After reading James Baldwin’s Notes on a Native Son I decided to look for a modern author’s take and found Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. I was so impressed that I immediately picked up The Black Presidency (which I think may be even better than this one.)
Dyson rose to prominence as a cultural critic when I was in grad school. He was friends with my Systematic Theology Professor, Dwight Hopkins, so I had a positive impression of him. But in the 20 years of being aware of him, I have not actually read anything that he has written. Part of that was that Dyson became well known for his cultural criticism of hip hop and rap music. Something that I have only recently started to listen to.
Over the past year or so, I have been a regular listener to the podcast, Pass the Mic, from the Reformed African American Network and more recently their second podcast, Truth’s Table, that highlights three African American Women. Those two podcasts, and the private Facebook groups associated with RAAN, has been helpful places to hear perspectives about the world from theologically conservative (more theologically conservative than I am most of the time) African Americans. I already lean socially fairly liberal. However, their voices help me to see how much my theology and politics is informed by the lack of diverse voices in my life. (And my own racist attitudes and sin.)
Dyson structures this Tears We Cannot Stop as an extended sermon. The structure is fine, but probably makes more sense in audiobook form (with Dyson narrating) than in print. Initially, this felt like a Christian version of Ta’Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. It had a similar critique of White America and had some of Dyson’s personal history as well.
But after the initial sections, Dyson moved away from personal narrative and spent much more time talking about culture and sociological understanding of how race impacts our experience of the world.
I am not going to underplay the fact that I was at times quite uncomfortable while reading Tears We Cannot Stop. There were some things that were uncomfortable because they hit too close to home. But other times when I thought that Dyson was just wrong in his analysis. But I think it is important to remember that the ‘rightness’ of the analysis, while not unimportant, can be a distraction from the honest assessment of an African American Christian that is trying to present his view of how the sins of White Christian America harms not just African Americans but Whites as well.
My initial impression was that Dyson was not as gifted a writer as Coates, who I tied this book to in my mind. But after reading two of Dyson’s books back to back. I have re-assessed his writing. He is not writing the same style of book that Coates wrote. I don’t want to minimize Coates’ analysis, which I think is good. But Dyson’s background is philosophy and theology and I think that he brings a different type of analysis to the task and the quality of his writing is just as good.