Beyoncé’s 2017 Grammy Awards performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” may not be the typical start to a class at Georgetown University. But for professor Michael Eric Dyson, pop-cultural emblems and music videos regularly feature in his “Sociology and Culture: Beyoncé” class; a course where students often discuss topics such as the political implication of Beyoncé’s inclusion of young black men as backup singers.
Since his arrival at Georgetown in 2007, Dyson has lectured almost a thousand Hoyas about the fusion of politics, hip-hop and race relations. His fame and popularity among students with classes like “Sociology of Hip-Hop,” as well as impassioned sermons to church congregations, have attracted NBC and Washington Post reporters to his lectures.
Dyson believes art, no matter how subtle, can act as a platform for resistance. His work as a sociology professor blurs into artistic expression: He is a prolific author of more than 20 books, a political analyst for several news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC, and an ordained Baptist minister since age 19. Indeed, Dyson’s many art forms — teaching, writing, preaching, protesting — all contribute to his political activism.
The Scholarship of Hip-hop
Dyson began exploring the United States’ tumultuous racial divide through hip-hop lyrics during his time at Princeton University, where he earned his doctorate in religion in 1993. At the time, many scholars scoffed at the notion that hip-hop could be perceived as an academic discipline. However, Dyson saw hip-hop — or, as he prefers to call it, the “CNN of the inner-city” — in a different light.
Dyson explained that the genre has historically served as an avenue for young black Americans to express pertinent social issues ignored by mainstream media.
“The racial traumas and crisis of society were being addressed in music,” he said in an interview with The Hoya.
Dyson first brought his scholarly hip-hop analysis to classrooms in 1995 at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Since joining the sociology department at Georgetown in 2007, Dyson has created courses about Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé. Enrollment in his courses are healthy by any professor’s standards, with his Jay-Z class attracting 150 students.
Teaching a course about Beyoncé means keeping up with the ever-changing nature of pop culture. Drawing parallels to his personal friend Jay-Z — who Skyped into Dyson’s class a few years ago — Dyson said he always strives to “learn and grow and be inspired by young people.”
That means listening to the same music young people gravitate towards. When asked what album all Georgetown students should listen to, Dyson said “Illmatic” by Nas because the album is the best hip-hop album of all time. “[‘Illmatic’] is arguably one of the greatest, some would argue the greatest hip-hop album ever produced, ” Dyson said. Honorable mentions included Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”, Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” and 2Pac’s “All Eyez on Me.”
A Political Preacher
Though Dyson tries to remain politically impartial in his classroom, he regularly expresses his political views elsewhere. In his impassioned eulogy of Aretha Franklin at her funeral last month, the professor characterized President Donald Trump with a string of alliterative insults, calling him a “dimwitted dictator,” “foolish fascist” and “lugubrious leech.” Merriam-Webster soon after tweeted out that searches on their site for the word “lugubrious” jumped 3,200 percent during his speech.
The speech elicited a mixed response: some applauded his memorable message, while others accused Dyson of politicizing the funeral. The Georgetown professor came to his own defense, arguing his comments were in the spirit of Franklin’s activism.
“That was the perfect moment, I think — a highly visible, highly audible moment — where I could speak the politics of resistance at a funeral for a woman who not only was a great singer, but socially active, deeply and profoundly resistant to the ideals that Donald Trump represented,” Dyson said in an interview with The Hoya.
Dyson’s sharp and public criticisms of Trump are just one in his long tradition of decrying injustice. An early critic of Bill Cosby, Dyson authored a book back in 2006 titled, “Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?”
Bill Cosby was charged to three counts of aggravated indecent assault in April 2018, after over 60 women accused him of sexual assault offenses. He will face between three and 10 years in prison. In the book, Dyson accuses the comedian of unjustly shifting blame onto poor black people for their socio-economic hardships with little regard for systemic injustices.
“I thought it was obscene and profane for a man of extraordinary talent and genius, no doubt, but also wealth, to use his bully pulpit to beat up on poor black people,” Dyson said.
But while demanding accountability for Cosby’s actions, Dyson also noted a racially charged double standard in the #MeToo movement.
“It is rather interesting, striking, that the first major person to go down is a black person in an era when a lot of white guys have misbehaved,” Dyson said.
He alluded to similar hypocrisy in his Beyoncé lecture to Georgetown students this week, comparing the criminalization of black teenagers with another metaphorical “17-year-old on trial” right now. Studies show the black youth are perceived as older, which has led to a persistent judicial bias in prosecuting them as adults, according to Dyson.
“Is Mr. [Brett] Kavanaugh held to the same degree of expectation and responsibility as Trayvon Martin?” Dyson said. “What is the difference? Why is it we criminalize one group of people and exonerate the other?”
Georgetown’s evolving racial discourse
The acknowledgement of Georgetown’s troubled legacy with slavery has advanced the developing conversation about race on campus, Dyson said.
“We’ve made significant and visible progress in terms of not only acknowledging it, not only studying it, but then trying to make policy and practice as a result of that awareness,” Dyson said.
The Society of Jesus sold 272 enslaved people from plantations in Maryland in 1838 to keep Georgetown University financially afloat. Beginning in 2015, the university has taken steps to make amends to the descendant community: formally apologizing for Georgetown’s role in the slave trade, granting legacy status to descendants of the 272, and renaming buildings to honor Isaac Hawkins and Anne Marie Becraft.
More recent efforts to advance the conversation around race on campus include the creation of the department of African American studies in June 2016 and the launch of the Institute for Racial Justice this fall.
Still, descendants have criticized the university for failing to address descendants’ more immediate needs, including access to quality education before college. Noting that challenges remain, Dyson is hopeful in Georgetown’s continued response.
“President [John J.] DeGioia has shown tremendous foresight, courage and vision in straightforwardly addressing this issue,” Dyson said.
Dyson recommended Georgetown provide scholarships for descendants of the 272. “If we derived resources based upon the unjust and anti-human enslavement of black people, we’ve got to extend the same resources,” Dyson said.
Multiple roles, One Cause
In his most recent book “Tears We Cannot Stop,” in which Dyson powerfully calls on the United States to confront and remedy its racial anxiety, Dyson structured the work as “a sermon to white America.” The choice was an homage to yet another role Dyson occupies: an ordained minister, a position through which he regularly celebrates American black power and laments racial injustices in his Sunday church services.
Still, Dyson does not view his many professions, hobbies and roles as distinct from each other. Rather, they blend together through their overlap in artistic expression.
“I’ve never seen a separation between the head I wear as a professor, as a political analyst, as a social activist, as a preacher … as an essayist, as a person who loves poetry. I see those all as fused together,” Dyson said. “Even my politics are inspired by my poetry, are inspired by my preaching, are inspired by my quest for literacy.”
The interconnected nature of his many passions drives him to inspire, speak out and motivate societal change.
“We can rise up again to embrace the politics of cooperation and love and justice,” Dyson said. “The reason I continue to teach, especially undergraduates, is to be re-inspired with the expectation that human action can lead to social betterment and therefore the redemption of our society.”