Today we speak with Dr. Michael Eric Dyson – academic, minister and author – about his new book Unequal: A Story About America, which he co-wrote with Marc Favreau. We discuss the lies around bootstrap politics and personal responsibility, and our culture’s hunger for all things history (except when it’s by or about Black people). We also examine how the white gaze shapes how Black history is taught.
The Stacks Book Club selection for June is White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson. We will discuss the book on June 29th with David Dennis Jr.
*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.
Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we welcome Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, sociology professor and New York Times contributing opinion writer. He’s a prolific and bestselling author whose newest book, which he co wrote with Mark fabro is titled unequal a story of America. This book marks Dr. Dyson’s first foray into young adult literature on equal breaks down the black struggle for equality from reconstruction to the modern day in America, and as a compelling account of the insidious and persistent nature of racism. We discussed the book Dr. Dyson’s choice to write for young people and so much more. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on each episode of the show can be found in the link in the show notes. The Stax book club pick for June is white negros when cornrows were in vogue and other thoughts on cultural appropriation by Lauren Michelle Jackson. We’ll be discussing the book on Wednesday, June 29. With David Dennis Jr. The stock is a completely independent podcast made possible by the support of our listeners. I cannot stress enough how I would not be able to make this show each week without the support of the snacks pack, which is our incredible bookish community that supports the snacks over on Patreon. If not for them, there would be no show. So if you like the podcast and want to show your love, plus, earn perks, like bonus episodes with your favorite readers and authors, shout outs on the show and our monthly virtual book club. Plus more, go to patreon.com/the stacks. And thank you to some of our newest members of the stacks pack. Theresa Tebow Motoko Oshino Matthews, I A Kaufman and Raquel Howard. Thank you all so much. And thank you to the entire stacks pack for supporting this show every single week. And now it’s time for my conversation with Michael Eric Dyson.
Alright, everybody, I am very excited and honored today to be joined by one of the most prolific writers of our day, I would say Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, welcome to the podcast.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 2:12
Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real honor. I’m excited about all the great work that you do and the books you speak about. So I’m honored to join that list.
Traci Thomas 2:20
Oh, thank you so much. Okay, we always start here and about 30 seconds or so can you just tell the audience about your newest book unequal?
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 2:29
Yes. Well unequal, is a book written with my brilliant co author Mark febrero, who’s an editor, historian, Elegant Writer, and we wanted to produce a book for teens, that would introduce them to some of the most remarkable figures generated in African American history, as we struggled for equality in America, and to take us from basically after Reconstruction, down to the present day. So going from, you know, figures like Mary Church, Terrell, and Thomas fortune, and even before down to Michelle Alexander and Nicole Hannah Jones. So we want to tell a story that’s powerful and compelling for young readers, especially in an era, uh, when books are being banned. And history is being diminished, to elevate those stories to the level of eloquent narrative that tells the truth, as much as we can tell it, about democracy and the struggle for equality of African Americans in this country.
Traci Thomas 3:36
Yeah, I’m so curious about you choosing to write for young people. What What was it that sparked you? I mean, you’ve written 20 Plus books, right? I’m curious, what made you be like, You know what, now I want to talk to the you
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 3:49
talk to the young uns? Well, you know, I’ve always been interested in doing something like that, but never found the time or the opportunity, or the occasion. And you know, and a lot of people come up to me, Well, you love what you’re doing, Dr. Dyson, but you got anything for the young people, you got anything that I can give to teens, what which one of your books can be read, well, maybe the Tupac Booker’s Jay Z book, but, you know, I wanted to be more intentional about it. And in joining forces with Mark Fabbro. You know, I’ve found for me a perfect co author, to really reach out to an audience that is, I think, hungry for knowledge. And, and I’m gonna be real to, you know, I love reading some of these teen books and so on, because I found a lot of information that’s relevant and helpful and better written than for the old folk. So I wanted to join that contingents of writers who have done just that, in order to spread knowledge and share messages. And so since I’ve had this desire for quite some time, the moment came about and I’m ready to to engage.
Traci Thomas 4:59
I’m glad that you did. Did I read my first book by you, which was the Katrina book when I was like 19, or 20. So I feel like while your work is for adults, I sort of was in that young reader age and right now, but I also famously love to read really heavy nonfiction and have since I was a young teenager, so I feel like maybe not other teenagers are doing that. But in the introduction, you talk about, you know, folks, potentially thinking that this book on equal might victimize kids, or might make them quote, melt into a puddle of guilt. And it sort of made me think about how education is used. And do you think that previously, education has been used as a way to do those things on purpose? And now that now that it’s, you know, sort of white children are feeling those things, all of a sudden? That’s a problem? I don’t know if that makes sense.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 5:58
Yeah, that makes perfect sense. And, yeah, I mean, look, when we say we’re worried about our kids, they worried about black kids, and they’re worried about Latino kids, they’re not worried about Indigenous kids. Because if you’re worried about them, forget what they’re reading, do they have a chance to read? You know, what about the police or in their schools? Or over policing them? What about the kids, the indigenous and African American and Latino kids were getting kicked out of school at seven and eight, nine and 10 years old, getting worried about them? And if you’re worried about the psyche of the kids, what about the trauma, that young kids of color endure, by listening to Tucker Carlson, or people who listen to Tucker Carlson, and say things about them, and draw conclusions about them? So there’s been a host of traumas, a bevy of befuddling assaults upon the vulnerable psyches of these kids, and yet they keep coming, and yet they keep rising, and yet we keep pushing them forward. So I’m saying, you know, white people going around talking about snowflakes? Ah, you know, I can’t take anything, thou doth protest too much. Thou snowflake too much, because even written into the law in Florida, from Ron DeSantis, is the language that makes our children uncomfortable. Like, literally the comfort of white kids, is the litmus test for what is durable history. And so, you know, I think that all along, kids have been dealing with a lot of interesting things. And isn’t it interesting to not to be snarky, that, you know, white kids seem to have, you know, become soft, because I remember that they used to be taken to lunches. They had picnics. And they were celebrate, they didn’t go on our kitchen, see this, they brought them to the lynching. They brought them to the burning of black people in flesh. So I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. It’s just a revanchist. It’s a kind of re articulation of, you know, white supremacist logic and this notion that you’re trying to guilt us and stuff. I don’t know about you. But if I did something wrong, and my people did something wrong, and I’m not studying it, I don’t want to be guilt laden. But I feel like her to guilt that what they did is wrong. And we should be held accountable as human beings for it. So there’s no such thing as guilting you know, white people, as a means of history. It’s about coming to grips with your responsibility. And again, for the masses of white people who promote a notion of be responsible for yourself up by your bootstraps, do it. And then when you say, Okay, let’s hold you responsible. Oh, no, no, no. So I’m sorry. I don’t mean to go on. But it’s it’s hogwash to me. And I think it’s rather disingenuous, to say the least.
Traci Thomas 9:01
Yeah. And I think also this notion of, you know, feeling guilt for the group, I think there’s been plenty of research and writing about how there’s a singularity to whiteness, because you mentioned, you know, if like, someone from your group that you identified with did something, you would want to learn about it, etc. And I think that that just shows like your perspective and point of view as a black person in America, whereas white people would say, oh, no, that’s someone else. That’s a lone wolf. That’s, you know, and I think it’s just really interesting. Which just sort of made me even ask that question, because I do feel like black people, you know, we are guilted and put into these groups and taught all of this history in a way that, you know, can make us sort of feel bad a little bit until we actually learn our history, which is clearly what you’ve done with the book. But with with this book, I’m curious who your audience is because you do start off sort of talking about, you know, people will say that this is going to make you a victim or this is going to make you feel guilty. So it does feel like His book is written more for white children. Was that was that your intent?
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 10:03
Well, we certainly want them to read. We don’t want to limit ourselves to any audience. Okay. Right. But but we also are conscious of the fact that Especially now, when white kids are being fed a bill of goods that I think is destructive, that, you know, we want to pay special attention to them. You know, despite the claims that all Hall you’re after white kids, you want to beat him down? No, we want to pay special attention to the fact that you’ve been mis educated, we ain’t gonna avoid the issue. We’re coming straight at it. Right. And we’re saying that, you know, as part of G Woodson said, the MIS education of the Negro, the MIS education of the young, white person in America, because your parents don’t think you can handle it, because they don’t think that you’re up to the task. And I teach white kids for a living. So excuse me, they are, they’re hungry for more, then they get pissed at their parents, why not learn this end? Right? Here they are in college going? Why the hell didn’t I learn this back in the day, because your parents were protecting you, and guarding you. And the brilliant point you made about black kids and young people being guilted, we’re guilted in a different direction. You people have been horrible, you commit crime, black on black crime, you do things to each other, I’d like to hear more of what you about what you mean, in terms of black kids being guilted. But when I think about it, I think about how we are made to feel that we are responsible for the horrors that have been committed in our name, or for the bad things that have been done, and we’re responsible for our lack of progress, our family structure is destructive, is not conducive to being strong. I don’t know what what kind of things that you haven’t.
Traci Thomas 11:38
That’s what I was thinking about to like this whole bootstrap mentality, like, I’ve been thinking, obviously, a lot about higher education with the Joe Biden going back and forth about the loans and that people should, you know, the implication that people should be able to afford these loans, and that they shouldn’t have taken it out. And they’re being irresponsible. And, you know, we know enough about political coded language to know that that has something to do with welfare queens and has something you know, it has to do with all that kind of language. And I even think, like, as far back as slavery, I It wasn’t until recently, like maybe in the last five or 10 years, that I really stopped to think about what it meant to be an enslaved person, and that those people weren’t weak, right, that there’s this idea that like black people are inherently lazy or weak, because we were slaves. But also, we’re lazy, even though we did all the work, you know, like, a lot of that stuff and like that we were skilled laborers, all of those things that were not taught. But it’s implied that we weren’t because we weren’t taught those things. So it implies that, you know, people who are enslaved were just lazy, uncreative, untalented people who like, magically figured out how to make, you know, some delicious food or something, right, or, like, magically figured out how to make blues music. Right, you know. So I think that a lot of that is how I think about, like being being taught to feel guilty about who you are in school. That was, you know, I think the point, I have to assume it’s a point of white supremacy to do to do that.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 13:14
Absolutely. Right. And when he was on the other foot, you know, they can take, you know, responsibility for actions and this notion of, hey, I wasn’t here. I’ve heard this so many times. You weren’t here when you were born. But you’re still here, you weren’t conceived with your consciousness, somebody else made a decision to bring you here. And you weren’t here when the Supreme Court was created, but you keep appealing to its judgment. In order to adjudicate claims. You weren’t here when the Constitution was written, but you appeared to appeal to it. So just because you weren’t here doesn’t mean you don’t benefit from something that happened in the past. Right. And that has precedent consequences. And so you know, I hear white people say, my parents are Italian, Jewish, or polish, and so on and so forth. If you were white came to this country, you’re making my point even more, even better for me, that that as a white person who wasn’t born in this country, came here as an immigrant, you and your family. Now y’all have benefits the black people have been ever, ever can enjoy. You’re making my point. That is to say, even though you weren’t here at the get go, you still benefit from the social contract that was forged, you know, hundreds of years ago, to which you are now the beneficiary of what you are now the beneficiary. So I think that thing of I wasn’t here, I didn’t do it. I’m not guilty, is again, ridiculous, as the great Abraham Joshua Heschel said, not all are guilty, but all are responsible. I think that’s the failure of so many white people to take seriously. These ideas, which is why we wanted to give them to young people to let them think for themselves.
Traci Thomas 14:45
Yeah. I’m curious. So you’ve written about so many things. So I feel like every question I’m gonna ask you is like you’ve written about this, but you’ve written a book on black performance. And, and when I was reading this book and thinking about, you know, children of all different ethnicities and racial groups read doing it. I was thinking about, you know, what happens to black history, when it is reframed or performed for white children or white parents or white, the white publishing industry? Like, was that something that you were thinking about or navigating at all, as you were writing this?
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 15:19
Yeah, I mean, you have to think about what it will look like when it’s received there. But that would be your ask Ray, Charles, Aretha Franklin, you know, I’m singing a song. Now the audience is black, the audience is white. It’s good being in that National could be local, right, I’m gonna, I’m gonna dig deep into my resources and perform to the height of my ability. And so was writing, obviously, it’s a different kind of story if you’re conscious of the audience, that you’re tailoring your narrative for. But what we wanted to do is try to cast those wider net as possible, and catch as many readers as possible, because we take seriously young black kids and what they need in teams and what they need to learn, and what they need to hear. I mean, one of the greatest consequences and the greatest damages of white supremacy, is to convince black people, they don’t need to know their own history. Right? I mean, so you know, while I’m black, I know that right now, you don’t know, I’m 63 years old, there’s stuff I’m still learning show like right now that I’d never heard of. I was like, wow. So So to be convinced that to have an ontological Association, they use a horribly big word, but a being deep kind of association that to be born black as to know black is itself destructive. You know, because there’s so many varieties and qualities and pedigrees and layers of blackness and black identity and black performance, that you speak about, and so on, that are critical that are necessary that we don’t know that we should study, the genius of which we can proclaim, but intimate knowledge and acquaintance with that, we have to continue to bone up on so to speak. So it’s not just written for all we’re gonna write a book, and therefore white kids will read it. This is for curious individuals of all races, and ethnicities who need to know the important contributions of these black people. But your questions still stands, to what degree does the consciousness of writing for particular audiences shape or miss shape? Some would say the narrative I remember Toni Morrison sitting up on Charlie Rose, I don’t write for why do I write books? Where am I people? Now, of course, she knew White, a lot of white people were buying the books, right. But her point is, I don’t ask for white permission, don’t have to beg for white forgiveness. Anyway, that’s a die Sony and interpolation. But I kind of liked that. I’ll remember that. Thank you. Thank you, brilliant young ladies yourself. So the thing is, is that look, you know, we’re writing for those who are historically starved. And for those who are in need, of serious information, and look, we live in a nation that is caught in a paradox. On the one hand, they got 15,000 books on Abraham Lincoln, thesis, a bunch of books on Jefferson, the founding fathers, the founding mothers, the founding brothers, the founding sisters, New York Times bestseller lists, history, history, history, history, nonfiction, from the black people, I get over it. We’re tired of that. I heard you clearly not tied to history. That’s all you even Bill O’Reilly is writing bestseller after bestseller, you know, with his co author, about some Darn, you know, historical, you know, Abraham Lincoln or something like that. So the thing is, is that we are hungry for history on the one hand, and yet we are full of amnesia and willful neglect, of history and other when it comes to black people. When it comes to our history, then all of a sudden, we’ve had our fill. We don’t want anymore, can’t you people stop. Wait a minute, I thought you were living before this history. As the great Gore Vidal said, we live in the United States of Amnesia. And in living in the United States of Amnesia, there’s a there’s a deliberate willful forgetfulness, you know, and I always claimed in Barbra Streisand saying the theme song, the anthem to that nation of amnesia was too painful to remember. We simply choose to forget some painful, don’t want to remember to hurt, oh, don’t want to remember too traumatic, don’t want to recall it. But those pains hurts and traumas of the very stuff of the history of people that you’ve created, the hurt pain and trauma for that you don’t want to now acknowledge it because to study history, is to see yourself reflected in an NP tidying frame of the ghastly misdeeds that were committed by so many generations So White people in this nation. So yeah, I understand why they don’t want to study history, because there’s got to study the bones. It’s the kind of archaeology of, you know, complicity. Right. Some of the things that have gone on in this society ain’t no way around that. So, you know, if we writing for them is the right to say, own up, fess up, step up, and let’s do something about it. Yeah.
Traci Thomas 20:23
I think a lot about, you know, the white gaze. You know, as you mentioned, Toni Morrison obviously talked a lot about it. And I think about like your books, and you’ve written about so many different parts and facets of black history and black culture. And you know, you’re a cultural critic, critic, and a sociologist and a professor, and like, you’re, I mean, you’re like, you wear many hats, which is very impressive. But how, how are you? How are you navigating? Being a black public figure, intellectual, Professor, person, knowing that so many white people turn to you for answers. I mean, like, Chris Harrison turned to you for answers, you know, like, you are the guy. Do you feel like that shapes? How you talk about history, like, or not, maybe not just you, but other people who are in similar situations. Because, you know, Toni Morrison, for the genius that she was, she was also writing fiction. And so there is a way for her to get away from some of some of it, that that you can’t, so I’m sort of wondering about like, being this like black person, who, for whatever reason, for probably many reasons, has become like the black person that white people can go to for answers, you know,
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 21:42
right. Right. Bless you for that. And that’s a brilliant formulation. And of course, Toni Morrison, besides the ingenious fiction, wrote, I don’t know, you know, that. I’m not I’m not saying that to him. I’m saying to remind us that you’re absolutely right, in terms of that intellectual division of labor, writing fiction, there’s a lot more, you can play with there. And then in nonfiction, more direct, more linear, some would say, and as a result of that more compelling, a reason to grapple with these ideas and be conscious of an audience in a way. But if anything, it makes me want to tell more of the truth. Yeah. You know, for some people, my cyclical sofar, um, don’t, don’t, don’t be as hard. I’m saying, let’s, let’s go deeper. If you listen, if you really listening, let me tell you the truth. For instance, I wrote a book called tears, we cannot stop a sermon in white America. I still get letters, emails from white people saying, Oh, my God, this was so tough. This was tough to read. And but I’m so glad you wrote it. Because the telling the truth, the nekkid or vulnerability, the refusal to lie to us. That is important to me. So yeah, it’s affected me, but not to mitigate. Right back to ameliorate in that sense, but to even more, honestly, and truthfully, speak my mind. Because look, I tell people all time, people of color, black people, bipoc however, we want to come, you know, phrase ourselves, the global majority is what we are really. So I say, Look, you can’t out white white people. So don’t go in there acting like you. Wait, you wait, wait. And if you if you have wait, you wait all the way. But you ain’t doing it the same way. Obama is multiracial, but he a black man in America. All right. So the thing is, is that why try to emulate what they already got? Tell your truth. Yeah, they already got white people, they got more white people to have better than you at Dan White. You know, with the exception of Clarence Thomas, he’s a pretty good way. So the thing is, is that you ain’t gonna beat them at their game. Get on your game. You would you do? Tell the truth is you see it, that. Therefore if you go into a situation and act like you’re white, you’re nullifying the very argument for your presence, because the ostensible reason for your presence is to bring color to bring difference to bring perspective. Now, it might line up with what a lot of white people believe. But it’s so that’s your freedom and prerogative, but it also brings a different interpretation, a different analysis, a different lens. And so in that sense, you know, I say, let’s not give up on the opportunity to tell the truth. I was flying on a plane yesterday from Los Angeles to Washington DC and, you know, ran into you I’m on the plane and Joe Manchin is on the plane. You know, me and Joe Manchin, don’t see eye to eye on much. Sweet guy, very nice guy, Professor. This is XYZ I gave him a copy of unequal hot off the press before it darn hit the stores. And I said you’re gonna disagree with a lot of the Senator. I said, but I wish he would, you know, at least read it. You know, it’s for young people. It’s for teens, but you can check it out. We were doing our work in here. And the thing is, is that you know, I want you to rest With us, I want you to grapple with this. I want to talk to people who don’t agree with me. I spend most of my life as a black person in America as an intellectual speaking to audiences that are not convinced that what I’m saying is true. Right, I’m always in the lion’s den, so to speak. Not always, but often. And so it’s extremely necessary to engage the inevitable volatility that may be the concomitant, that may be the result that may be the outcome of what you’re trying to do. people’s feelings get hurt, they get upset, their innocence is ripped off from them, their comfort is removed. That’s why I’m against what DeSantis is doing. And all these anti CRT laws, these people don’t know the difference between CRT and opp. They caught it 90s, HIPAA, they don’t know, they thought it was the theme song from from, you know, dirty bastard or something. All right. So the thing is, by the way, oh, God, Basler I’m not being nasty here, y’all. That’s so anyway. So the thing is, is that, you know, when you when you look at all of these bills, they’re trying to protect white kids from knowledge. Now, is that what they, the parents, they, the grandparents, the great grandparents really did some horrible things, you know, voter suppression, that ain’t nothing new. They’ve been doing this from the giddy up. They’ve been talking negative about please black people. And yes, that’s part of the study. But it’s not to guilt you. It’s to inform you, it’s not to guilt you is to give you the gift you with this knowledge, it’s a painful gift. It’s a powerful gift as well. And if you take it seriously, so much good is in the offing. And black people are pretty sweet. Yo, you know, we just real nice people. And the fear of black knowledge for white people, is that black people don’t treat them the same way they treated us that’s what the real guilt is a guilty conscience. That oh my god, you know, if we were in look at we, if we were in control, look at what we did when we were in control, right? We didn’t let them vote. We rape their women, we we castrated their men. We beat their children, we murdered them. We we sent them to war. When they came back. We gave them no benefits that we gave to the white middle class to establish in terms of the GI Bill. Look at the horrible Oui oui oui, oui terrorize them. We burnt their houses down, and they still here and they sing in Christian songs on Sunday. And when a white guy goes up into a church and murders none of them before the bodies of the dead are cold. They forgive him. Yeah. So they can’t take that love that power. They can’t imagine what my god because if we treated them the same way they treated us it would be Murder, Mayhem, and misery. But that ain’t who we are. Yeah. And that’s not what we do.
Traci Thomas 27:57
I think about that a lot. And I think that, you know, this is just my projection. So sorry, white people. I think they’re really jealous of black people. Because, like, all of that horrible stuff. And you know, to, quote maybe one of the most famous poems ever and still we rise, right like, we’re still hear
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 28:19
the time he had to go to that point. All you white boys, like sugar, honey, ice, see, and I sat there. Thank you, senator for the opportunity to respond to you. You know, I want it to be her anger, translate.
Traci Thomas 28:36
Turn it off. I was like, I can’t watch this.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 28:39
Oh my God, I watched every bit of it. Because I wanted to understand again, that you you do everything white folk tell you you’re supposed to do go to Harvard. I went twice. Yeah. You know, she’s got more judicial experience than most y’all who’ve ever sat on that bench, right. And she sat there in calm and dignity, lucidly articulating legal ideals, and even when they thought they hit their head or traps, you gave a speech at the University of Michigan, quoted Nicole Hannah Jones. Yes. Because I knew that most of the students would see that as a point of reference. And I wanted to have that as a relevant Oh, see kilter and then see that but it’s not important to my work. Oh, kill up girl. Because, yes, very jealousy, you leave, we can do all that and they still can dance and sing and perform and stand up everyday and wear their hair the way they do it. Yeah. Yeah, that’s what we is. That’s what we do. That’s who we are. So yes, you’re absolutely right. There is the level of envy and jealousy. Yeah, about our ability to do what we do, despite all the obstacles and impediments we’ve confronted.
Traci Thomas 29:52
Yeah. I want to ask you sort of about the formulation of the book, how you organized it, why you chose to highlight people instead of like time periods or events or sort of bigger ideas because the book is framed every chapter has sort of like a little intro. That is, that is a story about a person, sometimes an event, but mostly people and then each chapter itself has a person that sort of starts it and their story is told and combines other history. So I’m wondering why you went with with that direction.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 30:30
Yeah, cuz people people are interested in people. You got gossip magazine. You got Okay. Yep. People, you got CMC, you got the Shade Room you got that people are obsessed with Kanye doing was him doing what they doing? Right now. We didn’t want to, you know, presume that we would condescend to that level, but let’s meet you know, it’s like Jesus meet the woman at the will meet people where they act. Yeah. And where was she at the level of a bucket, Hey, can I have a drink of water, then we can get into some deep theology and transformative possibility. So I think the lives of interesting powerful black people revealed the themes, the events, the stories, the transitions, the historical epics, and the desire to grapple with noble ideals, and uplifting aspirations that characterize us as human beings. And so the best thing to do is to talk about Pauli Murray speak about marriage, church to rail, to speak about Thomas fortune to talk about Nicole Hannah Jones to talk about Michelle Alexander to speak about people who were facing housing crises and being, you know, threatened and, you know, to lynch them, and to talk about Ida B. Wells, Barnett, and so on, and so forth. Those people have huge stories that connects two big themes that reveal large struggles in American history. And we thought that was, especially for young readers for teen readers. But it’s true for me too, as an older person, to get into their lives, to dig into their biographies, and then to grapple with the real truth that they address and the ideas that were critical to their lives.
Traci Thomas 32:14
Yeah, I meant to ask you this before when we were talking about sort of the history. Do you is there in your research and knowledge? Is there a historical precedent for what we’re seeing with the book bannings and the anti Critical Race theories and the don’t say gay bills, and all of these sorts of legislative actions that are to like, take action against identities in this way? I mean, especially with the anti trans Bowser, essentially saying you can’t exist? Is that something that you feel like we’ve seen before? Do you feel like this is different in any way?
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 32:44
Well, it’s both hands, right. Yeah, we’ve seen I mean, this is what America is right? Even kind of banned books from the Getty up. They’ve been, you know, they banned us by literally killing us. That’s, that’s the ultimate banning, right, is that I gotta read your book, because you ain’t right. Because you didn’t. They’ve been. They’ve been banning books, and black bodies and black ideas. And they banded by out long and abandoned by calling it inferior. They’ve tried to ban you know, if they couldn’t literally ban Phyllis Wheatley, they banded by saying well, you know, because the litmus test was if you could master Greek, you know, you are intelligent Thomas Jefferson did she does it well, what happened was, and Thomas Jefferson, himself a paradox, your you are writing the Declaration of Independence, they took out the part where you were really critical of, you know, slavery and so on, so forth. But then again, you only enslaved people to you and let them go, you know, maybe upon your death of what George Washington did upon his death. You but you know, you then you out here talking about how inferior they are in the notes on Virginia, but then you creeping out, you know, Sally Hemings, right, 14 years old, in some Luther Vandross tapes and going out there, you know, will Wilson Pickett Mustang Sally, you know, you you out here picking up the latest jams and spitting little woozy burgers, and, and you’re claiming that these are, you know, unalterably inferior human beings. And yet, you are attracted to that which you despise, or condescend to or think is inferior. So yeah, you know, the banning of books, I mean, both in regard to race, but in also in terms of ideas. Look at the McCarthy eights, look at what happened in the 18th century, the 19th century, the 20th century, we’ve been doing this for a while, but having said that, as James Brown would say, however, there does appear to be, you know, a shift here, because we should be I mean, if we’re repeating history, we should at least be more in light. And we smarter now than we were two centuries ago. Then you’re to be, you know, because we are just as thin skinned and reactionary and using the state power to punish vulnerable human beings. I’ve been doing that for a minute. And now the trans folk, you know, because trans never existed in the way that they are explicitly existing now, so that in before because there was a denial of their legitimacy, think about Pauli Murray, who we write about in the book, Pauli Murray was a great legal scholar, brilliant, brilliant woman who became the first what ordain women female priests in a church and and domination, extraordinary legal mind and because of her, Thurgood Marshall and all them didn’t want to give her her credit, but she’s the one that came up but separate button equal is a problematic, you know, idea led to Brown versus Board of Education. Even the notorious RBG Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that polyamory didn’t get her do. And yet, and she brought her to one president, I can’t remember which one I need to be the woman on the spring Cobra, I need to be a woman on spring core. So she had no lack of wide receiver Moxie that we see going on out there yo, rappers who refer to themselves in third person, she had all that. And he felt that she was trapped in the room. And she felt that this was not who she was, and dress like, quote A man. So today, she might be known as them, not her. So. So yeah, all along, you know, because the conditions were not right for the emergence of certain identities that are now permitted to exist that now are drawn into the the clear drawn into the public sphere, you know, have to contend with forces that now go against them more explicitly. So that’s the new thing, because we’ve got new formed identities, newfangled identities, black feminism is far stronger, calling out toxic masculinity and misogyny and the like, is far stronger. So we have some opposition to some of this madness. But it ain’t the first time we’ve seen it. But it is, you know, it is the case that there are new formations, and then to support, you know, through law and arms of government. These bigotries that a new but it’s I mean, look at what they did in reconstruction, we got 12 years where we got to get down for a little bit. Then they snatched it all but Mitch McConnell said, black people vote as much as Americans do, whatever slow down slow was why what? So now it’s coming out. But that’s, that’s a regurgitation of, you know, horribly racist ideas. So yeah, it’s both new and old. It’s both new because new identities have been emerged, and have been allowed to percolate and then therefore be born or to, or to claim space in public. And then it’s the same old same old hatred of the other that is animated American empire from the get go.
Traci Thomas 37:54
Right? same playbook, just different different team narratives.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 37:58
There it is. Beautifully said.
Traci Thomas 38:01
Okay, I want to talk a little bit about the process of writing this book. And you know, I always like to ask this when people have co authors. How did you and Mark work together was there How was the division of labor? What was the did you use a Google Doc? Like, how did you guys actually get the book together?
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 38:16
Yeah, well, you know, you got to figure out who’s gonna be LeBron and who’s gonna be D. Wade? In other words, you’re right, right. They both they were superstars when they came together. Right, right. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Chris Bosh, and Chris Bosh had to give up a lot of his game. Right? Right. But he got two rings in exchange, right? He was a superstar in Toronto. He says, I’m gonna do D Wade. Finally, first, he and LeBron were kind of figured out then the way sick, you the leader, I got enough of a strong ego, not to be trippin. You got to kind of talent that nobody possesses, you should be the leader. We’re trying to figure it out. And once they did that they started flowing. So once I recognize that mark, federal was LeBron. I could do both thing in terms of, you know, us coming together. Obviously, we’re exchanging ideas we’re writing, we’re thinking we’re reflecting. And you know, given his sense as an editor, right, that’s a built in advantage when you write what a guy who’s also an editor, that’s beautiful, but I do pretty good. On the editing side as well. I wrote a few books. Well, I know what I’m doing as well. So we worked beautifully together, you know, drafting things, and I’ve read and then I’d write some stuff he’d read, but him, you know, taking that lead, and then, you know, us working together to try to shape and talk about who we should include and why. And then writing that out. It was it was a beautiful process. And one that I greatly enjoyed that has had immense, you know, benefit, and hopefully the reader will feel the same thing. Yeah.
Traci Thomas 39:51
How do you like to write how many hours a day how often do you have music on do you have snacks and beverages? Are you in your home? Are you In your office, can you tell us your progress?
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 40:03
You are so good that see some people can write with me, I can’t do it. I can’t see I’m old young people be like, riding with, you know, Snoop Dogg in the back and falling back on that. And I can’t keep track and I’m like, did he say falling back on it? I can’t, I can’t do that. I got to have complete silence. Okay. And then I write ins, I write in spurts and bunches. So I’m writing, you know, I get going when I get going, I’m 10 hours a day, but the seat and banging it out, right and track, and then try to rewrite it into less trash, and then write it into less less trash until you get something decent. Okay, so that’s, that’s been my process for when you’ve had books. And, you know, and I work well under, you know, I mean, the limits are important to me, because I like to be clear, I’m on these right, what women what are we doing? What are we talking about? Oh, what’s our ambition? Let me outline what I’m doing. And then let me go at it. But I’ve been a Baptist preacher for 41 years as well. So it’s extremely important to me to get an idea about where I’m going to map it out. So that’s my way. You know, my wife brings me some food. It’s like the color purple. You know, when Shug Avery was up there, she was in the bedroom if you saw the movie, and then seen it would bring her food and she needed to throw that dirt tree back out. I wasn’t that mean? But with her help, I’ve been able to just concentrate on the on the writing,
Traci Thomas 41:40
because I love food is she bringing you snacks and beverages are very important to this podcast. So it’s important that you tell us some of your favorite snacks and beverages while writing.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 41:50
So you know for breakfast, you know, I want some grits.
Traci Thomas 41:55
Sugar or no sugar?
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 41:56
No sugar, no sugar, little butter, scrambled eggs, soft. turkey bacon every now and again. I get some real big, okay. You know, and that’s where I get some one day I’ll get some pancakes. And then for lunch, I have a little sandwich. And then I guess chicken I’m a Baptist preacher. The Gospel bird reigns supreme. Okay. You’re gonna get a good steak. Snacks. I might get some burgers. Genji rail from Detroit, Michigan don’t sleep on the west on the Midwest. Vernors Okay, man, I had it when I had surgery when I was like five years old or something like that tonsils taken out six. And Vernors is like magic. Y’all gotta get it and better made potato chips from Detroit. Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh, barbecue, better made barbecue potato chip, bro. And then my water. I’m a snob, so I got to have some aqua panna. You know, to me, it’s even better than TG. So those are some of the things that I love this.
Traci Thomas 42:55
Thank you for indulging me. Okay, you’ve written as you mentioned, 2025. Is this 25? Yeah, this is number 20. For 25 books. How do you decide what you want to write about? And how much of what you decide to write is? Are you thinking about like, what will sell does that matter to you? I mean, you’ve written about so many things. And I’m like, how, how does? How does he choose? What does he what are the factors about?
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 43:23
Well, no, that’s a great question. I mean, you know, people can know I’m just a pure artist, man. I want to sell records. I just those people are liars. Yeah, come on, come over, come up. Because once you start selling tapes out the back of your car, you in the game, right? But why not sell a million things off the back of your car? And not? Why not get distribution? And why not? Even if you want to maintain your independent, autonomous status, you still want to make music and sell it to people. Because why? Right if you don’t want to buy it or read it, right? So I want people to read what I write. And I’ve been fortunate enough to write some books that people have read. And so now, scholars get real snooty at home. I don’t know that his reader is right, substantiate the claim of continuing scholarship, bro. Chill, right? Because, you know, the real mastery of something is to be able to say it in a way that people can understand because you’ve mastered it. Use the language to the degree that you’re able to break it down more clearly and more powerfully and more insightfully. So this, you know, the notion in the academy that unless you’re saying something, but don’t nobody understand what you’re saying, you ain’t really rigorous and you’re not really smart, or if you’re writing for a broad audience, I think that’s more of a challenge to get as much insight and intellectual ferment and reflection as possible. And to do what you got to do, and to do it in a powerful enough Wait, that people see the stakes of what you’re talking about. And if you’re a good if you’re a good artists, if you’re a good architect, if you’re a good house construction are the joists and themes don’t show cause good wants to show all the themes, all the joys this is powerful, but it’s ugly. Like, can we smooth that down? Can we change the wallpaper up? Can we plaster the darn thing? Why we got to see the skeleton outline, let’s put some meat on that. And so, you know, I’m too old. First of all, I was too old when I got a PhD to beat concerned about what other scholars alone thought, because I didn’t go to college until I was 21. I was a teen father hustling on the streets of Detroit, worked in factories, and did everything and then said, I gotta go back to school to support my son, I was 21 years old, when most people are graduating, I was just starting. So I never was under the illusion that to get a PhD meant to satisfy other scholars and equally arcane, obtuse, obscure language, not only what I was doing, I was about trying to engage human beings and to tell truths that would make a difference in the lives of ordinary American citizens, or around the world, because my books have been translated in many languages. So my point is, that it’s extremely important to, to write as brilliantly and beautifully and powerfully and poetically, and eloquently as you can, and at the same time to be as rigorous and analytical as possible. And so yeah, I want people to read the books. And you know, it’s a combination, you go to your editor, hey, I’m thinking about this that, you know, you’ve been writing about this, what about that? Or, you know, they turn you down? You want to go to this? Wow, really? Do you really? Now, you know, you could go somewhere and and since you want to do it, but why have editors if you ain’t listen to them? Why have a team if you ain’t listened to? All right, let me think about let me talk about that. All right. All right. Yeah. I want to write this book. But no, they didn’t like it. I want to write this other book, my editor now, my agent. And then, yeah, you know, and then I’m glad you right. And then sometimes they’ve been right. And so sometimes I come to look at is the 50th Birthday of Jay Z. I’m writing a book on Jay, first 50 Vanderburgh. There it is. And then they go, Oh, wow, you know, and then that book was a hell of a book, or the Tupac book, or the King book on the anniversary of his fourth anniversary of his death, and so on and so forth. So, you know, I have a lot of ideas percolating up here. And I’ve been fortunate to find editors and book companies that are willing to join with me in partnership to create texts that make a difference in the lives of people. But hell yeah, you want to sell you want to, I’ve had seven books on the New York Times bestseller list. I won’t 810 1215 Look, I won’t, oh, I wanted to make a difference, not just because I’m interested in commercial success, because I want the biggest number of people to buy the book in order to grapple with those ideas.
Traci Thomas 47:37
Okay, this question I know is illegal. Everyone’s gonna be like, That’s rude. But what aside from unequal? Let have all of your books is your favorite? And you have to pick one Don’t be diplomatic. Very important. One. Let me Yeah, five.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 47:52
Let me Okay, so, one of them definitely has to be my book on Tupac, because that introduced me to a younger audience like it, you know, if they were in the midst of the book Bible, you know, Publishers Weekly said this book along with something else proved that books on hip hop could sell commercially. Alright, so Tupac book, the book on the first book on Dr. King, and I wanted to have a radical reinterpretation of his legacy. I put a lot of scholarship into that book, a lot of footnotes. And one of the greatest compliments I get was from the late great Dorothy cotton. And she said Son, it was like you were us. You were a fly on that wall. I can tell you he said how did you learn all of that? How did you know that? I was like thank you Jesus. I caught I caught flack to like people want thanks for doing the white man’s job for him because I talked about plagiarism I talked about you know outside the marriage relationships and King family didn’t dig it but guess what, when that stuff comes out and 2027 I don’t know right talking about it and and therefore you know, I try to cancel him young people understand the complicated genius that he was and in my mind the greatest American never so my love for Dr. King showed there I would also my book tears we cannot stop because you know I’m trying to make a cry to white people like stop killing us. I mean, I’m what Beyonce was doing with the you know, information with the video on black life. Stop killing us. Yeah. So I didn’t narrate what that looks like in that book. Police brutality calling the N word so on and so forth. So that book would be one of my one of my favorites as well. And there are a few others but those among you know many others in my book on J The my third book on J the edited collection on and the book on POC, that’s my you know, and I’ve done other books on hip hop, but that those people you know, Jay Z and American original Emersonian figure, now as a brilliant poet, and so on so those books that connect me to the broader community and I am by sentence I wrote a book called Why I love black women. And that was before Black girl magic was a thing. I looking for credit, but God dang it, if you want to give it to me, I’m gonna take. So, you know, like before that thing I was on that love appreciation. I Kimberly Crenshaw, and critical race theory. Come on. Come on. I was 1520 years. So So my point is, I was writing about, you know, Angela Davis says writing about Assata Shakur. Right, my mama, my wife, so I was writing about serious black issues, black women, what they were doing, and I’m proud of that book in a very major way.
Traci Thomas 50:52
Yeah, I love that. Okay. I don’t know if you have an answer for this. But I’m just gonna ask you are a professional communicator. You’re a preacher, a professor, a writer, you’re on TV used to have podcast radio show all this stuff? How do you think about using your voice? And how do you practice?
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 51:12
You mean literally using your voice? Like literally, you know, metaphor?
Traci Thomas 51:15
I don’t mean like Linklater vocal production. I mean, like, how do you think about like honing your use of words? Because you have so many different mediums like, how are you thinking about that process? Like, and being specific in those days? Because you know, talking to a room full of worshipers is different than talking on CNN is different than talking to 20 year olds at Vanderbilt.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 51:39
Yeah, you’re right. And I’m so glad you asked that. Because some people, you know, I see on this one of the criticisms on Twitter all the time is, you know, from some people gave me you know, dicen word salad using words. Well, I felt salad was better. I thought we were getting into the vegan era. So I think the word meat was the thing. I thought word salad. It’s ignorance, you would have said what would you say that about Emerson and Soro? You know, they’re different mediums different ways. I think language is magical. And I love to experiment with it. And yes, I go to excesses and make mistakes sometimes. But it’s a beautiful, dramatic medium through which to articulate a variety of sometimes competing interests. Yes, you can fall too much in love with your own voice. I understand that. But most especially, I love you know, as you said, the difference in communicating with an audience full of union workers versus an audience full of worshipers versus a lecture for a university setting. And I’ve tried to master every one of them. And I believe in the use of language, and I believe in using it in ways that harken back to ancient traditions, as well as newfangled articulations. And so some of the stuff that people think is like, Oh, my God, what is that it’s harkening back to the Transcendentalism, reading Corolla Emerson and reading the Harvard classics. When I was coming up, and reading poetry who’s, you know what these are, I think I know as houses in the village though he will not see me stopping here to watch his boots fill up with snow. That’s before Nizami. I’m reading Robert Frost. I’m reading Gray’s Elegy Anna courtyards that what you know for many a gem of curious race serene the the darkened Fathom caves of ocean bear for many flowers born to blush and seen and wasted sweetness in the desert air. I mean, that came up on that. Oh, you know, Thomas Arnold, Matthew Arnold’s you know, or you know, relative charge once more than nd done when the forts of folly fall find by body by the wall, or Ulysses, I loved all that stuff. So when I came to hip hop, I recognized I am big pentameter, I recognize in jaaneman, I recognize Word Flow scheme, or rhythm, and the like. And I saw all you just trying to make these represent like input. No, you’re just ignorant that you don’t know that there’s some deeply instilled tradition, that even if they didn’t study it, they’re geniuses, they didn’t even study, they came back naturally, organically. That’s even more impressive. Not having studied homer to reflect Him. So, to me, there are multiple forms of linguistic expression and articulation that I take hedonistic pleasure in. And so it’s extremely important. I mean, I’ve been doing I’ve been speaking in public, you know, since I was 11 years old. And even before then, I was reciting set pieces at churches, you know, for little plays, but writing my own speeches at 11, delivering them at 12 winning speech contests, oratorical contests, writing plays, winning Spelling Bee contest, I am obsessed with the word I am in love with. I feel it’s visceral intensities. Its tonal, you know, resonances. It’s no elegance it’s it’s ruptures this it’s disagreements it’s disrespect, or obtuse pedantry as Walter Kaufmann said, it’s so I love language. And sometimes I might mess up but I’m gonna keep on swinging for the fences. Because I think it’s important to do that in multiple, multiple audiences. Like you said, preaching on a Sunday lecturing on a Monday doing a protest march on a Tuesday at a at a at a you know, church setting in a synagogue on a Wednesday, and on and on and own. Those are the kinds of things that that make me happy, and I love I love doing it with language.
Traci Thomas 55:44
Okay, you’ve brought me to my favorite question, which is you love language. You said you’ve won spelling bee. So I’m very excited to ask you what is a word? You can never spell correctly on the first try? Oh, my God, maybe onomatopoeia? Oh my God, that’s impossible. But are you you’re generally a good speller though. It sounds like Oh, yeah. I came up with that question. Because I was talking about you know, I’ve been talking to authors for years. And I, and I’m a terrible speller like,
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 56:11
It’s really, really hard, man. So you, you-
Traci Thomas 56:15
Good company? Yes, of course, the two greatest people of our time, myself and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, obviously. But I came to the question thinking I realized, like, not every author is a good speller. But you are one of the rare ones because I found out most people can’t spell turns out.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 56:31
No, no, a lot of them can’t. But I do take pride in that. Yes, ma’am. I’m right. I’m even the see I’m so ridiculous. I’m gonna ask your question. But I’m even on text. I can’t hold that comma didn’t know that misspelling No, I can’t take it. I just take it.
Traci Thomas 56:49
So we are very different there. Okay, I know this is in the back of the book, sort of in the afterword, you have a list of really great books that people can check out if they are interested in more. But for people who do love this book, are there any other books you might recommend to them that are maybe in conversation with what you’ve done with unequal? Are that come to mind for you?
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 57:09
Yeah, well, some of the more recent books that you know, that Ebron Kennedy, and who are they’re doing it for, like real young reuse, or Nicole Hannah Jones for real young readers. But, you know, we’re trying to not that there have been others. They haven’t been others, because there certainly are. But we’re trying to really try out a path here where we bring together the sophistication of erudition, to bear upon literature for young people to make it sing to them. So we’re trying to create a little new ground, we ain’t claiming as we don’t want to first. But we do want to be among the best. And we want to be among the most memorable. And the times in which the book emerges helps as well. Because it’s added, you know, drama, it’s added weight, it’s added history, to our aspiration. And we’re very excited about that.
Traci Thomas 58:02
I love that. Okay, so I’m gonna do something that I have never done before on the show. So I have these conversations, like what we just had, where we talk a lot about the process, and then I sometimes have people on and we talk about their taste and books. And the last question that I asked on those episodes is, if you could recommend one book to the current president, what would you want it to be? You can’t say your own book.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 58:25
No, The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, always my recommendation. I mean, that book is so powerful to this day eautifully, written, powerfully articulated, grappling with white innocence, the refusal of whiteness to come to grips with what it means, and yet the redemptive possibility of black love. But the anger and the hurt, and the pain and the grief all there on that page bled on by the great James Baldwin.
Traci Thomas 58:56
Okay, I had I just had to ask you, because I was like, How many times am I gonna get to talk to? You? I love this for me. Okay, if this is the last one, the real last one, if you could have one person dead or alive, read unequal. Who would you want it to be?
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 59:15
Oh my Lord. Oh, yes, my Lord. Jesus, Martin Luther King, because I admire admire him so much as the greatest Americans who ever have lived to me, right. He didn’t have a presidency to protect them. They had no body guards. He didn’t have a constitution or a Declaration of Independence that named him as its beneficiary and yet, he worked and willed America into position not by himself. You know, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Joanne Robinson, Rosa Parks and like, but he is the shining symbol of that possible Let’s see. And I would love for him to read.
Traci Thomas 1:00:04
I love that so much. All right, everybody unequal, it is out. Now when you’re listening, and you can get a review, get your books. And I just want to say, I don’t typically read a lot of why a, and I do love nonfiction. And I do love history. And even for me, I was really impressed with the book. And I learned a lot. There were a lot of new names in the book. For me, there was a lot of new or detailed history that I didn’t know maybe I knew the event more broadly, but I hadn’t thought about it in that way. Like there’s this great part where you guys are talking about mass incarceration and hip hop and, and the articulation that rappers were sort of the first reporters of what was going on with police brutality, like I had never sort of made that connection in my mind. So there’s a lot of nuggets in this book, not only for young people, and it would be a really cool book, I think, to read, if you are a parent, of a teenager with your teenager, because I think there’s a lot to talk about. And there’s a lot of googling you could do and like they’re just so it’s so rich. And it’s like it’s invites so much conversation. So thank you for writing it. Please tell Mark as well. Thank you for writing it. And thank you for being here today.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson 1:01:15
Thank you so much. You’re so smart. You’re so sharp and so insightful, so wise, at such a young age. And we appreciate you’re engaging us and thanking you for taking this book seriously. And thank you for those kind words. We deeply appreciate it.
Traci Thomas 1:01:30
Thank you for calling me young and everyone else I will see you in The Stacks.
Thank you all so much for listening. And thank you to Dr. Dyson again for being my guest. As a reminder this next book club pick for June is white negros when cornrows were in vogue and other thoughts on cultural appropriation by Lauren Michelle Jackson. We will be discussing the book on Wednesday June 29. With David Dennis Jr. If you love the show and what inside access to it, head over to patreon.com/the stacks to join the stacks back and make sure you’re subscribed to the show wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you’re listening through Apple podcasts or Spotify. Be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stocks follow us on social media at the Stacks pod on Instagram at the stock spot underscore on Twitter and check out the website stacks podcast.com This episode of the stacks was edited by Kristian Duenas with production assistants from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. The stacks is created and produced by me, Traci Thomas.
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