Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop: a Sermon to White America. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-250-13599-5.
Subgenre: African American studies, Black politics, social studies, social justice, racism, race relations
Source: Berea branch of the Madison County (KY) Public Library.
Dyson combines deeply and often moving personal experiences with solid arguments and a call for major change in the United States. The book is arranged in the form of a church service (Protestant church; keep in mind that Dyson is an ordained minister). This structure allows him to do exposition, a call, and then the sermon where he lays it all out. In essence, Dyson is telling White people the things they need to hear and ought to know. The time for ignorance, innocent or more likely willful, is over once one reads this book.
The book can be a pretty heavy read at times, and at times things can look seriously bleak. Yet like a good sermon, you can find a small ray of hope at the end, but readers do have to do some work after the service. Among his solutions, he offers a different idea on the old concept of "reparations." It is worth a look.
As reader, I found myself nodding in agreement at times. I was also moved, and there were moments of despair at the bleak picture the book presents at times. Yet I came out having learned more. I am trying to keep a bit optimistic in these hard times, but I admit books like these, necessary as they are, do not make it easy. In the end, I really liked it. I recommend it, and I hope more people read it.
4 out of 5 stars.
Additional reading notes:
Why the book is unlike his other social analysis books and why he uses the form of a sermon:
"What I need to say can only be said as a sermon. I have no shame in that confession, because confession and repentance, and redemption play a huge role in how we can make it through the long night of despair to the bright day of hope" (6).
Dyson points out that whiteness is not a solo act. It has a supporting cast, and one of the biggest supporters is the field of American history, which is not as objective as we are led to believe:
"But the truth is that what so often passes for American history is really a record of white priorities or conquests set down as white achievement. That version of American history is a sprawling, bewildering chronicle, relentlessly revised. It ignores or downplays a variety of peoples, cultures, religions, and regions, all to show that history is as objective and as curious and as expansive as the white imagination allows" (52).
The above quote is also a great case for why you should read widely and diversely.
Next we get the answer to whiny poor whites who exclaim their whiteness offers them no privilege:
"It has been striking, too, to observe whites for whom their whiteness isn't a passport to riches, whites for whom whiteness offers no material reward. But there is a psychological and social advantage in not being thought of as black; poor whites seem to say, 'At least there's a nigger beneath me.' And it's a way for poor whites to be of value to richer whites, especially when poor whites agree that black folk are the source of their trouble-- not the corporate behavior of wealthier elites who hurt black and white folk alike. It's a way to bond beyond class. It's a way for working class whites to experience momentary prestige in the eyes of richer whites. And there are a lot of privileges that white folk get that don't depend on cash. The greatest one may be getting stopped by a cop and living to talk about it" (66).
The above quote reminds me of three things:
- LBJ's quote: "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you." (confirmed by Snopes he did say it).
- Lawrence Fishburne's character's speech on gentrification in Boyz in the Hood (reminded for a different reason; link to YouTube clip).
- Twitter accounts like @trump_regrets.
Defining white fragility, something we are seeing a lot more of lately:
"White fragility is the belief that even the slightest pressure is seen by white folk as battering, as intolerable, and can provoke anger, fear, and yes, even guilt. White fragility, as conceived by antiracist activist and educational theorist Robin DiAngelo, at times leads folks to argue, to retreat into silence, or simply to exit a stressful situation" (98).
To help folks get better educated, Dyson does offer a very extensive reading list in the "Benediction" chapter.