A meme deferred

Michael Eric Dyson changes the subject at Harvard
By RICHARD BECK  |  November 14, 2008


Michael Eric Dyson was going to talk about rap. Appearing at Harvard last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday to give his trio of W.E.B. Du Bois lectures on African-American culture and history, the Georgetown sociology professor and energetic public intellectual had even cooked up an MC name for himself: Acade-MIC. The title alone was enough to get you giddy with anticipation: "From Homer to 'Hova: Hustling, Religion, and Guerrilla Literacy in the Pavement Poetry of Jay-Z."
Read the On the Download blog of the event and listen to the podcasts of Dyson.

But there are bigger, Change-related things going on in American blackness right now, and who is Michael Eric Dyson to stand in the way of Change? Can we talk about Barack Obama instead? Yes we can. The new title — "Obamamerica" — may have been a letdown, but the lectures themselves were anything but. Dyson is a passionate, charismatic, hilariously quick thinker with the oratorical talent of a Baptist Minister (which he is). It's as though early LL Cool J got a Ph.D. and took it to church.

The atmosphere was celebratory, even a little giddy. Dyson, surrounded by colleagues, students, and friends, spent about 20 minutes saying hello and joking around. "I feel like we in church, man," he said. The crowd was even a little rowdy. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the most powerful black intellectual ever, had to tell people to shut up.

Over the course of his hour-long lectures, Dyson covered more political, pop-cultural, and historical ground than this reporter has the space or the ability to synthesize. He analyzed the tenuous relationship between Obama and Jesse Jackson, whose "I am somebody" made our President-elect's "Yes we can" possible. He talked about Jeremiah Wright, noting that if some of Martin Luther King Jr.'s angrier sermons had been recorded and posted to YouTube, he would have been just as demonized as Obama's former pastor. He wondered how rappers would go about admiring Obama while maintaining an oppositional voice. He didn't have a unified thesis that I could pick out, but it was the happy rush of ideas that made Dyson's lectures so satisfying. Nobody knows exactly what Obama means yet, but Dyson is having a great time figuring it out.

Related: Mr. Populist?, Please, just leave, Jim nauseam, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Entertainment,  More more >
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