In a capacity-filled Pacific Ballroom, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson delivered the keynote speech at the annual Dr. Joseph L. White Lecture as part of the Cross-Cultural Center’s ongoing Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium last Thursday night, Jan. 30th.
A nationally renowned public intellectual and academic, Dyson is also a prolific author whose work has earned him three nominations for the prestigious NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature, two of which he won.
Kevin Huie, director of the Cross-Cultural Center, kicked-off the evening by welcoming guests and extending his thanks to those who made the lecture possible, such as the Department of African American Studies and the Black Student Union.
Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Dr. Thomas A. Parham invited those in attendance to take a closer look at Martin Luther King Jr. and fully grasp the message behind his work.
Formally introducing the keynote speaker was none other than the “godfather” of black psychology himself, Dr. White, who praised Dyson for his ability to clearly articulate abstract concepts of race and identity.
Sporting a Richard Sherman Jersey and blazer, Dyson was every bit as entertaining as he was inspiring. In one fluid speech, he combined the fiery oratory of a preacher, the humor of a stand-up comedian and the prowess of a seasoned lyricist.
According to Dyson, the success of the Civil Rights Movement was not primarily predicated on the public-speaking skills of Martin Luther King Jr., but on his scholarly pedigree. King didn’t just stumble into the annals of history by chance; he succeeded through hours of studious research that paved the way for the movement.
“He was an intellectual who grappled with serious ideas of theological and sociological phenomenon and reality,” Dyson said.
However, King did have his own shortcomings. Despite being the face of the Civil Rights Movement, King was, as every other man in the 60s, prone to sexism. Unbeknownst to many, King had participated in the oppression of women during the March on Washington.
Dorothy Height, whom stood next to King as he delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream Speech” was barred from speaking on account of her sex.
“Even when you are a victim of oppression you can oppress other people too,” Dyson said. “You’re doing a disservice to the grand legacy of your own liberation project, because you’re simultaneously standing on somebody else’s neck trying to get higher.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the speech was when Dyson compared the hostile treatment of Obama by Republicans to the lambasting of Richard Sherman by the media on account of their race.
“The racist element of that is to deny the legitimacy of individual identity and assume through stereotypical thinking, which is the lazy man’s way of engaging the other.”
Although Dyson is highly critical of Obama himself, he admits to the hostile environment Obama often faces based on his race, citing how he was the only president in history to not have the debt ceiling automatically raised and the constant opposition he faced no matter what policies he sought to enact. According to Dyson, King would love Obama if he were alive today, but would also hold him accountable for refusing to speak out on the existential issues of race in America today.
Dyson proceeded to address the polarizing issues of LGBTQ rights in America today. Voicing his disapproval at people of color for turning to the Bible to justify their homophobia, Dyson openly wondered why people remain so afraid of those of queer orientation. He challenged followers of all faiths to act in accordance with the intentions of the founders of their respective religion rather than by the unchanging guidelines set in print.
“Whatever our religious book is, we got to hold up the liberating traditions of our religious founders of all of those religions and not worship time bound conceptions that have been generated in defense of outmoded principals,” Dyson said.
As the night wore on, Dyson made sure to cover every aspect of society that has been affected by Martin Luther King Jr. Dyson examined the demonization of adolescents in society, utilizing hip-hop to help convey his point. Admitting that hip-hop could be narcissistic and materialistic, Dyson argued that every genre of music had its own short-comings and that hip-hop should not be villainized simply because it is not understood.
Reciting a verse from the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Things Done Changed,” Dyson called the audience’s attention to how it was not only a song, but a “sociological analysis of shrinking spaces of recreation filled by violence.”
In the closing moments of his speech, Dyson revisited the sexism of King and examined how women are treated today. Lamenting on how women are typically paid less than men today and are treated as second-class citizens in places of worship, he called on the audience to fix this by embracing strong women.
Dyson disillusioned the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by not portraying King as the romanticized idealist many grew up believing him to be. The lecture stressed that focusing on King’s shortcomings would be to overlook the legacy of a man whose sense of humanity and vision for change impacted the lives of millions across the world. As long as those defining traits exist in the coming generations, then the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. will remain intact as it paves the way for further social progress.