Michael Eric Dyson pops his head into the small office of Washington. D.C.'s Vertigo bookstore to greet his interviewer. The store is located in the former offices of a bank just below Dupont Circle on Connecticut Avenue. The office is actually the bank's former vault and one enters through an incongruously imposing armored door into a small room crowded with desks, boxes, file cabinets and books stacked in every corner. Dyson, Ida B. Wells-Barnett university professor at DePaul University in Chicago, an ordained Baptist minister and a former welfare recipient, has just finished giving a combination lecture, sermon and book signing to promote his newest book, I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King Jr., an analysis of the life of the civil rights leader that attempts to reconcile our "namby-pamby, we-are-the-world," contemporary view of Martin Luther King Jr. with what Dyson sees as an overlooked radical political legacy recorded in King's inspirational writings and speeches and complicated by his flawed personal life.
Dyson exudes an affable, boy-from-the-'hood geniality. Dressed casually in a dark sports coat and collarless pullover, he finds a chair in Vertigo's crowded office and heartily greets PW after more than three hours signing books and responding to questions from an engaged audience at the store. Dyson is not your typical academic. On a podium he's a mixed bag of oratory, capable of majestic black religious eloquence, academic erudition, streetwise irreverence and the linguistic improvisation of the rap and hip-hop music that he clearly loves. One moment he's vividly quoting a section of King's sermons and the next he's rapping and rhyming in hip-hop meter, reciting verbatim the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, Nas or Biggie Smalls to make a point a about his book or about political struggle.
One of several highly visible black academics who were profiled, lauded and criticized in the 1990s, Dyson came to be identified with such high profile scholars as Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, Cornell West and Patricia Williams, a new generation of black public intellectuals who brought their talent and prestige to address questions of public policy, in particular issues of importance to African Americans. Indeed, after his 1993 book, Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture (and more than a few appearances on media talk shows), he has been referred to as the "Hip-Hop Intellectual," criticizing the excesses of rap music while celebrating its roots in black American musical tradition and its ability to embody the consciousness of young, urban African-Americans. Indeed, it is Dyson's own working-class background and a singular ability to synthesize political, historical and theological scholarship with popular culture and his commitment to grass roots politics that gives his intellectual work such popular interest. "I want young people to look at me and go, 'Damn, I want to be like that brother. He sharp, he be on point. He represent black people.' I want to make the life of the mind sexy," says Dyson. "I think public intellectuals have a responsibility -- to be self-critical on the one hand, to do serious, nuanced work rigorously executed; but to also be able to get off those perches and out of those ivory towers and speak to the real people who make decisions; to speak truth to power and the powerless with lucidity and eloquence."
Motor City Homie to Academic Star
"A homeboy with a Ph.D.," as he describes himself, Dyson's rise to scholar and author is quite a story. He was born in Detroit's black ghetto to a working class family of 5 brothers and 4 sisters. His father worked in the automobile industry for 33 years and his mother eventually became a public school teacher's aide At 11 years old Dyson began to give public speeches and win oratorical contests. He remembers learning about black history from Mrs. James, his fifth-grade teacher, and reciting the dialect p try of Paul Lawrence Dunbar in grade school. "We learned the black vernacular tradition way before Ebonics was dissed later on. It was very important to me. I went to a segregated school, I was born a Negro, not a black man" says Dyson, invoking the black self-nomenclature of the time.
Despite a scholarship to private school at age 18, he was soon back on the streets of Detroit. "I got kicked out of school and came back, the golden boy tarnished," says Dyson. He headed into a downward spiral, married his pregnant girlfriend, then was fired from his job a month before his son was born and landed on welfare. (His first marriage failed and he has since remarried twice and has three children.) One of his brothers has been convicted of murder. "I believe he's innocent but he's been in jail for ten years." Finally deciding that he needed a college education, and hoping to become a minister, he enrolled in Knoxville College in Tennessee, working in factories during the day, pastoring at three different churches and studying philosophy. He received a Ph.D. in religious ethics and politics from Princeton in 1993, then attended the Hartford Seminary, deciding finally that he wanted to be a professor. In Race Rules, Dyson discussed the conflict between the conservative male leadership of black churches (he was abruptly fired as pastor after urging that women take more active church leadership roles) and his own vision of a progressive church. Although these days he is often a guest preacher, after his earlier stints as a pastor, he tells PW he learned that he really "wanted to be a professor, an intellectual, not someone who was going to preach every Sunday. Pastoring was not my calling. The academy is where I happen to do my thing."
A Bio-Critique of MLK
The King book is the latest work in Dyson's ongoing project to engage the political and racial realities of America. His first book was Reflecting Black: African American Cultural Criticism (1993) from the University of Minnesota Press, written, he says, to raise money to help his jailed brother's defense for murder. His next book was Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X (1994), a New York Times notable book of the year; and in 1996 he released Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture, both from Oxford University Press. He followed those books with Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line from Addison Wesley in 1998. "So these were the four books before this King book where I use bio-criticism, joining social criticism and cultural criticism into a biographical perspective to interrogate a serious figure." Previously represented by Kim Witherspoon Associates he says he is currently looking for new representation.
His current editor Liz Maguire, editorial director of the Free Press, has been his editor since he published Making Malcolm at OUP, and Dyson has moved along with her to Addison Wesley and now to the Free Press. He's also quick to note that "I owe a book to the wonderful Ann Godoff at Random House. I hope you're reading this Ann, I hope you love me baby" he quips, pointing out that, "I gotta figure out what the book is and then do it." He calls Maguire "a brilliant editor and an intellectual soulmate. We've tried to make a difference in the kind of books I've published. I feel the same way about Ann Godoff, that kind of intellectual simpatico where we can forge a connection to make something that Americans care about."
King was "central to my own intellectual development," says Dyson, calling King "arguably, the greatest American ever produced on our native soil." To make his point he rhetorically asks for a moratorium on celebrating King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, given at the 1963 March on Washington. Dyson calls it "one of the most abused speeches in the history of black civic rhetoric." While the landmark oration is "a brilliant summary of the wish of black people to be free and to somehow join their project to the American project," Dyson emphasizes that King's "revolutionary flourishes have been buried beneath the overvaluation of his dream language.
"He was deeply invested in a Christian conception of redistributing wealth," continues Dyson. "After the Montgomery bus boycott he began to really focus on systemic problems in society. I think he began to be radicalized by figures like Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and Michael Harrington and other progressives," says Dyson. "That's the kind of King I think we need to recuperate." At the same time the book attempts to challenge the "appropriation" of King's legacy from right-wing figures such as anti-affirmative action activist Ward Connerly and the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed, conservatives who claim King as a political role model. "King's words have been yanked out of their historical context to justify a whole range of policies and positions that King would have certainly resisted and would have found abhorrent," says Dyson. "I don't think the left has done enough appropriation of King's work," says Dyson. "The left has distanced itself from his politics because of his profound religiosity -- he's talking about Jesus not Marx -- when indeed he was more radical and progressive than most leftists who are just paperback Marxists."
Dyson examines King's personal failures as well as discussing at length the plagiarism that has been discovered in his preaching as well as outright academic plagiarism to complete his doctoral thesis from Boston College. "Oral preaching traditions are all rather much more promiscuous, passed along on a communal basis," says Dyson. But Dyson does not condone academic theft: "King was a brilliant man but he was not brilliantly gifted in terms of academic rigor. I think he understood that he was not cut out to be a professor, but to profess a larger vocation to help America become the best that it could be."
The book also examines King's promiscuity and sexism while comparing these excesses with those associated with the hip-hop artists. It is a comparison that often gets him into hot water with older African-American admirers of King and with such black intellectuals as Stanley Crouch, a notorious critic of hip-hop. Rather carefully Dyson uses the example of rap's sampling, the electronic borrowing of music and phrases from other artists. "King can be readily explained to hip-hoppers," says Dyson. "The idea is that originality does not consist in saying it first but in saying it with your own stamp on it. King had such similarities with hip-hop. When I compare him with Tupac I say they both ate, drank and had reckless sexual relations with women. They were both capable of brilliance and both were concerned with leadership in their fields. This is not to suggest that King was Tupac in disguise, but to suggest that let's cut Tupac some slack if we can cut King some slack. King, like the rappers, sampled the words of other people but he refigured and recoded them in brilliant ways and in his own language."
"You know the King holiday is indicative of the paradox of American heroism. I think it was Carlyle who said, "Pity the Nation that needs perfect heroes," says Dyson. "Once the canonization has come, then the person almost becomes irrelevant. Because in one sense, we're saying that real progress, ironically and tragically, is for black people to be able to forget their her s the same way white folks do
"I want to restore King to his own effectiveness, to see how he anticipated so much of the stuff that's going on now," he continues. "The real challenge of King's heroism is to make it a useful heroism. To challenge orthodoxies of race and to continue to question how this society has refused to embody the principles for which he died: economic and social equality and the challenge to tribalism in every form."
Dyson says that at the height of the acclaim over black public intellectuals he wrote a "piece that tried to poke fun at all of us. 'Who named you that, who do you represent, how much do you get paid for doing it and where can I apply for that job.' I think all of us [public intellectuals] should take that stuff tongue in cheek because none of us should be so removed that we don't feel the heat of people's anger, jealousy or outrage at our comparably privileged positions. At the same time I think that black public intellectuals have a crucial role to play in American society. Which is why I'm stomping for Bill Bradley this time around. I think we have a responsibility to make contributions to public life."