St. Martin’s, 230 pages $25.99
“Our bodies carry memory — not just our own, but the memory of the group as well,” the cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson writes in his new book of essays about the arc of White supremacy and the parallel pain of Black America. “We feel the history in our bones as much as we witness it with our eyes. The convulsions of racial distress on-screen twist in the pits of our stomachs. The combustions in the street explode deep inside our psyches. The blood of our brothers and sisters clots in our arteries. Their death is our death. Their suffering is our own.”
The ostensible purpose of Long Time Coming: Reckoning With Race in America, which is organized as a string of letters, is to explain what led to the unrest that swept the nation last summer after George Floyd’s killing and what should be done to address it. But Dyson’s grander purpose, perhaps, is to bare the deep wounds left by generations of White-authored violence. He wants readers to feel that pain.
Dyson, a longtime Georgetown professor who moves to Vanderbilt this month, is a prolific writer who has authored seven New York Times best-sellers. He regularly turns up on talk shows from Meet the Press to the syndicated hip-hop radio show The Breakfast Club. His stock in trade is not to carefully sift through dusty history to form measured assertions backed by copious footnotes, but instead to capture the zeitgeist in ways probably better appreciated by the masses than by his colleagues in the academy.
The book’s first chapter is addressed to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was kidnapped and murdered in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a White woman in Mississippi. In that essay, Dyson invokes other Black people who were killed in racist attacks — Medgar Evers, Ahmaud Arbery, the many, many who resisted enslavement — as well as the disproportionately Black victims of the coronavirus pandemic.
Dyson explains that each death impacts the broader Black community.
Not every slain person in the book died as a result of police or White violence. One chapter is addressed to Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who was shot on Chicago’s South Side in 2013, one week after performing with her school’s marching band during President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Local gang members were convicted of her murder, which was called a case of mistaken identity.
Dyson uses Pendleton’s example not to excoriate Black criminals but to condemn the label “Black-on-Black crime.” These days, such crimes are responsible for taking many more Black lives than are police or vigilantes, but Dyson says that to focus on them is to scapegoat Black communities, too many of which are caught in poverty, hopelessness, and desperation. “Your death hurts,” Dyson writes to Pendleton. “But responsibility goes beyond the young Black man who pulled the trigger and the one who drove the getaway car.” It’s an analysis some readers may doubt, and Dyson is okay with that.
Some passages in the book are almost poetic, as Dyson riffs from one subject to the next and from the historical to the contemporary with the improvisational flair of a jazzman. But some other sections raise eyebrows.
At one point, he narrates the awful killing of Floyd, breaking down the horrifying video documenting his death almost frame by frame. From there, he goes on to compare Floyd’s final pleas for help to the final words of Jesus. “In staring his own death in the face, Floyd utters his last words, as another martyr, Jesus, did from the cross — or, in Floyd’s case, the pavement,” Dyson writes.
In other places, Dyson relies more heavily on the big truth of narrative rather than the narrower, often complicated truth revealed by individual facts. In describing the 2015 police killings of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Dyson notes that the officers involved in both incidents said they were afraid for their lives. But Scott’s killer shot him in the back in cold blood and later was sent to prison. Brown’s killer, meanwhile, was never charged because there was substantial evidence that Brown attacked him and tried to wrestle away his gun. That finding was affirmed by separate investigations, one led by a local prosecutor and the other by the U.S. Justice Department, then headed by Eric Holder, the nation’s first Black attorney general.
Dyson stands on firmer ground when his book offers ways to reimagine the police by parceling some of their unceasing responsibilities to social service agencies and when he calls out the tyranny of cancel culture.
It is also hard to argue when he calls for White people to be more curious about Black life, and for Americans to hear one another and to be more tolerant. He writes, “If justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public, then patience is what mercy sounds like out loud, and forgiveness is the accent with which grace speaks.”