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Professor Preacher Michael Eric Dyson on the State of the Country: “Some of Us are In First Class, But The Plane Is In Trouble”

StoryOctober 14, 2005
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We play an address by professor and preacher Michael Eric Dyson speaking at the first annual Unvarnished Truth Awards in Washington D.C. Dyson says, “If you’re in the plane, being in first class ain’t going to stop you from going down with the rest of us. When there is turbulence, there is turbulence everywhere. Everybody be shaking. If that plane goes down, you might die first in first class. Yes, some of us are in first class, but the plane is in trouble.” [includes rush transcript]

One of the expected speakers at the Millions More Movement event tomorrow in Washington DC is Michael Eric Dyson. He is a professor, author, cultural critic and a Baptist minister. His latest book is titled, “Is Bill Cosby Right?”

Professor Dyson spoke a few weeks ago at the first annual Unvarnished Truth Awards in Washington D.C. The awards were organized by Pacifica and were held the same weekend as thousands came to D.C for the massive anti-war march.

  • Michael Eric Dyson, professor and preacher. His latest book is titled “Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind?”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is what Michael Eric Dyson had to say.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: White supremacy is the conscious or unconscious belief or the investment in the inherent superiority of some, while others are believed to be innately inferior. And it doesn’t demand the individual participation of the singular bigot. It is a machine operating in perpetuity, because it doesn’t demand that somebody be in place driving. That’s the vicious ingenuity of white supremacy. It has become institutional.

And when white supremacy becomes institutional, it begins to harm the very people who are not simply outside of it because of their race, it begins to harm the folk who look like the folk who want to be in charge. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this, Malcolm X understood this, James Baldwin really understood this. And so, so much of my life has been trying to lay bear the presuppositions of white supremacy, because they have damaged the very people who would allegedly and ostensibly benefit from some of that madness.

Martin Luther King, Jr., once in the jail said to his jailer, “You are white and poor. You will never benefit from Jim Crow. You will never be able, except psychologically, to derive benefit from your white skin.” What we now know as white skin privilege, what DuBois in 1935 in his magisterial tome, Black Reconstruction, called the psychic wages of whiteness. King said, “You will never be able to derive benefit as a result of that. You are more like me than you are like them.”

And so when we think about warring against white supremacy in American society, it is so seductive to believe and invest in the mythology of superiority, especially among white ethic brothers and sisters, who having been closed out of so much in American society, hold fast to that lie, hold fast to that myth, hold fast to that illusion, because they have been so disenfranchised otherwise that they have to pump up the mythology of their inherent superiority.

I’ve tried to fight against that, but I’ve also tried to fight against the occupied minds of people of color who pay uncritical deference to dominant culture, who, without understanding, they have internalized the vicious mythologies by which others have been made to live. James Baldwin, in reflecting on his own father, said in that poignant phrase he “believed the lie.” And so many of us have believed the lies.

And I have tried to spend some of my career, some of my vocation, some of my time as a professor and preacher and social activist and paid pest, trying to get at some of these I ideologies that challenge the fundamental dignity of our common humanity. But it’s also true that I have tried, as Dean Richards has so graciously said, I’ve tried to also ask the question within the community from which I emerge, because if we take the notion from our Quaker brothers and sisters speaking truth to power, then it can’t just be power outside the community. It’s got to be power within that community.

So, for me when I wrote a book about Bill Cosby, it’s not that I am trying to playa-hate on a great iconic figure, the American patriarch, but don’t forget he emerged simultaneously with Ronald Reagan in the early ’80s, when the Reagan junta and the Reaganomics, the Reagan regime came forth in 1980, and Cosby emerged in the shadow of Reagan, Reagan as the great grandfather, Cosby as the great patriarchal father. It was an achievement of sorts, because for the first time the imagination of the seminal father figure rested in black pigment. That was an achievement, to be sure. And yet, at the same time the outlines of that patriarchy have been viciously revealed to be contradictory at their heart, because this great father of African American and, indeed, American society, laid waste to the most vulnerable people in our culture.

And so, I chose to speak back to him to try to leverage whatever fame, authority, visibility, teaspoon of influence that I might be able to muster and to say, “Those people who will never be able to talk back to you — Shaniqua and Taliqua and Mohammed and Shanene — those people who will never have a voice, those people who will never be able to stand up on their own two feet and to speak back to you, because the global media landscape is so deep and your bully pulpit is so wide, it stretches across the world, how can they justly speak back to you?”

And so, my work was just a small effort to express an outrage and an edifying resentment of the premise by which Mr. Cosby or upon which Mr. Crosby rested. That is to say, that poor black folk have let down black communities and the Civil Rights Movement, more broadly. Well, my Bible tells me to whom much has been given, much is required. And that means you don’t start with the folk at the bottom, you got to start with the folk at the top. And whether you agreed with him or not, when you saw Mr. Harry Belafonte on Larry King’s show, he was picking on somebody his own size when he went after Colin Powell, when he said that Colin Powell was a lapdog for the empire, when he said that Colin Powell was nothing more than a house Negro on a white plantation whose inability to tell the truth made him in league with the master. That’s picking on somebody your own size.

And then the difficult assignment of trying to parse in public the shades and nuances of racial discourse even among enlightened liberals who reproduce the pathology of elite racism. What dat mean? I’m saying that when Ms. Goodman so brilliantly called attention to how the Fourth Estate, as sister [inaudible] spoke about it, holding the collective feet of the media to the fire, what I’m saying is that often it is not the bodies of those who are minority that cause the minds of those who are blessed to move into action. The difficult truth is that we live by narcissism, and when it happens to us, we better understand it.

But by the same token it does suggest that for so many years, those who have been dying before our eyes, those whose lives have been poured out measure by measure, and it never affected us because it didn’t happen to us, we never understood until the plight became personal. And I am not suggesting by any measure that most of us are not moved by having personal experience catapult us into politics. That’s the beautiful story of Sister Sheehan, is that because of her particular loss she began to understand the broader implications.

But travel with me now to imagine that so many other mothers have lost their sons without so much of a peep by a dominant media that refuses to acknowledge the nature of the loss. Come with me as we tour the inner city and the barrio and the Native indigenous people’s reservation. Come with me through the post-industrial urban collapse of mothers who have long since surrendered the ability to exercise and leverage authority over the lives of their children, because the state has been in cahoots with an underground economy, expanding the possibility of a drug economy, while the above-ground economy takes the jobs away from their men and their mothers and their sisters. The state has conspired to do dastardly deeds and to do ultimate damage to vulnerable black and brown and yellow and red people, without so much as a peep from a media that has been standing there agog, arms akimbo, wondering about the penetrating madness that these people must inevitably experience.

If you ain’t a white girl and you disappear, you ain’t got much luck. If you a black mama — a black mama might not even had the possibility of being a martyr and a hero like Ms. Sheehan, because they might have been disallowed to even get near the Bush compound and ranch, because they would be suspicious already. Thank God that Cindy Sheehan went undercover. Thank God she looked just like a feckless, harmless white woman who just was going to the ranch. Who knew that she had a behemoth inside of her that was going to challenge the dominant society? But there are so many others who have the same impulse who will never be acknowledged, because they can’t even get that far.

And so my own truth telling, as far as I’m able to muster up the courage to say what needs to be said, and that thing is on a continuum because all of us are made cowards by the realization that ultimately we have never said everything we’re supposed to say. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I have said so poorly what I have seen so clearly.” And that’s the truth.

We see it when we see the vicious forms of assault upon our women. The reason I wrote a book, Why I Love Black Women, I was just tired of these rappers talking about women in nasty and vicious ways. But they ain’t started it. I knew that. I knew Snoop Dog didn’t start misogyny. I knew that Tupac Shakur didn’t start sexism, and God knows that Dr. Dre didn’t start patriarchy. Yet they extended it in vicious form within their own communities. They made vulnerable people more vulnerable. But at the same time, we know that traditions of misogyny and sexism and patriarchy are deep and are profound and as American as apple pie.

And so we have to tell the truth, on the one hand, balancing our attempt to hold these young people accountable, while acknowledging the degree to which these dominant institutions in America have done the same funky file nefarious thing from the get-go. And so, for me, it means telling that truth.

That’s why I’m with brother Damu in support of my man Kanye West. I ain’t saying he’s a gold digger. But George Bush don’t f— fool with no broke people. That’s what Kanye was trying to say. Kanye said that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He wasn’t talking about George Bush, the individual. He wasn’t speaking about George Bush, the private citizen. He’s speaking about George Bush, the face of the government, George Bush, the face of democracy. He’s speaking about George Bush as the symbolic head of a nation that refuses to acknowledge the humanity of black people.

And why is that so controversial in a nation that has lynched and looted and rioted and castrated, looting in the face of white riots, when lynchings were attended by families in their Sunday best to see the sexual organs of black men stoked by the sexual jealousy that continues to roil beneath the collective unconscious of the American psyche? How can we be surprised by the statement of a young person that America doesn’t care, in the form of George Bush, about black people, when such rituals have never been consciously not only apologized for, but engage? And then beyond that, in a society that tells you through the poison of the media that you are not worth as much, because your face will not be on television, you will not be heard as much on the radio, you will not appear in ads that celebrate the inherent beauty of American society, is it any wonder that Kanye West is steeled and condensed into an acceptable and understandable, saying what so many millions of others have already felt and with greater analytical precision got down to?

And so now, we going to be mad, we talk about these rappers, talk about broads and behinds and boozing and bosoms. My God, we’re sick and tired of this bling-bling culture. And yet, when one of them steps up, we are so cowardly that we can’t even stand behind them. Our politicians start to making excuses, and they begin to have their statements die the death of a thousand qualifications. 'Well, it's not so much that — well, it’s not — ’ Just tell the truth! Just tell the truth! You’re worried about whether you can get re-elected. Why don’t you stand up to begin with? Why don’t you come in with an understanding that maybe you gonna be a one-term brother or a one-term sister, because you are put there to represent the people. It said, “We, the people,” not “We, the Supreme Court,” not “We, the Congress.” It said, “We, the people!”

And those profound words that were articulated by a mass of flawed but imaginative framers suggest to us that you and I are part of a democratic experiment that is made sharper and more luminous and incredibly lucid by the difficult work of struggle by the ordinary folk who never get the credit. And as I end and take my seat, that’s why it’s so important to link all this stuff going on. This war in Iraq has been terrible before it started. We’ve lost 2,000 lives. Iraqis have lost over 100,000.

We speak about these babies that these poor black women have. Where are they? They’re on the front line. We talk about a society where young people are throwaway, poor white people, poor Latino people, poor African American people. These are the people who bear the brunt of the responsibility of waging war by people who will never step on that ground, people who send them, but who will never go. And so there’s a relationship. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about it. Paul Robeson talked about it. Ella Baker understood it. JoAnn Robinson imagined the day when we understood how fundamentally they were united.

And what I beg all of my constituencies and what I beg as a part of a multiple kinship group, as the anthropologists call it, I beg every community to understand we in the same boat. You might be in the anti-war movement and speaking out tomorrow, but don’t forget the folk in Katrina. That’s the beauty of what Sister Goodman was talking about and Brother Damu was talking about, what Sister Cindy Sheehan understands. It ain’t just there. It’s not when those bodies die, and God bless them, it’s not simply when white bodies perish and white girls disappear, it’s also about the unheralded casualties of people who are yet on earth, and yet the life blood has been sucked by the vulture of American empire.

And these people will never be spoken for, because they are the walking wounded and the living dead. And so I beg of you that as — that those of us who are able to speak on behalf of the disenfranchised understand we in the same boat. The anti-war movement has been generated by this fearless woman who has moved forward in the name of a sense of outrage at the libel and the mis-telling of truth that has been put forth by this political ventriloquist whose strings are being pulled by corporate capitalism to make him say what he’s saying.

And at the same time, don’t miss how it’s operating down in Halliburton and down in New Orleans and Mississippi and in Alabama. These black people, you see — people say, 'Well, it's not about race, it’s about class.’ What you talking about? Race often is the language class speaks. Race makes class hurt more. See, even poor white brothers and sisters are not necessarily going to school in concentrated effects of poverty. Even some white brothers and sisters are able to escape their poverty, making more money than some black people who have gone to college. But the reality is, poor white folk got more in common with poor black folk and poor brown folk and poor yellow folk than they got in common with the white overseers and the black over-rulers and the Latino sellouts who have abdicated their responsibility to represent the people.

And so, as I end, I beg you, please gird up your loins and tell the truth where you are. You see in Palestine, and as the Palestinians were struggling for self-determination with their Israeli brothers and sisters, they both came to a common declaration. They said we want the quiet miracle of a normal life. That’s what I want for so many millions of people both here in the country and around the globe. There’s so many people who suffer, who don’t have our education. They don’t have our bank accounts. They don’t have our sense of leisure and luxury. And if you and I can’t see beyond our own myopic, narcissistic self-preoccupation to help somebody else, to open up our minds, so we can open up our hearts, so we can open up our lives, and God knows our pocketbooks.

But it is more than the charity. People said in the Katrina, 'Well, you see,' and some of the rightwing conservatives said, 'Well, the most people who were helping there were white folks trying to lift those helicopter things down to help those folk.' Well, charity ain’t justice. Charity is beautiful, but you ain’t got to be charitable to me if I already got justice. If I already got a sense of participation, you ain’t got to be charitable to me. Just treat me right every day.

And as I end, that’s why you and I are on the same ship. In fact, we travel in the same plane. You might be in first class eating filet mignon; I’m eating peanuts back in row 55. We’re on the same boat. Don’t cut a hole in the boat to suck water out, to sink the Titanic. And if you’re on the plane, being in first class ain’t going to stop you from going down with the rest of us. When there is turbulence, there is turbulence everywhere. Everybody be shaking. And if that plane goes down, you might die first in first class. Yes, some of us are in first class, but the plane is in trouble! What will you do to speak to the pilot, to tell the pilot to tell the control center that we’ve got to change directions unless the turbulence leads us to our own death? That’s the truth we’ve got to tell. That’s the courage we’ve got to muster, and that’s the beauty of soul we must reveal to one another in the quietness of our own individual lives. Thank you so very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Eric Dyson on Democracy Now!

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