Michael Eric Dyson is an ordained minister and sociology professor at Georgetown University. His latest book is “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, who recently released his new book, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” sat down this past week for a chat with Michael Eric Dyson. Here is their conversation, which has been edited for content and length.
Q: You speak honestly of the aching sense of failure you felt about being a college dropout. You say in general that the classroom wasn’t a place where you remembered lessons that were taught. So is it paradoxical that now you’re studied in classrooms, not just in high schools, but in colleges and universities, too?
A: It’s bizarre. I was at this thing the other day, and somebody said: “What do you say or tell the educators who are teaching your work? Do you have any thoughts on how it should be taught?” And I was like, “No.” And I don’t. And I mean that. I told her, “Listen, this was not a place where I was, like, a successful student.” If it helps, I’m happy to help. If it touches kids, I’m really, really happy it touches kids. But it’s bizarre. Because I think a lot of the stuff I’ve written is actually in reaction to failure in school.
Q: Your experience as an outlier who is self-trained contrasts with the surrounding ethos of education. Because everybody now says, “Get that schooling, get that degree.” But your experience is a critique of schooling as the repository for education.
A: When I was in elementary school, there was an effort made by black educators, some of whom I’m still in contact with today, to make sure that black kids like me in the inner city had access to the gifted and talented program. It was the only place where my curiosity was actually being answered. I did it for second, maybe third and fourth grades, then my parents pulled me out because I was not doing well in my other classes. Now, I don’t say that to critique my parents. They were working from a mode of rightful fear: “This ain’t about curiosity, man, I’m trying to keep you from getting killed.”
Q: When the survivalist mode is predominant, curiosity is squashed.
A: Right. And for whatever reason, that wasn’t enough for me. I was pretty irrepressible in terms of my curiosities.
Q: You are an atheist, and yet despite your explicit rejection of religious belief, you still have a kind of preacherly rhythm. There’s a spiritual, if not a prophetic, cast to some of the stuff that you do. Is that also interesting to you?
A: Yeah, it is. Honestly. When “Between the World and Me” came out, my dad was, like, really afraid of what black folks in church would make of it. I can only be me, you know what I mean?
Q: I was preaching yesterday in Chicago, and I talked about the white ministers with lots of black folk in their congregations who support Trump, like Joel Osteen and Paula White. And I said that two of our greatest writers in this generation, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jelani Cobb, do not believe in your God, and yet you turn to them for insight that feeds your spirit. I asked the congregation if they could actually say they’ve got more in common with these white ministers who support Trump, and who undercut everything they believe in, than they do with you and Cobb. And they clearly favored you and Jelani.
A: I’m happy to see that. I don’t know how you grow up black in this country and not have tremendous respect for the church, even though I was raised outside of it. So even as I articulate my beliefs, I try to be really respectful. I’m happy that it’s received. I often wonder what is the place where the two things cross? Am I drawing some sort of conclusion, or some sort of feeling, that folks get in church anyway, regardless of their belief in Jesus Christ as their savior? Is there a route that they’re traveling in their religion that leads to a similar place that I go, even with my lack of religion?
Q: That’s right. Is it a more spiritual, or an intellectual, or even a moral kind of feeling? Because [James] Baldwin is post-religious in a significant fashion, yet deeply moral and spiritual — and the King James Bible keeps bubbling and eddying in his own language.
A: I often wonder what I am saying. But I guess there is something in my work that sounds, to a lot of people, like what they hear in church. And I just don’t mean the fact of politics being discussed in church. But there’s something else. And I don’t really have the capability to analyze that.
Q: If you were in one of the churches that I often preach in, they’d say: “The Lord just using him. Don’t worry, it don’t matter what he saying.”
A: Yeah, and that’s probably exactly how they feel.
Q: They’re like: “Honey, like the Bible says, it’s better to say you ain’t gonna go somewhere, and then you go, than to say you’re gonna go, and don’t end up going. So Ta-Nehisi said he ain’t going to where we go, the way we get there, but he there.” So you’re just extending their prophetic tradition. And there’s no condescension intended.
A: I don’t take it that way at all. People often say: “Well, you’re a black atheist. Have you ever felt alienated?” I said, “Well, not ’cause of that.” Had I been raised in a small town in Texas, maybe I would feel different. But that hasn’t been my experience.
Q: You were one of the very few people to call Obama to account for the harsh and judgmental way he talked about black people.
A: You also. I wasn’t alone.
Q: It was especially painful to hear that kind of talk from Obama. He knew better — at least we think he did.
A: Here’s the question I always had. I don’t know that he knew better. And here’s why. Like, people have asked me, is this a calculated thing? I’m gonna be real here. That kind of sounds like some South Side Negroes to me. It’s not like I had to ask, where’d that come from? And listen, I’m not defending this. Obviously I got problems with it, right? But the fact of the matter is, like —
Q: Your uncle, your aunt, say such things all the time —
A: I mean, that’s where they are.
Q: But the difference is, they ain’t got a megaphone, and they ain’t got a bully pulpit.
A: Right. But they don’t think he’s wrong. So I wonder — actually, I never got to verify this, but given his background, given that he comes from a more hippie-ish family — whether Obama got that conservative aspect of looking at black folk in Chicago.
Q: Interesting. ’Cause Chicago has a lot of that homegrown moral conservatism.
A: You know what I mean? It is not far from the South Side.
Q: Well, you’re absolutely right. Because I tell people, you can go to any church, barbershop or ’hood stoop, and hear that kind of talk. And the difference, of course, is that your uncle in the barber shop, or in the church, ain’t got millions of people around the world listening to him.
A: He ain’t president, also. And my fault with it was like, you represent America now. You’re not a black dude, you’re not Raheem on the corner. You’re not even a pastor. You are a representative of the American people. So it’s just intolerable for you to do that.
Q: Yes, no question.
A: It’s completely wrong as president of the United States. You can’t say, “Well, I’m going to speak like Raheem right now.” No, no, no.
Q: Right. I remember I was at Oprah’s house when she threw that first big fundraiser for Obama in 2007. And me, Obama and Chris Rock were huddled in a corner. And Chris Rock told us his famous story about the fight between heavyweight champ Larry Holmes and the great-white-hope boxer Gerry Cooney. Holmes was whipping his behind. And then, after Holmes knocked him out, the judges’ scorecards revealed that two of them had Cooney ahead in the fight! Rock said that his daddy told him that you can’t beat white folk — as in outpoint them in a fight — so you have to knock them out! As much as Obama loves to quote Rock, that particular message never gets cited. I was right there. Heard it with my own ears. Instead, Obama would quote Chris Rock saying that black folk always want credit for things they should be doing anyway, like paying child support; but he never quotes Rock’s relentless assault on white supremacy. Ain’t no balance, and thus he misrepresents the truth. I think that’s what you’re getting at.
A: It’s true, it’s true.