by Lee Gabay
Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson (St. Martin's Press, 2020)
However awkward it may be to seize upon them, there are always certain moments that offer an opportunity. For me, one of these moments took place inside the men’s room at Madison Square Garden.
It was there, at a Knicks/Oklahoma City Thunder game on Christmas day in 2014, that I ran into best-selling author, incisive public intellectual and acclaimed professor, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. I waited until he was done washing his hands. Then, unable to contain my enthusiasm any longer, I gave him a fist pound, told him I was honored to meet him and proceeded to rattle off several of his books that I used in my English classroom, including: Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur; Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture; Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves & Demons of Marvin Gaye; and April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America. All of these books have helped me to shape impactful and meaningful lessons for my students, who are often people still figuring out the world and their place in it. I told Dr. Dyson about my school, a last-chance high school for over-aged and under-credited students. Many of my students have a history of incarceration, homelessness and, far too often, experience with foster or group home care. Finding texts that appealed to the students with such complex and often difficult life circumstances was not always easy.
Dr. Dyson gave me his contact info and offered to visit the school and speak with our scholars. Then, he went back to watch Russell Westbrook torch the Knicks for a triple–double in an uncontested rout.
It has now been nearly seven years since I first met Michael Eric Dyson in that Madison Square Garden restroom. He did indeed visit us at the school, and continues to take part in many of our literacy-based programs. He also became an incredible ally to the teachers, an advocate for our students and friend to our entire school community. Since this time, Professor Dyson has published several more books, each of which has in turn enriched my curriculum: most memorably, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America and Jay-Z: Made in America. These writings, as with most of Dyson’s work, are reflections on the headlines of the day. They are time capsules of the climate of race in this nation which offer a history of the people, events and ideologies that surround them. The topics of these books run the gamut from music to masculinity, from athletics to activism, from money to the American Dream. Dyson’s approach to such diverse subjects is focused and nuanced, yet each work is unapologetically situated along a single thematic continuum: race in America. The timely and prolific outpouring of Dyson’s oeuvre is not only a testimony to his intellectual prowess, but also a troubling record of the ongoing racial divide. Michael Eric Dyson’s latest offering, Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America, is a reminder of the restorative work that remains to be accomplished.
Weapons of Mass Distraction:
Long Time Coming speaks both “about” and “to” several high-profile victims of police brutality, domestic terrorism and gang violence. Each chapter is written as a letter addressed to an individual who was tragically slain in America because of race. The “recipients” include: Elijah McClain, Emmett Till, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Hadiya Pendleton, Sandra Bland and Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Grappling with forces that have formed our nation in the ruthless crucible of race, Dyson discusses how the disproportional impact of the 2020 pandemic, coupled with years of neglect and too much time at home in front of screens, led to combustible levels of unrest throughout Black and Brown communities. Citing recent cases of racial violence as the impetus, Dyson cites color-coded concepts like “white comfort,” “blue plague” and “black death” to further his thesis: “The coronavirus has exposed ugly truths that are far from novel. They are in fact part of the barely-acknowledged preexisting condition of racial oppression.” Long Time Coming reads like an extraordinarily layered primer on a nation’s troubled performance with regard to race. Within this context he explores an array of deeply-embedded cultural and systemic plagues—specifically the weaponization of the economy, education, housing, incarceration, voting rights, health care and law enforcement.
Dyson speaks with clarity and precision about the highly polarizing and politically divisive “blue plague” of police brutality that has disproportionally ravaged Black communities for centuries. He is far from a police abolitionist nor a de-funder. Dyson simply wants to “mend, not end policing.” His is a level-headed critic of a very specific problem within policing. Dyson’s fear is not the brave majority of professional men and women in blue with badges and guns, but rather the vigilante cops whose practices are not aligned with our inalienable
right of due process, the ones who rewrite the law rather than upholding it, the infrequent but recurring members of law enforcement who take it upon themselves to be judge, jury and executioner: “It is time to imagine those responsible for public safety being committed to reducing social menace rather than reinforcing it.”
Dyson calls upon the powerful police unions to stop undermining efforts to rein in the abuse of authority; change begins with deeper participation and partnerships with other agencies and stakeholders in public safety that address these needs, “especially mental health.”
As a nation approaches reconciliation after 400 years of racial conflict, many fatigued citizens contend that they can’t be held responsible for what happened in the past. True—but we can be blamed for our own response to what’s happening now.
Weapons of Mass Promotion:
In dialing down the emotional thermostat of race, the educational process has perhaps the greatest reach, in terms of potential impact and sustainable results. Teachers, as essential workers with a vast platform on the frontline, fight for respect and equality for all. Books such as Long Time Coming add to our professional arsenal, providing information where information is needed, while enabling and uplifting our students through compassion and kindness as they delve into analysis of the forces that shape them. Long Time Coming invites us to challenge ourselves and our students to speak openly and honestly about race, privilege, power, and prosperity. It assists in introducing students to each other and themselves. Long Time Coming provides the tools necessary for building a better us.
Throughout the book, the reader is cautioned that a rush for justice cannot be a rush to judgement. Dyson, a college professor, clearly prefers using the pointed side of a pencil to write and teach, rather than the side that erases. He wants the internet and social media to evolve into a space where a person can own one’s ignorance without fear of cancellation. Dyson is critical of “cancel culture” because it attempts to “wipe out the individual but leaves the system standing.” He further states that by “taking matters into its own hands, “cancel culture” offers the illusion of justice,” but instead delivers only vengeance.
As an ordained Baptist minister, Dyson believes in redemption and forgiveness. The conversations that are so difficult for everyone to have are constrained by the expectation that they can be conducted without one’s foot ending up in one’s mouth. Dyson wants to provide a safety net for clumsiness, while allowing for more engagement and less accusation. It is important to hold others accountable and acknowledge when things are wrong, but it is also important to encourage those who are wrong to rehabilitate through participation in dialogue, not cancel them.
Weapons of Mass Devotion
Since George Floyd lost his life on May 25, 2020, America has gained a new impetus to make justice a reality for all. Dyson shows that “justice, like funerals, is for the living.” Individuals have been actively educating themselves on issues of race. In their homes, classrooms and boardrooms, and on the streets, Americans are finding and fixing the loose beams in the structure of our democracy in order to ensure a more perfect union. The beauty of American patriotism is such that one can openly speak about wanting our country to “be” and “do” better.
Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America brings us to now, the intersectionality of the historical and present. These epistles are written with love and urgency as new names are continually added to the list of “black death.” Michael Eric Dyson pleads that the first step in fixing the problem is to acknowledge that there is a problem. Dyson’s prayer is that people learn to disagree without being disagreeable; he envisions our movement beyond just talking—to a place where we can healthily engage in conversations that matter.
Lee Gabay is a doctor of Urban Education and a longtime New York City public school educator who currently teaches English at the Judith S. Kaye Transfer High School in New York City. His research on Juvenile Detention Education is documented in his book, I Hope I Don’t See You Tomorrow (2016). Lee’s articles about education, incarceration, basketball and sneaker culture have appeared in Slam Magazine, Bleacher Report and other publications. In 2016, The New York Times named him a New Yorker of the Year.
Copy editors: Nancy He, Nina (Xinqi) Zhang