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African American History Month Special: Michael Eric Dyson On the True Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Today, February 1st, is the first day of African American History Month, and it is also the day of the New Hampshire presidential primaries. The first primaries in the country take place in one of the whitest states, which for the first time this year celebrated the Martin Luther King holiday. [includes rush transcript]

In this African American History Month special, we bring you the words of Michael Eric Dyson, author of a new book on King called ??I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.


  • Michael Eric Dyson, author of ??I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. The speech, entitled “The Dangers of Home,” was delivered on January 16, 2000 in Concorde Baptist Church in Brooklyn

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


Today, a special on this first day of African American History Month. It is also the first primary of the presidential race 2000 taking place in New Hampshire, one of the whitest states in the nation. It’s also the first time New Hampshire will be celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.

We turn to a speech by Michael Eric Dyson. He’s a professor of African American studies at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, and he’s just written a book on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke recently at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn.


    Think with me for a little while about the subject “The Danger of Home.” “The Danger of Home.” We live in an era where the battles over the family have raged with almost unexcelled intensity. So-called exhorters of virtue like Bill Bennett and Newt Gingrich, what I term the “virtucrats,” have argued that America is falling apart, that the very moral fabric of our society is unraveling, precisely because we refuse to acknowledge the centrality of those virtues, those values and those visions that have animated Western civilization from its inception.

    And yet, on the one hand, there would be few dissenters from such a blanket claim. After all, those of us who attend church and temple and synagogue, those of us who make our way to some holy and sacred place, whether we’re reading the Hebrew scripture or what we Christians term the Old Testament, whether we’re reading the so-called Bible, whether we’re reading the Bhagavad-Gita , the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, the Holy Koran, those of us who find solace in sacredness would hardly dissent from the notion that vision and virtue and value are crucial to maintaining and preserving a sense of integrity in our communities. And few of us would argue with the point that the family is central, that the family is crucial, that the family is a necessary cog in the machinery of democracy, precisely because those stories about valuing individuality that we put forth in democracy are nurtured there.

    But it’s an entirely different thing, on the other hand, to suggest that the virtue is lacking in those people, especially those people of color, those Latino immigrants and those Haitian immigrants and those Caribbean castaways and those Cuban runaways and those Africans in America, and people of color spanning the globe who come here seeking a better way, seeking a better path, seeking a grander opportunity. It is ridiculous to even implicitly presume that those people are part of the reason that America is unraveling.

    Now, even in our time, such arguments are rarely explicitly made. It’s in coded language about the family falling apart. Back in the good old days that many of these virtucrats celebrate, which wasn’t so good for us, the good old days when father knew best, when even Lassie had a television program, but Nat King Cole couldn’t stay on for a year. Back in those good old days that, the social theorist Stephanie Coontz reminds us, were never the good old days, because they never were what they used to be, because the past is seen through the prism of the present with its values choking out all of the ridiculous contradictions of the past now being smoothed out because we are addicted to amnesia. So, in those good old days, back in those good old days, we remember that the struggle for the so-called family was more explicitly expressed as the need to protect ourselves from the deteriorating Negro family.

    Daniel Patrick Moynihan, your senator of late, argued rather earnestly that the Negro family was full of pathology, argued even more explicitly that one of the reasons for that pathology was the coming matriarchy of the black family, that sisters were having their say, and that men were abandoning the black family or, even without abandoning it, being marginalized by the strength of the black women.

    Now, I would not dare to reduce the complexity of Mr. Moynihan’s argument in a thirty-minute sermon, but the reality is, is that it was a problematic thesis to begin with, not the least of which because it reminds us of the essential chauvinism of the American project and that democracy is always tied to the things that weigh it down. And one of those is chauvinism, sexism, patriarchy, misogyny, cruel hatred of women, the inability to acknowledge their central place in our lives. Without black women, the black family ain’t going to be making it as much as it is, as brilliantly as it has made it and as successfully as it has done.

    But the reality is then, is that home is being touted as a wonderful place. The family is being romanticized in abstract context as the only place where America can really feel its oats and fulfill its great destiny. Few of us would argue with that. Black Christians who come to church Sunday in and Sunday out are not immune to such an argument. Indeed, such an argument has been powerfully exhorted in these pulpits, and yet not without history and politics weighing in, not without understanding how some folk can’t make a home, can’t make a family, can’t abide by the so-called “nuclear family” with two parents in the house and two-and-a-half kids with half a dog and a picket fence surrounding them. That is not the only virtuous family we know about. There are many other families who have evolved, which have evolved in the midst of American society.

    Andrew Brimmer, in his brilliant books on the black family, reminds us of the adaptability of the black family. Some of us had mamas who were rearing us, had to go to work all night long and got home because daddy wasn’t there, and then, not only before the so-called “latch-key” phenomenon came about, tried to make sure that the neighbors would look out for us, and they were called bad mamas because of the economic inequality that coerced them to work and not have child-care money. That’s a family we ought to celebrate, as well.

    Families that evolved in the midst of white supremacy, in the midst of economic tyranny, in the midst of apartheid and social and religious terror, those families need to be celebrated. So in this debate about family values, these politicians kick that term around like a football, punt it down the field when they fail to make the first down with their own ideology. When they suggest that those of us who are colored or black or African American or Negro, those of us who are black or brown or red or yellow, somehow lack the sufficient characteristics to constitute the American family, we remind them that we are part of a greater global family, that our family is not simply about biology or blood ties. That’s why we come to this house and to this place, because we understand the family is beyond where you grow up.

    Jesus understood the danger of home. There’s a beauty about home, but there’s a danger in home, as well, because some of us have made it a fetish, some of us have worshipped the family as opposed to the folk who make up the family. We worship the form without the substance. We worship the ideal of the family, while neglecting and repudiating the very folk who make up the family.

    And so, I want to argue with this notion of home that’s being put forth under the rubric of conservative ideology trying to protect American democracy by making the home the locus, the center, of everything that’s good, while the very people who are in politics and public policy are wrecking our homes at the same time.

    That’s why all these conservative black Christians saying, “Yup, we ought to get rid of welfare,” ought to take a second look at that, beating up on welfare policy. Most black folk on welfare, like most white folk, like most other folk, stay on welfare for about a couple of years and then go off. It’s a transitional thing. Sure enough, some people are overly dependent on welfare. We understand that. But just because there’s the existence of counterfeit money don’t mean you stop spending the real thing. And so, we understand that some people are pimping welfare, but they ain’t as much as you think, and most of the folk pimping welfare are millionaires. Most of the folk pimping welfare are administrators. Most of the folk pimping welfare are faring well.

    I’ve been on welfare long enough to know that. I was on welfare. I was a teen father living on welfare, with women, infants and children, too, getting food stamps, standing in that line, getting that powdered milk and that government cheese. So-called indigent Negro, I didn’t lack self-esteem, I didn’t lack ambition. I lacked opportunity to realize my ambition in the context of a supremacist, unequal society. Been trying to make up for lost time ever since.

    And so, here we are in the name of the family, browbeating, beating down into the ground those folk who don’t have the opportunities that they ought to have. And so, my brothers and sisters, home is a wonderful place, but home can be a place of hurt, because of what people make out of home. And yet, even in our literal homes, home can be a hurtful place. Home should be a place where you’re loved and nurtured and supported and propped up on every side and made to believe that you can conquer the world, that you’re the baddest thing ever, not to the exclusion of other people, but that you have enough confidence to go forward into the world, believing in the capacities God has given you.

    And yet, home, we know, home is full of hurt, too. In some people’s homes, they are abused sexually. In some people’s homes, where even Christian people abide, their young people are mistreated. At home is where so much of the so-called “social pathologies” that we see explicitly manifest begin. Somebody talking to somebody nasty: “You ain’t nothing, you ain’t going to be nothing.” Because they didn’t believe they were anything, so we’ve got the reproduction of pathology with internal self-destructive behavior. And so, you ain’t thinking you’re anything. You be telling your kids they ain’t nothing. Then, before you know it, you’ve got four generations of people who feel they ain’t nobody. Now, that doesn’t exist by itself in abstraction. The reason they don’t believe they’re anything, because they live in a culture that tells them they’re nothing.

    We ain’t trying to talk about pimping victim discourse here. I’m not trying to talk about looking for a crutch. I’m saying we live in a culture that has explicit and implicit, external, internal, sophisticated, subtle, as well as overt signs that the virtue of our life is not well regarded. You don’t have to be living in Brooklyn to understand that, or in New York. But you know Brooklyn and New York have had their share of reminders that black life is still capricious in the eyes of many folk. You can get policemen stopping you doing the wrong thing in the name of the law, protecting the nature of the family, protecting home. But whose home are they protecting? Whose family are they protecting? Whose notion of law are they protecting?

    And so, the reality is, my brothers and sisters, home is an arguable place for people to have happiness. It is often the source of so much misery, because we refuse to acknowledge the lives of our little girl children, because we give our boy children more love. Now, you may say that’s strange, but if you look at even the Supreme Court with Mr. Clarence Thomas, who went on to deny the legitimacy of his welfare-having sister, but refused to acknowledge it because he was a black man in a culture that was patriarchal, he got the goodies and the blessings and the ability to be educated over that young lady, because even though we were being oppressed from outside, we were also being sexist and chauvinistic within our own families.

    And so, home is the heartbreak hotel. Home is about misery. Home is about the possibility of potential being curtailed. That’s home, too. There is a delight in home, but there’s a danger in home. But because, you see, it’s a dangerous thing to many people’s families when their family members begin to find their way in the world, begin to fulfill their destinies, and you can no longer control them.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. is at home in America. America thought it had educated him, tamed him, domesticated him, given him the capacity to become a PhD from Boston University. And when he came home to preach the word, he said, “I’ve come because the spirit of the Lord is upon me.” That was a strange quixotic quest for a black boy from Atlanta, Georgia. And yet, Martin Luther King, Jr. showed his gratitude and thanks by saying to America, “Be true to what you said on paper.” That’s why he’d always say, “Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatest right is to protest for that right to be free.”

    Martin Luther King, Jr., homeboy, from America, was turned back in his own country. That’s because there’s a danger in home. The danger in home is that it will try to circumvent your potential, stop your moral trajectory, because they’re uncomfortable with what you reveal. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I know about democracy’s dark side. I know about the stuff you ain’t talking about. Yes, of Thee I sing. But there’s a different side to that. There’s Harlem and Watts. There’s Chicago and Detroit. There’s another side to that. There’s Appalachia, and there’s dark down in Delta, there’s Mississippi, there’s something else beyond the narrow conception of democracy you have put forth.”

    And so, Martin Luther King, Jr. was at once at home in America, taught in the best universities, learned to speak the king’s English or the queen’s taste, could beautifully exhort America to become all she could become, was able to quote Paul Tillich and powerful theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr, but yet he got down to the gut bucket reality of black folk at the same time. He could talk about Miss Pollard who told him, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” Because he understood the genius of vernacular, he understood that what folk got in chitlins and cornbread and collard greens was just as important as caviar. He understood that reality, because he took home with him. See, home was a transportable thing with Martin Luther King, Jr. It was about a geography, but it was about a geography of imagination.

    When King went to talk to kings and popes, he had home with him, because it was an internal reality. And the danger of King to his home called America, was that he was so at home with his black folk, that he was able to translate that wherever he went. That’s a dangerous thing in America, because, you see, in our society, our sense of being at home is often disturbing to folks.

    A lot of folk want to say, “Why don’t you people, if you’re mad, go back to Africa, where you came from.” But we ain’t necessarily took no ocean liner over here to get here, as I recall. It was a coerced situation, as I recall. We didn’t have an invitation from the king or the president. We got jacked. Right? So that now that we’re here, and we done been here for a few centuries, we ain’t trying to leave right now. This is our home, too.

    The danger of America is that so many of us feel too much at home. We ain’t guests in the house. I’m not grateful to be in America. I belong to this nation. My people paid for this nation. Their blood built this nation. Their sweat erected this nation. Their love protected this nation. Their loyalty guards this nation.

    And the danger of home is that our sense of at-homeness challenges America’s notion of what a home is, what this inviting civilization has meant to us. And we often understand that America ain’t been no friend to grace, as the old people said, beating us down, making us feel bad, because we don’t fit in to what narrow notions of American identity are all about, and yet we’re playing the game as best we know how, getting educated like we’re supposed to, working hard like we’re supposed to. And still, we see glass ceilings turning into cement, middle management stopping us as we’re trying to get to the high echelons of corporate America.

    We wasn’t speaking no Ebonics when we got up there trying to discipline our own native indigenous tongue. Ain’t nothing wrong with Ebonics. Speak it as much as you can. Know how to code switch and engage in linguistic transformation. When you’re with the homeboys, do that; when you’re with the corporate America, do that. Right? But we got up into corporate America, and they still called us jelly beans at the bottom of the bag. MBA from Harvard or Stanford or Chicago, speaking all that tremendous standard diction-laden language, and all that got us called was nigger still.

    And so, my brothers and sisters, this sense of at-homeness disturbs America’s conception of what a home is all about, because, we see, we are often the bastard children of the process of American democracy. We the children, and the other daddy’s and mama’s children, they didn’t want to bring in. That’s why America had a problem with Thomas Jefferson. As if he wasn’t getting down with Sally Hemings. That wasn’t no surprise to us, because our home has always been on the outside, on the margins. We knew Thomas was tipping out at night, after writing notes of Virginia during the day, casting aspersion against the sophisticated, abstract reasoning of Negroes, while he’s trying to check for that behind at night. We knew about that contradiction. He was at home in a place where he shouldn’t have been at home.

    The danger of home for so many of us is that, in one sense, with Martin Luther King, Jr., he has been made so much a person at home, we’ve forgotten how dangerous he was. Now, we’ve got a birthday to celebrate him, now we’ve got tremendous rituals of American society. We’ve included him in the larger cycle of American holidays that recognize the genius of our founding fathers and those who have contributed significantly to our society. Now he is the man. And that’s the problem. That’s the danger with home, the danger with making him so much a part of the fabric of American society, we forget how he challenged us.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. was called by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI the most dangerous Negro in America. Don’t you all forget that. They hounded that man to death! They were on his bed bugging him and, yes, we know Martin Luther King, Jr. was an adulterer. We ain’t got to lie about that. We ain’t got to pretend we didn’t know that, but they shouldn’t have known nothing about it. Somebody put a bug under your bed, what will they discover? Even the highest of the holiest will engage in a little vernacular conversation at the height of orgasmic release. Here they are, illegally and criminally bugging this man’s bedroom, because they were trying to wreck his family, trying to destroy his home. In the name of the government protecting its notion of home, they’re trying to wreck this man’s home.


Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, author of I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. We’ll be back with him in just a minute here on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!



We continue with Professor Michael Eric Dyson, author of I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.


    Martin Luther King, Jr. kept on getting up, morning after morning, knowing they were after him, knowing they were possessed of this zealous intensity that was illegal and immoral. And so, he was a danger to America. Why? Because he loved democracy so much, he wanted to see it become real. He wanted to march democracy from parchment to pavement. He wanted to see it become a reality in this nation. That’s why he had a dream.

    But America has frozen him. Now they freeze King in this posture of dreaming before the sun-licked summit of expectation at the height of his national fame in Washington, D.C., where he said, “I have a dream.” He said more than that. We ought to have a moratorium on that speech for the next ten years. I don’t want to hear it no more. And if you’re going to play the speech, play the other parts of the speech. We done come to the nation’s capital to cash a check marked insufficient funds. Where my money. That’s the part we ought to play. Right? We ought to play the part where King said the foundations of — right, he said, “The foundations of this nation will continue to shake.” He said, “The whirlwinds of revolts will continue to shake the foundations of this nation until the Negro is granted his full citizenship rights.” Play that part, too!

    When you’re talking about the content of our character, we done already had good character. The color of our skin, that is a quixotic, what they called romantic conception of idealism. Of course, we all believe in a colorblind society, but not until the law is changed and not until society is transformed, where everybody has an equal shot at the same job or the same school or the same employment.

    And so, we live in a society that has not realized its social transformations, so much so that economic inequality reinforces racial bigotry and apartheid. And so, now, my brothers and sisters, the conservatives have ripped that sentence out of its context and said King would be against affirmative action. That is a lie! Martin Luther King, Jr. said if America has done something against the Negro for four hundred years, it ought to do something special for the Negro right now, here in America.

    And so, King was dangerous, because he challenged white America to think more critically about itself. At the end of his life, he said, “Most Americans are unconscious racists.” That ain’t what we hear on McDonald’s commercials. Light a candle and not curse the surrounding darkness, but he was also challenging America to be true about acknowledging the depth of your own bigotry and the bias you have and the prejudice. And Howard Thurman said, “A bigot is a person who makes an idol of his or her commitments.” That’s what bigotry is.

    But King also challenged complacent Negroes, as well. Yes, he did. Bourgeois Negroes who were self-satisfied with their status, he challenged them, too. Right? He joined with people like Dr. Gardner Taylor and people like Malcolm X. He joined with revolutionaries like Adam Clayton Powell and Fanny Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, and he challenged the complacency of black folk to do something about their situation. And here we are, bemoaning and bellyaching the condition of black America, praying about it, but not getting up, being the answers to the prayers that God had given to us. And so, he challenged black complacency.

    And one of the things that disturbs be now is that when we look at black America, so many of us have refused to acknowledge what Dr. King was about. We are consumed by “Aframnesia,” a kind of black forgetfulness about where we came from. We think we always been this smart and this cute and this upwardly mobile.

    Now, our black churches are talking about a Gospel of health and wealth and prosperity. You say it, God said it, I believe it, that settles it. We talk about, if you ain’t blessed by God, you won’t have a Lexus or a Benz or a coupe. You won’t have a fur or a house on the hill. But the God we talk about says that sometimes you’ve got to suffer for the reality of the world and sometimes the suffering you bear is not about you being blessed, it’s about God working in the midst of that misery.

    Or the black churches put forth what Robert Franklin calls this positive-thought materialism. And we ain’t even with nobody who can’t do the things we do or have the education we have. How ridiculous is that? We’re celebrating the black elite now, because we joined the links, and we joined Jack and Jill. It’s all right. Join all that. Be a Lincoln, a Northeastern and a girlfriend and a Delta and a Sigma and a Theta. Be a Kappa. Be all that. Be proud of your blackness, but don’t forget where you came from. Don’t forget you used to eat chitlins, too. Don’t forget that! Don’t be acting like you’ve been at home in this world all along. Your home wasn’t acknowledged twenty-five years ago. You were some poor Negro down in Mississippi, standing up in the church that had four members. Thank you, Lord, that the walls of my room was not the walls of my grave, my sheet wasn’t my winding sheet and my bed wasn’t my cooling board. You didn’t know nothing about driving a big car then. But God had your heart, and you knew you loved your folk, and God was reigning in your life.

    Oh, my brothers and sisters, there’s a danger in home, as I come here to a close. The danger in home, especially for King’s dream, is that we’ve got this sense of amnesia. We’re addicted. We’ve got a Barbra Streisand ethic. What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget. And so, we forget that. We forget that suffering, and we forget that agony. We forget the apartheid and the bigotry and the violence, the economic inequality, because we presume that we really have been accepted and embraced by America.

    And the tragedy is, is that, of course, we continue to wrestle with acceptance in America. Of course, we have had tremendous success. Of course, we’ve had the evolution of potential and possibility that we have fruitfully realized within the confines of American democracy. Of course, we have made progress. But the danger of home is for us to believe that we are to be at ease in Zion, because a real prophet makes people uncomfortable, makes it dangerous for them to stay home, because, see, home is a metaphor for comfort, and in that sense there’s a danger in becoming comfortable.

    King was always pushing the envelope. He didn’t just talk about race; he also talked about class. He started promoting what he called democratic socialism. But they didn’t want to listen to him, got mad at him. Started speaking out against the war in Vietnam. Black folk and white liberals thought he was crazy. But he kept on preaching, because he said, “I’m not going to segregate my moral conscience. I’m not going to do one thing over here. You ain’t gonna put me in no box, make me just a civil rights leader. I’m a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! That’s what I do! I’m at home with everybody, with Jews and Gentiles, I’m at home with folk who are the recipients of anti-Semitism. I am at home with folk who are recipients of the forms of bigotry against Asian people. I am at home with all of those who are alienated from human affection because somebody’s bigotry imposes itself on their lives.”

    Man, if we’re gonna take King’s dream now, then we’ve got to do the same thing. We’ve got to not just talk about racism, we’ve got to talk about sexism in the Church. The black church is 75% black women. They can cook, they can clean, they can sew, they can be head chairman of Sunday school, superintendent, but they can’t run the church that they are numerically dominating. Why is that? Because of ecclesiastical apartheid, because of spiritual inequality. Thank God, that we believe in a gospel that says, “If you don’t cry out, the rocks will cry out.” You mean God can call a rock to be a pastor and a preacher, but not a woman? What kind of idiocy is that? What kind of bad theology is that?

    We’ve got to deal with gays and lesbians, as well. You heard your pastor pray for the ten million orphans of AIDS in this world, even in Africa. And the reality is, my brothers and sisters, many of us don’t want to deal with the AIDS crisis because of gay and lesbian, transgender, transsexual, bisexual brothers and sisters. I’ve got news for you: we’re all part of the kingdom. If we ain’t at home, they ain’t at home, and if they ain’t at home, you ain’t at home, because the police don’t stop to ask no questions about are you gay or straight. If they see you’re a brother, gonna beat you down, or a sister, gonna harass you. They don’t ask your sexual orientation.

    Those of us who have benefited by the Civil Rights Movement benefited by some gay and lesbian people, you know. When Bayard Rustin, architect of that great 1963 march on Washington, put forth his ideas, he was a gay man. James Baldwin took the eloquent words from the transcript of recorded history and condensed them and distilled the genius of blackness into them by saying, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time!” These black people who loved us so deeply and profoundly, they gave their lives for us. Now, we’re going to turn them around and cast them out of our homes, our ideological homes, our intellectual homes, our philosophical homes? We’re gonna to make them outcasts and rhetorical step-children? We’re gonna make them orphans? And they helped us become all that we can become?

    And then, we’ve got to extend this to young people, too. Home is about a geography of imagination that embraces the young people who are part of the so-called hip-hop generation. You may not like them. You don’t like how they flow. You don’t like how they talk, because they ain’t singing the songs the way you want them sung. Be more diverse than that.

    Look at your church this morning. A powerful gospel song, a tremendous anthem, the ability to evoke the wide diversity of black culture right here in this spot. That’s the genius of black folk. Sometimes you feel like: [singing] “Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart, I will pray.” You feel like that sometimes, right? Sometimes you feel like: [singing] “Amazing Grace.” Sometimes you feel like you’ve been down so long, down look up to me. Oh, pull out the Bobby Blue Bland, that’s alright.

    Home, because all of it is songs from home: spirituals, blues, gospel, jazz and hip-hop. You will hear right here in Brooklyn. You are part of a larger home. You’ve got a guy who lives here named Biggie Smalls, who was part of your home, too. He said, “Back in the days, our parents used to take care of us. Look at ’em now, they’re even blanking scared of us, calling the city for help because they can’t maintain. Darn, things done changed. If I wasn’t in the rap game, I’d probably have a kid knee-deep in the crack game. Because the streets are a short stop. Either you’re singing crack rock, or you got a wicked jump shot. Darn, it’s hard being young from the slums eating five-cent gums, not knowing where your meal’s coming from. What happened to the summertime cookout? Every time I turn around a brother’s being took out.” That’s home, too. Ooh-ooh! That’s Brooklyn, too.

    You’ve got another boy from Brooklyn named Mos Def. He said, “You can laugh and criticize Michael Jackson all you wanna. Woody Allen molested and married his stepdaughter. Same press kicking dirt on Michael’s name show Woody and Soon-Yi at the playoff game. Would he get the same dap, if his name was Woody Black? O.J. acquitted by a jury of his peers. They’ve been messing with that nigger for the last five years. Is it fair, is it equal, is it just, is it right? Do we do the same thing when the defendant’s face is white? White boy’s doing it well, it’s success. Our star doing it well, it’s suspect!’ That’s part of home, too. Brooklyn.

    Brooklyn, Concord and Mos Def and Biggie at the same home. It’s about a geography of tolerance and imagination, and it is a fight against bias, bias against our own kids, bias against their styles, bias against the way they wear their clothes. Yes, you’ve got problems with that, like your parents had problems with you. But we move beyond that.

    And finally, my brothers and sisters, we’ve got to have — overcome this bias against our own heritage and history in our vernacular culture. And there was a problem, as I take my seat here, the danger of home. The problem is that, you know, when this Ebonics debate came out, black folk lost their minds. “My God, what’s going on with America today?” How you going to be forgetting that you were reared on some Ebonics? And, you know, Ebonics ain’t no just something you can say. You got to have some skill to speak Ebonics. Y’all hear me? You can’t just say anything. Bad English is not Ebonics. Ebonics has certain linguistic rules that must be observed in acknowledgement of its linguistic superiority to other forms of dialect. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.

    My daddy spoke Ebonics. He said, “I’m fittin’ to go to the sto’.” If he was speaking real good, “I’m fixin’ to go to the sto’.” “When you coming back, Dad?” “I be back direc’ly!” I didn’t ask him, “Is that a geographical mishap. Is the point of your departure significantly different than the point of your return?” because I wanted to live the next day.

    Ebonics is about zero copulas. Copulas are forms of the verb “to be.” Not “I am going,” “I be going.” “I’m about to go.” “I’m a be there next time.” There are some rules to Ebonics. And I saw a brother on TV speaking Ebonics while trying to put it down. He was being interviewed on C-SPAN. I ain’t going to name his name, conservative Negro with his clean-shaven head. I’m not gonna talk about the brother. They asked him, they said, the senator asked him, “When you went to school and spoke French, didn’t they translate it for you?” “No, sir.” You know he lying. You know you can’t go to school and say, “Ce n’est pas difficile d’apprendre francais; c’est facile,” and you know what they be talking about. If you do, you’re in the wrong class. Get out and go to the next class. Everybody else don’t know how to congregate a verb. I know it’s “conjugate.” Listen to what I’m saying. So, then they asked him the next question. He said, “I want to make a pacific point.” What is that? Is that as opposed to an Atlantic point? What is a “pacific” point? A West Coast versus East Coast kind of thing? What is a “pacific” point?

    Oh, my brothers and sisters, the danger of home is that we become too comfortable, start missing out what the true home is, what the true resource is. Jesus was not an acceptable prophet. And the Bible says real prophets may not be accepted in their own country, in their own home. And the danger of home is that it embraces the prophet and tries to smother her, make her words become useful to the powers that be. But King refused that! And you and I must refuse that by speaking against bigotry within black life.


Professor Michael Eric Dyson. He’s author of I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. It is published by The Free Press, a brand new book on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.



We continue with Michael Eric Dyson. I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. is the name of his new book.


    Jesus was not an acceptable prophet. And the Bible says real prophets may not be accepted in their own country, in their own home. And the danger of home is that it embraces the prophet and tries to smother her, make her words become useful to the powers that be. But King refused that! And you and I must refuse that by speaking against bigotry within black life, by speaking against bigotry outside black life, and by embracing everybody as our brother and sister and loving everybody, the rich and poor, the black and white, the Latino, the Native American, the Asian, the gay and lesbian, transsexual and transgender — all of them are our brothers and sisters.

    And in the final analysis, we are part of the same project of human democracy. This experiment with expanding the boundaries of American identity, we are part of that. But, you know, I heard you sing the song “Steal Away, Steal Away, Steal Away to Jesus. Ain’t got long to stay here, steal away home!” Because our home ain’t really here. I don’t just mean a pie in the sky, by and by heaven. I’m talking about this ain’t our home. Anywhere injustice belongs, we have to police it. That’s not our real home. Let’s bring our real home into existence, where love abides, where peace reigns, where justice rules, where democracy is expanded. That’s my home! That’s the home I’m looking for. That’s the home I want to go to. When I think of home, I think of a place where love overruns. That’s my home! That’s my home! That’s my home! And let that be your home, too.

    An old black woman told me, “Be who you is, and not who you ain’t.” It may be bad grammar, but it’s serious theology. “Be who you is, and not who you ain’t,” because if you is what you ain’t, you am what you’re not. Claim the destiny of your home with love and truth. Peace.


Professor Michael Eric Dyson. His book is called I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.

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