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Why being Black in America so often involves some kind of performance

Michael Eric Dyson’s new book displays his range of roles: “preacher, writer, pastor, university professor, public intellectual, lecturer, cultural critic, author, social activist, newspaper columnist, radio talk show host, political analyst, and media commentator.” (KK Ottesen/for The WashingtonPost)
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Michael Eric Dyson’s latest book, “Entertaining Race: Performing Blackness in America,” is an ambitious effort to explain how Black performance shapes this country. The 50-chapter volume collects three decades of Dyson’s efforts to interpret and embody Black performance through his work. As an interpreter, Dyson shares both his admiring and critical commentary that makes the book a fun read. But it is his embodied performance in a vast range of roles — as he lays them out: “preacher, writer, pastor, university professor, public intellectual, lecturer, cultural critic, author, social activist, newspaper columnist, radio talk show host, political analyst, and media commentator” — that readers are likely to find applause-worthy. For decades, Dyson has been astonishingly prolific as he emphatically advances the cause of racial justice in the academy and beyond. And this book offers a rare opportunity to see the range of his written and spoken technique in one place.

Dyson’s concerted effort to show the cultural importance of Black performance begins with the somewhat teasing pun in the book’s title. He declares at the outset that Black people were once forced to be an entertaining race — a race frequently called upon to perform for White audiences. As a defense tactic, Black performers contrived a creative strategy that was at once entertaining and emancipating. An example is when enslaved people “sang spirituals about a heavenly destination with veiled information” that communicated to one another how they would escape to freedom here on Earth. Black entertainment, Dyson shows, has never been merely Black entertainment.

Dyson argues, too, that Black people survive in society by frequently entertaining race — that is, engaging the idea of race while dealing with its social and political consequences. Even when others deny that race matters, he argues, Black people must bear the costs of its existence and reflect on its paradoxical status in society.

Dyson also has in his collection of arguments reasons Black performers must be entertaining when discussing race. From music to photography to cinema and so on, Dyson asserts that it is imperative that Black performers be creative when approaching the sensitive subject. “Race,” he writes, “is an issue that works best when we are not preached to.” The upshot is that Black performance is tasked with the burden of engaging and uplifting a society that is otherwise race-avoidant: “What otherwise might be a dry dissertation about human motive and the factors that lie behind abhorrent behavior is made far more interesting and salient” when communicated through Black performance.

The subtitle of the book adds additional jargon. As Dyson explains in one chapter, “a title is a contract” between an author and the intended audience. Here, Dyson upholds his end of the bargain by relying on a capacious understanding of “performance.” In his hands, the word “performance” isn’t solely reserved for traditional artistic expressions in which the artist intends to convey a message to an audience. It also includes how ordinary Black people greet one another, stand on the porch, bird-watch or engage in otherwise mundane activities. Black performance, in other words, becomes dreadfully close to Black being.

Many readers will find Dyson’s conception of performance confusing at best and just plain unsettling at worst. Dyson inches toward the latter by counterintuitively extending the notion of Black performance to encompass Black people who die at the hands of the police. At one point, Dyson eerily refers to the murder of George Floyd as “a performance of death” because it “embodied all the elements that make Black performance resonate.” Though his use of the term may make sense given the dimensions of performance that he draws up, he doesn’t do enough to respect the peculiarity of the claim. As a result, this is a rare instance of Dyson uncharacteristically singing the tune of an absent-minded professor oblivious to the politics of language. Reader beware.

More often, Dyson deliberately eschews sophisticated analytical reasoning to advance his claims. In fact, many of the chapters in the book are scarcely edited speeches he has given over the years. A highly prolific writer and itinerant preacher, Dyson maintains an active presence on social media. Longtime followers will be familiar with his expressive style. It’s captivating enough that, as the book jacket notes, President Barack Obama once declared that “everybody who speaks after Michael Eric Dyson pales in comparison.” Part of the project lives up to the hype. But sometimes the book reads as if Dyson injudiciously added speeches whose written presentation lacks the allure of his spoken word.

To his credit, Dyson attempts to re-create the live rhetorical moments by using brackets to indicate responses from the audience during the original performance. The motivation for this strategy is obvious. Anyone who’s ever set foot in a Black church, for instance, knows that delightful interruptions from the congregation drive the spoken performance. By duplicating the call-and-response of his speeches, Dyson aims to revive the moment.

But the move is not altogether successful. While reading “[Laughter]” and “[Applause]” and the occasional “[Amen!]” throughout the book, one is reminded of those laugh tracks from ’90s sitcoms that prodded the audience to chuckle at things that otherwise weren’t amusing. Just as readers breeze through a sentence that elicits no reaction, they are met by a bracketed response that sets off a little bell in their head urging them to react. Laudatory approval of the transcribed speech becomes forced.

Dyson, a professor at Vanderbilt University, knows the limits of what the spoken word can do for someone trying to wrestle with complicated issues on the page. In his insightful criticisms of another scholar’s series of “talk books” a few years ago, for instance, he expressed impatience with improvisational rants that lacked the discipline of the written word, using a sort of rhetoric that is absent from his current book. “For scholars,” Dyson wrote in the New Republic, “there is a depth that can only be tapped through the rigorous reworking of the same sentences until the meaning comes clean.” Thus, he continued, the “ecstasies of the spoken word, when scholarship is at stake, leave the deep reader and the long listener hungry for more.” To that extent, then, those who sidestep the reworking of written sentences should not expect to reach the intricate corners of persuasive scholarship. The point isn’t that the written should be privileged over the spoken, but that directly transcribed speeches betray a lack of critical content that Dyson puts forward as vital in other places.

In his book, the orations are presented alongside essays in which Dyson occasionally presses elegant distinctions to advance his arguments. One could quibble over whether these more refined essays do enough work to satisfy the voracious reader. And perhaps there’s an inevitable unevenness that should be expected wherever an author takes on so many roles.

But merely pointing out the book’s imbalance underplays the problem. The issue is that when someone splits the difference between so many professional roles, the performance doesn’t reach the depth required to move the audience. By trying to satisfy all, you satisfy none. In taking on so many roles, Dyson bypasses the stringent requirements of each — he avoids the scholar’s rigor, the preacher’s devotion to scripture, the activist’s commitment to political action, the cultural critic’s awareness of ever-changing trends and so on. Despite providing a diverse sampling of intellectual treats, Dyson is unlikely to satisfy many readers’ hunger for a critical examination of Black performance in America.

The other flaws of the book are easier to excuse. While some chapters aptly show Dyson’s prodigious talents and read as if only he could have written them, other sections of the book read like Rap Genius annotations in essay form. Further frustration comes from realizing Dyson’s propensity, in his speeches, to recycle lines that go over favorably with the audience. For example, in his 2018 eulogy at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, Dyson claimed: “She was Black girl magic before there was Black girl magic. [Applause].” A couple of pages later, the reader finds a similar line at Jessye Norman’s funeral in 2019: “She was Black girl magic before the term ever existed. [Applause].” But the real fault of the book is that it seeks to entertain in places where a careful, serious discussion seems more fitting.

And somehow that’s also the virtue of the book. Dyson’s writing is engaging, subtle and charming: Few writers have the breadth of knowledge that permits them to oscillate between discussions of King, then Kanye; Nelson Mandela, then Nicki Minaj; Jesse Jackson, then Michael Jackson; Derrick Bell, then DMX. In chapter after chapter, we are treated to passages of cultural criticism while a political theory lurks in the background. In some books on race, the seriousness of the subject might discourage some readers to engage because they feel uninterested or uninformed. Not this one. Through vivid discussions grounded in popular culture, Dyson provides something for everyone, many readers will probably learn something without even trying, and his audience will surely be entertained in the process. Cue the applause.

Entertaining Race

Performing Blackness
in America

By Michael Eric Dyson

St. Martin’s.
530 pp. $32.50

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