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Michael Eric Dyson's new book on America's reckoning with race

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New York Times best-selling author Michael Eric Dyson reads from his new book on America's reckoning with race nine months after the killing of George Floyd. In the book, he addresses emotional letters to Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner and other African Americans who died too young.

Video Transcript

- All right, my talk on the table is about a new book that examines racism in America by speaking directly to black Americans whose deaths have fueled calls for change. In A Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America, author Michael Eric Dyson writes letters to Emmett Till, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and others. And then Dyson explores the need for police reform, what it means to be a black American, and cancel culture. Here are some excerpts from the book.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Dear Sandra Bland, I don't know quite how to say this. Dear Breonna Taylor, I am outraged. Dear Eric Garner, I must say my friend, I can barely begin to understand how we are back here again. Back to a black man begging to breathe as the cops kill her. As if your death wasn't tragic enough. As if your death hadn't sent so many of us into the streets. As if your death hadn't already made us feel utterly endangered and defenseless in the face of cops who will never respect us or treat us like their kin.

[CROWD CHANTING IN PROTEST]

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: My fellow Americans, I beg of you first consider this. Do you realize how much faith it takes for me and those like me to write my fellow Americans? Do you realize how much energy it takes to summon the will to say those words? Do you know that so many black folk are still full of love for the nation that so often treats us so poorly? We are used to hearing presidents saying,

- My fellow Americans.

- My fellow Americans.

- My fellow Americans.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Has the sentiment ever really been true for black folk? Do we really live in the same country as white folk? Do we see the same things? Is our nation's motto fully realized? E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one.

- And Michael Eric Dyson joins us now. Professor Dyson, thank you for being with us. We can hear from that reading that it's a powerful book. I want to get into the contents of it but I want to start with its distinctive style. It's written in it as a series of letters to the dead. Victims of the struggle, you call them. Why did you decide to do it that way?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, thanks for having me. First, I didn't want to write merely about them. I didn't want to further objectify them. I wanted to speak to them. You know how you go visit your loved one at the gravesite? You know they're not there, but they provide you the opportunity, the space to think, the spirit to engage an issue, to reflect calmly. To go away from the maelstrom and say, this is what we must do in order to move forward. So I wanted to write to them to restore their humanity. To make them feel that in our collective imagination, that they were present. And to give them the dignity they were denied in life. That's why I chose the epistolary form, to make it more intimate.

- It works. Let's talk about moving forward. Key to reckoning with race in America is reckoning with police violence against Black people in America. Repeatedly on this show, however, and other shows. Police officials have denied that there is something like systemic racism or racism at all in the system. So how do you create change when you don't first have that acknowledgment?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah it's very difficult to do so. The longer we live in 51st state, the state of denial as the late Joseph Lowery said, we won't be able to engage fully with the issue. And once we put it on the table. Once we begin to reckon with the history of denial. The amnesia that we have willfully submitted ourselves to. Then we'll be able to move forward. If the police could recognize that, look black people call the police more than any other group. So that means that they are not antip- you know, they don't have an antithesis toward the police and antipathy for the police. They simply want to be treated fairly and justly and decently when the police arrive. The police work for us. We don't work for them. They are public servants, to protect and serve. So when we get that on the table, when they begin to treat black citizens as fully equipped human beings deserving of their rights, then we can begin to move forward in a collective bargaining, so to speak, with what the future of policing should look like.

- Professor Dyson, I want to get your take on cancel culture. Number one, I did not know that you were an ordained minister so I was very surprised to read that. I had no idea. You said that your roots stem from compassion. And when you talk about cancel culture, fortunately or unfortunately, I made the book-- I think it's page 163, I'm not sure. I do appreciate your take on that. We're not going to go into that here, but people can read that for themselves. But you talk about cancel culture and you talk about the Virginia governor Northrup. And what was your take on that? I thought it was very interesting because we live in a cancel culture society, big time today.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Absolutely. I didn't-- you know, look, I think the quest for justice is right. I understand the kind of disappointment with the criminal justice system. But I don't think the result and the answer is for us to go around willy nilly arbitrarily canceling other people. Ralph Northam as the governor of Virginia. When he was a medical student 20 some odd years ago, he dressed in blackface. Was it wrong? Of course. Was it ridiculous? Yes. Was it nefarious? In some instances, of course. But my point was, don't cancel him out. Nothing better than a white public official who is conscious of the fact that he owes black people his future because they stand with him regardless of his mistake. I'm a Baptist preacher, 41 years. I believe in forgiveness. Should we hold people to account? Absolutely. Should when they mess up, should they fess up? Yes. But then we should dress up. We should address the issue and move forward. What has he done since then? He has done so many programs, including the 10,000 ex felons who have now been restored in terms of their rights. A disproportionate number of whom are African-American.

And when I think about Morgan Whalen down in Tennessee, did he do something wrong by using the n-word? Absolutely. Was he speaking to black people? No. But he knows he was wrong. He even released a video saying, don't defend me. I like the fact that he has taken responsibility for his actions. However, let's not let him lose his contract. Let's not cancel him altogether. Allow him to be restored. Restorative justice says, somebody does something wrong, we hold them to account and then we put them back into society to allow them to flourish. I don't think canceling somebody is absolutely the way. It's white supremacy, as I argue in the book, on the sly. That's the impulse to cancel somebody. Absolute intolerance.

- Professor, I know we're short on time, we have to go, but something stood out in your book where you said millennials see race the same as baby boomers. I was very surprised by that. What you mean?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah well, Pew studies did a report that said, aside from interracial relationships, millennials see race pretty much the same way that boomers did. Which means it's not an automatic progress. Dr. King said there's not-- we don't roll in on the wheels of inevitability. You have to make a conscious decision to make a difference. I was heartened by the fact that after George Floyd's death, hundreds of thousands of white brothers and sisters joined Black and Brown and red and yellow people in this country to make a difference. That's what we have to do. A conscious decision to make a difference.

- And when they get involved, then they start to see things differently. I thought that was a very important point.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Absolutely.

- Professor, Pastor Dyson, learned something in the book today. Thank you very much for joining us. Really appreciate it. The name of the book is called Long Time Coming. It's on sale now wherever you like to buy your books.