Everyone from young GW alumni to President Barack Obama represents the success of blacks in America, renowned author and professor Michael Eric Dyson said Tuesday night at an event in the Marvin Center.
Dyson drew a packed audience to Betts Theater Tuesday night as the keynote speaker for GW’s annual Black Heritage Celebration.
In his address, Dyson recognized the need to “acknowledge the genius of the upcoming generation.”
“The genius of black folk is seen as exceptional, while the negative is seen as representative,” Dyson said.
The theme of this year’s celebration is “Sankofa: Writing the Black Autobiography.” Dyson told the crowd that autobiographies are a complex genre and often one person’s story represents those of many.
Sankofa, Dyson said, means to “go back and take.” The word, which comes from the Ashanti tribe in Ghana, is represented by the image of a bird turning its head to acknowledge an egg on its back.
“We must reach back into the past” to recognize its possibilities, Dyson said.
Dyson was fiery at times throughout the evening and whisper-quiet at other points. He often launched into rap or song mid-sentence, quoting black entertainers like Sam Cooke and Tupac Shakur.
Creating a collective autobiography, Dyson said, is particularly essential to black Americans if they want to commemorate attacked traditions and preserve memories often forgotten by the rest of the nation.
“The essential shape of the human being is the shape of the story,” Dyson said. “The quest for literacy is the quest to write blacks into” the American consciousness.
An ordained Baptist minister, Dyson is also a radio host and professor of sociology at Georgetown. He is the author of nearly a dozen books that cover topics ranging from hip-hop to Hurricane Katrina to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dyson also stressed the need for unity among generations. It is important, he said, for younger generations to understand the experiences of their predecessors. He related a story of his own childhood, when he and his family were denied service at a Tennessee diner.
“I know that some of you today say that you would have done things differently,” Dyson said. “But the actions of the old [Civil Rights] leaders have put you in the position to say what you would have done differently.”
Dyson objected, however, to the idea of being a post-racial society in the “era of Obama.”
“We do not want to stop being what we are, we just want people to stop saying bad things about what we are,” he said. “We should be a post-racist society.”
Dyson added that black communities should be sympathetic to the current struggles and plight of the gay community.
“The black-gay autobiography is part of the African-American autobiography,” Dyson said. “Having been oppressed, we cannot oppress.”
The visibly engaged audience burst into applause and rose to its feet at the end of Dyson’s address. One audience member described him as “a force of nature.”
“The speech was pure poetry,” sophomore Angelique Israel said. “He is such an eloquent individual.”