Extended discussion with Michael Eric Dyson, author of the new book, “What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America.”
More from this Interview
- Part 1: “What Truth Sounds Like”: Michael Eric Dyson on New Book About RFK, James Baldwin & Race in America
- Part 2: Michael Eric Dyson on NFL Protests, Malcolm Jenkins & Listening to Black Americans on Issues of Race
- Part 3: Michael Eric Dyson: “Many Republicans Have Normalized [Trump’s] Vicious and Pathological Behavior”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our conversation with Michael Eric Dyson, Georgetown University professor, political analyst, author, his latest book, What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America. He’s also the author of The New York Times best-seller Tears We Cannot Stop. In this Part 2 of the conversation, I asked Dr. Dyson about why he chose to look back at a meeting more than 50 years ago, in 1963, between the great writer and activist James Baldwin; Harry Belafonte; Lena Horne, the great performer; the young activist Jerome Smith; the playwright Lorraine Hansberry; and Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general of the United States—the meeting they had, together, in New York City, in the Kennedy penthouse. Why look back at 1963? What does that tell us, or what can that inform us, about today?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah, I wanted to make certain that we not only heard those echoes, but we saw the relationship between what was going on 55 years ago and what’s going on now—white politicians, black activists, athletes who are being accosted by this president, seen as un-American, Muhammad Ali at that point celebrated by James Baldwin as a serious figure and then, later on, saying that our champions are seen as bad people to you, and that’s why we need to support them. And how relevant is that, when LeBron James and Steph Curry are disinvited, in advance, from the championship—from coming to the White House, and speaking up, like Malcolm Jenkins has done persistently? So, the reality is, I wanted to say, just like some stuff was going on back then about race, about the relationship between race and democracy, about the relationship between protest and politicians, and I wanted to bring it to bear here.
I talk about Donald Trump, I mean, saying, as I have often said, he stands up every morning to excrete the feces of his moral depravity into a nation he has turned into his psychic commode. I wanted to speak about the way in which he has exacerbated identity politics. So, the reality is, I wanted to look at what was going on between the president, who does horrible things, who suppresses the free speech of citizens who are activists, and in the name of his commitment to American democracy, in the name of his commitment to American patriotism, to show how shallow that was.
Even Bernie Sanders, as I was saying, certainly a man of high moral principle, to me, was problematic after the 2016 election, because he said, “We have to get rid of these identity politics. You know, women and, you know, African Americans, that’s all extremely important—Latinos—but we’ve got to get back to American politics.” These are American politics. And American politics have always been concerned with identities. They’re just not the identities of Latinos, African-American people, Native people and the like. They have been white, they have been taken as implicit, and therefore they don’t need to be expressly articulated.
So, this book tries to look at the relationship between what’s going on then—what was going on then and what’s going on now, and to show the relationship. The artists, the activists, the athletes and the other people who were involved in that meeting and in that social movement certainly are reflected in what we see going on in America to this day.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you have to say to President Trump today, from trying to frame the NFL protests—of course, it extended beyond that—to disrespecting the flag, to calling Africa an “s—hole country”—I don’t know which is more the insult—
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —calling Africa a country or talking “s—hole”—
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: —whether we’re talking about immigrants being called “animals” and “rapists,” what you feel needs to happen today?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah. Well, first of all, to call that kind of thing out as morally reprehensible and politically unacceptable. But many Republicans have normalized this vicious and pathological behavior and have seen it as acceptable if the outcome is, A, they keep their jobs; B, their constituencies don’t put them out of office and then become more satisfied with the way in which this president reflects and amplifies their worst instincts, their bigotries, their blindnesses. We all have them, but to have them politically satisfied, to have them politically amplified, to have them politically articulated and made the basis of potential public policy—right?—with bans on who can come into the country and who cannot and so on, is horrible. And these politicians need to speak up.
And we, the people, must continue to raise our voices. I know it was rude, people thought, last night, for Robert De Niro, at the Tonys, to say, “[blank] Trump.” But this is the level not only of coarseness of the language, but the discourse is reflecting the desperation of people to be able to do anything in the face of a legitimate, valid political figure exercising his so-called God-given and, in this case, politically driven right to really suppress speech, to intimidate people, to bully. He’s added the “bully” to “bully pulpit” from Theodore Roosevelt. And so, what we’ve got to do is to speak up.
We must continue to resist and never see this as the worst thing to happen to American society. I believe Donald Trump is now treating the rest of America the way the worst of white America treated black America. And it’s a shock for many white people: “Oh, my god! People acting like this, narcissistic, self-involved, incoherent?” Welcome to our world. This is what white supremacy has meant, has done, has felt like.
So, now, turn to people like us, who have been experts, so to speak, at enduring the idiocy, the lunacy, the sheer nonsensical character of white supremacy. How have we done it? A, we’ve insisted on becoming and being moral beings. B, what we insist on is that we link arms and aims, as Susan Taylor says, with many others among the same front of assault, whether they are gay or lesbian, transgender or bisexual, whether they’re environmentalists, whether they’re people fighting the immigration battle, and see we’ve got much more in common. And, C, we’ve got to convince the white working class that its best interests will not be echoed or amplified by a bigot in the White House. We have a bigot-in-chief and a racist-in-resident. It feels good, initially, for you to be able to feel some of your tension, your anxiety, your torpor, your trauma, your grief, expressed by this figure, but no public policy he’s put forth will preserve you. Nothing he has done will satisfy your ultimate need of finding a better economic footing upon which to stand.
And then, finally, that as Martin Luther King Jr. was in jail in Birmingham and his jailers came to him and said, “Dr. King, segregation is right, and integration is wrong,” and he said, “No, it’s not,” and then he asked them, “How much money do you make?” and when they told him, he said, “You need to be out here marching with us,” if white working-class people can understand they have much more in common economically, and even socially, with African-American, Latino and other poor people, this movement could be instigated and catalyzed in a remarkable fashion. When we insist on doing that, then we have a better society, we have a better representation of who we are as e pluribus unum, out of many one, and the true value of American democracy will rise up. But when we have Malcolm Jenkins and Colin Kaepernick and Venus and Serena, when we have the WNBA with Swin Cash and others, who stood up and spoke out, then we begin to have a nation where the citizens take back the power, where the citizens are the point of—you know, our democracy is the point of what these politicians do. And we don’t work for them; they work for us. And when we get that back into our minds, we’ll see this is not the worst thing we face. Enslavement, Civil War, Jim Crow, the catastrophe of the Cold War, the hot wars, what we’ve done, the shedding of blood. This is not the worst thing to happen. It will only be the worst thing to happen if we surrender and abdicate our moral responsibility and our political responsibility of telling the truth as best we can.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play Robert Kennedy, 1967 visit to the Mississippi River Delta, a trip inspired by the efforts of civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman. Here’s a clip of the video honoring her life’s work. It begins with her testifying about poverty to a Senate subcommittee in 1967.
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: They’re starving. They’re starving. And those who can get the bus fare to go north are trying to go north. But there is absolutely nothing for them to do. There’s nowhere to go.
NARRATOR: Senator Robert F. Kennedy, moved by her testimony, went with her into the Mississippi Delta to investigate.
SEN. ROBERT F. KENNEDY: What did you have for lunch?
CHILD: We haven’t had yet.
SEN. ROBERT F. KENNEDY: You haven’t had lunch yet?
AMY GOODMAN: And this is Robert Kennedy speaking to a reporter in Mississippi during his 1967 trip.
REPORTER: Senator, what do you make of the problem of poverty in this poorest state?
SEN. ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Well, I think it’s—it’s obviously as great a poverty as we’ve had in our country. And I think that considering we have a gross national product of some $700 billion and that we spend $75 billion on armaments and weapons, that you would think that—we spend almost $3 billion each year on dogs in the United States as American citizens—that we could be doing more for those who are poor, and particularly for our children, who had nothing to do with being—asking to be born into this world, but don’t have enough to eat and no school to go to and insufficient clothes, so that they’re going to lead a very difficult, unhappy life through the rest of their existence.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Robert F. Kennedy in 1967. Both he and Dr. King, who led the Poor People’s Campaign, would be assassinated a year later. And now, 50 years later, we are seeing the reinvigoration of the Poor People’s Campaign with Reverend Barber, Michael Eric Dyson.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right, yes, Reverend Theoharis and—is that—I think I’m saying her name right.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: —and Reverend Barber are doing extraordinary work, and coming back here in Washington, D.C., June 23rd at 10 a.m. to really send the rallying cry for peace, justice and democracy. Anti-blackness has to be put down. Anti-Muslim sentiments have to be put down. Anti-Semitism has to be challenged and put down. So we have to come together—poor white people, working-class black people, poor, brown and people across the rainbow—because we’ve got more in common, more interests that we have developed together.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Michael Eric Dyson, Georgetown University professor, political analyst, author, his latest book, What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America. To hear Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.