Michael Eric Dyson Calls for Unity in the Face of Trump and Racism

The following is an adapted excerpt published with permission from St. Martin’s Press from the new book Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson. Copyright January 2017.

America is in trouble, and a lot of that trouble—perhaps most of it—has to do with race. Everywhere we turn, there is discord and division, death and destruction. When we survey the land, we see a country full of suffering that we cannot fully understand, and a history that we can no longer deny. Slavery casts a long shadow across our lives. The spoils we reaped from forcing people to work without wages and treating them with grievous inhumanity continue to haunt us in a racial gulf that seems impossible to overcome. Black and white people don’t merely have different experiences; we seem to occupy different universes, with worldviews that are fatally opposed to one another. The merchants of racial despair easily peddle their wares in a marketplace riddled by white panic and fear. Black despair piles up with each body that gets snuffed on video and streamed on social media. We have, in the span of a few years, elected the nation’s first black president and placed in the Oval Office the scariest racial demagogue in a generation. The two may not be unrelated. The remarkable progress we seemed to make with the former has brought out the peril of the latter.

What, then, can we do? We must return to the moral and spiritual foundations of our country and grapple with the consequences of our original sin. To do that we need not share the same religion, worship the same God, or, truly, even be believers at all. For better and worse, our national moral landscape has been shaped by the dynamics of a Christianity that has from the start been deeply intertwined with religious mythology and cultural symbolism. The Founding Fathers did not for the most part believe what evangelical Christians believe now. Most believers today certainly do not share Thomas Jefferson’s view of the Bible. In his redacted version of the New Testament, Jefferson purged the miracles, Jesus’ divinity, and the Resurrection. But all of us, from agreeable agnostics to fire-and-brimstone Protestants, from devout Catholics to observant Jews, from devoted Muslims to those who claim no god at all, share a language of moral repair. That language is our common meeting ground, our tool of analysis, and yes, our inspiration for repentance, our hope for redemption.

Although I am a scholar, a cultural and political critic, and a social activist, I am, before, and above anything else, an ordained Baptist minister. Please don’t hold that against me, although I’ll understand if you do. I know that religion has a bad rap. We believers deserve a lot of the criticism that we receive. Our actions and beliefs nearly warrant wholesale skepticism. (Can I let you in on a secret? I share a lot of that reaction.) But deep in my heart I believe that our moral and spiritual passions can lead to a better day for our nation. I know that when we get out of our own way and let the spirit of love and hope shine through we are a better people.

But such love and hope can only come about if we first confront the poisonous history that has almost unmade our nation and undone our social compact. We must face up to what we as a country have made of the black people who have been the linchpin of democracy, the folk who saved America from itself, who redeemed it from the hypocrisy of proclaiming liberty and justice for all while denying all that liberty and justice should be to us.

Yes, I said us. This is where I take leave of my analytical neutrality, or at least the appearance of it. This is where I cast my fate with the black people who birthed and loved me, who built a legacy of excellence and struggle and pride amidst one of the most vicious assaults on humanity in recorded history. That assault may have started with slavery, but it didn’t end there. The legacy of that assault, its lingering and lethal effect, continues to this day. It flares in broken homes and blighted communities, in low wages and social chaos, in self-destruction and self-hate too. But so much of what ails us—black people, that is—is tied up with what ails you—white folk, that is. We are tied together in what Martin Luther King, Jr., called a single garment of destiny. Yet sewed into that garment are pockets of misery and suffering that seem to be filled with a disproportionate number of black people. (Of course, America is far from simply black and white by whatever definition you use, but the black-white divide has been the major artery through which the meaning of race has flowed throughout the body politic.)

Now just because I identify with my people doesn’t mean that I don’t understand and grapple with what it means to be white in America. In fact, I was trained in your schools and I now teach your children. But I remain what I was when I started my vocation, my pilgrimage of self-discovery: a black preacher. It is for that reason that I don’t want to—really, I can’t afford to—give up on the possibility that white America can definitively, finally, hear from one black American preacher a plea, a cry, a sermon, from my heart to yours.

What I need to say can only be said as a sermon. I have no shame in that confession, because confession, and repentance, and redemption play a huge role in how we can make it through the long night of despair to the bright day of hope. Sermons are tough, not only to deliver, but, just as often, to hear. Yet, in my experience, if we stick with the sermon—through its pitiless recall of our sin, its relentless indictment of our flaws—we can make it to the uplifting expressions and redeeming practices that make our faith flow from the pulpit to the public, from darkness to light.

Adapted excerpt published with permission from St. Martin’s Press from Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson. Copyright January 2017.


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