ALA 2016 got off to a rollicking start. At the opening general session on Friday, in Orlando, author and political commentator Michael Eric Dyson delivered a timely, impassioned keynote that brought a standing ovation. “When we think about where we are as a nation right now, we know that literacy is critical to sustaining an intelligent citizenry,” he said. “And libraries are critical to that function.”
Over the course of his 35-minute talk, Dyson, a frequent political commentator for MSNBC, mostly steered away from politics. “I've been warned against [talking politics]” he said, noting the ALA’s 501(c)(3) status. “And I will for the most part acknowledge that. I ain’t here to tell you who to vote for. You got sense,” he said to laughter and applause. Nevertheless, in referencing his latest book, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) Dyson conceded that it was “a refreshing breath of air” to have someone “who knows how to conjugate verbs up in the White House.”
He then went on to call out a strain of anti-intellectualism he sees gripping the country, calling libraries "citadels of enlightenment" in a culture that is "peppered by a dyspeptic resistance to high intelligence in the service of deep truth,” and alluding to those who "appear proud to be unmolested by enlightenment.” And though he acknowledged the benefits of social media, he stressed the importance of books. "Twitteracy," he said, "is not literacy."
Throughout his talk, Dyson delighted the audience with humor, often preaching, rapping, and at one point even singing opera. He recited Tennyson with ease, and placed great writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Henry Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning alongside “the great philosopher Christopher Wallace,” explaining that "literacy" is more than the mechanics of reading and writing, or whether or not one goes to school. “Literacy is the capacity to engage in intellectual reflection,” he stressed, a “rendezvous with wisdom,” through which we become “more humane.”
Midway through, Dyson turned his attention to the tragic shootings this month at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, pointedly criticizing observers who have strained to portray the murders as an act of Islamic terror. “Here we are in Orlando where we can't even admit that one of the most powerful forms of hate in the modern world has to do with somebody’s sexual orientation,” he said. “We would rather it be ISIS than us.”
Recalling his childhood, Dyson spoke of the “white Christian racism” he endured, of not being able to use a bathroom or eat at a roadside restaurant while traveling through Tennessee with his family, and of the lynchings that were often carried out by church members. “They did not burn a crescent and stars, they burned a cross on the lawns of black people,” he said. “That is white racial terror at the level of Christianity.”
The point was not to impugn Christianity, he explained—Dyson himself became an ordained Baptist minister at the age of 19—but to counter the cycle of ignorance that leads to hate and violence, a cycle that often causes victims of injustice to victimize others, and closes people’s minds to the necessity of diversity, and equity. “Don’t look for ISIS,” Dyson stressed, “look for isolation.”
He closed by again stressing the library’s vital role in "conjuring a world" where literacy helps us understand the need for diversity.
“We need diversity not only to recognize the appeal and the value of difference, but also to recognize that we depend upon the very diversity that we often deny,” he said. “Equity, diversity, and inclusion are critical. But the literacy that [libraries] promote, that you inspire, the literacy that you instigate is also vital. Because at the end of the day, as my daddy and mommy used to tell me, that is something that nobody can take from you. Nobody can ever pass a bill that would deny you access to the insight that you gain when you read a book, or an article, or set of words.”