Michael Eric Dyson discusses black community setbacks

Lizzie Rivard

From President Barack Obama’s election to Kanye West, Michael Eric Dyson discussed modern representations of black identity at Northwestern on Monday.

Dyson was the keynote speaker for the For Members Only annual State of the Black Union Address, “Perception and Reception: Blackness in the Public Eye.” FMO co-sponsored the event, held in Cahn Auditorium, with the Coalition of Colors, an alliance among several multicultural student groups on campus.

Dyson was chosen to speak for his international prominence in the field of racial issues, FMO’s Vice Coordinator of External Relations Florence Lynk said.

“He’s a worldwide scholar and personality on black issues,” the Communication and Weinberg junior said. “We thought he would be a dynamic speaker and an excellent role model for not only black students at NU, but all students at NU.”

Dyson, an author of books on black culture, is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University. He is also a two-time winner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s image award, and was named as one of the 150 most influential black Americans by Ebony magazine.

Zachary Parker, Communication ’09 and former coordinator of FMO, spoke on behalf of the organization before Dyson took the stage. He discussed FMO’s recent accomplishments, including the creation of three scholarships in the past year. Parker also mentioned last year’s effort to remove former director of the Multicultural Student Association Carretta Cooke from her position. She is now Assistant to Vice President of Student Affairs William Banis.

Parker also encouraged the audience to examine the idea of blackness and how it relates to the public sphere.

“Investigating our blackness is important,” Parker said. “Our actions should not be based on how others think of us. Rather than be concerned about our image in the public eye, we should be concerned with living up to our full potential.”

Dyson opened his speech with a quote from author Charles Dickens, saying in relation to racial issues, we are living in “the best of times, and the worst of times.”

“The perception that Mr. Obama is the president is shattering for many because just the notion that a black man is at the helm of the greatest nation in the world is a perception-changing, altering situation,” Dyson said.

Yet Obama alone does not create a “sea (of) change” in how black people are perceived, he said.

“It’s the best of times for those who are upwardly mobile, but if you are perpetually poor and criminally impoverished in America, it’s poor and wretched times,” Dyson said.

He said there is a “jarring juxtaposition” between Obama and the black elite, and people of color who are “outside of that circle.” Though some describe current American society after Obama’s election as a “post-racial” era, Dyson said he would rather live in a “post-racist” era.

Dyson also challenged President Obama to address racial issues rather than avoid them.

“Mr. Obama has an important obligation to deal intelligently and equitably that is essential to who we are as a nation,” he said. “We know it’s hard for the president to talk about race, but then again, it’s hard to deal with the economy.”

Lynk said Dyson’s discussion was an illuminating experience for those in attendance. “I’m in awe of his intellect and rhetoric,” she said. “A lot of people were really moved, and whether you agree with it or not, it’s definitely something that will get people talking. His speech was an opportunity for the NU community to learn about blackness in a positive way and I hope NU students took advantage of that.”

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