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Michael Eric Dyson

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): Speaking in Tongues,Michael Eric Dyson--Dec. '95 Endeavors By Angela Spivey    Sidebar: Malcolm X: a Perspective    Back to December 1995 Table of  Contents Return to ORS Home Page     .

Speaking in Tongues,Michael Eric Dyson--Dec. '95 Endeavors

By Angela Spivey

At age 24, Michael Dyson held a pastorate at a Baptist church in East Tennessee. But one Sunday morning he found the door locks on his church had been changed. Eventually someone came to let him in, but as he preached his sermon, he noticed angry faces in the pews. After the worship service, the church members held a meeting and voted to release him.

"I was kicked out," Dyson says, "over the issue of ordaining women as deacons. That Sunday we were about to have a service to ordain three women, not even as ministers, just as deacons in the church. But the local ministers caught wind of it, and they encouraged my church to really stand against it. So they orchestrated my expulsion."

Dyson had conducted Bible studies and given sermons about the importance of gender equality to persuade the members of his church even to consider ordaining women as deacons. "I knew my church was a deeply sexist, patriarchal institution," Dyson says. "All churches and religious organizations are, by definition, deeply conservative. So I taught the church members, 'If we're going to talk about the black church as the seedbed of liberty and as the site for emancipation, let's extend that emancipation beyond race to issues of gender.'"

Making this link is typical of the way Dyson fuses different perspectives in his study of black culture. And, as he speaks on talk shows such as "Today" and preaches at churches around the United States as an ordained Baptist minister, Dyson uses a different "language" to communicate with each audience.

"I could be considered an intellectual deejay or emcee trying to negotiate a range of dialogues and discourses," he says.

Dyson says that speaking these various languages is important because human life is complex and cannot be narrowly defined. In his newest book, Between God and Gangsta' Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture, Dyson observes that humans are always switching among different vocabularies and voices while trying to understand ourselves and our culture. He writes, "Black culture is constantly being redefined between the force of religious identities and secular passions. Somewhere between God and gangsta' rap."

Language is crucial to understanding the questions of identity that blacks and all Americans wrestle with, Dyson says, because language reminds us that we exist at all. The complex identities of blacks are expressed in forms as wide-ranging as the preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr., the gangsta' rap of Snoop Doggy Dogg, and the writing of James Baldwin. "Using many languages, speaking in many tongues, is a habit of survival that African-American people across the board have learned," he says. For instance, young blacks must learn the rules of common English usage, of street speech, and of the dialects and social accents of their own region or turf. "Black culture has always moved by this edifying impurity," Dyson says, "by stitching together various elements of our identities to make this larger whole."

By speaking the language of the church, the academy, and popular culture, Dyson tries to promote communication. "I believe that all segments of black culture can learn from the others, and from the larger world," he says. "Our best future will only be realized if we learn to listen and to speak to one another, and to those outside our culture."

In the academy, where Dyson has taught African-American studies, American civilization, African-American religion, and cultural criticism, he conducts what he calls a "secularized ministry." His goal, he says, is to "redeem the times through talking about the virtues of having a broad canvas upon which to paint the American identity, because America draws from a variety of colors to constitute itself."

That palette includes the specialized academic language Dyson uses to explore America's identity. People have attacked scholars, he says, "as speaking in jargon-bloated discourse that has no relevance to people. And some of those claims are true." But he points out that not all language is meant for a general audience. "While scholars must always be conscious of the ethical consequences of what we think and write," Dyson says, "the sheer freedom to pursue ideas where they honestly lead us should never be compromised."

At the same time, he says, the language of the academy should never be divorced from real-world problems. "I think that part of the responsibility of a public intellectual, an intellectual thinking out loud in public," Dyson says, "is to help America gain clarity about the conditions that arise that prevent it from being the best it can be." He addresses issues such as affirmative action, AIDS, and the O.J. Simpson case by writing opinion pieces for the New York Times and appearing on talk shows such as "Today" and "Oprah Winfrey." By presenting ideas in a way that is accessible without being simplistic, Dyson tries to encourage these different audiences to consider viewpoints that may seem to them unpopular, naive, or ridiculous.

Dyson negotiates yet another language when writing music reviews for the New York Times and for Rolling Stone. "I think music is a symbol of the tremendous quest for stable identities, and for tremendously complex identities within African-American culture," Dyson says. "The betweeness of black culture is seen most powerfully in music." For example, Dyson sees this betweeness in hip-hop, or rap music, which was created by young urban blacks more than ten years ago and is known for its staccato beats and driving rythyms. Rap music provides social commentary by drawing attention to the harsh realities of the lives of many young urban blacks, but it also glamorizes misogyny, partying, and violence, Dyson explains.

Hip-hop artists are known for "sampling," which is using pieces of music from other artists. Many of the early rap artists inserted lyrics over music borrowed from popular 1970s rythym and blues songs. In the same way, Dyson says, many hip-hop artists have sampled the teachings of Malcolm X. "There's an appropriation of his anger and rage against the forces of oppression that continue to consign black life to the periphery of American culture, that make it marginal in many instances, despite the expansion of the black middle class," he says.

Lyrics from rap artist Ice Cube's song "Dead Homiez," from the album Kill at Will, portray the hopelessness many young blacks feel after seeing their friends die in drive-by shootings.

Dyson explains that hip-hop artists are "fusing both prophetic criticism of society along with the politics of pleasure, along with partying. And all that gets mixed up and impure in very ennobling and edifying ways, and also in very destructive and unfortunate ways."

Similarly, Dyson combines different levels of thought in his exploration of black culture. "I have attempted in some of my work to fuse high critical theory on the one hand with explorations of popular culture in its own language and idiom on the other," he says. "That can lead to some quite unseemly results, but also to some rather fascinating insights about the nature of American society." There are tensions among the different languages that Dyson speaks, such as the conflict between the sexism of the baptist church and his belief in gender equality, but he continues to try to bridge the gaps among his various audiences, to get them to consider each other's viewpoints. "This state of betweeness that humans occupy," Dyson says, "is at once excruciatingly painful and exhilarating." .

Sidebar: Malcolm X: a Perspective

In his 1994 book, Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, speech communications Professor Michael Dyson explores the controversial life of Malcolm X and tries to dispel some commonly held myths.

"Malcolm didn't promote violence against white people indiscriminately," Dyson says. He explains that Malcolm suggested blacks fight back only against the violence already being directed at them, such as water hoses or dogs being turned on them during protests.

Other myths, Dyson says, "tend to romanticize Malcolm as a figure who was so powerful and perfect that he made no mistakes. But he made many mistakes." Dyson gives the example of Malcolm's verbal attacks on other black leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Malcolm at one time called "Dr. Martin Luther King, Chicken Wing."

Malcolm was trying to suggest, Dyson says, that King was a coward because he was unwilling to physically take up arms in pursuit of emancipation. Near the end of his life, Malcolm changed his mind about King, Dyson says. "He said, 'You know, you integrationists are much more radical than I had formerly believed.'

"Malcolm had a tremendous commitment to constantly pursuing the ever-evolving nature of truth," Dyson says, "to acknowledge that it's not stable in the sense that it's once true and true forever, but it's always undergoing radical change and shifts."

Ā1995 by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the United States. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the consent of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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