Examining the Life of the Mind: A Talk with Dr. Michael Eric Dyson

Reprint of cover story by Edward Cates on Georgetown Professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson to discuss his latest book, politics and accountability. Reprinted from Savoy Professional Magazine's 2009 Summer Edition.
Examining the Life of the Mind - A Talk with Dr. Michael Eric Dyson

Examining the Life of the Mind - A Talk with Dr. Michael Eric Dyson

View more documents from Edward Cates.

Reprint of Savoy Professional Summer Edition Cover Story
Summer 2009 – by Edward Cates

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson aptly describes his path as “The Life of the Mind” and in the tradition of his esteemed predecessors has amassed a body of work coupled with bravery in criticism that are sure to enshrine his recollection in history as one of the greatest minds of our time.

Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem If, “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch”. Dr. Dyson embodies Kipling’s implied principle of excellence and humility. One of the most unique talents of Dr. Dyson is his effortless mastery of range in reaching his audience and sharing meaning. He can quote Einstein, Dubois, Jay-Z and Tupac in one breath with dead on contextual application. In the tradition of great orators and rhetoricians he exhibits as a speaker the wit and care to construct superhuman sentences on the fly, contextually on point and infused with his intellect and provoking engagement. Dr. Dyson is also an ordained minister which provides underscoring and gravitas to his vivid and wise spirit.

Originally from Detroit, Dr. Dyson wields a PhD from Princeton University and has been on faculty at some of the best colleges and universities in the country as a professor. Currently, Dr. Dyson is a University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., their highest position of tenure validating his expertise across any discipline in the university system. Not surprisingly, he is currently the only African American professor that holds this title and tenure at Georgetown. Simultaneously balancing a rigorous speaking schedule, television appearances and a national radio show, he has written and published 17 books broaching a variety of topics impacting the African American community and pop culture.

Dr. Dyson invited me to sit in during the live broadcast of his NPR radio production, The Michael Eric Dyson Show (dysonshow.org) prior to our interview. Lela James the talented Neo Soul singer was his guest for the day and in 60 minutes he exhibited broadcast professionalism, soulful insightful and humor while being educational and entertaining all at once.

During our interview, I endeavored to examine the issue of accountability for African American professionals, to provoke him to do what he does best and find out more about his latest book “Can You Hear Me Now?: The Inspiration, Wisdom and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson” published by Basic Civitas Books and available at Amazon.com. In true form he turned it on for the Savoy Professional audience:

SP: Dr. Dyson please tell us about your latest book project?

MED: Can you Hear me Now, The Inspiration, Wisdom and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson brings together my best quotes, most insightful paragraphs and most interesting and lively sentences from the last 20 years of my work from books, articles, magazines, essays sermons and the like. The book is an attempt to filter that wisdom, insight and engagement over 17 different topics including; Barack Obama, race and identity, homosexuality and homophobia, music, hip hop culture, relationships, icons in our community and the like. This is my attempt to say “Can You Hear ME Now?”

I’ve said these things before. But this is under a different context under the rubric of different subjects that are important to the culture right now. Also the book is entitled “Can You Hear Me NOW?”. This is a new and propitious time to take up these issues especially with a black President in office and a new lease on American racial life.

SP: What is your process of sharing and picking the best of the best to compile a relevant and timely book?

MED: You look back on what you’ve done and remember the things that people said inspired them and take note of those sentences, paragraphs and ideas. Some of the things you do will be tremendously resonant with the broader culture and some of it will be left behind. You have to have a sense of what got over and what didn’t. Also a sense of what is relevant in light of the ideas and activities of today’s world. So that stuff I said before about homosexuality and homophobia are important now because we are going through such tremendous debates. Or conversations about relationships that I wrote about in Essence magazine have some resonance for what is happening now given the revival of interest in black men and black women because of the Obama’s as a couple and also the crises that beset all of us who are attempting to carve out intimacy in the midst of difficult social and cultural existences.

You take into account your desire to offer the more well honed phrases and polished sentences that may not have gotten the play you feel they could have received or deserved. All of those thoughts led me down the path. The central one being, “Is this relevant to the subjects I think are popping in American culture?”

SP: What is your perspective on the accountability of the black professional in a post Obama election age?

MED: First of all black professionals must step up their game and they understand that. That is to say that we have to be more accountable to especially poor and struggling black people.

That’s not usually the case when we think of the black professional for stepping up his or her game as it often relates to his or her own wealth, their own success, their own upward mobility or the trajectory of their tremendous enjoyment of the fruits and privileges of their existence. While all of that may be true and a consequence of the incredible wealth and success that is enjoyed, that is not the primary beat that we should be concerned with. The primary heartbeat of our community ought to be service to others. Especially as black professionals it’s about generating economic wherewithal, to be sure, but for bigger purposes than our pocketbooks.

If our pockets are on swole (swollen) and we got mad cheddar, CDs and 401Ks, money in the bank and enough money to feed our children and provide them a great living, fine that’s beautiful. But that can’t be the litmus test for our real service and achievement. We have to go beyond that.

In that sense Obama challenges us to live a life of service to the community and to the nation. It’s also a challenge for us to hold that black professional, President Obama accountable.

People say there are no more excuses for black people. True and there are no more excuses for America to say, “They can’t find one”. If you found a black man to run the nation, brothers and sisters can do anything else. That’s a great lesson to America. America no longer has the excuse of saying, “We can’t find one”.

There are plenty more Barack Obama’s where he came from. Now he is an extraordinary guy, I’m not saying he’s interchangeable with many other people. It was a unique time, place and situation that allowed him to emerge and he is a unique figure. But there are many more figures like Barack Obama equally brilliant, insightful, capable and equipped to facilitate transition and transformation in their particular fields of pursuit.

SP: You combine the vibrato of the black clergy with contemporary awareness of hip-hop and pop culture married seamlessly with academic insight and finished with what has become your signature linguistic acrobatics. Is this you at your core and/or do you endeavor to entertain and engage?

MED: Certainly it is me at my core. But if that’s me at my core and I can simultaneously engage an audience then all the better because my authentic self is mediated as the instrument for consciousness raising, enlightenment spreading and political uplift. If I can do that while being myself, all the more beautiful.
But of course one understands an audience. I’ve been speaking now in public for a long time. I’m 50 years old and started giving formal speeches at 10 or 11 years old, before that giving speeches and set pieces in church since I was 4 or 5. I’ve been running my mouth for about 45 years now. I want to get better each time. I want to refine my craft. I want to deepen my roots of excellence.

I also want to make the life of the mind sexy for young people. I want them to say you don’t have to just be a rapper or entertainer. You can be an intellectual and say stuff that sounds good that’s engaging. That allows people to understand what’s at stake in this debate over gay marriage, the debate over Obama, the economy, over whether GM should go into bankruptcy, the debate on hip-hop culture and the authenticity movement within black pop culture. All of that is important. To have an outlet is wonderful in getting one to express one’s opinion on the web, in magazines, in a book or classroom. But also the ability to seduce people in the best and highest sense of that word, into one’s perspective or on to one’s side or into critically engaging a subject. Saying I hadn’t thought about it that way and now I’ll think about it more profoundly. When young people come up to me and say, you changed my life, I read your book and that turned me around. That was the first book I read and now I’m reading all the time. Or to say they now believe intelligence is a viable commodity that we should seek or education is a viable means to a broader end. That makes me feel good and that I’ve made a contribution. I’m deeply appreciative of the ability to do so. And therefore hold myself to be accountable to do it more often and better as I continue to do what I do.

SP: As a man that has achieved so much your drive is clearly far from waning. What’s next for you?

MED: You’ve got to continue to develop. You can’t ever be satisfied with yesterday’s plaudits or last week’s laurels or last month’s achievements or last year’s niche that was established. You have to constantly expand. Constantly be curious. Constantly be hungry. Like Biggie said and Jay-Z repeated on the Black Album, “I’ll make my last like my first and my first like my last.”

You have to have that hunger like it’s your first time out. Like you are still a rookie, seeking acceptance. You have to write like a demon and think like an Angel. You have to love human beings so much that you want to perfect your craft and become as excellent at it as possible. The stakes are big here, they’re not just titillating enjoyment from people who look on as spectators. There are the transformative possibilities of engaging the life of the mind to help shape and criticize public policy and talk about public statements of political figures that will either harm, or deform poor communities or perhaps enable them to do better.

So it’s my job as a public intellectual to think out loud about important issues that have an impact upon millions, to look upon my particular realm and see what I can do to be better. So there’s a restless hunger for improvement that should accompany all that we do. Otherwise we are satiated and satisfied and not going to become all that we could be.

Yesterday, on my radio program we had the Jazz great Sonny Rollins. He said to me that one of his secrets is that he continues to hunger to grow and he practices every day. 78 years old about to turn 79 and respected as a musical legend with the likes of John Coltrane. But yet he’s still practicing, humble enough to recognize he doesn’t know everything. If a genius like that at 78 can continue to grow, at 50 I can continue to be inspired enough to want to perfect my craft. To want to get better, to want to write better books and deliver better sermons, to give better speeches and become a better human being in the process of trying to enable others to become all that God intended them to be.

SP: What do you see as your legacy? How do you want to be remembered?

MED: Hopefully as a world-class intellectual and a first rate academic and a gifted scholar who was not interested in quarantining knowledge to the academy. But who wanted to sneeze beyond the university to infect the world with the desire to love learning. Defending the vulnerable with the ideas that I’ve been able to learn and to generate. Speaking truth to the powerful and powerless and in the end fight on behalf and in defense of those who couldn’t fight or speak for themselves.

While he is clear in how he would like to be remembered, Dr. Dyson is relentlessly pursuing excellence in unforgettable fashion. The organic sincerity of Dr. Dyson, his bravery in intellect, sterling delivery and scholarly works are changing lives and broadening how we critically think and engage in society.

For additional interview content from the article including audio content from the interview, check out this link to Dyson “Beyond the After Glow” post.

For more information on Savoy Professional magazine visit http://www.savoyproonline.com/.

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Edward Cates is CEO & Managing Partner of Nuance Marketing. Edward is a career marketer and leads the agency’s delivery of brand identity, digital marketing and communication solutions. Edward has also written over 60 articles that have been published in magazines nationwide.

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