Tears We Cannot Stop
A Sermon to White America
By Michael Eric Dyson
St. Martin's Press.
240 pp. $24.99
Reviewed by John Timpane
Anguish and hurt throb in every word of Michael Eric Dyson's Tears We Cannot Stop. A deserving entry in a recent swell of books on race, it displays both the advantages and disadvantages of the sermon. On one hand, it is eloquent, righteous, and inspired; on the other, no matter how good it is, it will fall on stone-deaf ears.
Social awareness - better, "wokeness" - has spiked since 2010, with the police-involved deaths that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. That movement has not always been clear, or successful, or even smart, but it has called attention, it has made people aware. And energized. And mad.
James Baldwin is back on the best-seller lists and is on screen in the excellent documentary I Am Not Your Negro. His book The Fire Next Time is the standard against which all book-length essays on race are held. Baldwin is present in books such as Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, perhaps the most prominent of recent efforts. Coates is Baldwin without hope. Baldwin, writing in 1963, at least said he held out hope that white people would face the great disaster - that our society, first and last, is a system created to protect and magnify white privilege - leading, perhaps, to a better future. Coates, writing in 2015, does not see it, does not hope for it, can teach his son only that the struggle, though futile, still has intrinsic meaning.
Michael Eric Dyson does hope. It's hard to get there, hard to stay there, but he does. Now a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, he was at Penn for years, writing a few op-eds for the Inquirer. He is a tireless writer, with book-length studies of black women, Marvin Gaye, Malcolm X, Hurricane Katrina, hip-hop, the Obama presidency, and much more.
Tears We Cannot Stop is written from his vocation since 1982 as an ordained minister. It does contain a sermon, addressing his white audience as "Beloved." But the book is really an entire service, with prayers to God, hymns, an invocation, readings from scripture (in this case, the less-comforting words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), a benediction.
Often lyrical, Tears is not without repetition, not without indignation:
. . . it is white folk who are the overwhelming beneficiaries of affirmative action. That makes it sound like malarkey when so many of you complain that you aren't being treated fairly. . . . You say our demand for justice causes you unjust suffering. You think you miss out on jobs that go to less-qualified blacks. That may be one of the greatest claims to collective self-pity known to mankind, and yet you, with straight faces, keep telling black folk and others that we're the ones throwing self-pity parties around the country.
This minister shoulders his intellect and writing skill against white denial and ignorance. "Beloved," he writes,
your white innocence is a burden to you, a burden to the nation, a burden to our progress. It is time to let it go, to let it die in place of the black bodies it wills into nonbeing. In its place should arise a curiosity . . . a genuine desire to know and understand just what it means to be black in America.
Most sermons prescribe things to do, ways to be if you will shed the old way and walk with light. Tears is no different. Dyson's "Benediction" is a detailed program for action and understanding. It includes national reparations, self-education in black culture, schooling other whites, joining in demonstrations (the Trump election is a shadow over this book), protest against injustice, and visiting black homes and neighborhoods.
A lot of people are going to hate this book, starting with the subtitle. They will not be sermonized; they will not read. So, despite its brilliance and rectitude, Tears We Cannot Stop will fail to reach the "Beloved" who need most to hear its message. Has Dyson misjudged? Or is this book not really meant for whites? Is it really a brilliant performance for those who do understand?
I still crave something that can motivate deniers to do the work they don't want to do. Tears We Cannot Stop, good as it is, will not; perhaps no book can. How to make them see how perilous the moment, how great the stakes? As Dyson reminds us, what we risk is the loss of hope itself, "allowing hopeless to steal our joyful triumph before we work hard enough to achieve it."