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Michael Eric Dyson: ‘Blackness isn’t a team; it’s a league’

The author drops knowledge on the Rhoden Fellows podcast

When was the last time you heard Robert F. Kennedy, Kobe Bryant and James Baldwin come up in the same conversation?

It’s probably rare. But Undefeated columnist Bill Rhoden, CBS Local sportswriter Jamal Murphy and author Michael Eric Dyson found the common thread. They got together recently in New York to talk about Dyson’s new book, What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America (St. Martin’s Press, 2018), on the Rhoden Fellows podcast.

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This week marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. The former U.S. attorney general, presidential hopeful and younger brother of President John F. Kennedy is known for promoting human rights and social justice and opposing racial discrimination. Dyson’s book linked Kennedy’s progressive position on race to a somewhat impromptu conversation that occurred in the spring of 1963.

The podcast, however, did not begin with this juicy, historic meeting. It starts on Kobe Bryant.

Dyson, now the author of 20 books, said he is inspired to write as much as he does because of Bryant and his focus and discipline. He also dropped that he ranks the legendary Laker over Michael Jordan, and you know where that leads — the interminable debate over whether LeBron James can leapfrog Jordan in greatness.

While there may never be a consensus on this, you can’t talk about James’ legacy without touching on the way he’s spoken out against racial discrimination. To Dyson, the willingness of prominent black athletes to denounce racial injustice is just as important as their ability to dunk, dribble and win.

In fact, Dyson’s book mentions a number of activist athletes (Curt Flood, Richard Sherman, Jack Johnson, etc.) but homes in on Muhammad Ali and his impact on James Baldwin. The renowned author and culture critic praised Ali for taking a stand that cost him money, time and good standing.

Dyson said the stakes are even higher now for today’s athletes to take unpopular positions, especially around racial injustice, because “the money is deeper.”

This led the conversation to Colin Kaepernick. He is one of the most powerful examples of protest and sacrifice that this generation has seen. He essentially gave up playing time and money to demonstrate against police brutality in black communities. Dyson has stopped watching football and is deeply critical of the NFL — especially its new anthem policy.

“If a protest doesn’t make you uncomfortable, it’s unsuccessful,” Dyson said, adding that the policy basically serves to make black folks invisible.

Perhaps the most profound point Dyson made in his book and on the podcast was that being uncomfortable, whether by protesting injustice or listening to someone else’s pain, can yield rewards that benefit not just communities but also entire generations.

The meeting that RFK hosted in 1963 made him deeply uncomfortable. But the result, according to Dyson, was that it also helped his racial politics evolve.

Kennedy convened a group of prominent black entertainers, intellectuals and activists to discuss the discrimination routinely faced by blacks and what could be done about it. The 37-year-old politician expected to be lauded for the efforts by him and President Kennedy to promote civil rights.

Instead, he got heat.

Several of the attendees — Baldwin, Lena Horne, Lorraine Hansberry, Harry Belafonte and activist Jerome Smith — expressed that changing laws was not enough to improve conditions for black folks. They shared painful experiences, frustrations and the desire to be seen as invaluable and human.

Dyson wrote that this very conversation continues today, it’s just being held between different Black Lives Matter activists and current politicians. The fact that the fight for racial equality continues within each generation is not a deterrent for him. Rather, he advises that we all run our race and contribute our gifts in the most skillful and graceful way we can. He also recommends that black folks get over the idea that we need to be unified to make progress.

“Blackness isn’t a team; it’s a league,” he said.

Eryn Mathewson is the editorial coordinator for the Rhoden Fellows program. She enjoys coaching young journalists, writing and producing podcasts. When she's not working, she's probably running or watching "bad" TV.