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A brief review of Race Rules would read something like this: No shit. Michael Eric Dyson’s latest collection of off-the-cuff ruminations is the best case yet against the acclaimed cadre of academics deemed “public intellectuals.” At a point when black communities are bending under the weight of deindustrialized cities, privatized prisons, AIDS, and a generally anti-minority political climate, a handful of spokesmodels with Ph.D.s have made a cottage industry of eloquent restatements of the obviousunveiling to a mystified public that race “matters,” “rules,” etc. Dyson’s public intellectual status is bolstered by both his academic and ghetto credentials (the dust jacket describes him as a “former welfare father, ordained Baptist minister, and Princeton Ph.D.”).
It’s been said that megacorporate industries like music and publishing can only understand the world in derivative termsthat is, what will sell is always based upon what’s already sold. That theory might explain why Dyson’s collection is so similarly titled to Cornel West’s best-selling primer, Race Matters. And like West’s book, it comes up short in the areas of new analysis and a prescription for what is to be done after we’ve finished describing the nature of our problems. It’s not that Dyson is untalented per se; he’s just guilty of writing a book that is mostly irrelevant and about as original as the average R&B ballad.
His essay on the state of black leadership is the book’s sole saving grace. The piece contains thoughtful, provocative analysis of the emergence of Colin Powell and Louis Farrakhan as the good cop-bad cop of the American racial landscape. But the fact that Dyson turns in a solitary gem only serves to highlight the fact that the other essays are slipshod bits of intellectual underachievement.
Race Rules is a bad book for reasons that are symptomatic of most public intellectuals. That is, it devotes more time to the public than to the intellectual part of the job. Dyson has penned three books in as many years, writing essays between a deluge of radio spots, lectures, and Oprah appearances. He appears to be utterly unacquainted with the footnote.
Speaking of the thorny issues surrounding the black church and sexuality, Dyson Kevorkians what could have been a decent essay. He rambles on at length about how the fervent style of worship favored by black churches is obliquely sexual, as preachers “seduce the audience onto God’s side,” and revel in the “orgasmic eruption of the congregation at the end of [a] sermon.” Later he relates this glittering example of pastor-flock relations:
“[B]efore I could protest, she was out of her blouse. Next her bra fell to the floor! The queenly, regal pose she struck, part Pam Grier and part British royalty, made me feel like a lowly subject. And gawking at the sheer magnificence of her breasts, I was glad to be in her majesty’s service. We groped each other like high-school teens stranded in a hormonal storm.”
Is it me or does Dyson sound like he’s been ghostwriting Harlequin romances? The essays are unbelievably long, averaging 40 stream-of-consciousness pages each. Dyson also sounds as if he has never met an opinion he didn’t like. Its hard to actually criticize his arguments because, for the most part, he doesn’t have any. Or, at least, they’re so thoroughly camouflaged by his attempts to agree with both sides at once that figuring out what he thinks is about as easy as reading Braille Sanskrit.
At other points he offers bits of wisdom that are completely unintelligible. Speaking of O.J., he notes that the case displays three usages of race common in America:
“The three…I have in mind are race as context, race as subtext, and race as pretext. Race as context helps us to understand the facts of race and racism in our society. Race as a subtext helps us to understand the forms of race and racism in our culture. And race as pretext helps us to understand the function of race and racism in America.”
What? Dyson sounds like a dyslexic ex-speechwriter for Jesse Jackson.
Listing Race Rules’ banalities, clichés, and plain silly statements would almost be equivalent to reprinting the book. The tragedy of volumes like this is twofold. First, they’re increasingly common, meaning that writers with talent are succumbing to the pressure to crank out books regardless of how premature and malnourished the end product might be. Second, black consumers are less and less likely to get what they pay for when they purchase books. In the final analysis, race is much too important an issue in the daily lives of millions of people for talented thinkers to churn out volumes of large-print afterthoughts simply because fluff sells. Or, as historian Darryl Scott put it, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” CP