A Review of
Tears We Cannot Stop:
A Sermon to White America.
Michael Eric Dyson
Reviewed by Jordan Kellicut
My first memory of race was the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots. Growing up in a white family, in a white community, in a white school, race was not a thing I ever considered. I do, however, remember watching King being beaten on the evening news. I always assumed that the four police officers who perpetrated this act of racially charged violence were charged, convicted, and jailed for the crime. I was shocked to learn, in Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, that these men were found innocent (though two were later convicted in Federal court). This likely illustrates the very issue of race in America – namely many white Americans (like myself) are oblivious to the experience of people of color, and as we have seen in the past few years, often hostile to their story.
Dyson’s book is a hard, harsh, but heartfelt attempt to speak to “white America.” He does so as a Baptist preacher, but intentionally speaks to all those who believe in justice – not just Baptists or Christians. His appeal bears not just the veneer of religion, but a deep undercurrent of that famous quote, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
A unique feature of the book is its shape, which mimics a Baptist church service:
- Call to Worship
- Hymns of Praise
- Scripture Reading
- Closing Prayer
For religious (especially ministerial) folks like me, this feels clever and familiar. Indeed a church service might be the most appropriate place to hear hard truths. For instance, in Hymns of Praise where one might think of Amazing Grace, instead we sing with N.W.A. and their tutorial title “F— the Police.” This incendiary title has no place in my mind, since my encounters with the police have gone very well and the only fear I feel is the threat of a small fine. But Dyson explains that Hymns of Praise are those – especially in the Psalms – that announce justice. Thus as a police officer unjustly pulls him out of his car threatening and humiliating him before his wife and young son, this scandalous song, becomes just that: a hymn of praise, a plea for justice, an imprecatory prayer.
His perspectives on the difficulty of law enforcement and black America are particularly enlightening. Not easy to hear, but enlightening. One of the “ah ha” moments was his exposition of why the O.J. Simpson trial meant so much to African-Americans. I remember from my late childhood, the chase, the trial, and the verdict. I do not remember strong reactions from anyone around me, but I remember vividly the nightly news showing white outrage and black glee all over the country. Why did this matter? Why can, for example, Dave Chappelle in his new Netflix special freely admit “he probably did it,” and yet there still be a sense of victory in a miscarriage of justice? Dyson’s answer unraveled this mystery for me, and gave me deeper insight into the current issues we face.
Part of what makes this a powerful book is how he illustrates with personal anecdotes. To deny his argument is to deny his experiences, indeed not only his own stories, but also the stories of his children. I was startled by the depth of pain created by these experiences and try as I might I cannot think of a “white” corollary. Honky, cracker, and whatever else might exist as a racial slur mean nothing to me. They are comical not offensive. This at least should let us in on the fact that there is something very different in our experiences. Pondering this I found a range of emotions from defensiveness, to outrage, to surprise, to just plain sorrow. These stories give power to his invectives as he brings us through the service, and helps open our eyes to experiences white America simply does not have.
The first part of the sermon was particularly important and interesting as Dyson explains how “whiteness” as a racial class is unique to America. I was fascinated as he challenged me to think about something I always took for granted. Previously racial divides were drawn upon national lines, e.g. France and England. Both are largely white, yet the color of their skin did not define them. But in the great American melting pot, combined with African slavery, created something new– a division based on color not nationality. This he calls the invention of whiteness.
Dyson is thoroughgoing in his exegesis of race and how this fictional “whiteness” has created a dividing wall of race. He then uses this sharply criticizes “white” criticisms of the usual suspect: Black Lives Matter, safe-spaces, and trigger warnings. He turns the tables, arguing that the push-back against these is not a sign of black sensitivity, but rather white sensitivity. It is we, he accuses, who need to be treated “with kid gloves.” This, he asserts, is the locust of hostility toward Colin Kaepernick and the election of Donald Trump. To show my cards I do not care much about either, so this is a dispassionate observation. I can understand the complicated relationship between the flag, the anthem, and the 4th of July, which did not speak freedom for all, and even now is questionable. The problem here seems to be largely the sin of nationalism, not racism.
Similarly his argument that Trump’s ascension is because white America resented eight years of a black president, seems reactionary and reductionistic. I lived in east Tennessee during Obama’s election and there was plenty of racist sentiment. It was vile and it was real. But to flatten all Trump supporters, or Republicans, or white voters, who chose this side over that, as closet racists is sadly overstated.
His conclusion aims at practical ways for white America to engage racial justice, beginning, however, with the old refrain “reparations” is likely to make a fiscal conservative blanch. Dyson offers not just a hefty bibliography of resources for continuing research, but also some direction as to how each book can help expand our understanding. His other calls to action are somewhat predictable, such as attend protests/rallies and “speak up” for those who are marginalized. Throughout the book Dyson groups LGBTIQ and immigrants with the otherness that people of color experience, and here he includes advocacy for them as another way to resist “whiteness.” His conclusions are not shaped by particularity of Christian discipleship, which might limit final application. One might call this a spiritual, but fully secular, argument for what is happening and what should happen.
Dyson is prophetic. In the tradition of Nathan the prophet saying to white America, “You are the man,” and largely his argument is extremely convincing. This is a difficult “church service” to sit through. As they used to say, “my toes were stepped on.” I found this an excellent and accessible place to begin to hear our brothers and sisters, and that is always a good thing. I commend this book to anyone seeking to enter into the difficult conversation of racial justice in America.