Michael Eric Dyson has no problem following a quote from Frederick Douglas with a shout out to Snoop Dogg. In fact, it's one of the reasons he is considered by some to be one of the most thoroughly thoughtful and entertaining intellectuals in America and when it comes to race, there are few who see the subtle cues and put downs more vividly than Dyson.
Speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California, the Georgetown professor and noted author on race, both excited the crowd with searing rhetoric reminiscent of an old time preacher along with hip-hop soliloquys of rap's most provocative lyrics. His thoughts on the place of an African-American in the White House may have caught some off-guard, though. Dyson, while thrilled to have President Obama in the Oval Office, believes he fails to confront race fully.
“He is forced into sometimes-narrow considerations. Pocket of reserve and critical reflection when it comes to issues of race, class and culture. Obviously, he doesn't want to be painted into a corner of being the black president. Ain't nobody going to miss he's a brotha. Just look at the way he walks to Air Force One,” Dyson said while mimicking Obama's soulful strut. He also accused the president along with society of failing to cozy up to the ongoing issue of race. “Blackness has been the disturbing, formidable presence of a negative that not be totally eradicated. So, we are uncomfortable with it -- the president, I would add, too.”
Much of the night featured Dyson issuing poignant comic jabs at the president, Rush Limbaugh and the role of Michelle Obama. He lamented the sorry state of the U.S. economy just as Obama took office when he quipped, “Of course they would hand a brotha a key to a sinking ship.” and added. “It's good that we have an African-American president, I think at this particular point. Like Tupac [Shakur] said, 'A brotha know how to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.' He certainly will have to make much more from far less.”
Recent calls by Republicans of reverse racism levied against Obama's Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor for citing her Latina heritage struck Dyson as ridiculous, as he charged Limbaugh of piling on a historically marginalized race and gender. He said her racial background is a positive. “Rush Limbaugh goes on his warpath and says, 'What do you mean? That's reverse racism!' It's the former racism that I'm worried about,” said Dyson, “Taken out of context — looking like the woman is out to be playah hating on white men, that ain't the point. The point is, if you've been dominated, it's often been rendered irreversible, therefore, invisible. Not seen, Mr. Limbaugh.”
With Tuesday's ruling from the California Supreme Court upholding the state's ban on gay marriage still on many minds, Dyson discussed the opponents of Proposition 8 and their linkage to the plight of blacks in the Civil Rights Era. He noted some African-Americans do not take the co-opting of their struggle by gays lightly, but points out the Civil Rights movement was heavily borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi's principle of non-violence. Dyson admitted that the eradication of homophobia from his mind is still a work in progress and views homosexuality in physiological terms.
“When do you choose to be heterosexual?,” he said, “At seven years old, you rode on your mama and said, 'Look, I'm going to need me a Corvette and a black book because I'm going to be macking the ladies and a decent basement, so when we come down here, it's going to be looking good'.”
Perhaps surprisingly, he lauded the rise of Michelle Obama as the “Mom-in-Chief” as a significant breaking of racial stereotypes regarding black women, but only to a certain point. “The momification of Michelle Obama nullifies the narrative of the black woman as a reckless mom — the welfare queen. She just juxtaposes that. She's a super-heroic figure,” he said. “But her mama is in the crib, too. A lot of so-called welfare queens don't have mama in the crib and, if she does, mama has children, too.” He also referred to Queen Elizabeth's notable breaching of protocol when she touched Michelle Obama's arm and in a tongue-in-cheek manner envisioned the first lady's future presidency.
“I think Michelle Obama is an extraordinary person,” he said, “I think when she becomes president she'll find Bin Laden the first week."
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