The author joins us to discuss his evocative new text Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.
Author Dr. Michael Eric Dyson
Tavis Smiley: Good morning from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with professor and author, Michael Eric Dyson, at a time of the rise of the so-called alt–right. Dyson is just out with a new text appealing to white America. When the politics of division are reaching new heights, Dyson is calling for a deeper understanding.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Michael Eric Dyson about his new text entitled “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America”, in just a moment.
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Tavis: I am pleased to welcome Michael Eric Dyson back to this program. He is a bestselling author, a Georgetown University professor, political commentator and, even with all that, in his own words, he is foremost a Baptist preacher, a Baptist minister.
In his latest text, it reflects that. It’s called “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America”. I was coming home from Washington the other day and going through my weekly New York Times, my Sunday edition. Lo and behold, number eight on the list.
Michael Eric Dyson: Shout hallelujah [laugh].
Tavis: Congratulations. Premiered at number eight. That’s a big deal, man. That’s high cotton, as they say in my neighborhood [laugh].
Dyson: And wiping with the top leaf [laugh]. But, see, you know, because you live on those charts. I’m just visiting. I said this is what Tavis feels like. I cannot believe — look, our reunion is like BBD coming back together with Bobby Brown [laugh].
Tavis: Well, let’s make some music then. Let’s make some music. So congrats on that, seriously.
Dyson: Thank you, man. I appreciate it.
Tavis: Let me just start with that. Part of what made me so pleased about that was that I’d read the book. I knew what the text had to say and, in a moment like this, it was almost like a balm to me.
Dyson: Yeah, right, right.
Tavis: Because you don’t get on the list at number eight with just Negroes buying your book.
Dyson: No, no, no, no. No doubt, that’s true.
Tavis: So the fact that a bunch of white people were actually open to hearing a sermon to them that put you on the list, that was like a balm for me. Does that make sense?
Dyson: That’s a powerful point you’re making and most people miss that. But then again, you are Tavis Smiley. I was Atlanta doing a book signing at the Carter Center. Tremendous turnout, huge. A woman came up to me, a white woman.
She said, “Thank you for trusting us, for telling us the truth. Thank you for trusting us enough to tell us the truth” and that struck me. Because, you know, we were nervous. Like what are we going to do, how are we going to do it?
I got to tell the truth. Look, Tavis, I tried to write every other thing. I wrote an essay, didn’t work. I wrote 50, 60 pages, didn’t work. Metaphorically, tore it up. But then one night, I know you’ll get this, I’m sitting there. I said, Lord, what am I going to do? Because these people done paid me this money [laugh] and I can’t…
Tavis: And the good white folk want their stuff [laugh].
Dyson: And they want it back and I done spent it [laugh]. I cannot go in the corner no more. So I said let me — and it struck me. It said do what you’ve always done. Preach. And in the midnight hour — I hate to get Kingian, man — but some strange things can happen at midnight.
Tavis: That’s it.
Dyson: So the inspiration came to me and I got up that night and I wrote and it poured out of me. You see the opening, the invocation? That poured out of me and I sent it to my editor and they said, “Oh, my God, here it is.” I knew that I wanted to share with white brothers and sisters our of my heart, which is why I call them beloved.
A lot of white people and others say, “Why do you call them beloved?” Because I’m a preacher and that’s what we do. I wanted to give them affection with the tough love. I wanted to demand something of them because usually when we speak about race in America, we’re talking to Black folk, brown folk, red folk, yellow folk.
We’re not dealing with white folk because white folk don’t even get a chance to or are not encouraged to think about themselves as white, as a race. Just like men think gender, women. They don’t think men. We have masculinity, sometimes toxic to the degree where we’re incapable of acknowledging it.
So I wanted to invite white Americans into a conversation that was very tough, that I wanted to give some historical backdrop to, so that it can catch up with us to understand how we think about race, how we think about whiteness and what we can do to solve this racial dilemma.
Tavis: When I saw the book come across my desk and saw that title, I loved it immediately. But I also thought about that old adage that you and I both know that folk would rather see a sermon than hear a sermon.
Dyson: That’s true, true.
Tavis: They’d rather see one than hear one. So we need to be the living epistle of those things that we speak.
Tavis: We’d rather see a sermon than hear one. And then I thought, well, if they can’t see the sermon, if they can’t feel the sermon when they see it, when they see Trayvon getting shot, when they see Eric — you know where I’m going with this…
Dyson: Oh, yes, sir.
Tavis: If they can’t feel it when they see it, how are they going to hear it?
Dyson: Well, that’s the thing. How shall they hear without a preacher?
Dyson: I don’t want to step in in a self-serving fashion, but that’s what we do. That’s what preachers do. Make the connections. Make the connections with people who see one thing understand that it’s problematic, but don’t know quite how to read it, how to interpret it.
So what I wanted to do was to be the sinew to bring together the flesh of their experience with the bone and marrow of their intuition. And I wanted to be that interlocking force to say let me tell you what’s going on here.
Because when we get gunned down and mowed down, that’s your child, but you don’t think about it as your child. And if you put yourself in our shoes, you would. Let me tell you some stories about my children, my son, my daughter, my other son and how we’ve suffered.
Let me tell you what I suffered as a person of color, as a Black man in America, what a PhD from Princeton getting humiliated. Many white people read that and they go, wait a minute. All right, now he’s reasonable on this and let’s not put ourselves in that position. So to your point, I was trying to show them in the sermonic treatment these are the states of Black people in America.
This is the hurt and pain we suffer and certainly you can’t damn us. You can’t say, “Oh, you must not have been acting right. You weren’t talking right. You didn’t behave correctly”, as if we could behave our way out of the folly and pathology of unconscious white supremacy.
So I wanted to challenge some of that stuff. And by preaching about it, by talking about it, by exposing the hurt and the pain and the trauma and the grief, I think that white people have identified with it and, hopefully, will continue to.
Tavis: The other thing I thought, Michael, when I got the text, you can’t ever go wrong preaching to Black folk. But there’s something that some white folk from time to time do to belittle the notion of the Black church and the Black preacher.
Dyson: Oh, yeah, right, right.
Tavis: He’s either a poverty pimp or you know the names they call Black preachers.
Dyson: Yeah, sure, sure.
Tavis: And when people want to take a swipe at the Black community, the only thing y’all got is churches and preachers. Maybe a few entertainers, a few singers. But the point is that the notion of preaching, that homiletical tradition, people look at it in a reductionist sort of way.
Dyson: That’s right.
Tavis: Yet you chose that as your frame anyway. Does that make sense?
Dyson: Yes, sir.
Tavis: I guess I was surprised, knowing who you are, but it was risky.
Dyson: It is risky, but what I knew and what you know, the genius of our tradition. What I know is that there are Black men and women standing up in pulpits every Sunday, got 12 people in their church who can out-preach any great rhetorician in America. No disrespect to our beloved former president. God, can you come back, sir, for four more years?
You know, as critical as we have been in understanding his context, his rhetorical majesty is powerful graded on a curve and that curve is American politics. But on a 12-member church on the corner, Negro gets up, “Tonight I want to preach about God is Love. I don’t want to talk about God, I don’t want to talk about Love. I want to talk about Is. Is your all on the altar of sacrifice laid?” And that Negro will work with Is…
Tavis: And preach it.
Dyson: And there’s an alter to isness. Then you don’t know if you got [inaudible] or you got Jay Z. So the reality of that genius — and I knew it. Frederick Douglass Haynes, Allen Waller, Gina Stewart, I mean, these geniuses. Lance Watson, Rudolph McKissick. I could name them.
If they knew the talent that these people possess — so what I wanted to do was to translate the extraordinary capacity to preach that those men and women have that I was reared into. I’m a practitioner, but when I hear them preach, I want to get my license back.
But I still got a license to preach. I wanted to combine that with what I knew to be the ability of the Black pulpit to speak directly to white America. Martin Luther King, Jr., of course, the foremost practitioner of that Black homiletical art that white brothers and sisters know.
So I wanted to hearken back to what Dr. King was doing and dig deep into the pathos of Black rhetoric and say this is what we want to give you. I’m a scholar. I got a PhD, but I wanted to go back, you know, to old people and say I had my burning before I had my learning.
And I wanted to go back to the burning part and say how do we give an adequate picture and I knew that preaching was the basis of it. I have enough confidence. Let me tell you what. Paul Tillick, the great theologian, said, “I reserve one arrogance, that when it comes to theology, the Germans have it.”
Well, I have reserved one Eric has. When it comes to preaching, we killing that game. Y’all can give it up. Go on to something else. Do Scooby-Do or something. I mean, do cartoons because we’re killing the American preaching game.
Tavis: And yet there is a fine line. You still don’t want to be guilty of preaching in a way where you’re misconnecting to the humanity of the white folk who you want to read the text.
Dyson: That’s brilliant.
Tavis: How do you get to that humanity which is the only part of them that you’re gonna touch if you want the book to have success?
Dyson: That’s true. That’s a brilliant point, Tavis. See, there are at least two different traditions of preaching. you know, apodictic, absolutist, thundering down from the pulpit, or getting down on the ground with the people. One is liveness. Sing from the gaze of God. Ain’t nobody up there. So we’re down here with Wes Montgomery on the ground. We got the worm’s eye view.
So in the trenches, I remember the late great preacher, William Augustus Jones, about whom it was said like it was of Carlyle Marney. Had a voice like God’s, only deeper [laugh]. He told me once, “Young man, I used to thunder down from the pulpit, but I now preach more about grace maybe because I need more of it.”
Tavis: There you go.
Dyson: Well, I know I need the grace too, so I’m down here on the ground with the people in the trenches trying to excavate hope and talk about the possibility. And I approach these white brothers and sisters, I’m not gonna lambast you. I’m not gonna hate you. I’m gonna love the hell out of you because that’s the tradition from which I came.
I’m not trying to proselytize you as you said. I’m trying to convert your understanding into something useful to your life and then give it to you from our perspective. See it from somebody’s else’s perspective. Walk another mile in our shoes, but see it through our spectacles. So what my job is, is to give you a different set of lenses.
You know, when you go to the optometrist, you see that? All right, what you doing on the left? So the thing is, you start saying what you see. Okay, Jesus said, “What do you see?” I see men as trees walking. Oops, let me go back to that ’cause clearly that miracle didn’t take.
So what I’m trying to do is give a different spectacle, a different lens on the suffering that’s there, not from a sense that I possess the only one. There are many others, but the one I possess I know has been sharpened by the ecstasies and agonies of my own existence and my interactions with white brothers and sisters.
Because I teach at the well-known Black school called Georgetown [laugh] and I’m sort of well-known at other schools like Columbia and Brown, historically Black colleges and universities. So I teach white folk every day. I teach their kids. I get hate mail from these white people. I know them intimately.
You know, Fannie Lou Hamer said, “The mistake white people made is that they put us behind them. And when they put us behind them, we had to know them for our survival.” White brothers and sisters ain’t had to know us for their survival.
We had to know white folk in order to, look, are they crazy? Are they mad? Are they gonna give us a raise? How do we talk to them? How do we speak to them? So in that sense, I wanted to use all of that folk wisdom derived from our own collective tradition and ally that with whatever insight I’ve been able to generate over 30 years of teaching.
Tavis: You use the word love, and I want to come back to that. I guess the question I often want to ask is whether or not in this moment whether love is enough. We could have a whole conversation about the great notion of whatever happened to love in our public discourse.
Dyson: That’s right, that’s right.
Tavis: You could do a seminar at Georgetown about that very point.
Dyson: Yeah, we can.
Tavis: What happened to love in our public discourse? But is love enough in this moment?
Dyson: Absolutely, because we haven’t tried it. You know, I think it was G. K. Chesterton or somebody said, “It’s not that Christianity has failed. We never tried it.” So love has never really been applied the way Dr. King talked about it.
You know, he’d discourse about philia and agape and eros. Agape is a demanding love because love at that level, you know, I’ve often said that justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public. So justice is the translation of love. Love doesn’t mean I feel good about you.
Love means that I want to invest myself in the creative activity of transforming this culture and that may mean that we have to alter circumstances and challenge the status quo. Justice is the public face, the public voice of love. And when we demand that real love be done, that’s the kind of thing King was killed for.
People thought King got killed for a variety of reasons. He was killed because he was so thorough in the demand that love be placed at the heart of American culture that the unloving forces of this society resisted him. And in that sense, I think that love is the ultimate demand. It is the ultimate, if you will, means by which we can articulate a vision that will counter what we see going on today.
Because look at it, Tavis. When you hear the public discourse today, the nastiness, the venom, the hatefulness, and people have all kinds of reasons. You know, we’ve lost our comity. We’ve lost the sense of possessing the humanity of the other forever as we think about them.
Well, what we done lost is love, what our mamas and daddies knew. And that’s why I use the sermonic form. I know what those people were reared on and what they gave us will transform this nation. We’ve never tried it. That’s why I quote Howard Thurman in here who said, “Never reduce your dreams to the event you confront right now because, if you reduce it to now, you lose the horizon of possibility.”
So that kind of love that Black people have been reared on, I mean, look at it this way. I tell white brothers and sisters, you know, we could have turned the Al Qaeda way. We could have done the ISIS way.
We could have tried to stab you, shoot you, murder you, poison your water stream, but we love you. And in loving you, we preserve the fabric of the society we sought to transform. Because hate will undermine the very institution it wants to inhabit.
Tavis: So if I take your quote — and it’s a powerful one — that justice essentially is what love looks like in public…
Tavis: And I buy that and I accept it.
Dyson: What it sounds like when it speaks in public, yes, sir.
Tavis: Exactly. So I accept that. So if that is the case, it sounds to me like you can’t have justice without love.
Dyson: That’s right, that’s right.
Tavis: That puts a particular burden on white people.
Dyson: Oh, it does. We got to share some of this, you know, because, look, Black, brown, red, yellow people, indigenous people, we’re born to burden. You know, Du Bois said, “They’re always asking me. What does it feel like to be a problem? Can we shift that?”
And he said, “It’s a strange thing to always be measured by somebody else’s standards and be seen through somebody else’s lens.” White brothers and sisters have to come out the closet of race. They think that they are often collectively neutral.
They think this is why it’s so hard for them, Tavis, and I understood it. That’s why I approached them the way I did. They think, “Why can’t you people stop being obsessed with race? Why are you always obsessed with race?” Not knowing they’re speaking from a privilege to allow their race to be rendered invisible.
Boy, if we had that privilege, your race is invisible, therefore, whiteness is universal, therefore, whiteness is neutral, therefore, whiteness is American, therefore, whiteness is human. So now white brothers and sisters say, “Why can’t you be human like me?” Why can’t you let me be human. Why can’t you allow me the privileges you have?”
So the first thing to do is to unmask privilege. Some white folks say to me, you know what? You’ve got more money than me and you’re a rich professor at Georgetown. My kids don’t have privileges. What kind of privilege do I have? I say to them, let me tell you the greatest white privilege you have. You walk down the street, a policeman stops you. You have an encounter. You live to tell about it. That’s the greatest privilege.
You ain’t got to have no money in the bank. You’ve got to have the inherited value of a white skin that permits you wiggle room to preserve your humanity. I tell the story in the book. I was in front of Ben’s Chili Bowl one night about 4:30 in the morning doing ethnographic research…
Tavis: The best restaurant in D.C. [laugh]
Dyson: That’s right. I’m out there at Ben’s Chili Bowl and the white kid is cussing the police out like he making a Richard Pryor movie. I was like, Jesus, he about to lose his life. Then it struck me. He ain’t losing his life. He’s a white guy. Then what the police said, “Son, you’re clearly inebriated. You need to go home.” I said, “Jesus, that’s what we need. That’s all we want.”
Tavis: That’s the first time in modernity that that’s happened on U Street.
Dyson: Come on down [laugh]. That be virtual gentrification [laugh]. Because the Negro would have been like, “Son, get the lead out your behind because it will be filled.”
Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago — I didn’t want to lose this right quick — you mentioned Frederick Douglass Haynes, our dear friend, Freddy Haynes…
Dyson: That’s right. Freddy Haynes.
Tavis: Pastor of the powerful church in Dallas.
Dyson: Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, right.
Tavis: But you’re mentioning Frederick Douglass Haynes made me think of Frederick Douglass [laugh] and this…
Dyson: He’s doing real well [laugh]. I think he’s playing second base for the Baltimore Orioles [laugh].
Tavis: His numbers are looking good.
Tavis: He’s getting credit that he finally deserves [laugh].
Dyson: Oh, my God! He’s playing in the bush league [laugh].
Tavis: What did you make of the president the other day acting as if Frederick Douglass was like still living and playing for a ball team with some great stats or numbers?
Dyson: Let me defend this brother before I deconstruct him. So the beauty of what Donald Trump does is to act as if a historic personage, an iconic figure extracted from history, is sitting right next to him. You gotta give him love for the recognition that this is living history to me. Now had he known who he was, it would have been great [laugh].
So the thing is, this bespeaks the level of mediocrity that has besieged us. And not knowing Black folk, this is what I meant by Fannie Lou Hamer. He ain’t got to know, but his life has never depended — the art of the deal doesn’t depend on knowing Fredrick Douglass.
And I think the tragedy with our president is that he’s not been pushed to know and that, Tavis, you and I both know that affirmative action doesn’t mean what a lot of people think it means. Like we’re trying to get a hookup to people who don’t deserve it, but let’s take that definition for a minute.
How can you not say that this administration is the very living embodiment of the worst conception of affirmative action? You got a bunch of billionaires and just ’cause you got dough don’t mean you know what you’re doing.
And you got a bunch of billionaires who are just atrociously incapable of understanding the fundamental principles of government. This guy has never been dogcatcher in his life and now he’s President of the United States of America. Not just him. All the other people in his Cabinet, including…
Tavis: And being confirmed.
Dyson: And been confirmed, and including the beloved Detroiter, Dr. Ben Carson.
Tavis: Your homeboy.
Dyson: Well, as I said, the soft bigotry of bro expectations [laugh]. Brothers can get in there too. You know, that’s real progress when a mediocre Black person can succeed as well. Mediocre in terms of the governing…
Tavis: It’s not brain surgery, yeah.
Dyson: Oh, yeah, no doubt. But since he’s been known to separate twins, can he separate himself from that madness? But I digress. But the reality is that this is an administration that doesn’t feel compelled to know, hasn’t been made to know. I mean, let’s be honest, Tavis. White supremacy and whiteness itself is the ultimate fake news.
I mean, when we’re talking — that’s why that ain’t new to Black folks. We know this. The stories you’ve told each other. That’s why in this book, I’m trying to ask white brothers and sisters to tell the truth. I think finally they get it with Donald Trump.
I didn’t write this book with Donald Trump in mind, but thank God that his presidency has converged at this moment with the writing of this book because I think he is the literal face of white innocence, white power, the inability to take seriously one’s own privilege and to ask a person of such stature to think about it is an extremely difficult but not impossible job.
But I think many white brothers and sisters looking at him go, “Now I finally get it.” Because as I say, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster. So the monster created is real, but it got created by a system.
Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, John Boehner, all this Republican pathologization led to the creation of this monster. Now he turns around and bites them and they say, “Oh, it’s a problem!” It was a problem when you created him and I think Donald Trump represents that.
Tavis: What do you make of the data — I could cite any number of sources, Pew, on down the list — that suggests that we not only didn’t gain ground on race in the Obama era, but to the contrary, lost ground on race in the Obama era?
Dyson: Well, it is very powerful. You know, in my book, “The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America”, I actually talk about that. Tavis, as you know, I’ve tried to strike a balance between rigorous critique and fair and just appraisal and appreciation as you have done for what he has been up against and what barriers he’s confronted.
But the bottom line is, the reason it was difficult for many Black people to really oppose Donald Trump at a certain level, because even, as you’ve often said, that a broke clock can be right twice a day, the thing is, he was making some legitimate points about the loss of Black people under the first Black presidency.
And when we look at it across the board, every index has suggested that Black people, look, we had a loss. We had a doubled rate of unemployment and, at one point, it was 16%. If that had been a white man in a White House, we’d have been outside picketing.
So we know that President Obama was in an extremely difficult position and that the moment he talked about race, they went HAM. But I tell people that’s true, but they went HAM about anything he mentioned.
If he talked about ISIS, they went HAM. If he talked about the domestic economy, if he wanted to go talk to kids in the school. So the point is, if you know they’re gonna come at you regardless or, as the brothers say, irregardless [laugh], then what you need to do is to understand, stake out your position.
I’m going to say something here. I think that, ironically and paradoxically, the bitter sense, that the presence of Obama drove the rise of a figure like a Donald Trump. First, there was the resentment of this Black man in charge and, as a result of that, white resentment was deeply embittered, but there was also a wind which I think the president failed to challenge the way he could.
White brothers and sisters, I don’t mean [inaudible], go out with a Black Panther spear. I’m saying to simply say to white brothers and sisters, there’s no easy equivalence between Black anger in the 60s and your anger for having to do the right thing now. He failed to challenge white brothers and sisters in a fundamental way.
Tavis: Would you call Trump a referendum on Obama?
Dyson: Oh, there’s no question about that. It’s both a referendum on Obama, a reaction against Obama, and vengeance and revenge against him to have three R’s as a preacher.
Tavis: You got to have three [laugh].
Dyson: We got to do it [laugh].
Tavis: The Father, Son and…
Dyson: The Holy Ghost [laugh].
Tavis: The Holy Ghost. How do you sustain your hope, given what’s in this text and what we’re going through? How do you sustain your hope?
Dyson: That’s a great point. You know what? Because I take Howard Thurman seriously. You know, the long rows of cotton, the heat, the rawhide whip of the overseer.
But if our mothers and fathers in slavery, who were enslaved, could imagine a different future, something that they couldn’t even articulate, didn’t know what a dangling participle was, thought it was a piece of lettuce, didn’t know what a participle or a noun was, but they understood who God was, I have to have enough humility with all the education I done generated to say let me genuflect before the altar of their recognition.
Because if it got them through what it got them through and, as my pastor used to say, “We’ve already come through what we’ve come to.”
And if we come to this already and we been here before, I’m like David. You know, look, I done killed bears and lions. I can handle this giant over here. Donald Trump is bad, but he ain’t the baddest man. He ain’t the baddest person, the baddest thing we’ve confronted.
So let’s stop — like Saturday Night Live with Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. When the white folk, “Oh, this is the worst ever! I mean, just Jiminy Cricket ever!” And they go, “Yeah, okay. This ain’t it, y’all.” So what we have to do, we have to help our white brothers and sisters. Let me tell you some other points in history that have been pretty bad.
Frederick Douglass ain’t a second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, but actually said some stuff that, if Donald Trump ever took seriously, what to the Negro was the Fourth of July? It could inform public policy and transform Donald Trump and it would be a heck of a thing to see him actually engaging some of the Black history that he so easily spouts, but so effortlessly misses.
Tavis: And to this sermon, the church said, “Amen.” The book is called “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America”, just hit the New York Times bestseller list for the first week, and there’ll be many more weeks to come. And only Mike Dyson could get blurbs from both Toni Morrison and Stephen King. I just wanted to add that [laugh], on the back of the text.
Dyson: Well, I did say beloved, but it is a horror show [laugh].
Tavis: Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith [laugh].
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