Dyson, Michael Eric

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Michael Eric Dyson

Writer, educator, lecturer, minister

Michael Eric Dyson is a distinguished professor at an Ivy League University; a prolific, award-winning writer of books and articles; a social and cultural critic; a public intellectual; a popular lecturer; a frequent talk show guest; a radio show host; and an ordained minister. He has been hailed as one of the most influential and inspirational of all African Americans as he steadfastly focuses on issues of race, identity, religion, and popular culture in American society.

Dyson was born on October 23, 1958, in Detroit, Michigan, to Addie Mae Leonard, who picked cotton in Alabama before becoming a paraprofessional for the Detroit board of education. He was adopted by Everett Dyson after Leonard married him in 1960. Consequently, Dyson had four stepbrothers, and he was the second oldest of the five sons who were raised in the inner city. Everett Dyson worked at Kelsey-Hayes, an auto parts factory, for thirty-three years. When Dyson was twelve years old, he began helping his father as he worked part-time at Morton's Nursery. After Everett Dyson was laid off from Kelsey-Hayes in 1970, he refused to apply for welfare. Instead, he started Dyson and Sons Grass Cutting and Sodding. The Dyson boys also helped their father look for discarded metal in the city's alleys, which they sold to junkyards. The elder Dyson later worked as a maintenance man for a church and drug store prior to his death in 1981.

Dyson attended public schools in Detroit where three teachers greatly influenced him: Mrs. James, Dyson's fifth-grade teacher at Wingert Elementary School, who inspired him to learn about and be proud of his African American heritage; Otis Burdette, Dyson's seventh-grade English teacher at Webber Junior High School, who recognized and encouraged Dyson's potential talents as a public speaker; and Lola Black, Dyson's French teacher at Northwestern High School, who in addition to speaking French and English, spoke "the language of black self-esteem through rigorous study and linguistic excellence" (according to Why I Love Black Women) and encouraged Dyson to serve as a French tutor for his classmates. During his early teen years, Mrs. Bennett, who was Dyson's neighbor, gave him her late husband's set of Harvard Classics. Thus Dyson, who read each book in the collection, read such literary classics such as Richard Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1840). He read great literature at an early age, and he also listened to popular African American musicians, such as the artists on the Motown record label.

Remembers the Turbulent 1960s

Two events in the late 1960s were pivotal moments in Dyson's childhood. In July 1967, a riot broke out in Detroit after police officers arrested eighty-two people who were celebrating the return of two members of the military from Vietnam at an after hours club. By the time the riots ended, more than forty people were dead, approximately four hundred to one thousand people were injured, and thousands of people were arrested. Dyson, who was eight years old, saw the destruction and the looting. In his first book, Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism, Dyson recalls that "[he] felt the reprimand and fear of the word that regulated our lives during that painful period and that signified the sharp division of safe and unsafe social time: curfew."

One year later, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. proved to be an even more traumatic time for Dyson. He acknowledged in Reflecting Black that King's murder "heralded the end of [his] youthful innocence" and that for months he feared standing in front of windows and doors at night. His nine-year-old mind reasoned that if a man of peace such as Martin Luther King Jr. could be assassinated, he could also be killed. King's assassination was Dyson's "initial plunge into the tortuous meanings of racial politics, and [he] began to believe that the world was largely predicated upon color, its vain and violent ubiquity becoming increasingly apparent to [his] newly opened eyes." Although Dyson did not know who King was prior to his assassination on April 4, 1968, King became an important figure in Dyson's life. Dyson, who listened to King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, aspired to become a stirring and powerful orator. In 1971 Dyson, at the age of twelve, delivered his first public speech in an oratorical contest and won.

That same year, Dyson met Frederick G. Sampson II, who was pastor of the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. Sampson, who encouraged Dyson to read W. E. B. Du Bois and Bertrand Russell, became Dyson's mentor. At the age of sixteen and with Sampson's assistance, Dyson was the recipient of a scholarship to Cranbrook, a boarding school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan that was thirty miles from Detroit. Dyson recalls in Reflecting Black, "That short distance had divided me from a world I had never known as a poor black inner-city youth: white wealth, power, and privilege. I had never gone to school with white kids before, much less wealthy white kids, many the sons and daughters of famous parents, a banking magnet here, a film giant there. I immediately experienced a Hitchcockian vertigo about the place, its seductive grandeur, warming grace, and old world elegance not enough to conceal the absurdity of racism that lurked beneath its breathtaking exterior." Dyson left Cranbrook near the end of his second year, returned home to Detroit, and eventually earned his high school diploma at night school.

Becomes a Licensed Minister

Dyson held various jobs such as a clerk-typist at a Chrysler plant, a manager-trainee at a fast-food restaurant, an arc welder and unloader of trains with brake drums at Kelsey-Hayes, and a substitute janitor in the Detroit Public School System. In 1977, eighteen-year-old Dyson married his pregnant girlfriend, Terrie, an actress and a waitress who was eight years older than Dyson. Their son, Michael Eric Dyson II, was born in 1978, one month after Dyson lost his job and applied for welfare. Also in 1978 Dyson, with Sampson's encouragement and assistance, became a licensed Baptist minister.

In 1979 Dyson and his wife divorced. That same year, at the age of twenty-one, he began his pursuit of a college diploma at a historically African American college. Dyson enrolled in Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tennessee before he transferred to Carson-Newman College, a Baptist and predominantly white school in Jefferson City, Tennessee, where he majored in philosophy. During his undergraduate years, Dyson earned a living by working the three o'clock to eleven o'clock shift as a cleaner and degreaser of heavy machinery at Robertshaw Factory. Although he was an honor student, Dyson did not receive a scholarship during his matriculation at Carson-Newman. Dyson graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in 1982 and received the Outstanding Graduate in Philosophy Award.


Born in Detroit, Michigan on October 23
Becomes a licensed Baptist minister
Begins his college education at Knoxville College
Graduates magna cum laude from Carson-Newman College; ordained as a minister
Works as assistant director of a poverty project at Hartford Seminary
Employed as an instructor of ethics and cultural criticism at Chicago Theological Seminary
Earns M.A. from Princeton University
Earns Ph.D. from Princeton University; appointed an assistant professor at Brown University; publishes first book, Reflecting Black
Accepts position as professor of communication studies and director of the Institute of African-American Research at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; publishes Making Malcolm
Publishes Between God and Gangsta Rap and Race Rules
Serves as a visiting distinguished professor of African American studies at Columbia University
Becomes the first Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professor at DePaul University
Publishes I May Not Get There with You
Publishes Holler If You Hear Me
Appointed the Avalon Foundation professor in the humanities at the University of Pennsylvania
Publishes Why I Love Black Womenand Open Mike
Publishes The Michael Eric Dyson Reader and Mercy, Mercy Me
Publishes Is Bill Cosby Right?
Becomes host of The Michael Eric Dyson Show, a radio talk show, on Syndication One; publishes Come Hell or High Water and Pride

Dyson, who was ordained as a minister in 1982, served as a pastor at three churches while he attended college and worked at the factory. He was fired from two churches: he questioned why his white congregation did not have other African American speakers, and he wanted to allow three women to become deacons at an African American church. Also in the 1980s, Dyson remarried; however, his marriage to Brenda Joyce Dyson, a nurse, ended in divorce. From 1988 to 1989, he was assistant director of a poverty project at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. From 1989 to 1992, Dyson was instructor of ethics and cultural criticism before being promoted to assistant professor at Chicago Theological Seminary.

Becomes a Freelance Writer

In the late 1980s, Dyson began writing for professional as well as popular journals, magazines, and newspapers. Dyson's earliest works appear in various magazines, such as Chicago Theological Seminary Register, Chicago Tribune Books, Christian Century, and DePaul Law Review.

Dyson continued his education at Princeton University where he received a graduate fellowship to study in the Department of Religion. While pursuing graduate work at Princeton, Dyson was an assistant master at the University's Mathey College. Dyson received an M.A. in 1991. On June 24, 1992, he married his third wife, Marcia Louise Dyson. Also in 1992, Dyson, who had published in periodicals such as the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, and Vibe, was the recipient of the National Magazine Award from the National Association of Black Journalism for his freelance writing. In 1993, he received a Ph.D. from Princeton University.

After earning his doctorate, Dyson continued teaching. From 1993 to 1995, he was an assistant professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he taught courses in American civilization and African American studies. From 1995 to 1997, Dyson was professor of communication studies and director of the Institute of African-American Research at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where each semester he taught a popular course on gangsta rap's effects on societal values. From 1997 to 1999, Dyson was a visiting distinguished professor of African American studies at Columbia University, in New York, where he continued to use the classroom to investigate gangsta rap.

In 1999, Dyson became the first Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professor at DePaul University in Chicago. In 2002, Dyson became the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses in the Religious Studies Department and the African-American Studies Program. Dyson's appointment was acknowledged as the first step in the revitalization and expansion of the African-American Studies Program as it celebrates its more than three decades existence and anticipates recruiting additional scholars of Dyson's caliber. At the University of Pennsylvania, Dyson focused on gangsta rap as well as hip-hop music and taught on Tupac Shakur's lyrics and life.

Publishes Thirteen Books in Thirteen Years

From 1993 to 2006, Dyson averaged one book per year, most of them bestsellers. Reflecting Black (1993), a collection of essays that Dyson wrote and published during the late 1980s to the early 1990s, focuses on African American popular culture's effects on mainstream American culture, African American culture, race, gender, class, and religion. Reflecting Black won the Gustavus Myers Center Human Rights Award.

There are additional collections of Dyson's essays. Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture (1996) begins with Dyson's letter to his incarcerated brother and ends with a letter to his third wife. In between is Dyson's commentary on African American athletes, political leaders, activists, rhythm and blues artists, and rap performers as he attempts to place gangsta rap in its cultural and social perspective. Dyson followed with Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line (1996), which focuses on African American intellectuals, leadership, and youth as well as popular culture, the black church, and sex. Dyson describes Why I Love Black Women (2003) as his love letter and testimony to a diverse group of unknown and famous women who have shaped his life and consequently made him a better son, brother, man, father, friend, minister, and professor. Among the women honored are Dyson's relatives, former teachers, writers, revolutionaries, and entertainers. Dyson ends the book with "How to Love a Black Woman: A Sermon." Why I Love Black Women won the 2004 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Literary Work. Open Mike: Reflections on Philosophy, Race, Sex, Culture and Religion (2003) is a collection of interviews, and The Michael Eric Dyson Reader (2004) is a collection of essays, speeches, and interviews.

Dyson has also written books on four African American icons: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Tupac Shakur, and Marvin Gaye. In the Washington Post Book World, William Jelani Cobb labeled Dyson's "abiding interest in black men who live complex, often troubled lives and die violent deaths" the Dyson Icon Project. In each of the four books, Dyson blends biography, social criticism, and cultural criticism; the end product is known as biocriticism. Dyson, in Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X (1995), places Malcolm X's life in historical context and explores his legacy in terms of contemporary society. Making Malcolm was named Notable Book of 1994 by the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer and was selected as one of the outstanding books of the twentieth century by Black Issues Book Review.

In I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. (2000), Dyson focuses on the last three years of King's life and advocates a ten-year moratorium on King's "I Have a Dream" speech in order to call attention to the ideas expressed in his less well known speeches and sermons. Dyson, in a 2003 article written for the Washington Post, comments: "King was a much more radical thinker than either friend or foe could abide. To say that well was the critical attention of my book."

In Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur (2001), Dyson, known as "the hip-hop intellectual," writes about Shakur's attainment of iconic status after his death and asserts that Shakur may be "the most influential and compelling" rap artist. The book analyzes Shakur's life, death, and lyrics as well as hip-hop culture, and Shakur's significance for African American youth.

Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves, and Demons of Marvin Gaye (2004) was published on the twentieth anniversary of Gaye's death. Dyson, who offers his personal testimony on the importance of Gaye's music in his life, reassesses Gaye's life and music and explores his ongoing influence on American music. As with Dyson's works on Malcolm X, King, and Shakur, Mercy, Mercy Me reveals the enigmatic figure's humanness that has been overshadowed by his legendary status.

After writing about four icons, Dyson challenged a living legend in Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?) (2005). Dyson takes issue with Cosby's comments at the May 17, 2004 NAACP commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. Cosby's statements about lower income African Americans' lack of parenting, poor academic performance, and other problems led to Dyson's book-length defense of poor blacks as he acknowledges that class and generational tensions exist in black America.

Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (2006) was one of the first books published about the physical, cultural, and economic devastation caused by the 2005 hurricane. Dyson analyzed the plight of poor African Americans in the Delta before and after Hurricane Katrina. The book is Dyson's indictment of the race- and class-specific delays in the government's response to the disaster. Dyson published a second book in 2006, Pride: The Seven Deadly Sins, which is Dyson's elaboration of pride's dangers as well as virtues.

Hosts Radio Talk Show

Dyson served as a columnist for the Chicago Sun Times and Savoy and was a contributing editor to the Christian Century. He was a frequent guest on most of the major talk shows on network and cable stations as well as radio talk shows (including National Public Radio). Thus his views receive widespread media exposure.

On January 20, 2006, Dyson launched The Michael Eric Dyson Show, a talk show broadcast on Syndication One, which is a joint venture of Radio One (founded by Catherine Hughes) and Reach Media. Syndication One hoped to fill the void in radio talk programs for African American audiences. Marcia Dyson was anticipated to be an occasional guest on her husband's show.

Dyson and his wife live in Philadelphia. In addition to Michael Dyson II, Dyson is the father of Mwata and Maisha Dyson.

Dyson received the BET/General Motors Black History Makers Award in 2005. As educator, author, and social critic, he remains a ubiquitous figure in the United States: he eloquently addresses issues of race, identity, religion, and popular culture. Evaluating Dyson's role, Robert S. Boynton asserts in Atlantic Monthly that Michael Eric Dyson is a member of "an impressive group of African American writers and thinkers [who] have emerged to revive and revitalize [the role of the public intellectual]. They are bringing moral imagination and critical intelligence to bear on the definingly American matter of race—and reaching beyond race to voice what one calls 'the commonality of American concern.'"



"Michael Eric Dyson." In Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 11. Eds. L. Mpho Mabunda and Shirelle Phelps. Detroit: Gale, 1996.


Arana, Marie. "Michael Eric Dyson Telling It Any Way He Can." Washington Post Book World, 24 August 2003.

Boynton, Robert S. "The New Intellectuals." Atlantic Monthly 275 (March 1995): 53-70.

Cobb, William Jelani. "Tortured Soul: An Attempt to Solve the Riddle of a Musical Legend's Complicated Life." Washington Post Book World, 20 June 2004.

Dyson, Michael Eric. "Shakespeare and Smokey Robinson." New York Times Book Review, 19 November 1995.

――――――. "The Writing Life: A Social Critic Reads Before He Rights the World—Just as He Reads Before He Writes It." Washington Post Book World, 24 August 2003.


Gregory, Kia. "What's Up, Hip-Hop Doc?" http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/view.php?id=11400 (Accessed 6 February 2006).

                                    Linda M. Carter