We would like to believe that progress towards racial equality is being made, but Sister Anne Lythgoe’s blog on Michael Eric Dyson’s “Tears We Cannot Stop” is even more relevant today than when it was written in 2017.
At the moment I am reading a very disturbing essay by Michael Eric Dyson: “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America”. In it, Dyson speaks as a black Baptist minister to white folks about what it really means to be black in America. It is personal, angry, and there is little comfort in his pages. I have never read such a straightforward and troubling piece, exposing me to the realities faced by our black brothers and sisters in this country. I am disturbed by it because I see my own whiteness contributing to the systemic indifference to black experience that has kept racism (and violence as an acceptable norm) alive for 400 years.
Dyson’s sermon is difficult reading, not because it is intellectually challenging. I simply can’t go too quickly, because every word of it feels like an indictment, a pointed, loving slap of cold water on my face. It is an assault on my assumptions to read his words, yet the tone and credibility of his preaching keep me on the page. He speaks with respect toward white folk, calling us “beloved”, telling us like it is and at the same time, he does not let us off the hook. The Presidency of Barack Obama, the ascendency of Donald Trump’s unapologetic bigotry, the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick, the sad story of Levi Pettit, and numerous examples of black folk victimized by errant police without accountability – all are laid bare and given a new context, a new perspective.
His essay calls to mind the famous songwriters Simon and Garfunkel and their emotionally stirring song: Bridge Over Troubled Water. There really is a great deal of troubled water under the bridge, much of it is our own making.
His encouragement to white folks comes in an exhortation to empathy.
“Beloved, all of what I have said should lead you to empathy. It sounds simple, but its benefits are profound. Whiteness must shed its posture of competence, its will to omniscience, its belief in its goodness and purity, and then walk a mile or two in the boots of blackness. The siege of hate will not end until white folk imagine themselves as black folk – vulnerable despite our virtues. If enough of you, one by one, exercise your civic imagination and puts yourself in the shoes of your black brothers and sisters, you might develop a democratic impatience for injustice, for the cruel disregard of black life, for the careless indifference to our plight…
Do not tell us how we should act if we were you; imagine how you would act if you were us. Imagine living in a society where your white skin marks you for disgust, hate, and fear. Imagine that for many moments. Only when you see black folk as we are, and imagine yourselves as we have to live our lives, only then will the suffering stop, the hurt cease, the pain go away.”
In reading this essay, I realize white folk need not fear Dyson’s words. His indignation is genuine, his anger righteous, his hope born from deep faith. I urge everyone to read it. The bridge over troubled waters is us.
Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America is available from Amazon.com and other sources in several formats.
Michael Eric Dyson is an award-winning author, a widely celebrated Georgetown University sociology professor, a prominent public intellectual and a noted political analyst. A native of Detroit, Michigan, Dyson is the winner of the American Book Award for Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. His book The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America was a Kirkus Prize finalist. Dyson has written 19 books.