Michael Eric Dyson — a “Princeton Ph.D. and a child of the streets who takes pains never to separate the two” — has written some of the most compelling and searing books around the issue of race in America today. His most recent, Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America, continues the tradition we’ve come to expect from this academic, sociologist and Baptist preacher.
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to books and recent articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy.
Written after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, Long Time Coming is a series of letters to other black martyrs murdered at the hands of white Americans: Elijah McClain, Emmett Till, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Hadiya Pendleton, Sandra Bland, and the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. In each chapter, Dyson looks at the genealogy of anti-Blackness and its impact on America today.
He begins with the slave trade and moves into a compelling chapter on the Blue Plague, where he chronicles in detail the snuffing out of Floyd’s life by an indifferent Derek Chavin. Growing up on the streets of Detroit, Dyson has seen it all before. But somehow, “Floyd’s death was arguably the most affecting murder by a cop that we have witnessed in the home-made cinema of Black death.”
The pandemic “made it easier to absorb his tragically prostrate form into the national conscience.” And for a fleeting moment
“…there weren’t white or Black screens, just American screens. Blackness had chanced on the sort of universality that only whiteness has historically enjoyed. The video recording of Floyd’s death broke our hearts and merged them all at once.”
Dyson grapples with the theme of White Theft, where each gesture of Black advance “or Black ‘next’ is opposed by a white ‘again.'” Where critics “refuse to draw lines of cause and effect between the white theft of Black futures, freedoms, and financial stability over the century” and the vulnerable position of the Black permanently poor today.
The penultimate chapter on White Comfort is especially troubling, as it hits at those who understand the issues at hand, but work to avoid being made to feel uncomfortable. It is the arrangement of the social order for the convenience of whites. Fannie Lou Hamer said, “my job is not to make people feel comfortable” when she described how white superiority deprived those of us who are white of the knowledge of Black life. We need to stop distancing ourselves from our racist past while embracing racist beliefs in the present day in order to maintain our level of comfort.
Dyson ends, in his letter to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, with hope joined by their shared heritage as ministers.
“How can folk say they love God and yet hate so many of God’s children — Black folk, poor folk, gay and lesbian folk, trans folk, and a whole lot more? Either you love God and you hate injustice, or you hate the folk God loves and therefore you don’t really know or love God. At least not the God I’ve come to know, not the Being I believe in, the uplifting energy and loving spirit that courses through this universe.”
And he ends with a personal commitment and a challenge to Americans.
“So, Rev. Pinckney, if you gave your life for it, the least I can do is spend my life in service of a love that never ends, a faith that sometimes crumbles, a hope that seems, somehow, forever to endure, in ways I can neither understand nor explain.”
“I will keep fighting and reckoning with our past and present to make a better future. I hope you will too.”
We can reckon with our past through understanding. On the 159th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, historian Heather Cox Richardson tied the history that really happened there to events in her Letter from an American. In this short article:
- She correctly notes that the war was fought between the U.S. Army and the Confederates. Southern apologists frame the war incorrectly by calling the two sides Union and Confederates. No. The southern states were in rebellion against the United States, and the army that preserved the union was the U.S. Army, an army that existed before the war and that exists to this day.
- She notes that southern politicians were braggarts who assured their constituents that the war would be easy and painless. And so they convinced poor whites to go fight for the ability of the rich planter class to retain power and money through chattel slavery. The new medium of photography helped document that lie.
- She uses the South’s own words to describe how the war was all about slavery. They said so in their constitution. Don’t ever let someone tell you that the Civil War was about states rights. If you need to help prove it to them, send them Ta-Nehisi Coates Atlantic article Five Books to Make You Less Stupid About the Civil War.
- Finally, she ties all this back to the push by white supremacists today to destroy the United States as we know it.
Michele L. Norris also has reckoning in mind in writing What America’s racial reckoning can learn from Germany’s atonement with the Holocaust in The Washington Post.
“The United States is not the only country with an evil antecedent that was swept aside, forgotten or minimally examined. That list is long, but one country offers a powerful alternative path. Barely three generations ago, Germany hosted horrors that killed millions and left the nation split in two. This was not a legacy that most Germans were inclined to honor. And yet, today, less than 100 years after the rise of Adolf Hitler, Germany has made a prodigious effort to come to terms with its past with regularized rituals of repentance and understanding.“
Germany faced its horrible past. Why can’t we do the same when it comes to slavery and racism?
More to come…