Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
Michael Eric Dyson (St. Martin's Press, 2017)
Michael Eric Dyson is a worthy prophet for these racially troubled times. He is a sociology professor who's also a Baptist minister, with a background in philosophy; in this book, he is speaking as a preacher, appealing powerfully to our moral sense. Tears We Cannot Stop is structured as a worship service, with a sermon at its heart. It's both up-to-the-minute, from the era of Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter, and steeped in America's history.
By way of invocation, Dyson describes his young daughter coming face to face with racism, and his son fearing for his life in a traffic stop. By way of scripture, he quotes Martin Luther King, noting that King had different messages for his black and white audiences. "That didn't make King a Janus-faced liar. He was, instead, a man of noble forbearance. He understood what white folk could hear; he knew what you dared not listen to. He knew what you could bear to know."
Dr. Dyson is, as Dr. King was, called to press the limits of what white people could stand to hear. His sermon is a jeremiad, a lamentation meant to penetrate our ignorance, and our willful blindness. His urgency is as intimate as it is urgent: "Beloved, let me start by telling you an ugly secret: there is no such thing as white people. And yet so many of them, so many of you, exist." His point is that whiteness exists in a social realm, as a political force. "It is most effective when it makes itself invisible, when it appears neutral, human, American."
Because what does that make the black man? Alien, non-human, un-American; and it has had this effect from the U.S. Constitution making a slave three-fifths of a man, to right-wing websites making Barack Obama a Kenyan Muslim. Most of us would strongly prefer to imagine that this has nothing to do with us; but racial covenants in real estate extended, in law, into my lifetime, and in practice, into the present day.
My local realtor's "Blue Lives Matter" window sign might just as well say "Whites Only", though I daresay they would deny it. And of course, no one has ever argued that the lives of police officers don't matter; no cases of violence against them go unreported. What Black Lives Matter is arguing is that, until the justice system starts treating black people fairly, 'All Lives Matter' will remain a lie.
The traditional defensive retort to that is what-about-ism, 'isn't black on black crime the real problem?' Dyson sees that coming a mile away. "Beloved, why is it that every time black folk talk about how poorly the cops treat us you say that we should focus instead on how we slaughter each other in the streets every day? Isn't that like asking the person who tells you that they're suffering from cancer to focus instead on their diabetes? Your racial bedside manner has always been fairly atrocious."
Dyson is well aware that his sermon is spoken to a congregation variously ready to hear it. But at this moment when outright white supremacy is being countenanced in public, we need to stay in touch with the facts on the ground, and this book has them. We also need to admit the ways the status quo benefits us, without being flattened by embarrassment, shame, helplessness, or the frustration and anger that those feelings often spark. As the Bible says so often, 'Listen up!'