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Performing Blackness in America
By Michael Eric Dyson
In his latest book, “Entertaining Race: Performing Blackness in America,” Michael Eric Dyson offers an idea: Black performance and presence is the foundation from which America, as a nation and a concept, emerges.
His intentional use of a gerund in the title allows “entertaining” to be read as both doing a thing and being a thing. “As a people forced to be an entertaining race, we are, by definition, not just performers but a performance of many sorts, of fictions and fantasies,” he explains. Dyson notes his own ongoing performance of Blackness, ascribing himself multiple roles: a “preacher, writer, pastor, university professor, public intellectual, lecturer, cultural critic, author, social activist, newspaper columnist, radio talk show host, political analyst and media commentator.” He understands all too well that in order to advance the public conversation on race, he and his fellow public intellectuals must keep Americans, particularly white Americans, entertained.
This imperative to entertain is not just restricted to the realm of performing artists, athletes and academics; it also spills over into daily life. “Black performance is how Black folk greet each other, go to work, sell lemonade, bird-watch, barbecue in the park, style our hair, direct the church choir, sling slang, write with a certain flourish, stand on the porch, drive, get arrested or even die at the hands of cops,” Dyson writes. In highlighting these seemingly ordinary activities, he adroitly alludes to the dire consequences that sometimes accrue from fill-in-the-blank, doing and being “while Black.”
This exhaustive book compiles decades of Dyson’s work, pulling together his previously published writing as well as transcripts of his sermons and speeches from the early 1990s to the present. Pithy openers provide context for the date and original source of each chapter. The only piece of completely new writing is his well-crafted and meaty introductory essay, which lays out Dyson’s thesis that there are different kinds of Black performance: song, dance and spectacle; Black life and the ways it gets constrained by racism; and a “vibrant third thing” outside of history and the white gaze, which is “the freedom to explore the good, the bad, the ugly of Black identity” without a need to “justify or explain their existence” (a space that is perhaps akin to what the poet Elizabeth Alexander beautifully describes as “the Black interior”).
Dyson’s work clearly comes from a deep well of love — for his country, for his people and for the intellectual and cultural figures he admires. He includes essays about Beyoncé and Aretha Franklin, for instance, paeans fueled by genuine fandom that are delightful reads because he speaks to these singers’ artistry with authoritative specificity. “Even at 73, Franklin could trap lightning in her mouth at a moment’s notice and shout down fire to earth,” he writes in his ode to Aretha.
The same can’t be said of his takes on other art forms, such as photography, film and theater. In an essay ostensibly about the photographer Leonard Freed’s photos of the 1963 March on Washington, Dyson skirts the aesthetics of the art form and the artist, instead focusing the majority of the piece on his personal hero, Martin Luther King Jr., whom he describes, in another essay, as “the greatest American to ever live.” By passing up opportunities to apply his critical lens to lesser-known culture makers or to add new insights to older works, Dyson essentially offers up what amounts to a scholarly greatest-hits album.
Known for extemporizing full speeches and sermons without notes, Dyson plays in the space between preacher and poet. In one essay, he links the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac to Michael Brown’s killing at the hands of the police, crafting a thoughtful and moving showcase of his liberation theology. Likewise, his eulogy for the firebrand poet Amiri Baraka brims with eloquence, insight and deep respect, despite the fact that he was often at odds with Baraka when Baraka was alive.
There is also a stylistic performance taking place within the pages of the book: that of the public Black intellectual demonstrating that he is erudite yet still hip, referencing philosophers and theorists like Kant, Derrida and Foucault while also name-checking rappers like Nas and Jay-Z. (Dyson, who has a Ph.D. from Princeton and is currently a professor at Vanderbilt University, likes to remind the reader that he is on a first-name, cellphone-number-having basis with many of the luminaries of whom he writes.)
Dyson isn’t known for brevity or restraint. He tends to milk his metaphors for all they are worth, at times layering the wordplay until it becomes one paragraph-long big pun. In his essay on Al Sharpton, he acknowledges the inherent excess of this approach, but he can’t resist. “Al Sharpton never claimed to be the Almighty. But Rev. Al is certainly the best Alternative to the Alienating effect and the Alarming ignorance of many political leaders,” he writes. “While that bit of wordplay may be hokey, or goofy, or corny, there is nothing of the sort in the leadership of Al Sharpton.”
“Entertaining Race” would benefit from greater curation and clearer vision. Some sections, such as the transcribed conversations with younger peers and debates with conservative pundits, feel like filler that is only tangentially connected to the book’s theme. His essay detailing the rise of the “Black digital intelligentsia,” which includes scholars and writers such as Melissa Harris-Perry, Brittney Cooper and Ta-Nehisi Coates, more capably meets Dyson’s desire to engage with younger scholars. And in a truly odd move, Dyson ends his book with a somewhat rambling commencement speech that he gave 25 years ago at the University of North Carolina in support of Generation X’s youth culture.
Still, Dyson’s fans may relish this opportunity to read his early academic papers, in which his literary voice was still forming. They bring into relief those of his more signature style, full of the alliteration and anaphora that mark the best of Black oratory and written word.
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