Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University, spoke to the UMass community on Wednesday, April 13, regarding his new book, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America. An American Book Award winner, two-time NAACP Image Award winner, New York Times opinion contributing writer, and a contributing editor for The New Republic, Dyson is the author of 18 books, many of them bestsellers.
Drawing on pop culture references, national headlines, and scholarly works, Dyson created a narrative of Obama’s presidency and the complicated nature of his position of power. While recognizing the amazing achievement it was for Obama to become the first African-American US president, Dyson also criticizes the way in which Obama portrays and critiques blackness. “He is a paradox,” said Dyson. “He has both embraced and alienated a meaning of blackness in the modern world.”
Most importantly, the Obama presidency has placed race relations at the forefront of all American policy. “Obama said ‘I am not a president of black America’ – as if we didn’t know that. But you are the president of black Americans, and it’s your job to engage America at its best and correct it at its worst.” Dyson criticized Obama’s failure to handle issues of race during his presidency as well as the centrist and problematic conceptions of black identity and the framework in which it exists. He specifically referenced the 2009 Henry Louis Gates arrest controversy, his 2013 remarks at Morehouse College Commencement, and the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown among other events.
Dyson made an interesting comparison of President Obama to retired professional basketball player Shaquille O’Neal. “Obama is the Shaquille O’Neal of presidents,” said Dyson. “Shaquille, one of the most gifted players of all time…couldn’t shoot free throws. Obama’s free-throw shooting is race and its reality. He’s a great and dominant president but when it comes to race he has been feckless and in many ways unimaginative.”
But Dyson concluded with the statement that regardless of his critique of Obama, the legacy of his presidency cannot be overlooked: “it is the simple and eloquent truth that [Obama] has forever marked the American presidency. It will never be the same again. He has darkened the corridors of history, and made the White House a little less so.”
During the question-and-answer portion of the lecture, Dyson spoke on the Black Lives Matter Movement reinforcing the need to deal with structural and systemic issues as well as analyzing the hostility of blackness. He also gave his hopes for Obama’s remaining months in the presidency and legacy on race relations following his retirement. “As he goes out, I would like to see him lead the nation in an honest conversation about the issue of race.”
The lecture was sponsored by Commonwealth Honors College, the Office of the Chancellor, the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the Kathryn and Paul Williamson Lecture Fund.