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The hip-hop intellectual

Michael Eric Dyson speaks, sings and inspires for Black History Month

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  • Story by Lisa Bruce
  • Published: Feb. 8, 2008
Portrait of Dyson

Michael Eric Dyson delivered the Black History Month keynote address at Mizzou. Photo courtesy of American Program Bureau, Inc.

Michael Eric Dyson describes himself as a P.I.M.P. — a Public Intellectual with Moral Principles. It’s the perfect example of how the renowned scholar, social critic and author darts between academic and pop culture with the agility of an Olympic athlete.

Dyson, professor of theology, English and African-American studies at Georgetown University, gave the Black History Month keynote address at Mizzou on Feb. 7 at Jesse Auditorium.

He quoted Robert Frost, sang a snippet of a Luther Vandross song, tossed out lines from deceased rapper Tupac Shakur, and talked about W.E.B. DuBois and William Faulkner.

His hands swept and circled as he spoke. His voice dropped to a murmur, then thundered. He’s an ordained Baptist minister and speaks with passionate intonation, his deep voice urging the audience: Know history. It’s not just critical for black people, but for everyone.

Unraveling the past

“We are shaped both positively and negatively by the future that rests in the past,” Dyson told the audience. Often folks want to romanticize some parts of history and forget the more challenging ones.

Dealing with “the nefariousness, the evil, and the funkiness of that past” can evoke hope and the possibility of “a regal future in America if we would just take seriously the fact that everybody should be included,” Dyson said.

History teaches us to dig deeper. For example, Babe Ruth was a great baseball player, but Dyson said it is inaccurate to say Ruth was the era's greatest because the leagues were segregated at the time. It’s an important distinction, and one of many.

“It’s not about pointing fingers; it’s about unraveling,” Dyson said.

Beyond race

In addition to expanding the understanding of what it means to be black in America, Dyson encouraged the audience to eschew homophobia, classism and sexism.

"E pluribus unum: out of many, one," Dyson repeated three times. "That the concatenation, this diverse colloquium of voices and visions and peoples and ancestries which mixed together will come to full fruition when America at its best recognizes that diversity, not complains about it."

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012