MLK Lecturer: Bill Cosby Wrong About Low-Income African Americans
Professor and public intellectual Michael Dyson says "Don't correlate economic status with moral standing."
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Renowned author, minister and "hip-hop intellectual" Michael Eric Dyson delivered the Ross School's Martin Luther King Jr. Day lecture on Jan. 16 to a capacity crowd and six overflow rooms as part of the 19th Annual University of Michigan Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, titled "A Time to Break the Silence."
Dyson, a Detroit native and professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke candidly about his recent book, "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind?" in which he responds to Cosby's charges that America's black poor aren't taking responsibility for their situation.
In a dynamic speech peppered with rap lyrics by Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Master P. and Tupac, as well as references to English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson and American writer James Baldwin, Dyson's message was clear—"Don't correlate social or economic status with moral standing."
Dyson urged the audience to follow King's example of helping the vulnerable and less fortunate.
"You can't deny your brothers and sisters their legitimate access to the tree of life or to economic equality without fearing that one day it will come back on you. King understood that and that's why he marched for the poor," he said.
Dyson, 47, and often hailed as one of America's most inspiring African Americans, argued that Cosby's statements (which criticized poor blacks for their spending habits, speech patterns and the names they give their children) at the 2004 NAACP awards were ill-informed and not given in the context of the bigger picture or problems that exist for impoverished black Americans.
Dissecting a few of Cosby's arguments, Dyson passionately defended the black underclass. His response to Cosby's view on "black English" was "Don't call bad English Ebonics. You've got to have skills to speak it." The intent of Ebonics, according to its advocates, is to help poor black youth speak "standard" English while retaining an appreciation for their dialects and "native tongues."
Dyson said the last time he checked, white America has been marketing "black English" through TV and advertising, and Cosby himself used it in his Fat Albert character.
"The purpose of black English had an edifying end—for the perpetuation of the legacy of African Americans," said Dyson.
Addressing Cosby's comments about black American names, Dyson said, "Unless you are paying their child support, you can't say anything. Cosby is reproducing the pathology of bigotry when he should be fighting it."
Resolute in holding the famous comedian accountable, Dyson added that, "All who have made it need not have 'Afroamnesia'," referring to successful blacks who forget where they come from.
"We need to target the upper echelon first, Mr. Cosby, not the poor," he said.
Regarding affirmative action, Dyson said you have to invite those who have historically been excluded into the larger circle of American privilege because they've been prevented from sharing their great gifts. Not because they're inferior.
Dyson's affinity for reciting hip-hop and rap music provided further insight to the author's platform.
"If we listen to these 'pavement poets,' King's agony about the decline of the American dream comes full circle," he said. "Yes, they have profanity. But what's more profane and obscene are the conditions they continue to confront."
Dyson finished his speech with references to the sacrifices King made in standing up for what he believed in.
"Use Dr. King as one of the great inspirations of our life," said Dyson. "Never mistake the price he paid. See him manifest in all sorts of struggles we see now. That's the genius of his universal application."
"MLK spoke out against the gross materialism that those of us who have now expanded to black middle class and are now trying to justify our upward mobility by 'dissing' those we left behind," Dyson said during his conclusion. "You've got to live each night with a good conscience. That's the King we must remember and embrace. That's the King who most resembles the marvelous, matchless, perilous example of a soul in constant conversation with his infinite possibility."
Dyson is a regular commentator on National Public Radio and is the author of several best-selling books including "Why I Love Black Women," "Between God and Gangsta Rap" and "Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line," as well as books on King, Marvin Gaye, Tupac Shakur and Malcolm X.
He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and has taught at Columbia, Brown, DePaul, North Carolina and the Chicago Theological Seminary.
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