The apocalypse dawned for me in the summer of 1967.
I was living on Detroit’s East Side when all hell broke loose. The angry white men sitting on their porches with shotguns on their laps blamed it in on the “niggers,” and promised to shoot first and ask questions later if the riots spilled into our neighborhood. It was terrifying. Race mattered, suddenly.
Michael Eric Dyson was living in Detroit then, too. He was nine in 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was gunned down in Atlanta. Detroit again careened into violence. Dyson writes of learning to understand his blackness at about this time. “[W]hiteness,” he writes, in “What Truth Sounds Like,” “loomed as an unknowable force.” King’s death made him feel vulnerable, “the whiteness that had been shapeless lunged forward suddenly…. I was frightened for months.”
Dyson’s overcome his fear with a sense of black triumphalism. Candidly, I find his belief that America’s “redemption would come through black moral genius” about as unnerving as I did the presence of armed paratroopers patrolling our neighborhood in those smoldering July nights of 1967.
“What Truth Sounds Like” is a meditation on Robert F. Kennedy’s meeting with James Baldwin and other Black intellectuals and entertainment leaders -- Kenneth Clark, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne were among the other attendees -- in the spring of 1963. Kennedy was trying to understand the color line. Things didn’t go well. Kennedy just couldn’t get it; the conversation is unfinished, Dyson contends.
Dyson doesn’t advance the discussion; he announces its over. Shut up and listen, white America. The truth has arrived.
Dyson cites with approval a debate between Baldwin and William F. Buckley , the founder of the National Review, at Cambridge University in 1965. “I picked the cotton and I carried it to market and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip,” Baldwin said. Of course, the claim is nonsense. Baldwin was born in 1924, long after slavery had been abolished and the railroads had been built.
Had Buckely been on his toes, his response would have been. “Oh, well, I was scratching the earth in search of potatoes, starving. What do we have in common?” Buckley’s parents came into the United States in 1874 from Canada, after either they or their forebears left Ireland years earlier.
(Play along: Where were you in 1850? I was in Crete, most likely a peasant working someone else’s land, or perhaps a clerk in a French shop. My father came to the United States sometime in the 1930s from Crete, an illegal immigrant who snuck into the country from Windsor, Ontario. Shortly thereafter, he met my mother, the daughter of a French Canadian drunk who came here with a thick French accent. Where were you?)
What Baldwin did was choose to recast his identity in terms of a history he had to learn, choosing what served to advance his interests. It’s a form of race pandering that Dyson transforms into giddy triumphalism.
“What Truth Sounds Like” was a holiday gift, something to help me sort out my dark suspicions about identity politics. Sadly, the book failed to do anything other than confirm my hunch that identity, a social construct, is the face we present to the world when we ask for our due. Black triumphalism announces “our time has come.” What’s that mean for the rest of us? We’re in the last gasps of the old, and presumably white world – the old guard is dying, you see.
As a certifiable member of the old guard, forgive me for saying: “not so fast.”
You didn’t pick my cotton. You didn’t build my railroad. You didn’t pay my father’s freight when he sailed from Crete to the Canada. You don’t owe me respect on account of my race; I don’t owe you solicitude on account of yours. Integrity matters; race is the calling card presented when there’s not time enough to evaluate character.
Dyson is downright giddy about race. Black “moral genius” will save the world. White folks need to listen, listen, listen to the likes of Dyson. “Whiteness continues to metastasize across the body politic like a cancer that only goes into remission, sporadically,…” My race is “an extravagant hoax.” White guilt is necessary. “[B]lackness brings greater humanity.” He cites with approval calls for reparations payments to people of color, a race-based tax that will require white guilt to pay for its sins by cash transfer payments to black innocence.
By the time Dyson finishes his book he’s punch drunk. Reread Baldwin, go ahead, he exhorts. But first watch Black Panther. Watch it over and over again. It’s a place where blackness is destiny, in a place called “Wakanda.” (If you’ve not seen the movie, you’ve still heard reference to Wakanda in ads for products on television. “Wakanda,” the little black girl croons, and her parents beam with proud hopes.)
“Wakanda is the place of our unapologetic blackness, a blackness that is beautiful and ugly, that is uplifting and destructive, that is peaceful and violent, that is, in a word, human in all its glory and grief, with no special pleading for its virtue, no excuses made for its wickedness, except that wickedness exists, and in its existence, we find it necessary to address it, to fight it, to remove it, but not to defend ourselves against the belief that it represents all black people,” he exclaims.
“Wakanda is necessary for us because our black lives are seen as anything but. Wakanda matters because black lives don’t.” He goes on and on in the book’s final chapter overcome by the beauty of it all.
Wakanda is demographic destiny.
I read Dyson and was all at once again a child in Detroit listening to radio reports about my city in flames. Would the fires reach my home? Would the angry white men shoot to kill the angry black men setting the city afire? I hear Wakanda, and I think of that Detroit.
Michael Eric Dyson wants to talk about race. But his idea of the discussion is that I listen to what he has to say, accept my accidents of birth as a cancer, regard his as proof of prophetic destiny, and then move to Wakanda.
I’m not making the trip, Mike.
You lost me when Baldwin started talking about picking cotton and building railroads. If he did all that, then I did nothing that should matter to Baldwin– I was in Crete or France. What have we to talk about?
Dyson’s a preacher with a Ph.D. Surely he knows the New Testament. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. When the pot says to the potter, why makest me so, sin speaks. Reworking the world in our own image is the very definition of sin. Are white men sinners? I know it to be true from experience. Are black men sinners, I believe so. All are in need of grace. And grace will be found by transcending what divides us, and cleaving to something higher.
Michael Eric Dyson is a race panderer. And Wakanda? Just another circle in Hell. But I will watch Black Panther; I hadn’t planned to – black superheroes seem about as silly as white ones. I outgrew all that about the time Detroit burst into flames. But Wakanda is a calling.