Critically acclaimed author Michael Eric Dyson threatened to make an audience of Quinnipiac students, staff and community members uncomfortable and then challenged them on their thinking about race and affirmative action.
Dyson visited campus Feb. 7 and spoke in Alumni Hall. His diverse speech, which covered everything from black history to Justin Timberlake, focused on the issue of race in modern American society.
Dyson wasted no time in addressing the recent controversy created by U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden’s comments about U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. Biden told a reporter Jan. 31 that Obama was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Dyson was angered by these comments.
“Where have you been, Biden?” Dyson proclaimed. “Jesse Jackson? Al Sharpton? Do these names mean anything to you? Jesse Jackson won seven million votes in the 1988 presidential election. That sounds pretty mainstream to me.”
Biden made the comments after announcing his bid for the upcoming presidential election in response to a reporter’s question about Obama, who is also campaigning for the presidency.
“When you say a black person is articulate, usually you are comparing that person to other blacks,” Dyson said.
He began giving examples of prominent black American people in the mainstream, including Jackson and Sharpton, and turned the seriousness of the situation into a more comedic one by beginning to sing rapper Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z songs after commenting on their degree of cleanliness. Although Dyson joked throughout the two-hour talk, his message contained serious undertones amid the laughter of the audience.
Dyson also spoke about affirmative action and the unnoticed privileges a lot of white people have compared to most ethnic minorities in the United States. Before speaking on the subject he joked with the crowd, proclaiming he was about to make the white people in attendance feel uncomfortable for a short while. He said that white people have a “virus of opportunity” that they “never think about” regarding the subject of affirmative action.
Additionally, Dyson was very critical of prominent people such as President George W. Bush, singer Michael Jackson, talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and comedian Michael Richards. But Dyson reversed his sharpest criticism for comedian Bill Cosby and the way the American public has treated Janet Jackson as compared to pop-idol Justin Timberlake, whom Dyson referred to as Justin “Timberfake.”
“Justin can bring sexy back and Janet can’t do anything,” Dyson said. “Justin can move in and out of blackness as he chooses, while Janet is stuck in her black skin.”
Dyson’s comment was referring to the fallout of the now-infamous incident during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show in which Timberlake ripped part of Jackson’s shirt off, exposing her breast on national television. Dyson believed that Timberlake “slipped back into whiteness” after the event took place and that his participation in the event departed the minds of the average American, whereas Jackson is still paying for the consequences.
Dyson also criticized Bill Cosby, who is the subject of Dyson’s book “Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?” Dyson charged Cosby of being a hypocrite and disagreed with the comedian’s public condemnation of the younger black generation.
“Cosby is bitter and angry at young people,” Dyson said. He then proceeded to talk about how Cosby did not live the exemplary life himself, as he expects a black American adolescent to do. He cites that Cosby dropped out of high school and college and is hypocritical when he says “poor blacks speak ebonics,” when he himself created the television show “Fat Albert,” in which characters speak in Black English vernacular.
The speech was received well by junior journalism major Kerry Ellington.
“The speech was everything I expected and more,” Ellington said. “He really got into the issues that afflict all Americans today. I loved how he got into talking about unconscious racism.”
Dyson is a professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He has also written 13 books and has his own radio show.
Other upcoming events scheduled at Quinnipiac in conjunction with Black History Month include a performance of the play “Raisin’ Cane” Feb. 14, a “Diversity Conference” Feb. 17 and a “Gospel Celebration 2007” Feb. 20. All of these events will take place in Alumni Hall.