Anybody who has had the opportunity to hear Michael Eric Dyson speak will tell you how powerful an experience it can be. That includes former President Barack Obama, who once said that anyone unlucky enough to follow him was sure to “pale in comparison.”
Fortunately for students at Arizona State University, where the famed author and one of America’s foremost public intellectuals will be paying a virtual visit to discuss his latest book, “Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America,” they will only have to ask him questions.
Dyson’s visit on Feb. 25 is part of a new student engagement initiative at the university called TomorrowTalks, which aims to place the thought leaders of today in conversation with the changemakers of tomorrow.
“Our access mission is the heartbeat of what we do at ASU,” said Kyle Jensen, director of writing programs in ASU’s Department of English. “We want to give students opportunities to engage with some of the most influential people about some of the most pressing issues of the day so that they can shape a future we all want to be a part of.”
Following Dyson, Melinda Gates will engage students on Thursday, March 18, in a discussion about her book “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” and the semester will close with ASU’s own Ayanna Thompson, Regents Professor of English and director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, who will be discussing her latest book “Blackface (Object Lessons)” on Thursday, April 15.
All events are free and open to the public.
As a facet of the TomorrowTalks initiative, students have been meeting ahead of Dyson’s visit to discuss his book, related current events and possible topics of conversation. Sophomore Bailey Shaw said she has felt energized by their preparations and is excited to be able to participate in an event that really values students’ input.
Dyson’s book in particular was a “tough read,” said Shaw, who is white. “It was very humbling and sad to read, but important at same time.”
As for the author himself, who serves as Distinguished University Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University, he is looking forward to sharing with students how they can find power and create change with their own words.
“… I hope to engage them in a serious conversation that permits them, encourages them and inspires them to reflect on their own lives and what role they can play in thinking about race; how they can challenge themselves to elevate their consciousness and respond to these issues, and also to think a bit about how writing and reading … can also have political and social impact,” he said.
Here he answers some questions for ASU News, ahead of his talk.
Question: The goal of Tomorrow Talks is to put college students in conversation with thought leaders, particularly those who have used writing as a tool to address pressing societal challenges. At what point in your own life did you realize there was power in writing?
Answer: I certainly admired writers as I came up in Detroit, Michigan. I was deeply informed by James Baldwin, whose first book, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” I read as a young person. Later on, I read the great speeches of Black people including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. And later, I read Ralph Ellison and the American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. All of that sparked my interest in and curiosity about writing and the effect it could have and what it could do to change people’s lives.
Q: At ASU, you’ll be discussing your most recent book “Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America,” which just came out in December, and it couldn’t be timelier. What was your inspiration for this book?
A: I’d been thinking about ideas for a while but the occasion for the writing of the book was the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and how they profoundly impacted me. Then I started to write about others – Elijah McClain, Sandra Bland, etc. – and all of that came together into this book that was inspired by their horrendous deaths.
Q: What do you hope students get out of reading your book and the upcoming discussion?
A: I hope they get a sense of who I am and what these issues are. Why race is so important to speak about and talk about, and I hope to engage them in a serious conversation that permits them, encourages them and inspires them to reflect on their own lives and what role they can play in thinking about race; how they can challenge themselves to elevate their consciousness and respond to these issues, and also to think a bit about how writing and reading — fundamental practices of any educated person — can also have political and social impact.
Q: Do you have any messages or advice in particular for non-Black folks about how to deal with racism and/or what they can do to make change?
A: You’ve got to acknowledge the problem. And sometimes family members are part of problem, or your peers, and there’s no way around that. We can’t get to racial healing and reconciliation if we can’t get to the truth first. That means we have to address these issues. They must be grappled with if we are to have the possibility of a better future for our nation, and that means white people have to own up to their responsibility to engage in these issues. Race is not a Black problem or a brown problem; it’s a white problem, and what our white brothers and sisters need to do is acknowledge that and be willing to take it on.
Q: What are your thoughts on this moment in time and the potential to accomplish that? Do you believe America is capable of finally reckoning with race?
A: We’re certainly capable. Whether or not we do depends on whether or not we’re reminded to. We have to be on top of our game. We have to constantly be willing to renegotiate the terms of the racial contract in light of the noble ideas and grand aspirations we put forth as we continue to grapple with what race means in this country. The global pandemic has revealed issues of systemic racism that make Black people more vulnerable to die from this disease. Why is that? It’s not just a physiological phenomenon; it’s interacting with larger social forces. So how do we address that and deal with that? Reckoning doesn’t have to be a colossal change all at once. There is everyday stuff that needs to be dealt with. Health care, the prison system, the justice system — everything that ends in the word “system” has to be reexamined. We have to be constantly and religiously revising and reviewing in order for us to make progress.
Top photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU