Carrying the Water: On Michael Eric Dyson

Recently, one of my colleagues jokingly referred to Michael Eric Dyson’s Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip-Hop as the latest offering in the Michael Eric Dyson “book-of-the-month-club”. It was a grudging, though derisive, admission of Dyson’s level of productivity as an author. Know What I Mean?, which is largely a collection of conversations that Dyson has had over the past few years, represents his 14th publication in just as many years. His first collection of essays, Reflecting Black (University of Minnesota Press) was published in 1993. Since January of 2005, Dyson has published texts on Hurricane Katrina, one of the seven deadly sins (Pride), the specter of race in contemporary American political discourse and of course, Bill Cosby’s rhetorical “drive-by” on the black poor.

Given Dyson’s prolific output and heightened visibility, it should not be surprising that some of his peers within the academy accuse him of pandering to the marketplace, while many outside of the academy view him as little more than a race hustler. The same goes for Dyson’s proclivity for movement from one elite institution to another; the publication of Know What I Mean? coincided with the announcement that he had accepted a new position as University Professor at Georgetown University. In contrast to this so-called conventional wisdom, I’d like to suggest that for nearly two decades Dyson has carried the water, not only for the principles of being a civically engaged scholar and intellectual, but for the field of African-American Studies and its many mutations, including the burgeoning field of hip-hop studies.

As such this is as much meant to defend Dyson as it is meant to defend the vocation that he, as well as many others, have brilliantly upheld with guile, intelligence, passion. and an unwavering commitment to issues of social justice. So for a moment let’s assume that Dyson is the intellectual equivalent of an ambulance chaser. But we’re not talking about nefarious accident lawyers and tow-truck drivers who lay in wait to profit from the misfortunes of others, but an Ivy-League trained scholar, author, and public thinker of some distinction. The recurring presumption here is that Dyson’s public profile and celebrity are some how premised on his exploitation of the misery of the black folk he ostensibly represents.

This widely circulated and decidedly worn “poverty pimp” thesis has been applied to figures as diverse as Reverend Jesse Jackson, Cornel West, and the current cadre of hip-hop generation intellectuals, who supposedly, as the critique goes, wallow in victimization and refuse to hold the black rank-and-file, particularly black youth, accountable for bad behavior. This chorus from the choir of “common sense” populism holds merit merely for those who refuse to value the labor of those whose mode of activism is best realized via corporate media (including the publishing houses) and elite universities, and who leverage the resources of those institutions to do the work of social justice. The populism of common sense suggests that the attainment of wealth and celebrity could be the only motivations for trafficking in the marketplace of ideas.

Unfortunately the either/or logic that pits grassroots activism and traditional political agitation against the work of the mind undermines the complexity and severity of the issues that our communities face. And what, exactly, is inherently wrong with one who lives a life of the mind, employing the tools of her vocation — as scholar, public intellectual and media interlocutor — to bring sense and sensibility to the existential, cultural, political, moral and spiritual crises that face our communities, particularly in the moment that such crises present themselves? Temple University philosopher Lewis Gordon suggest that “what’s crucial about controversy is whether it stimulates policy or simply stimulates more speaking engagements” adding that “there are certain individuals, when things are said and done, you don’t know what the issues are. You only now who they are.” (Philadelphia Weekly, 16 January 2006).

Norman Kelley defines such figures as “African American market intellectuals who profit while they prophet, selling attitude” (The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome). These are legitimate critiques of anyone who traffics in ideas in the public square and the marketplace (often one and the same). Nonetheless such critiques fail to consider the reality of the contemporary media landscape, for which the critical issues of the day are often presented to mainstream audiences as little more than appendages to personalities sanctioned by corporate media interests. Should black intellectuals simply concede that this is a terrain that they shouldn’t or can’t exploit in the best interests of communities in need of social justice? Of course not.

The ability of the black intelligentsia to manipulate the blogosphere — and Professor Kim’s News Notes immediately come to mind — are evidence of the value of black intellectuals embracing the technologies of the day. But the reality is that many academics, regardless of race, find it difficult to talk across academic disciplines, let alone to audiences that exist beyond the academy. Many of these same academics are profoundly limited in their ability to translate their research and ideas in layperson’s terms.

It is Dyson’s ability to make himself and his work accessible to lay audiences — ironically much like grassroots activists — that makes him a target for those folk within the academy and elsewhere, who don’t believe that his work is rigorous enough. While part of Dyson’s prestige early in his career was clearly rooted in his ability to write for a literate and middle-class public that was believed to be largely white, he recognized that his ideas needed to circulate on myriad levels.

Dyson and many within a hip-hop generation intelligentsia, including Bakari Kitwana and Jeff Chang, have leveraged the appeal of popular culture in order to facilitate serious discussion around on-the-ground issues like violence, incarceration, sexual assault and rape, voter disenfranchisement, and environmental justice. In recent years, Dyson has, in particular, made a point of challenging his audiences about their sexism, misogyny and homophobia — the now defunct Michael Eric Dyson Show was illuminating in this regard — in ways that simply counter charges that he panders to his audience.

As James Peterson, a literature professor at Bucknell University observes, “we need multimedia platforms…we have to record albums, do the radio programs, do the television shows, be in film. That’s what gets to the people. That’s the literature of the future.” (Philadelphia Weekly, 16 January 2006). When Dyson appeared on both NBC’s Today Show and BET’s Rap City on the same day to promote his book, Is Bill Cosby Right? back in 2005, it was clear that there were few within the academy who could effectively circulate in such disparate spaces. In this regard Dyson is, as Cornel West has suggested, really unprecedented — but not necessarily so.

One could argue, for example, that W.E.B. DuBois’s manipulation of forms like the sermon, music and cultural criticism, the memoir, political theory, historical narrative and the eulogy throughout the pages of The Souls of Black Folk (1903), is really the precursor to the very multimedia strategies that Dyson manipulates contemporarily. I make this point to suggest that Dyson is the contemporary embodiment of the best of the black tradition of public intellectualism.

Dyson’s ability to circulate in multiple public and media spheres is predicated on his ability to seamlessly switch codes. While few would quibble with his ability to break bread with church congregations, the white-bread audiences that comprise the base of NPR and C-Span, traditional academics and congressional committees, it is ultimately his ability to reach black youth — and to seriously consider the cultures they produce — that animates derision towards him. In contrast, it is very difficult to listen to the critiques of figures like jazz critic Stanley Crouch and sportswriter Jason Whitlock, who were both elevated to national visibility in the aftermath of the Don Imus controversy, and not believe that they fundamentally hate black youth — or at least what they think black youth represent.

Figures like Crouch and Whitfield seemingly only have a presence in mainstream media culture because they so consistently deride black youth. Dyson notes, for example, “The tragedy is that we have failed to come to grips with the enormous achievement of our children, because we’re so angry with them. The larger world embraces them in ways we’ve failed to do.” This line of reasoning on Dyson’s part, though, is not a retreat from offering criticism of black youth. In Know What I Mean? Dyson notes that “Our moral traditions may lead us to repudiate most of what the worst of [black youth] do, while applauding much of what the best of them do. The problem is that we don’t know how to make those distinctions.” Such is the case when Dyson chides Black Enterprise magazine founder Earl Graves for asserting (in reference to Jay- Z) that “Nobody with tattoos on their body or low-slung pants can tell me anything.”

Graves, whose business, is business, is part of a generation of black gatekeepers seemingly out of touch with a world in which Curtis Jackson (50 Cent) can make millions endorsing vitamin enriched water and Shawn Carter (Jay Z) can buy out his founding partners in a hip-hop-styled clothing line for less than $30 million, only to flip it a year later for more than $200 million, while retaining creative control.

Dyson’s work has often demanded a vigorous, even devout, engagement with popular culture; Some who deem his work as simplistic — or “‘cunning lies and garbage” to quote Paul R. Griffin, a professor of Religion at Wright State University — often reflect their own tangential relationship, intellectually at least, with the cultural discourses that clearly impact black youth and others. Simply put, Dyson does close readings of “texts” that many deem unworthy of such attention, in the context of a media-driven culture that relishes in the manipulation of that which exists on the surface.

For example, in his conversation with University of Texas scholar, Meta DuEwa Jones, Dyson challenges the sensibilities of those who could only view Craig Brewer’s film Hustle & Flow as a celebration of pimps. “The pimp seizes control of the female’s reproductive organs to make money and generate status for himself” Dyson admits, adding that pimping, “in certain ways, simulates and replicates chattel slavery, or the owning of bodies for the purposes of generating wealth.” But Dyson also points out that the film “demythologizes the pimp narrative and mythology…” as it “twists literal dependence of the pimp on his hoes to a spiritual and moral dependence.” Still, Dyson resists the desire to endow the women in the film with too much agency, arguing that these women represent a “most vicious politics of misogyny, because it is a ventriloquist act: it articulates black male desire through the voice of a women.”

Some reject the significant gestures that Dyson and an increasing amount of younger scholars — Imani Perry, Tracey Sharpley-Whiting, Davarian Baldwin and S. Craig Watkins, to name just a few — make toward the complexity of popular culture, because they don’t value or understand the role of popular culture as a site of ideological production. These gestures resonate little in the public sphere, if they are not packaged with a real-time literacy of contemporary popular culture and quite frankly, many traditional scholars of African-American studies are fundamentally incapable of doing so.

And there’s the rub. Dyson and his ilk are thus left open to charges, like those from critic Norman Kelley, that “Black intellectuals don’t care about real problems; they are into theory and pop culture.” (The Brooklyn Rail, June 2005). But one of the problems that black youth face is with the pursuit of literacy — the literal tool that many black youth need to master in order to negotiate the world — within public school apparatuses that have little interest in equipping many of their students with critical skills beyond test taking. I’ve personally witnessed young people who’ve read Dyson’s book on Tupac Shakur, in particular the chapter on the late rapper’s taste in reading material, and then proceeded to read many of the books that purportedly Tupac read. And while the cynic in all of us would like to believe that the sales of books by Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim (the precursors to “street fiction”) were stimulated, the reality is that Tupac’s bookshelf included J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Jamaica Kincaid’s At the Bottom of the River, Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, Eileen Southern’s groundbreaking Music of Black Americans, as well as the feminist writings of Alice Walker (In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens) and Robin Morgan’s edited volume Sisterhood is Powerful: Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement. This is not to romanticize about the crisis that exist in American public schools, but to temper our dismissal of popular culture as an agent in the education and politicizing of American youth.

As such, Dyson and many within a hip-hop generation intelligentsia, including Bakari Kitwana and Jeff Chang, have leveraged the appeal of popular culture in order to facilitate serious discussion around on-the-ground issues like violence, incarceration, sexual assault and rape, voter disenfranchisement, and environmental justice. In recent years, Dyson has, in particular, made a point of challenging his audiences about their sexism, misogyny and homophobia — the now defunct Michael Eric Dyson Show was illuminating in this regard — in ways that simply counter charges that he panders to his audience. Dyson’s lengthy conversation with filmmaker Byron Hurt, portions of which appear in Hurt’s important documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, is exemplary of this aspect of Dyson’s work.

Take for example Dyson’s disrobing of the sexual politics of the black church where he observes that the “tension between heterosexual and homosexual elements is especially pronounced — from the pulpit to the choir stand — and therefore vehemently resisted. You’ve got ‘straight’ men proclaiming their love for Jesus, even more than their love for parents, partners and progeny. And even though they consider him God, he’s still embodied on earth as a man. So their love for another man supersedes their love for anything or anybody else.” Dyson’s larger point here is that the very straight men, whose spiritual identity is premised on the love of another man, are often vehemently critical of men (and women) whose sexual identity is, in part, defined by their love of someone of the same sex. Not the point-of-view that gets you invited back into the pulpit the following Sunday in most churches in America.

In the introduction of Know What I Mean?, Jay Z writes that Dyson takes “modern urban life seriously” and brings the “tools of so-called legitimate society to bear on a place that too many dismissed as unworthy of attention.” But there’s a collateral point here; Dyson also uses hip-hop’s own unique critical tools to hold a mirror up to said “legitimate” society. It is in this context that Dyson could point out that hip-hop culture is “alive and desperate to breathe”, so much so that it has “launched a withering attack from within about the industry that houses it” as embodied by folk like Rosa Clemente, Marcyliena Morgan , Davey D, Joan Morgan, Gwendolyn Pough, Danny Hoch, William Jelani Cobb, and so many others who did not grace the stage of Oprah Winfrey’s hastily constructed Town Meeting.

In contrast, Dyson rightly asks, “Where is the parallel and public critique in the black church, where patriarchy and bling reign in the gospel of prosperity with greater ugliness than in hip-hop?” This is perhaps what offends many about Dyson. That a clearly brilliant and Ivy-League credentialed scholar would expend so much energy, time, and passion on the lives and concerns of those that some, even in the black community, would rather remain invisible, just goes against all common sense. But common sense rarely challenges the traditions and sensibilities that have locked marginalized communities into the same patterns of misery. Carry the water, Brother, carry the water.

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, where he also directs the Institute for Critical US Studies (ICUSS). A longtime contributor to PopMatters, Neal is the author of several books including the most recent New Black Man.