“You have spoken to the ages, and yet we have been denied your voice,” writes Michael Eric Dyson, addressing Emmett Till in Long Time Coming. Dyson’s formidable twenty-third book probes this tragic notion about the violent silencing of the martyred, with Dyson hosting a poignant conversation “with them, about them, through them, sometimes to them and beyond them.” In five elegantly argued chapters, each framed as a wrenching letter to Black victims of racist terror from Breonna Taylor to Eric Garner, Dyson traces the abhorrent legacy of systemic racism, from centuries-ago slave ships to contemporary police violence. Together, the letters depict “the gallery of grief that grips the collective Black soul,” whether the grief takes root in police violence or in the quotidian daily assaults on Black personhood. Inspired by the colossal worldwide protests after the murder of George Floyd, Long Time Coming is at once a blistering chronicle of Black pain and a rousing call to arms, each chapter threaded through with an indefatigable hope for progress.
Dyson, a Georgetown University sociology professor, longtime Baptist preacher, and one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, has written about everything from Malcolm X to Marvin Gaye. As President Barack Obama noted, “Everybody who speaks after Michael Eric Dyson pales in comparison.” In advance of Long Time Coming’s release, Dyson spoke with Esquire about restorative justice, religious faith, and how to play the activism long game.
Esquire: Where did Long Time Coming begin for you?
Michael Eric Dyson: The death of George Floyd was clearly a pivotal moment for the nation to come to grips with its ignominious racial past. It was a tipping point, similar to the one I experienced before I wrote Tears We Cannot Stop. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in rapid succession pushed me to a point where I wanted to engage in a serious conversation about race in America, and to talk about the traumas we had endured. A lot of people were at home looking at their screens because of the pandemic, so the viral pandemic helped to underscore an even longer racial pandemic that had besieged the nation for 400 years.
At that point, I began flowing again. After Ahmaud Arbery was chased down and killed like an animal, after Rayshard Brooks died in Atlanta, after the conversation about Breonna Taylor’s death in Louisville, and then Elijah McClain, I said, "Here we go again." I wanted to write them a series of letters to channel the racial grief, trauma, and stress that Black people are enduring, and that the larger nation was finally recognizing and tapping into.
ESQ: Why did that epistolary approach feel necessary and right as the form?
MED: The epistolary form appealed to me because I wanted to be more intimate with these figures. Obviously, they’re all dead, so these are posthumous letters to people who have passed on, but I wanted to sit and commune with them, as if a person were visiting a graveyard, talking to a loved one who had passed on. I wanted to sit down at the collective graves of these martyrs and have a conversation with them, about them, through them, sometimes to them and beyond them.
I wanted to speak to a nation that was teetering on the abyss of racial cataclysm, but at the same time, between outright despair and unmitigated anger. I wanted to find a way to navigate through that grief, to talk about that pain and that trauma, but at the same time, have a sense of intimate and direct connection to the people who paid the ultimate price with their lives.
ESQ: You open the book with a poem dedicated to LeBron James. What does LeBron James mean to you?
MED: Obviously LeBron James has been especially visible in an ongoing fight against racial injustice. I felt that because of his unique status as the greatest ballplayer on the globe, arguably at the height of his fame, to leverage his influence and his visibility in defense of Black people is an extraordinary gift. I don't think we've seen anything like that since the time of Muhammed Ali, who was forced into it when he was stripped of his title at the height of his career. LeBron James made a choice to use his colossal, universal, and global recognition to put his chips on the table for Black people.
I wanted to honor that. I wanted to recognize that, unlike some athletes who vow to get political after they retire, LeBron James has been unafraid from the very beginning to speak openly and honestly about race. As he got more famous and accumulated more social and political capital, he's been unafraid to expend it in defense of the vulnerable. When Laura Ingraham famously told him to shut and dribble, he continued to do just the opposite. He wouldn't shut up. He would continue dribbling, but he would become even more determined to make a greater contribution. I wanted to acknowledge that, especially in this particular time, when Black death has in some sense become pornographic.
Black death is almost like a cinema of pornography, where these last moments of Black people speaking are like snuff films. LeBron James speaking directly to Black fear and Black terror was worthy of celebration. I wanted to dedicate the book to him, and then to quote his own words, where he talked directly, eloquently, and honestly about the fear, the intimidation, and the terror to which Black people are subjected on a daily basis by the uncontrolled police force.
ESQ: This idea of the cinema of Black death reminds me of a passage you quote from Elizabeth Alexander, who describes the image of Philando Castile's death on her sons’ smartphones as “a house of mirrors straight to hell.” When I read that, I was reminded of a conversation I had earlier this year with Mikki Kendall, who said, "If something happens to me, or to one of my family members, the last thing I want is a video of the tragedy running in an endless loop on every platform possible. How do you escape the video?” You write at length about the power of video as an agent of truth, but do you see any danger to these videos running on loop?
MED: In the letter to Ahmaud Arbery, I wrote about the guilt Black people feel for surviving, for looking at this film and seeing it, knowing that no one should be seeing this. This is the brutal intimacy that should only be shared with the broken-hearted who are immediate family. And yet, we are made part of a family of recognition by our color, by the common experiences of oppression we endure, so that even against our will, against the bloodlines that define intimacy and kinship, we have an anthropological togetherness and intimacy.
That coerced kinship is what is recognized when we share these films. Yes, they are traumatic. The horror is that there are so many of these videos to choose from. When you've seen one, have you seen them all? Yet there’s horror in the uniqueness of some of these films. Philando Castile is in his car, announcing that he has a license to carry a gun, and several seconds later, he is killed. George Floyd, pleading for breath on the pavement of Minneapolis. Eric Garner, similarly pleading for his for the ability to breathe.
So even though the cinema of Black Death features horrible sequels, I think the reminder that this is the plight and predicament of too many Black people is severe enough to justify the pain. Of course there are tremendous downsides. Of course there are negative consequences to the overexposure, the kind of psychic trauma to which we are subject. But the other equally offensive tragedy is amnesia, or a willful disregard for the undeniable trauma that Black people cannot avoid. And so we're forced to navigate between those two impossible situations, to try to bear witness to the pain we as a people endure.
ESQ: As I think about the places that these videos proliferate, I’m reminded of what you write about the Black dead being transformed into “holy hashtags.” What value do you see in social media as an agent of change? Do you feel that these holy hashtags actually produce progress?
MED: I think that social media is undeniably, extremely important in trying to come to grips with the literal broadcasting of these traumas and tragedies, so that people know what's going on. The smartphone has revolutionized the existence of the trauma Black people have to confront, and the ways in which we confront them. The fact that we weren't believed: “You must have said something. You must have done something wrong. You must have done something incredibly disrespectful to the police.” Two things are apparent: first, white people take liberties with the police every day and live. Even if that was true that Black people said or did something wrong, they don't deserve to be judged and tried on the street corner and subject to policeman's paper justice.
The smartphone has been the Gutenberg revolution of consciousness. The situations with Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and especially George Floyd revolutionized American consciousness around the issue of race. We have to acknowledge Darnella Frazier, who captured the video of George Floyd’s death—a young Black girl who stood bravely in the face of such fearsome fatality. Despite the fact that others were being discouraged from recording the event, for her to stand there in defiance… that told a story in itself.
If they say a picture's worth a thousand words, then what about a video that moves us to such cultural and collective sickness? The streets were flooded with white bodies that had never gone there before. If these are the greatest movements for social justice in terms of the numbers of people who protested, then a large part of that is due to what we saw in that video that spread on social media. That charged us and called us to responsibility in a way that hadn't happened before.
ESQ: I found the chapter about cancel culture to be one of the most fascinating and provocative parts of the book. You write, “The futility of cancel culture justice is that it wipes out the individual, but leaves the system standing.” What do you see as the perils of cancel culture?
MED: Cancel culture doesn't provide an adequate opportunity for counter-evidence. There’s such a swift judgment on the internet that there’s no ability to adjudicate competing claims with rationality. You destroy an individual person, but the system itself continues.
Systemic oppression doesn't need an individual in place to perpetuate its legacy of inequality. We can remove a particular person, but the system itself is not challenged. Then we plug in another person, but real justice is about grappling with the root causes. I remember that Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon once where he spoke about Jericho Road, the famous road where someone was hijacked. The Good Samaritan stopped to help that person. King said, “It's one thing to say that a person stops to help somebody who was hijacked. But eventually, you're going to have to ask: why is it that people are often hijacked on Jericho Road?” If you don't ask the structural question, people will continue to be mugged on that road. I think it was the Bishop Oscar Romero who said, "When I had saved the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why they were poor, they called me a communist." The structural problems that perpetuate legacies of inequality are not handled in cancel culture. I fear that if Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, great swathes of the culture would try to cancel him.
ESQ: You advocate for what you call “racial amnesty” for people who've erred and want to do better. I know this is an enormous question, but what do you feel the process of doing better should look like? Do you see any value in a restorative justice model?
MED: I think restorative justice is critical. That's better than retributive justice. It's better than vindictiveness that dresses itself up as a commitment to neutral justice. In the book, I write about Ralph Northam. Here's a guy who's the governor of Virginia. As a medical student, he dressed up in blackface. It might have been surprising to us, but a few more politicians admitted they did the same thing. If you got rid of all of them, you wouldn’t get rid of the problem of what blackface represents, and why white people were attracted to it.
Why not have a sense of restorative justice, so that a man like Ralph Northam can use the privilege he has as a white male in this culture? Instead of trying to displace someone like Northam, why not give them a sense of recommitment to a just democracy in Virginia, one that takes racial justice into consideration? There’s nothing more powerful than a white man of privilege who recognizes his transgressions, who is allowed to keep his job, and will therefore be far more committed to doing the right thing, to going beyond the usual measures not only to right what is wrong, but to be far more committed to racial justice. I think that’s what happened with Northam. 10,000 felons saw their right to vote restored; a disproportionate number of those people are people of color, especially Black people. There are so many other things Northam did in the aftermath of his public forgiveness.
I'll give you another example. I was involved with Bill Maher when he used the n-word on his show. People were calling for the cancellation of his show. I went on the show and had a conversation with him on television. We had an open conversation on national television about how he had done a bad thing, using a term he shouldn't have used, and yet at the same time, providing him an opportunity to be restored, because for many people, Maher had made tremendous strides in calling out white supremacy and white nationalism. As a white man, he was more effective than when certain African American people and other allies call it out. Restorative justice argues that if we allow people to mess up and fess up, then they can dress up.
ESQ: Something else I really enjoyed about the book was that you address some of the letters to the Black women who are often left out of this conversation. You write that they are not as often the subjects of national outrage or intense debate, and you describe it as “a hierarchy of victims.” Why do you think the deaths of Black women at the hands of police officers often fail to capture the national imagination?
MED: I think it has to do in part with the fact that men have been the ones mostly captured on film. We have Sandra Bland, of course. The arbitrary violence that policemen visited upon her body was horrible to watch. There are other instances, like in Texas, where a young Black girl was grabbed by her braids and beaten. We know that there are films of the horrors that Black women have endured, but let's be honest: the larger share of the issue is the way in which gender operates to favor men and disfavor women, to advantage men and disadvantage women, to highlight men and to obscure women.
Because there is a hierarchy in America, including in Black communities, the hurts and sufferings of Black women are not seen in the same way. However, the ways in which women are denied legitimacy as victims is itself a telltale sign of the horrible misogyny and patriarchy that denies them respect on an everyday level. The issues they have to confront are not as visible, and yet are shockingly detrimental and destructive. I write in the book about fast terror and slow terror. So many women, Black women especially, are subject to slow terror as well as fast terror. Fast terror is death from a bullet. Slow terror is getting kicked out of school at six or seven years old. It accumulates over time and sets you up for failure in public education. Black women are on the front lines suffering domestically in ways that are not discussed. Men who become mass murderers often rehearse their carnage on the women and children in their lives, but the women suffering there don’t have the same visibility as a Black man dying in an encounter with a police officer.
Women are abused in spaces that already are invisible because of masculine dominance, toxic masculinity, and a patriarchal culture that doesn't give the same recognition to women. All of that is in play, as well as the belief that men will lead the way, that men have been the leaders, that their lives therefore are more consequential when it comes to speaking about racial justice. And yet, the truth is, Black women have done some of the most powerful leading, advocating, speaking, writing, thinking, and resisting on behalf of Black men—more even than many Black men themselves. The extraordinary sacrifices they’ve made have not often been foregrounded.
ESQ: You’ve been an ordained preacher for over forty years. What’s the role of your faith in your ability to maintain hope about a brighter future?
MED: Without faith, it would probably be impossible for me. Others find rational explanations of the universe or interpret the non-existence of God as the basis for a more humane inspiration. I don't knock anybody's theological hustle. But for me, I'm sure my faith is a consequence of historical contingency. I was born at the beginning of the civil rights movement. Faith was extremely important to me. The stories in the Bible provided inspiration for us to hold on and continue to understand ourselves as children of God.
So for me, faith has been extraordinarily important. Not in the way that I'm afraid too many of my right-wing white brothers and sisters have tried to use faith and make God a handmaiden for their abortive practices. In their evangelical piety, they end up trying to recreate the postures of the right wing to harm the most vulnerable people in America. In that instance, I'd rather side with those who are oppressed. I'd rather deal with an atheist who believes in social justice and moral compassion than a white Christian whose religion has been subordinate to their politics.
ESQ: This makes me think of the part of the book where you write, "How can folks say they love God and yet hate so many of God's children? 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."
MED: Being a Black evangelical myself, that's why I'm insulted when people lump together all evangelicals. I disagree with Black evangelicals on many things, like the inherent conservatism that discourages the broad acceptance of LGBTQ people. I got kicked out of a church where I pastored when I was twenty-two years old because I tried to ordain three women as deacons. I've had my fair share of battles, even within Black religious circles, where the injustices of the outer world forced us to distort a theology of liberation from within. I always stand with the victim, no matter their color, class, or character of belief, but having said that, I think it's extremely important to hold onto the hope that faith can deliver.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian, said that there's a big difference between optimism and hope. With optimism, you basically stick your finger in the air, trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing. Hope says, “Even against the evidence, I'm going to hold out for a better future. I'm going to believe in something that is deeply entrenched, for which there is no logical explanation, and yet the belief offers us the possibility that we will overcome.” Hope exists beyond the realm of the rational and taps into some spiritual and theological resources that can sustain us in the face of death, destruction, depression, hurt, and pain.
ESQ: The massive protests of the summer after George Floyd's murder were such a galvanizing swell of activism, but as is always the case with activism, the difficult next step is to convert that moment into sustained action. What's your perspective on how we carry that energy and that force for good into the future?
Michael: The summer of possibility leads inevitably to the winter of discontent. Thomas Paine wrote about summer soldiers and sunshine advocates. We don't want to be sunshine soldiers. What do we do after the summer of resistance? I think that we have to carry the same energy from the streets into corporate suites, into the classroom, into public education, and into the healthcare system. Every term that ends with “system” is subject to the perpetuation of a legacy of inequality: healthcare system, criminal justice system, public education system.
When we look at the systems that prevail in our culture, we must find ways to renew our commitment to making sure that justice prevails, that we do things differently than we did before, that we find a reasonable accommodation for an impulse to do radical justice. That means we’re back in the corporate suites. It's not enough to hit the streets and say, "We're going to end systemic racism." How do we do that in our corporate suites? How do we talk about diversity and equity and inclusion? It’s not enough to talk about diversity. Diversity was exhibited with the death of George Floyd. Two of the cops were white, one of them was Black, and another one was Asian. That's diversity, but it’s diversity toward an unjust end. We must have justice that prevails over our conception of diversity. You don't want just a Black face in a higher place; you want someone with power, insight, and courage.
There must be an impulse toward justice, of righting that which has been wrong, and figuring out ways within our schools to have more curriculum that accommodates our knowledge of Black, brown, and indigenous cultures. We must figure out ways that the stories of redemption, struggle, and resistance that we celebrated in the streets become the fodder for our histories. We have to figure out different ways to relate to one another.
This summer, many white people did something extraordinary for the first time. They got in the mix. They were physically vulnerable in the same way that Black people were physically vulnerable. Look at the two men who died in Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Two white men, shot down by a youthful white bigot. This is the kind of tragedy that we need to combat. We have to figure out how to translate an ethic of regard from the summer into an ethic of behavior and discipline in the winter.
We do that by looking at all of the ways we can make a difference. We can do it by voting down ballot, putting in place different attorneys general and prosecutors who make a determination about what people are brought to justice. We have to vote. We have to have more volunteer organizations, where people of color and people in the dominant culture know each other—know each other's values, each other's visions, speak to each other, talk to each other, be deliberate and intentional about crossing racial barriers. Not only to learn more, but to become more sensitive to the needs of vulnerable populations, and therefore become better advocates for them.
We also have to get rid of food insecurity and food deserts. Why is it that high sugar cereal is put into hood grocery stores, while Whole Foods and others have more quality food? How do we address that in our local communities? The boards we sit on in our condos—how do we argue for an integration of those boards, where redlining is removed? How do we talk about police boards, where we must have a much more vigorous conversation about defunding and reform? How do we challenge the police unions that have grown way out of proportion to their number in their power? There are so many things we can do. If there are microaggressions, there must be micro-resistance. If there are macroaggressions, there must be macro-resistance. We must meet resistance at every level with the offense of the aggression to which we are subject.
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