By Michael Eric Dyson. St. Martin’s Press, 2020. 240 pages. $25.99/hardcover; $13.99/eBook.
The murder of George Floyd, which became a media cause célèbre of protests and global conversations, serves as the occasion for Dyson’s latest book. From the outset, what distinguishes this book is not only its timeliness but also the sense of urgency with which Dyson writes, an urgency made more acute during COVID-19, other acts of anti-Blackness, and the Trump presidency.
In channeling James Baldwin’s uncompromising analysis of race in the United States, Dyson adapts a common epistolary form wherein his letter to the dearly departed is initially a springboard to articulate his outrage, tempered by reflection. He recounts the circumstances of each brutal death and interrogates the root causes of historical and societal troubles beyond the victim’s control that influenced an untimely demise. His emotional letters, avuncular in tone, give agency to the life of each addressee and remove the veil of obscurity from their individual and collective identities. His letters to Emmett Till, Eric Garner, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Sandra Bland, and George Floyd, amongst others, make more intelligible the impetus behind Black Lives Matter. Each life with its distinct voice is reimagined as holding unfulfilled potential once freed from systematic discrimination. Dyson excels at expressing the pain that must have been felt by victims, their families, and loved ones.
The interrelated chapters “Black Death” and “Blue Plague” speak to the vulnerability of Black bodies that “are still an object of scorn and aversion,” and how the severity of terror experienced on the plantation has morphed into a similar caution on policed urban pavements. Drawing from a long list of casualties of White supremacy disguised as law enforcement, Dyson underscores his message that the blue plague inevitably results in Black death. He reimagines a different architecture for and delivery of services rendered by law enforcement and social agencies to ensure sustained protection for the Black community. “White Theft,” written to Breonna Taylor, treats ways in which the dominant culture appropriates the creativity of Blacks and responds to it with indifference, disrespect, and injustice. The end result preserves and justifies “White Comfort,” found in White privilege, innocence, and fragility. That very comfort contributes to “Black exhaustion” in the face of White allies who, “riding the wave of white wokeness, end up re-centering whiteness [as they] decry their . . . tragic exercise of privilege.” The most informative chapter, which has the makings of a separate book, is “Seeing Red,” where the author dissects the detrimental effects of cancel culture on Black America.
Dyson alludes to yet does not scrutinize his apprehension about the United States’ possible self-satisfaction with the verdict of guilty in the case of Floyd’s murderer. Many might shift the conversation about race to a place where the U.S. would pat itself on the back when accountability and justice seemingly have been rendered, and then enter a mock post-racial era of continued police violence.
Although the structure of each chapter is intentionally redundant as a reminder of the repeated scenarios that led to death after death, Dyson’s meaning never loses its palpitating vibrancy. His is a call to action (which our Quaker community values) for an end to complicity in oppression. In re-imagining the history of lives lived and lost, Dyson imagines for future generations a world that is more responsive and responsible.
Jerry Mizell Williams is a member of Green Street (Philadelphia, Pa.) Meeting. He is the author of numerous books, articles, and book reviews on colonial Latin America and matters of faith.