Can You Hear Me Now?

The Inspiration, Wisdom, and Insight
of Michael Eric Dyson

By Michael Eric Dyson

Basic Civitas. 316 pp. $19.95

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Reviewed by Vernon Clark


With more than 20 years as an author, commentator, analyst, and Baptist minister, Michael Eric Dyson has become one of the nation's premier black thinkers.

Among the likes of Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Dyson has developed into a leading public intellectual.

The Detroit native has combined rapier wit and the "gift of gab," coupling them with an intelligence honed in the halls of the Ivy League. A former gang member and hustler with an in-yo'-face rhetorical style, Dyson, who has been on the faculties of the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Columbia, has examined modern black culture over the years, particularly hip-hop music, with rare depth and verve.

In his latest book, Can You Hear Me Now? The Inspiration, Wisdom, and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson, the author and pundit offers some jewels of thought in one-paragraph doses.

Each of the 17 chapters is devoted to a single subject. Dyson opines on such general topics as leadership, gender, race and identity, the arts, and poverty and class. He also weighs in on hip-hop and youth culture, and preachers and preaching, subjects of which he has considerable knowledge and understanding.

At a time when Barack Obama's rise to the presidency has the nation pondering the significance of race in the 21st century - an issue that re-emerged just last week when Harvard scholar Gates was arrested in his own home in Cambridge, Mass., by police responding to a report of a possible burglary there - Dyson presents ideas that reflect a changing racial landscape, while keeping in perspective America's long and troubled black history and race matters.

In an entry on Obama, Dyson writes:

"A black president can't end black misery; a black president can't be a civil rights leader or primarily a crusader for racial justice. A black president is not the president of blacks alone, but the president of the United States. That tricky but not trivial difference suggests that prophets of the people, like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, don't go unemployed when politicians of the race do well."

Dyson writes much the way he speaks when he is being interviewed or serving on a panel of commentators. The words come in swift and staccato bursts or with the cadence of a preacher or street-corner lecturer, but are always rooted in intellectual examination. An example:

"For all of its problems and limitations, the black pulpit, at its best, is still the freest, most powerful, most radically autonomous place on earth for black people to encourage each other in the job of critical self-reflection and the collective struggle for liberation."

Several of his most poignant entries are delivered in a single sentence. The chapter on race and identity begins with an observant quip that addresses the constant trivialization of racial matters, particularly by the media: "Race is not a card. It's a condition."

In the chapter on race, he speaks frankly to problems faced in black communities and does not hesitate to criticize blacks for some of those problems:

"I think there is a juvenocracy, operating in many urban homes and communities. For me, a juvenocracy is the domination of black and Latino domestic and urban life by mostly male figures under the age of twenty-five who wield considerable economic, social and moral influence. . . . The rise of a juvenocracy represents a significant departure from home and neighborhood relations where adults are in charge. Three factors are at the heart of such a shift: the extraordinary violence of American life; an underground economy driven by crack and other drugs, which shift power to young black and Latino males in the homes and on the streets of major cities; and the rise of a culture of the gun in our country."

For those familiar with Dyson's other books, Can You Hear Me Now? offers a glimpse of the broad thinking that shapes the feisty black commentator we see on the news talk shows. The reader also learns much more about the spiritual side of the scholarly preacher.

The short entries make this book quick-and-easy summer fare. Readers can move freely through the work at random and still get an understanding of the author, his life, and his many perspectives.

While many of Dyson's ideas are not necessarily radical or new, this book offers a refreshing view of how the world looks through the eyes of a hip, black public intellectual.

Contact staff writer Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.