The podium only seemed to get in the way of Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University professor and the keynote speaker Monday night of the For Members Only event “State of the Black Union,” as he spoke with passion and humor about Barack Obama and American and global attitudes toward the black community.
For the second year in a row, hundreds of Northwestern students and community members gathered at Cahn Auditorium to take stock of the progress and the challenges ahead for Northwestern’s black community. After remarks from past and current FMO coordinators Zachary Parker, Communication ‘09 and Communication senior Marrion Johnson, Dyson spoke for more than an hour on the title of the event, “Perception and Reception: Blackness in the Public Eye.”
More than a year after Barack Obama’s presidential victory, Dyson called on the audience to push Obama to address race more often and directly in order to change both the perception and reception of the black community. He also cautioned against oversimplification when it comes to perception.
“When we think about where black people stand right now [...] we think inevitably and unavoidably and almost in cliché about Dickens’ phrase that it is ‘The best of times and the worst of times,’” he said.
“It is the best of times in the perception: that is what one struggles to become aware of. The perceived elevation of black people has been met by empirical proof and verification that indeed we live in a time when there has been extraordinary promise [...] the election of your homeboy, your state senator, your United States senator, and now President of the United States of America.”
However, Dr. Dyson did not think that Obama’s election came close to ending racial tension and injustice in the United States.
“One brother in public housing in DC — real nice housing — does not constitute a scene change in how black America is perceived.”
Nor did he think that Obama should serve as a model for all black Americans. Obama is a shrewd politician, he warned, and is not always be motivated simply by truth.
“They call him all these names and he’s still being all nice: ‘Yes we can.’”
“We still need anger, because sometimes only anger is a sufficient motivator for powerful transformations,” he said. “Sometimes folks don’t get the message when you’re going ‘well, yes.’ So we still need Malcolm X even when we got Barack Obama, and I ain’t mad at Barack Obama. Love that brother. But he ain’t the only brother.”
Dyson worried that there has been an attempt to make Obama into the exhaustive definition of blackness.
“Anything that attempts to be exhaustive is complicated by reality,” he said.
But Obama has individually failed to engage the subject of race, Dyson said. It is a failure on Obama’s part not just as a black man, but as the President of the United States.
“I expect the American president to deal with race,” he said. “I expect the American president to deal with racial profiling. I expect the American president to deal with issues of gender, and class orientation, and I’m telling you I ain’t gonna give you no pass because you are uncomfortable with it as a person. Because your job demands that you represent all of the people.”
According to Dyson, Obama is more willing to lecture black people than white people.
“He’ll go to a Negro community and preach [...] ‘You’ve got to be responsible.’ Cool! All black people believe that, for the most part.”
But Dyson wishes Obama would “go to the white folk and tell them what they got to do: Take off the hood and get in the hood! You said everybody’s president. That means you’ve got to challenge everybody!”
Northwestern students said they found the event eye-opening.
“I probably don’t agree with Dr. Dyson about most issues and I don’t even agree with Obama, but I thought his speech was very astute,” said Weinberg sophomore Ryan Fazio.
Last year, Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright spoke at FMO’s State of the Black Union. Earlier in the year, the university had rescinded the honorary degree it offered Wright because of the controversy surrounding his sermons and relation to then-presidential candidate Obama.
Dr. Kinette Richards, the mother of a Northwestern student, described the speech as “brilliant.”
“The whole notion about this post-racial society, it almost says that race has stopped existing, when the truth is that it exists more because we’re talking about it more,” she said. “I think it’s important that [Dr. Dyson] talks specifically about what is it that we as the black community need to hold up and question in terms of what President Obama does for us.”