Born in Detroit, Michigan on October 23, 1958, Michael Eric Dyson is an ordained Baptist minister and a professor in the College of Arts and Science and in the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University, whose faculty he joined in January 2021. He has also taught at the University of North Carolina, Columbia University, DePaul University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Georgetown University.
Into much of his teaching, Dyson incorporates his expertise in hip-hop music and “gangsta rap.” Says Dyson: “Gangsta rap often reaches higher than its ugliest, lowest common denominator. Misogyny, violence, materialism, and sexual transgression are not its exclusive domain. At its best, this music draws attention to complex dimensions of ghetto life ignored by most Americans. . . . Indeed, gangsta rap’s in-your-face style may do more to force America to confront crucial social problems than a million sermons or political speeches.”
In 1996 Dyson published Between God and Gangsta Rap, which laments the “miserable plight of black men in America,” and calls “[t]he demonization of gangsta rappers” merely “a convenient excuse for cultural and political elites to pounce on a group of artists who are easy prey.”
In 2001 Dyson published Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, about the life of the late rapper who he lauded as a black Jesus figure. In the book, Dyson writes that Shakur’s “stirring raps made many people see suffering they had never before acknowledged. It helped many desperately unhappy young people reclaim a sense of hope and humanity.”
A member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Dyson joined such notables as Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich in speaking at the organization’s 17th Annual Socialist Scholars Conference in 1999.
At a forum organized by Academics for Mumia Abu-Jamal in 1999, Dyson said that “the Mumia Abu-Jamal case is about the person who is able to articulate the interests of minority people not only in terms of color, but in terms of ideology.” “It is about the repression,” he added, “of left-wing, progressive, insightful cultural criticism and political and moral critique aimed at the dominant hegemonic processes of American capitalism and the American state as evidenced in its racist, imperialist and now we might add homophobic and certainly its patriarchal practices.”
In August 2000, Dyson was a featured speaker at the Los Angeles Shadow Convention’s Drug Policy Reform Day, a gathering of anti-War on Drugs activists, Democratic Progressive Caucus members, and leftist celebrities who condemned existing drug laws as discriminatory and racist. Among those in attendance were Jesse Jackson, Al Franken, Maxine Waters, John Conyers, Bill Maher, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and Tom Hayden.
According to Dyson, the 9/11 terrorist attacks were “predictable to a degree, due to America’s past imperialistic practices and how it is viewed by other countries.” “What I am against,” he elaborated, “is the hypocrisy of a nation [the U.S.] that would help train bin Laden by funneling millions from the CIA to Afghan rebels to put down the Soviets, and now switching sides to funnel money to the Soviets to stop the spread of fundamentalism.”
When asked how Tupac Shakur, were he still alive, would have viewed the 9/11 attacks, Dyson replied: “I think that Tupac would say, ‘What business do we have being in Arab nations when the tentacles of colonialism and capitalism suck the lifeblood of native or indigenous people?’ . . . He would have had questions about who really was the thug. He would have said that America has ignored the vicious consequences of its imperialistic practices across the world. America ignores how millions of people suffer on a daily basis throughout the world, except in isolated spots that involve so-called national interests. Thirdly, that America has forfeited its duty as global policeman, by virtue of its own mistreatment of black people.”
In April 2005 Dyson published Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind? This book was a rebuttal to statements made by the comedian, who in 2004 had publicly lamented the failure of many African American parents to raise their children to be well-educated, law-abiding citizens. Dyson viewed Cosby’s assertions as the unjustified charges of an upper-class member of the black “Afristocracy” against the underprivileged members of the “Ghettocracy.”
In May 2005 Dyson was interviewed by newsman Al Roker, who asked whether whether Cosby’s statements had any validity. The professor replied, “Oh sure . . . there’s validity always. Tim McVeigh [mastermind of the April 1995 terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City] had a point: The state is over-reaching. But the way you do it, dropping bombs and castigating of human beings, that’s terrible. . . . Let’s hold the larger society accountable for creating the conditions that lead to some of the downfalls of the poor people.”
Dyson reacted passionately to a February 26, 2012 incident in Sanford, Florida, in which a “white Hispanic” neighborhood-watch captain named George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old African American named Trayvon Martin. When Zimmerman was subsequently acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges in a July 2013 trial, Dyson said: “So, you know how you felt on 9/11? Yeah, that’s how we [blacks] feel when it comes to race… Not until, and unless, the number of white kids die that approximate the numbers of black and other kids who die, will America see.”
In June 2013, Dyson likened Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to “a symbolic Jew [who] has invited a metaphoric Hitler to commit Holocaust and genocide upon his own people,” after Thomas had voted to strike down a Voting Rights Act provision that had required mainly Southern states to undergo—based on the presumption of their continuing racist tendencies—special federal scrutiny before being permitted to change their election laws in any way.
On August 24, 2013, after Al Sharpton had delivered the keynote speech at the 50th anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther King’s historic March on Washington, Dyson declared: “What Reverend Sharpton did today was magnificent. Today Reverend Sharpton emerged as the preeminent leader of his generation, bar none!”
Dyson was incensed by an August 2014 incident where Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed an 18-year-old black male named Michael Brown in an altercation that occurred just minutes after Brown had perpetrated a strong-armed robbery of a local convenience store. When a grand jury ultimately decided (in November 2014) not to prosecute Officer Wilson, Professor Dyson lamented that “our American culture’s fearful dehumanizing of black men” had caused Wilson to perceive Michael Brown “as a demonic force who had to be vanquished in a hail of bullets.”
In July 2016, Dyson wrote an op-ed for The New York Times wherein he expressed his views about white people. Some noteworthy excerpts:
In a January 2017 interview about his forthcoming book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, a New York Times Magazine interviewer said to Dyson: “At the end of your sermon, you do a ‘benediction’ section, in which you talk about making reparations [to black people] on the local and individual level: donating to groups like the United Negro College Fund or a scholarship program, but also, to cite your example from the book, paying ‘the black person who cuts your grass double what you might ordinarily pay.’ That gave me pause!” To this, Dyson replied: “Good! I used to say in church, ‘If the sermon ain’t making you a little bit uncomfortable, it ain’t effective.’ Look, if it doesn’t cost you anything, you’re not really engaging in change; you’re engaging in convenience. You’re engaged in the overflow. I’m asking you to do stuff you wouldn’t ordinarily do. I’m asking you to think more seriously and strategically about why you possess what you possess.” A moment later, Dyson advocated that every white person in America open “an I.R.A.: an individual reparations account,” adding: “You ain’t got to ask the government, you don’t have to ask your local politician — this is what you, an individual, conscientious, ‘woke’ citizen can do.”
In a February 1, 2017 television appearance on The View, Dyson characterized Barack Obama as “one of the greatest presidents that ever lived,” and depicted the new president, Donald Trump, as a product of white racism: “[Y]ou see when we look at Donald Trump, Donald Trump is the rose. What is the ground, or another flower, what is the ground from which he emerged? Whiteness produced him. A certain sense of selfishness, a certain sense of self-importance, a certain sense of innocence, a certain sense of privilege that he fails to acknowledge. And the best of white culture has to war against the worst of white culture for us to embrace it. Because remember, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster…”
Also during his interview on The View, Dyson said: “[W]hite brothers and sisters don’t see that they have privilege. They say, oh, my God. Look at you people who are politically correct now, you want safe spaces. Well your white body is a safe space in a way that African Americans, Latinos, women’s bodies are not. So what I’m suggesting to white Americans, I love you. I want you to engage in the introspection that you encourage everybody else to do. Then think about the privilege. The ultimate privilege may be this, you encounter a police person and live to tell about it…. I’m saying, there are many privileges that white brothers and sisters have and if you acknowledge it then we can figure out how to unmask that privilege and then to challenge it.”
In the summer of 2019, Dyson spoke out about a recent controversy wherein Nike spokesman Colin Kaepernick had complained about the company’s plan to release a red, white, and blue “Betsy Ross” or “Fourth of July” sneaker which featured the image of an original American flag with 13 stars representing the 13 original American colonies; his complaint was based on the notion that the flag carried a “connection to an era of slavery.” In an effort to explain why that flag was so offensive to some, Dyson likened it to Nazi and KKK artifacts: “Why don’t we wear a swastika for July 4th? Because, I don’t know, it makes a difference. The cross burning on somebody’s lawn. Why don’t we just have a Nike celebration of the cross, those symbols are symbols of hate. So we can take PC culture back.”
During a November 29, 2020 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Dyson claimed that President Trump’s allegations of voter fraud in large cities during the recent presidential election was a “a dog-whistle” designed to tell “white supremacist and white nationalists” that he supported them. Said the professor:
“Think about the dog whistle that, in some instances, it has been far louder. He’s attacking Detroit, 79% Black. He’s attacking Atlanta, 59% Black. He’s attacking Philadelphia, 42% Black. He’s attacking Milwaukee, 39% Black. We get what he’s doing here. He’s trying to have his cake and eat it, too, so to speak. He has an uptick in voting among African-American people by 5% among Black men, 4% among Black women, and at the same time, he wants to whistle to white supremacist and white nationalists [that] he’s still their guy.”
“He will continue to send out the notion that somehow this [election] is a fraud, the fraud is related to race, race is illegitimate, and as a result of that, you as a white person have every reason in the world regardless of your stratification, whether you’re making $100 million a year or whether you’re barely making $10,000, to vote for me because I’m your guy…. Here is a guy who is anti-science, he’s anti-race, he’s anti-everything that makes this country, it seems, the very great thing he wants to make it.”
In a December 2020 appearance on MSNBC’s The ReidOut, hosted by Joy Reid, Dyson spoke about his newly published book, Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America. In the course of his discussion, he said the following about Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell:
“I talk about in the book fast terror and slow terror. Fast terror is when bombs drop and they lynch black people, when they hurt us very explicitly, by the police, who hurt and harm and kill us. Slow terror is kicking kids out of school, denying them the opportunity to be fed both mentally and physically.
“If Donald Trump is a fast terrorist, is a fast racist, then Mitch McConnell is taking a slower train toward racial revulsion. He is enacting some of the worst practices we have seen in the history of this nation in regard to a senator blocking the coming to fruition of legislation that could relieve the hurt and suffering of Black people. And to proudly stand up and say that he wanted to make Obama a one-term president — this shows us that the real religion in America is whiteness. The real politics in Mitch McConnell’s orbit are whiteness, the worship of whiteness at the altar of whiteness, genuflecting before the god of whiteness. Therefore Donald Trump is a the product of a womb that has generated this disfigured person in terms of politics, but Mitch McConnell is part of the womb. Mitch McConnell he gives life and breath to the very denunciation of blackness that Trump has been so vehemently denounced for.”
In a January 17, 2021 sermon he delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, Dyson asserted that “the sad truth” is that America is a country “that spills blood in the name of misguided patriotism.” He continued: “An America willing to avert its eyes from truth in the glare of baseless conspiracy. An America that worships at the altar of the Second Amendment while making an idol of weapons and betraying the Second Commandment. An America that spews disgust at the dark foreigner and harbors hatred for the brown immigrant. An America that despises as enemies those who cry out that Black Lives Matter, while waving the traitorous banner of Confederate bigotry. This is America and has been America since America became America.”
“There is a greater danger you must boldly confront,” Dyson added. “American exceptionalism is really white supremacy on the sly. The men who founded your nation relished talk of God while holding black flesh in chains. Many of those who say that God takes special pride in your nation seek to bless the blasphemy of white supremacy. The American church has sinned by portraying truth as white. Facts as white. Reality as white. Beauty as white. Normal as white. Moral as white. Righteousness as white. Theology as white. Christ as white. God as white. And America as white.”
In a March 30, 2021 appearance on CNN, Dyson said that the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd — a black man who had died during a physical confrontation with a white police officer in Minneapolis — was evidence of America’s “toxic racial atmosphere.” At the time of the interview, that officer, Derek Chauvin, was on trial for Floyd’s killing. “In the larger world, black people are on trial with George Floyd,” said Dyson. “This is our father, our brother, our son, our cousin. It’s us. We look at him and say, what more do you have to do in order to prove that you were murdered unfairly?” Lamenting “the toxic racial atmosphere we [blacks] are being choked by,” Dyson spoke about the urgent need for police reform: “We don’t have to agree on the specificities and the particularities of police reform, but we need teeth in these oversight committees that are charged with looking at the police. If you don’t want to defund the police, fine, if that’s your position to reform them, then have real reform, put teeth in those committees, are subpoena power assigned to them, look at ways to distribute more equitably what we consider to be public safety. Finally, use your bully pulpit to identify with the victims of misconduct and deep and profound injustice in this country.”
He concluded, “We’re caught between toxicology and the toxic racial atmosphere we are being choked by. That’s the choice we have in this country.”
In addition to his teaching duties, Dyson has also been a weekly columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a regular commentator for Tavis Smiley’s National Public Radio program. He has written op/ed pieces for The Washington Post and The New York Times, and has appeared on a number of major television programs, including: The Charlie Rose Show, Good Morning America, Nightline, The Today Show, and Oprah. In 1995 Dyson published Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X. Adorning the book’s cover is a glowing review by Angela Davis. Other enthusiastic reviews were furnished by Carol Moseley-Braun, Jesse Jackson, and Chuck D. of the rap group Public Enemy.
Dyson has received awards from the National Association of Black Journalists and the NAACP.