Summary: Roughly based on an actual meeting between Robert F Kennedy and a number of African Americans including James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Jerome Smith, Harry Belafonte and others, Dyson explores what it means to bring truth about race in America.
This is the fourth book I have read by Michael Eric Dyson in just over a year. Dyson is a cultural critic, essayist, theologian, and professor. What Truth Sounds Like is a follow up from his earlier Tears We Cannot Stop. That earlier book was a direct theological argument toward White Christians about the importance of racial justice.
What Truth Sounds Like is a different approach roughly based on an actual meeting with Robert Kennedy in 1963 that was arranged by James Baldwin. James Baldwin was asked to pull together a group of African Americans, not political leaders, but others that would truthfully talk to Kennedy about the Black experience. Kennedy wanted to share his urban political program, but Kennedy was unprepared for the truth telling that went on in that room. He initially left frustrated but later understood, at least in part, that the frustration shared that day was honest and necessary for Kennedy to hear.
Dyson uses the meeting as a jumping off point to express how politicians, artists, intellectuals, celebrities, and activists have historically, and today, shared the truths of the world. Dyson is not making an explicitly Christian claim here as he does in some of his other books. But the claim is no less honest or important.
One note that is important to the reading of What Truth Sounds Like. Dyson, as is common among many minorities that write and speak about race, uses the word Whiteness or White in two broad ways. Occasionally Dyson is merely being descriptive about the skin color of a person. But more often Dyson is using the words White or Whiteness as a descriptor of the cultural understanding of Whites as superior to people of other racial groups, not completely unlike the concept of White Supremacy. White readers often hear minority writers and speakers complaining about Whiteness and understand them to be complaining about White people as individuals or a group. But what people that use White or Whiteness in this way are actually decrying, is a cultural understanding that physically or psychologically or socially harms non-White people because they are valued as either less than or ‘other’.
There are lots of places that both White and Black readers (and others) will want to argue with Dyson. Dyson makes a clear tie between racial discrimination and discrimination around gender and sexual orientation. The Black community is relatively conservative around sexual orientation and Dyson has been clear in his call toward change in that area. (Christians as a whole are also conservative on that point and in other places he has made a more explicitly religious argument around sexual orientation. But here he make the argument culturally.)
Dyson is never really writing about just one thing or to just one audience. Part of what he is trying to get across to the liberal White reader like myself, if how liberal whites miss their own acceptance of the basic ideas of white supremacy even as they want to apply a liberal political policy that may or may not actually empower the people it is meant to help.
In What Truth Sounds Like, Dyson is also narrating a discussion about the different ways that different parts of the Black cultural, political, or intellectual elite are attempting to empower the race. There is a fairly long section about Cornell West and the way that he has attacked Ta’Nehisi Coates and Obama and a number of other Black leaders throughout the years. That type of discussion was part of Dyson’s earlier book The Black Presidency. I am less interested in the particulars of who is attacking whom and why, than I am in Dyson’s explication of the concept of prophet within both the Christian tradition and the Black church tradition. Dyson in some ways seems to be defending himself through this defense of Coates. But part of what Dyson is defending is the black author against the black speaker. I have heard Dyson speak and he isn’t a bad speaker, but like Coates, he is a very good writer and takes the craft of writing seriously.
The epilogue of the What Truth Sounds Like is about Robert Kennedy and how this 1963 meeting impacted Kennedy’s 1968 run for the presidency. Kennedy eventually came around to an understanding of the racial issues of the US that was much closer to those in his 1963 meeting. One that saw racial division as one of the essential problems of the country and one that must be given much higher priority than what Kennedy had previously understood. Dyson, while mostly talking about how Black artists or entertainers or sports figures or intellectuals can use their voice to be prophetic and/or empowering, is also focused on the ability of Whites to actually come to understand the message, repentant and change.
I frequently get frustrated with mostly White readers of Ta’Nehisi Coates that complain about his hopelessness. Coates keeps saying that he is not hopeless he is realistic, in a somewhat similar way to the way that Reinhold Niebuhr use the term realist. But Coates is also an atheist, so it seems unfair to me to require a Christian theology that is rooted in eschatology. Dyson, as a pastor before he was a professor, is part of the Christian tradition, even if it is a somewhat liberal strain of Christianity, that see the possibility of repentance and change as part of the Christian message. The end result for White readers of Dyson is that Dyson believes that White Christians can repent and work toward anti-racism.