Hailed as one of a group of "new intellectuals," scholar Michael Eric Dyson is a longtime professor and lecturer, and an author who addresses issues of race and culture in such diverse publications as Christian Century and Rolling Stone. He has published seven books, including the well-received Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X and I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. He has also appeared on popular talk shows, taught academic courses on gangsta rap and hip-hop music, and even testified before congressional subcommittees on various issues of concern to black Americans. Washington Post correspondent David Nicholson noted that Dyson "belongs to a group of young intellectuals who may yet define our view of black American culture as did their predecessors Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray."
"Young" is an important operating word when describing Dyson. Most professors do not become nationally known while still in their thirties, nor do they often head university departments at that age. Dyson did both while still in his mid-thirties, due in part to the success of his books and the strength of his journalism. Philadelphia Inquirer book critic Carlo Romano called Dyson a "crown prince ... to the two most established black male intellectuals: [Cornel] West and ... scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr."
Born on October 23, 1958, in Detroit, Michigan, Dyson grew up in a comfortable middle class family. His father was an auto worker, and his mother a paraprofessional in the city schools. In a piece published in Details magazine, Dyson suggested that, due in large part to his age, he was somewhat isolated from the bitter civil rights struggles that occurred in the 1960s. "I was nine years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. died," he said. "I had never heard of him before then. I remember a newscaster interrupted the regular programming and broke the news. My father, sitting in his chair, went 'Hmph.' A hmph that said both 'I can't believe it' and 'How predictable.' That was my initiation into the world of white and black."
Dyson was an active youngster and early on he developed his oratorical skills by delivering speeches to the members of the Baptist church he attended. When Dyson was a teenager, a well-meaning neighbor gave him a full set of the Harvard Classics. Classic literature may not sound like preferred reading for a teenager, but Dyson devoured the whole set. "I was reading Two Years before the Mast and also getting my [link to black culture through black musicians like] Smokey Robinson," he joked in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Dyson even earned a scholarship to a well-known and respected boarding school in Michigan. Everything seemed to be falling into place for Dyson, but that all changed once he actually arrived at boarding school at the age of 16.
At school Dyson first discovered that he had been living a life of segregation. All of the schools and clubs he had ever belonged to had been made up of African Americans, and he had had very little contact with people of other ethnic backgrounds, especially those with white skin. It wasn't long before Dyson began to feel uncomfortable around his classmates, who treated him poorly, often wrecked his dorm room and possessions, and used racial slurs when referring to him. According to Dyson in an America's Intelligence Wire article, "It was very jarring to me, like a sense of Hitchcockian Vertigo." Dyson began to lash out against other students and the boarding school in general, and it was not long before he was expelled.
Dyson returned to public high school and graduated in 1976, but by that time he had become a teenage father-to-be and was living off the welfare system. His responsibilities to his yet-unborn child led him to accept a series of jobs in maintenance and auto sales, but he lost his employment just weeks before his son's birth. Dyson also was known on the streets as a hustler and a gang member, and it seemed as if this lifestyle, a style he blamed on racism, was going to be prevalent throughout the rest of his life.
Through everything, Dyson continued to attend his Baptist church and, along with religion, he slowly began to rediscover his love of oratory. With the assistance of his church pastor, Dyson studied and became a Baptist minister by the time he was 21. Along with taking on the new title of minister came an increased appreciation of his responsibilities. According to Dyson in America's Intelligence Wire, his quest for education came about because "I needed to have a better future for my son." He traveled south to Tennessee's Knoxville College to attend divinity school, and later transferred to Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee, where he earned a bachelor's degree with high honors in 1982.
After doing his undergraduate work, Dyson began to hone another of his talents and took up employment as a freelance journalist. This was in part to improve his writing, but it was also a way for him to raise money to help his younger brother, who had gone to prison in the early 1980s for second-degree murder. He worked for numerous magazines and newspapers, his specialty being African-American popular culture and music. Three years later he began his career in academia by accepting a graduate fellowship at Princeton University. While he was completing his master's and doctoral degrees he also taught at Princeton as well as at Hartford Seminary and Chicago Theological Seminary. He earned his Ph.D. in 1993.
Although many scholars distance themselves from popular culture, Dyson chose to focus on topics of interest to mainstream readers. With three years of experience in journalism after his undergraduate work, he became a regular contributor of record reviews to Rolling Stone, a popular columnist for Christian Century and The Nation, and reviewed books and films for newspapers. His first book-length collection of essays, Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism, was a collection of many of his articles, including pieces on racism in the seminary, filmmaker Spike Lee, entertainer Michael Jackson, sports star Michael Jordan, and black religious leaders as diverse as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. By addressing himself to some of pop culture's icons, Dyson noted in the book that he was attempting to resist "the labored seductions of all narrow views of black life, whether they be racist, essentialist, or otherwise uncritically disposed toward African American culture."
Dyson embarked on his book Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X after a confrontation with some of his black male students at Brown University, where he taught in the early 1990s. The students objected to the presence of whites in Dyson's class on the radical Muslim leader, claiming that the whites "discuss things they don't know about," especially Malcolm X's life and philosophy. In response Dyson decided to write a "comprehensive and critical examination of what [Malcolm X] said and did, so that his life and thought will be useful to future generations of peoples in struggle around the globe," according to the book's introduction.
Making Malcolm was published in 1995, and the target audience was hardly just a group of ivory tower academicians. The book's dust jacket included praiseworthy notices from figures such as Angela Davis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, and rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy. Oxford University Press marketed the work through such mainstream booksellers as B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, recognizing that the audience for Making Malcolm would extend far beyond the scholarly community.
Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Natasha Tarpley declared that in Making Malcolm Dyson exhibits "great respect, sensitivity and love—a balance Malcolm himself mastered." The critic added: "Dyson assesses Malcolm's role in the resurgent black nationalism(s) of this generation's young black artists and students. ... [and] criticizes this generation for failing to learn Malcolm's greatest lesson, that of self-criticism; for seeing only the parts of Malcolm, of ourselves, of our struggle that we want to see." In the Washington Post Book World, Salim Muwakkil praised Dyson for his "willingness to embrace [Malcolm X's] complexity," a quality that "lifts this volume above those so far that have sought simply to shape Malcolm's message to serve their particular passion." New Yorker correspondent Michael Berube concluded that "Dyson gives us Malcolm as 'public moralist'—and a study that is as substantive and comprehensive as 'public' cultural criticism of such a figure can hope to be."
In the wake of the reception for Making Malcolm, Dyson addressed another issue in the black community: the cultural significance of gangsta rap. Dyson began writing articles on such artists as NWA, Ice Cube, and his personal favorite, Tupac Shakur. Slowly, he gained a reputation as an authority on rap music, even being asked to testify about it before a congressional subcommittee and, according to the New Yorker, being lauded by Chuck D as a "bad brother."
Dyson furthered his study into the world of rap with his third book, Between God and Gangsta Rap, in 1996. The purpose of the book, according to Dyson in the Wichita Eagle, was to put gangsta rap in its cultural and social perspective. "Gangsta rap often reaches higher than its ugliest, lowest common denominator," he noted, adding that "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."
Dyson also took gangsta rap into the classroom. He first tested the waters at the University of North Carolina, where he was a professor of communication studies and the head of the Institute for African-American research. He offered a class on the effects of gangsta rap on societal values, particularly within the African-American community. The class was an overwhelming success, and students fought to get in during every semester between 1995 and 1997, before Dyson left North Carolina to becoming a distinguished visiting professor at Columbia University. At Columbia he continued his trend of connecting gangsta rap with different facets of life, including religion, family and, to many people's surprise, literature and poetry.
Dyson's reputation for intense cultural studies is not the only reason that many people in academia are familiar with his work. Many critics and readers also consider him a cutting-edge historian as well, one who has attempted to provide a critical intellectual perspective on historical figures that have attained iconic status within the black community and in society at large. Already starting down this path with Making Malcolm, Dyson began work on a book in the late 1990s on the public and private life of Martin Luther King Jr. In order to have time to write his new book, Dyson left Columbia University in 1999 to take on a post as the first Ida B. Wells-Barnett University professor at DePaul University in Chicago. With a lighter class load at DePaul, he was able to fully delve into the works, personal letters and correspondence of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2000 he completed his research and published I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. The book "offers critical insights into the literal and symbolic meanings of the life of [that] Southern preacher, civil rights leader, and public intellectual," according to an article in the Western Journal of Black Studies. The same article added that Dyson "takes issue with ideological constructions of King which reduce his memory to a selective reading of the 'I Have a Dream' speech." Dyson contends that focusing on the speech has often obscured "the radicalism of King's activism ... disconnecting him from the vibrancy and vitality of his sustained revolt against segregation and other social evils," according to the Western Journal of Black Studies. Dyson concludes that by knowing history as it actually was, people can explore why Dr. King put forth the messages that he did and choose for themselves how effective his methods were, as well as explore the meanings behind his messages.
In 2001 Dyson published a book on the life of rapper Tupac Shakur titled, Hollar if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. Instead of using the traditional biographical format to explore the life of the gangsta rapper, Dyson employs a series of essays on such topics as family relations, street violence, education and religion to explore the world that Shakur has created through his lyrics and his public image. Much like his university courses, Dyson's book on Shakur is intended to educate the general public on the importance of hip-hop and gangsta music, not only in understanding black culture but American culture as well.
In 2002 Dyson accepted a position as an Avalon Foundation professor in the humanities and African-American studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he refined and focused his teachings on gangsta rap and moved into hip-hop music as well. At the University of Pennsylvania he taught a class dealing with the life and lyrics of Tupac Shakur, examining how Shakur's image and presence changed the way listeners perceived his messages on issues such as family, religion and violence. Courses such as this are very important to Dyson. As he told America's Intelligence Wire, they attempt to create a bridge between two generations that will "connect civil rights identity to hip-hop culture and ... forge a connection between older and younger Americans, especially black Americans."
Dyson continued to publish new books, including Open Mike: Reflections on Philosophy, Race, Sex, Culture and Religion in 2002 and, in 2003, Why I Love Black Women, a work extolling the virtues of African-American women. The success of his books has led to increased visibility for Dyson, who has appeared on talk shows and at book signings in many American cities. Berube included Dyson when he wrote in the New Yorker about a "generation of African American intellectuals [whose] work has become a fixture of mall bookstores, talk shows, elite universities, and black popular culture." Berube added: "Plainly, they have consolidated the gains of the civil-rights and Black Power movements in at least this regard: they have the ability and the resources to represent themselves in public on their own terms." Robert S. Boynton, in an Atlantic Monthly essay, felt that Dyson is part of "an impressive group of African American writers and thinkers [who] have emerged to revive and revitalize [the role of the public intellectual]. They are bringing moral imagination and critical intelligence to bear on the definingly American matter of race—and reaching beyond race to voice what one calls 'the commonality of American concern.'"
Reflecting on his current position as a man of letters and sought-after commentator, Dyson told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I have to constantly negotiate the tension between past neighborhood and present neighborhood." He added that his success "is affirming, of course, but it also feels awkward. I think of myself as a Trojan Horse. I don't have an earring in my nose or ear. I don't have my hair combed back in a ponytail, or rough-hewn. I look like an insider. But there's a whole lot of Negroes inside of me. There's a whole lot of black men inside of me. And when I get in somewhere, I let them out."
February 25, 2006: Dyson's book Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Nonfiction. Source: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, March 6, 2006.
Born on October 23, 1958, in Detroit, MI; son of Everett (an auto worker) and Addie (an aide in the public schools) Dyson; married second wife, Marcia Louise, June 24, 1992; children: Michael II, Maisha. Education: Carson-Newman College, BA (magna cum laude), 1982; Princeton University, MA, 1991, PhD, 1993.
Preacher and minister, various Baptist churches; Chicago Theological Seminary, instructor, later assistant professor, c. 1989-92; Brown University, Providence, RI, assistant professor, c. 1993-95; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, c. 1995-97; Columbia University, visiting distinguished professor, 1997-99; DePaul University, Chicago, IL, Ida B. Wells-Barnett University professor, 1999-2002; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, Avalon Foundation professor, 2002-.
Democratic Socialist Society of America.
National Magazine Award, National Association of Black Journalists, 1992.
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Biography Resource Center. Gale.