phone numbers, rendering his speed dial useless.
This writer yields to Dyson’s talent. For better or for worse, one of his gifts is to rehash things or approaches from prior books or articles; that act, if the pun can be forgiven, keeps the current flowing. So Cornel West, Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates get re-takes, to allow any new audience a refresher of his views of them. (This book does one important thing: it shows how much we need a sober, extended Ron Walters-like academic work dissecting how Obama divided leftist Black public intellectuals.) His tour of 2018 current Black excellence — Jesse Williams, Jay-Z, Beyonce, the public intellectual Erin Aubry Kaplan — is encouraging. His mastery of wordplay, emphasis and vocabulary is ever-present: “The dual meaning of witness becomes clear: Baldwin as witness, and Baldwin being witnessed, being seen. Baldwin as witness brought the full panoply of his gifts to bear. His voice was a weapon of witness.” He does a good job making comparisons, although his hip-hop vs. activist shtick (Belafonte vs. Jay-Z, like his Martin Luther King-Tupac of a prior book) should be intellectually retired. His quick coda on this year’s pop-cult movie phenom, Wakanda’s Black Panther, seemed designed to end the work in the Afro-futurist realm, to say that the Black achievement he roll-calls will continue into the stratosphere, if not become intergalactic. Dyson succeeds in his goal: to be positive and reassuring.
In the end, writers must be who they are, and to do that, they have to ignore the nay-sayers. When an author writes the majority of 20-plus books almost the exact same way, he is either fulfilling his particular approach or has created a formula that is satisfying to him or her, or both. Especially if that formula gets you back-cover advance blurbs from President Obama, Harry Belafonte–a big part of the book because he was a major participant at that meeting–and Black leftist scholar Robin D.G. Kelly. So clearly he’s Black and left enough for many people.
Dyson will continue to fill the pop-cult need he created and nourished. There is no amount of critique, in print or anywhere else, that will turn a Negro preacher and Princeton grad into, say, Walter Rodney. Dyson is a blood from the Detroit ‘hood who found comfort and fame via writing accessible books, and displaying powerful polysyllabic flow, about Black popular culture draped in light-syrup Black cultural criticism. He’s happy that for more than two decades now, he’s helped lead any quasi-substantive Black public discussion that arises. Hey, that’s proof of being on top of the hustle; cue that old Don King biopic, baby! But this writer, a popular culture geek and an unapologetic Wakanda observer in print, feels that it’s fair to point out that Dyson’s Wakanda, like his Black America, may contain some vibranium, but purposely has no spears fashioned from it.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J. He is the author of Warrior Princess: A People’s Biography of Ida B. Wells, and Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, both published by Diasporic Africa Press. His 2014 audiobook, Son-Shine On Cracked Sidewalks, deals with the first mayoral election of Ras Baraka, the son of the late activist and writer Amiri Baraka, in Newark.