By JONATHAN TILOVE
January 31, 2006
c.2006 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Michael Eric Dyson, the Avalon Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, is a prolific writer and lecturer and ordained Baptist minister. He is the author of many books, including “Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?),” and his newest, “Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster.”
Q: How large do you think Katrina is going to loom in African-American history?
A: I think it was a watershed moment that revived awareness about poverty and about the fashion in which the black elite and the black blessed have too often forgotten about the poor.
Q: In his nationally televised Sept. 15 speech from Jackson Square in New Orleans, President Bush referred to the televised images of “deep, persistent poverty,” with “roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.”
A: It was a great speech _ I mean that part of it.
Q: Why has so little happened since?
A: Fatigue. This is why charity is not as important as justice. You know you get tired of giving. You get tired of generosity. You get fatigued of compassion, but structures of justice are more permanent. Justice continues the impulse that charity begins. And what’s happened in the intervening moment is that the nation has become both fatigued and distracted, which is why I wrote my book in the fashion that I did, so quickly, to remind America that this still belongs on our agenda.
Q: Much of the media seemed invigorated by its coverage of Katrina, but you suggest that “the media also framed the black poor when it helped to spread rumors about violent and animalistic black behavior.”
A: Later on, when we began to see a lot of these stories were exaggerated and unfounded and completely without a basis in fact, it became clear that the media had overdone its own back-patting and had fostered the worst stereotypes about these poor people who were abandoned. (New Orleans) Mayor (Ray) Nagin and the New Orleans police chief perpetuated it, they repeated what they heard, they might have been the source of the information at the moment, but the media has over so many decades made it believable that these people’s anarchy would be as it was presented.
Q: This echoes your critique of Bill Cosby’s public criticism of many of the habits of the black poor, which began with a speech he made in Washington in May 2004. Do you believe Cosby shares responsibility for conditioning Americans to blame many Katrina victims for contributing to their own fate?
A: I think it had an impact, for those who sided with Cosby and who believed that the black poor had basically gotten what they deserved, that they are lazy, immoral, licentious, disinclined to education and uninterested in lifting themselves up from what John Bunyan (the 17th century British writer and preacher and author of “Pilgrim’s Progress”) called the Slough of Despond. I think especially for elite black people Cosby’s words made a difference, and for the broader white society that embraced his words, this was little more than the justification for their beliefs.
Q: In remarks on Martin Luther King Day, Mayor Ray Nagin sparked a furor when he pledged that his city “will be chocolate at the end of the day.” What was your reaction?
A: I think that if one interpreted this comment as discouraging white people and others from returning it’s lamentable and unfortunate and it’s a clumsy expression. If you take him at its best possible interpretation, then New Orleans was predominately black before the flood and what he wants to do is return it to its demographic integrity. The fact is that it was a black city, and is the offense that he said it was a black city, or that it is black?
Q: In that same MLK Day speech, Nagin said that recent hurricanes were evidence that God was mad at America for the war in Iraq, and at black people for not taking better care of each other. You’re a Baptist minister. What exactly were God’s motives?
A: I think God’s motive was to show that God’s motives can’t be discerned in catastrophes and crises like that, but that God’s motive is always the same: When catastrophe strikes, human beings should be agents of God’s love and therefore bring salvation to needy human beings, and the vulnerable and disadvantaged are the first objects of God’s affection, not God’s attack and assault.
Q: You depict Kanye West’s celebrated comment that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” as both true and brave. Why brave?
A: I think they were brave in the context. He was speaking on NBC and to a national audience of white people who have now embraced him as the voice of the hip-hop generation. Time Magazine had just named him, on its cover, as the “smartest man in pop music.” That’s a pinnacle in white America, and to be willing to risk it, so recently attained, is much more courageous than people were willing to give him credit for.
Q: In your book you describe Bill Clinton as a president who, unlike Bush, could “play the racial game at a high, if ultimately manipulative level.” You write, “Despite his racial charisma, or perhaps because of it, he was able to do considerable damage to black interests, especially those of poor blacks, by signing a crime bill that viciously targeted them, and welfare reform bill that heaped stigma, but not help, on the backs of the vulnerable.”
Which is worse _ to be ignored by a president who you don’t believe cares about you, or beguiled by a president you count as a friend but pursues policies you consider destructive?
A: It’s tough. We still got more out of Clinton, so, at the end of the day, I’ve got to ride with Clinton, but I think we should be able to call Clinton on his culpability. I think we weren’t able to do that because we were so desperate to be embraced by a white politician who knows our rituals, our mores and our folkways, and who embraced us wholeheartedly, personally and as a race.
Q: What is your take on Black History Month?
A: I don’t agree with Morgan Freeman. I don’t think we should do away with it. I mean, Morgan’s idea is great. Black history is American history and, if the nation believed that and recognized that, then Black History Month would not be necessary.
But it doesn’t, and since it doesn’t, we are forced to occupy a necessary ghetto. The question is, can that ghetto of black history be as effective as the ghetto in hip-hop music. I mean hip-hop has turned that ghetto into a global phenomenon. So perhaps the intellectual ghetto into which black history is forced will similarly have an edifying metastisization. It will just spread beyond the boundaries of February and, you know, bleed all over the rest of the months.