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Dyson's Book, 'Long Time Coming,' Aims To Help America Reckon With Race

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Michael Eric Dyson is a sociologist, a Baptist minister and a prolific writer. He's rarely afraid to call out bigotry. In his new book, "Long Time Coming: Reckoning With Race In America," he imagines what it would be like if victims of racism, police brutality or gang violence had not lost their lives. Each chapter is a letter to what he calls the martyrs of the struggle. He spoke to our co-host Noel King.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Why did you choose this format, letters?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I wanted to speak directly to the soul of the nation by speaking to martyrs who have lost their lives, from Emmett Till to Breonna Taylor to George Floyd. They didn't know they were going to die. Most of them were trying to live their lives and became caught in a web of social reactions to their deaths that prompted people to elevate them, to see in their lives and especially their deaths the manifestation of all that is unjust and hurtful and painful. And so I thought, why don't I just write a letter to them to try to talk to them about our feelings?

KING: Emmett Till, for example, a teenager when he was killed, a young teenager when he was killed and a young-looking teenager. And you write, although he became a martyr, you wish that he had had the opportunity to just grow old.

DYSON: Yeah. Just, you know, live a normal life - have kids, scarf down hot dogs, flirt with girls, hang out in the park, learn to be a mature man, maybe become a feminist, whatever his life work would be. And I wanted to imagine what it would be like to talk to them, to speak to them, to see them grow older, to mature and to have the ability to do what everybody else is able to do without the likelihood that their deaths would have something made of them that is related to the future of this nation.

KING: There's a lot of pain in this book. And one of the most painful parts is when you write the last words of Elijah McClain. He was a 23-year-old man. He was killed in Aurora, Colo., after police put him in a chokehold. I'd like you to read Elijah McClain's last words.

DYSON: OK. (Reading) You told them, I have no gun. I don't do that stuff. You promised, I don't do any fighting. Then you pleaded, why are you attacking me? I don't even kill flies. I don't eat meat, as if your penchant for peacefulness and your dietary discipline might somehow convince them that your life was worth sparing. But, Elijah, you quickly insisted that you didn't have a sense of moral superiority over those who disagreed with your choice - but I don't judge people who do eat meat. You begged them to forgive you.

And it's painful to me because here's a young man - by all accounts, a beautiful, sweet soul - who played his violin to soothe animals, birds, pigeons and the like. It was one of the most tragic deaths of all the young people and people, period, who have died in police custody as a result of police activity. The killing of these innocent Black people is traumatic, to say the least, and the death of Elijah McClain was especially so.

KING: There are sections of the book where you directly address white readers. What is your message to white readers? And why did you decide to make that choice - to say, white people, at this point I am specifically and directly speaking to you?

DYSON: Because we're at a moment of reckoning, we say. We're at a moment where we're really grappling with all of the inequities and the systemic racism that we see around us, so I wanted to speak directly to white brothers and sisters and say, can you not feel what we feel? And I wanted them to hear us and understand how atrocious some of these deaths were and to feel the trauma, the hurt, the pain, the grief that we experience. And so I wanted to address them directly.

KING: There is - something occurred to me as I was reading the book, which is there is a certain type of white person, white American, who's likely to pick up a book like this. And it is not, frankly, the officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. It is not, frankly, the officers who killed Elijah McClain and then mocked his death in pictures afterward. Are the right white people reading your books? And if they're not, where's the hope coming from here?

DYSON: Well, the thing is, of course, the right white people are the ones who are going to read the book. The ones who won't stand a chance of being convinced or changed probably won't. Yeah, maybe it's a self-selective audience. Maybe it's preaching to the choir. But the choir has to rehearse, too. The choir has to learn its parts. It's got to get the altos different from the sopranos, who are not the same as the baritones, who aren't the same as the bass.

This is choir rehearsal, to a degree, for those who already understand, but it may be stretching out to the larger congregation as well. Since I'm a Baptist preacher, in the New Testament, in one of the letters from Paul, it says, look - you plant the seed, somebody else might water it, and God might make it grow. My job is to plant the seed. My job is to continue to believe and hope that we can transform this world and to spread that message as broadly and widely as possible.

KING: The people whose minds simply will not change - the racists, the committed racists - is it worth trying to speak to them anymore? I've had lots of people say no, at this point in 2020, it just ain't worth it. What do you think?

DYSON: Yeah. I mean, I'm a sucker.

KING: (Laughter).

DYSON: For me then, for those dyed-in-the-wool bigots and racists, yeah, I can't give up. It is hard. It is painful. And I get why most of us will. But at the same time, I do hold out hope that every now and again, like a Paul - since I'm a preacher - who's out to kill Christians, he can get converted and become one of the greatest evangelists. So there are stories of white racists who turn their lives around, who begin to see a different way and begin to open a different path for those like them, who believe the noxious, toxic, racist beliefs that have been pumped into the collective mainstream of so many pockets of American society.

So, yeah, I can't ultimately give up, although I understand the strategy of speaking to those who can hear - don't waste your time on those who can't. But every now and again, you've got to throw a bone even out there. Yeah, it will probably be, you know, spurned, attacked. But every now and again, somebody can derive some marrow of truth from what you toss out, and you might be able to change a mind or transform a spirit.

KING: Michael Eric Dyson - the new book is "Long Time Coming: Reckoning With Race In America." Professor Dyson, thank you so much for being with us. We really appreciate it.

DYSON: Thank you for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICCARDO LETTIERE'S "FIGURATI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.