Book Review: What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America
What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
If there was ever such a thing as an egotistical pop-scholar, or the figure of a media-hungry pundit-professor, Michael Eric Dyson would be its epitome as well as it’s apex.
The focal point of this book is a 1963 meeting between Sen. Robert Kennedy and a group of notable African-Americans which included several prominent and celebrated figures, such as the writer James Baldwin, musician Harry Belafonte, singer Lena Horne, and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, as well as Jerome Smith, a well known Freedom Rider. Dyson depicts this historic meeting as “a watershed moment in American politics” that began a conversation on race which continues to this day. But Dyson, being the intellectual huckster that he is, isn’t about to allow for any kind of “real” conversation to take place. Instead he uses this event as yet another catalyst to push his unique brand of revisionist history.
What Dyson presents to us is a false narrative, one that has been carefully crafted to present white Americans as uniquely guilty of racism. However, the idea that any one demographic group “invented” race is noticeably ridiculous. Other more respectable sociologists have recognized, at least since the 1970s, that humans instinctively gravitate towards their own group identities.
Even if we were to accept Dyson’s premise that whites have invented race, there are gaps in his argument. If race is a white invention, then why did so many American minorities embrace the concept? For example, in the 1830s, Cherokee Native Americans embraced slavery, asserting that they were equal to whites and superior to African-Americans.
One could make the argument that only a minority of Native American and African-Americans owned slaves. However, the same was true in the American South, with only 25% of Southerners owning slaves. If one forgives the Cherokee and African-American slave-owners, surely one must also forgive their white peers.
These complex historical circumstances do not diminish the scope of injustice in America but it does demonstrate that history is not a race-centered morality play. In Dyson’s narrative, whites alone are responsible for racial injustice. In reality however, whites were acting on a universal group instinct in establishing in-groups and out-groups. They were not alone in accepting racist dogmas and prejudices. It appears that Dyson lives in the United States of Amnesia, and not his opponents, as he so often likes to assert.
I also can’t help but think that Dyson’s time would be better spent in the classroom, as opposed to being on television, doing actual research, instead of cultivating this cottage industry of race that he has created for himself. But hey, I get it, this is how he puts bacon on the table, it’s his schtick and he has made a small fortune from it. That’s the shell game he likes to play, keep white guilt front and center in any discussion and the grievance money will just pour in.
I also feel that he needs to stop hiding behind these big-word rants of his. He often speaks as if he’s trying to convince doubters that he really knows a lot of long and arcane words and can gabble them out fairly quickly to prove it, though, in his case, not always coherently. He strings together such a ridiculous stream of words that Stephen Fry, in a Munk Debate, pegged him most accurately when he referred to his style of communication as “huckstering snake oil pulpit talk.” The worst part about him is that he’s predictable in almost every way imaginable, as we can pretty much guess everything he’s about to say before he even says it. Why anyone in the media pays him any attention is extraordinary.
This book is intellectual masturbation at best and has no sense of history outside of the narrow ideology that Dyson likes to peddle. Dyson is simply yet another intellectual conman and race-baiter and narcissist of the most vicious sort.
If there is indeed a conversation that has been left unfinished in America, it’s between Dyson and himself.