WHAT TRUTH SOUNDS LIKE: RFK, JAMES BALDWIN, AND OUR UNFINISHED CONVERSATION ABOUT RACE IN AMERICA, Michael Eric Dyson. St. Martin’s Press, $24.99 (294p) ISBN-13: 978-1-250-19941-6
Publication date: June 5, 2018
An Acerbic Truth. A Bold Truth. An Encompassing Truth. An Unsettling Truth. A Disruptive Truth. A Troubling Truth. A Terrible (or Terrifying) Truth. A “Truth” Truth (Ruth).
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson’s latest—just happens to be his greatest (book that is). In what is a defining moment in his authorship and critique about all things “race” in America, Dr. Dyson utilizes the full power of his protruding arsenal of words, incalculable intellect, and asymmetrical compulsion for expressing complexity using simplicity as well as simplicity using complexity to tell an unfiltered, uncomfortable, uncompromising truth: An Acerbic Truth. What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, and our Unfinished Conversation about Race in America is an alarming but astonishing, disturbing yet defining, and exhausting while exhilarating literary spectacle that uses a meeting between then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and James Baldwin et al (in May of 1963) as a backdrop to contextualize the current racial climate in America.
Dyson “slices and dices” and “fishes and dishes” an inconvenient, almost mean-spirited, occasionally cryptic, bushel of truth with a perfect admixture of edge and eloquence. Politicians, Artists, Activists, Intellectuals, Crackers, and Bad “Niggers” (one of the chapter titles) beware. Dyson dares to spare no one; not friend, or foe, or historic figure, or president. If you are in his analytical or conjectural line of fire, be prepared to be assailed with verbal projectiles. This book is not for the faint of heart.
Dyson lays the groundwork by recounting the events that led to this historic meeting and provides a brief bio of the major players involved (i.e., Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, Lena Horne, Dr. Kenneth Clark, Lorraine Hansberry, and the only surviving “witness” amongst the aforementioned, Harry Belafonte). However, the most compelling figure in attendance was probably the least known, Freedom Rider Jerome Smith, who did not mince words. When Kennedy intimated that Blacks shouldn’t listen to the incendiary “lyrics” of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X because that could spell trouble, Smith said, “You don’t have no idea what trouble is,” and that’s when the meeting went downhill—or uphill (depending on your perspective) from that point.
In the succeeding chapters, Dyson uses his verbal scalpel to dissect and his barrister-esque elocution to build a case for the final chapter, “Even If: Wakanda. Forever,” which is arguably Dyson’s most powerful utterance ever. I would humbly suggest the reader to begin by reading the final chapter first to enhance the experience and to better appreciate Dyson’s indomitable genius.
At nearly 60 years old, one can sense as Dyson transitions from “old head” to “elder” that What Truth Sounds Like, is a precursor for what will be his greatest works, which will undoubtedly happen post-Trump. But for now, What Truth Sounds Like, is a Wake-up call for the Woke which is why this book is minimally 25 years ahead of its time.
Thus far, we have only “witnessed” Dyson’s intelligence; his wisdom has yet to be realized—and it is as imminent as our mortality. And, as imminent as his reconciliation with his teacher-mentor-friend-brother: Dr. Cornel West. And that’s an Acerbic Truth, Ruth.
Reviewed by Professor Clifford Benton