Ordained Baptist minister, political pundit, and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson has always saturated his work with messages and themes that not only explicitly articulate the Black experience, but uniquely define it as well. From providing searing commentary on the travesty that was Hurricane Katrina to sharing valuable critique of Barack Obama’s historic presidency, Dyson’s incomparable insight has become crucial to any discussion of the state of Black America. In his latest book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, Dyson’s political and social acuity is fearlessly directed to those who have caused Black suffering for centuries. Tears We Cannot Stop came from a place of sadness and despair for the author—but ultimately yielded a fiery resolve.
“After the Sterling and Castile murders by the police,” Dyson recently told me by phone, “I was so unnerved, so outraged, so dispirited, and so disconcerted that I sat down all night and pounded out an op-ed—”Death in Black and White”—that turned into quite a feature for the New York Times. It allowed me a particularly powerful platform to express my ideas and they had to shut the comments section down after 2,500. It was that extraordinary response to the op-ed that let me and publishers know that there was this hunger in the American public for straight talk on race; an honest discourse to white brothers and sisters about what the racial trauma is in America—the racial conundrums, the racial paradoxes, the racial crises, and the racial problem.”
This problem was further illustrated—and exacerbated—by our current president Donald Trump. Dyson insists that his victory is proof of White America’s pre-existing indignation about Obama’s tenure in the White House. “Donald Trump had tapped into the angry White male zeitgeist and a lot of White men were mad that for eight years a Black man presided over them and over this nation. His tongue licked them verbally, rhetorically, metaphorically—and sometimes almost literally. They wanted to go ‘yuck’ because his tongue was all over American government, all over American rhetoric,” he explained during our conversation. “What the world heard of America was through a Black voice and so there was a fair deal of resentment that led to a backlash against Obama and the resurgence of a certain kind of racist sentiment that needs to be addressed.”
“It did amaze me that a lot of people said that [Trump’s win] is the revenge of the white working class,” he continued. “Revenge against the status quo, against Obama, against the system. As if they don’t hear about the brown or black working class. As if the working class is only white. It’s not a matter of rural or class status—whiteness was the overwhelming predictor for voting for Donald Trump. We are in for a difficult time; he is going to amplify some of the worst racist elements in our country’s history in the last 50 years—the anti-Muslim sentiments, the anti-woman sentiments, the anti-environmentally conscientious sentiments. All of these things piled up means bad things for the American people.”
Though Tears We Cannot Stop encourages White America to abandon their intellectually dishonest and downright dangerous preconceived notions of Black people in this country, the book acknowledges that readers cannot look to political figureheads—mainly Trump—to progress this much needed dialogue. In fact, Dyson believes we should never look to Trump for anything. “Isn’t it interesting that the man who never gave Barack Obama a shot, a chance, a possibility to even govern now wants to have the chance to govern? Now wants to abide by a strictly different set of rules than the ones he’s played by and applied to Obama?” The disgust in his voice becomes more and more palpable as he delineates why leveling with Trump isn’t—and will never be—a viable option for Americans.
“All these people who say ‘give him a chance’ who never gave Obama a chance on the right are hypocrites and those on the left fail to see the necessity of not cooperating with evil,” he said on the phone. “Not cooperating with what is atrocious or reprehensible or damaging because it doesn’t impact their lives to the same degree that women’s lives are impacted or immigrants’ lives are impacted or people of color’s lives are impacted. It is our moral obligation and our political determination as progressives, liberals, and people of color who are like minded ideologically to work against some of the foundations and principles that Trump will put forth. We must exhaust Donald Trump’s presidency with an inexhaustible hopefulness and one that, when compared to our belief system, reduces Trump’s presidency to something much smaller and more much manageable.”
Although America is never not in a state of emergency concerning the physical, mental, and emotional well-being and safety of Black folks, that hasn’t derailed Dyson’s plans for a racial discourse that could lead to discernible and long-lasting change. “This is a sermon to White America;” he says to me, “hopefully this book provides them with an opportunity to grapple with race in a fundamentally sound fashion and to do so with an eye toward reconstructing this society, challenging white privilege, white perspective, and white world views.”
For years, Dyson’s work has illuminated the culture, the struggle, the beliefs, and the inherently complex nature of the lives of Black people. Tears to White America is his most brazen work to date; he is directly addressing our oppressors with the kind of unapologetic directness and candor that is crucial to surviving the next four years of such a dangerous and volatile presidency. Despite the fluctuations of content and mood during our talk, Dyson turned auspicious by the end of it. “We must never surrender the rowdy and raucous hopefulness,” he said, “that is our birthright as people of faith who are people of color.”