Instead of toiling out another tome to go with the 11 he's already written, for his latest book Michael Eric Dyson--a doctor of divinity, University of Pennsylvania professor, and one of the country's foremost commentators on African-American race relations--has simply published transcripts of his TV appearances and conversations with a gamut of pundits, politicians, and journalists over the past 10 years. Speaking off-the cuff, though, is not usually the most efficient means of communicating ideas.
Debating Race is not like a recording of the "very best sermons" of a minister, as Imani Perry, the Rutgers Law School professor who wrote the introduction, suggests. These are not prepared speeches. Most of Dyson's statements are addressed to interviewers and panel moderators. These on-the-spot responses aren't always organized and are occasionally haphazard---like when Dyson says in an interview with a graduate student that the Sept. 11 hijackers were "understandably outraged" but doesn't take the time to elaborate on the statement.
Plus, during the panel discussions, you not only have to sift through Dyson's repetitions and verbal crutches to find the relevant point, but also go through the same process with the other panelists, which makes the reading tedious. Dyson's brief, but painfully adulating introductions to each of the exchanges are little relief. For one appearance on The O'Reilly Factor he writes: "I have appeared on Bill O'Reilly's cable talk show . . . several times, and despite our sometimes heated debates, I have always maintained cordial relations with him." Gag us with a coffee stirrer: It's surprising Dyson's not running for president in 2008.
At his best, though, he's as eloquent as his idol Martin Luther King Jr., extremely diplomatic, and maybe a little on the mawkish side. You decide: In a September 2000 conversation with presidential candidates John McCain and John Kerry, regarding censorship and rap music Dyson says, "I'm not so much concerned about the curse words as the cursed worlds [the rappers] occupy." Not surprisingly, the most valuable documents here aren't the song-and-dance exchanges with politicians, TV personalities, and other pundits, but his groundings with grass-roots journalists, activists, and students.
A November 2006 interview with freelance journalist Ofra Bikel, which Dyson titles "Still Some Juice Left," has to be one of the best dissections of the O.J. Simpson trial from a mainstream African-American perspective in print. And all the more relevant, as Simpson recently was refused service in a public restaurant. Dyson says: "[The Simpson case] did reveal to white and black America that, first of all, we see things enormously differently. There are contrasting and almost contradictory viewpoints that animate black people and white people around the issue of race, and O. J. revealed that in the sharpest of terms . . . black people are not na´ve enough to think that the proof, or the lack of proof, of guilt suggests that somebody is innocent. . . . the prosecution didn't meet its burden of proof--to prove the guilt of Mr. Simpson."
But an interview with Debra Dickerson--the same writer who recently claimed Barack Obama isn't "black," even though he identifies as such, because he does not descend from "West African slaves" (a reverse one-drop rule?)--devolves into emotionalism as she ironically defends Bill Cosby and his recent tirade against Dyson's beloved "black poor." Dyson tells Dickerson that Cosby has "resolutely refused to step up to the plate of racial representation and take a swing at the systemic racism that he acknowledges in asides." (All those donations to Spelman and Morehouse colleges don't count?) Dickerson points out: "[Cosby] doesn't have to fight the race war the way you would fight it." But couldn't that also relate to Obama?