Dr. Michael Eric Dyson says comedian Bill Cosby’s controversial remarks about the black poor were an unfair attack on people who — unlike Cosby — are not given a voice.
Dyson made the point in a fiery lecture before a near-capacity audience last week at Philander Smith.
Dyson, a Baptist minister, professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania and social critic, is the author of “Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind?” He was the first lecturer in Philander Smith’s Bless the Mic: A Hip-Hop President’s Lecture Series.
Even though Cosby’s comments were made more than a year ago, Dyson’s outrage at the attitude of what he terms the “Afristocracy” has not cooled.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it laid bare the harsh existence of the black urban underclass, he said. “Katrina was a natural disaster that exposed our national disaster,” he said.
Part fire-and-brimstone preacher, part rapper, part standup comedian, Dyson said Cosby had focused attention on poor black people when he spoke at a philanthropic dinner in Washington. Cosby said, among other things, that the underclass was more inclined to promiscuity and he remarked that poor blacks gave children odd names, like Shaniqua, Taliqua and Muhammad.
“Mr. Cosby said, ‘these people,’ ” Dyson said. “He did not say ‘us people,’ he did not say ‘our people,’ he said ‘these people.’ He said these people have not held up their end of the bargain.”
Dyson rose to the defense of Cosby’s target in a point-by-point refutation. For example: Black people have always named their children colorful and creative names, Dyson said. The names often represented things they wanted but couldn’t have — like “Good Lovin’,” he said jokingly. To the charge that poor blacks consume unwisely, Dyson said all people have spent money unwisely. He said poor blacks just wanted to have something nice for a change, for them or for their children.
Dyson said Cosby’s comments increased contempt for the black poor trapped by Hurricane Katrina, an episode that he said also revealed the federal government’s negative attitude toward the poor.
In an interview before the speech, Dyson said Cosby’s remarks had been particularly damaging because Cosby is an American icon — a “bridge figure” between generations and races — who reinforced bias toward poor blacks.
Dyson said, however, that Katrina woke many middle-class blacks who felt safe behind their college degrees and nice cars and houses.
Dyson noted that Cosby had been asked about Dyson’s book and the entertainer said he didn’t intend to sit down with the author.
“He can sit down with white folks, who in the past as a group, have castrated, lynched, murdered and mocked black people. But you can’t sit down with a black man, your brother who ain’t done none of that, whose only interest is to help the poor people you claimed through your statements that you want to help,” Dyson said.
Even if one agrees with Cosby, “why start with the poor?” Dyson asked.
“You’ve got to start with the people who have been its perpetuators … who have benefited from the exploitation of black people.”
The crowd at Philander received Dyson’s message warmly. Rev. Silas Redd, an AME church elder, praised the lecture. “The lecture also said to us what has happened to the middle class black bourgeois people,” Redd said. “They have turned the poor people off and have reached a point to feel that they are to fear black people that are in the struggle.”
Ryan Davis, a writer and teacher in Little Rock, said black people need to hear Dyson. “He put a lot of what Bill Cosby said into real context for me because I was one of those people who came out and said ‘Bill Cosby? That’s right, he said that!”
Lynda Byrd, an alumna of Philander Smith and director of development for the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church in New York, noted the connection Dyson made between Cosby and Katrina. “You just can’t not see the relevance of poverty and you can’t say it’s not a racial issue.”
Dyson said he gave a voice to the hungry, displaced, sick, young, elderly and scared who are considered “expendable” in America. The poor people left behind in New Orleans to suffer Katrina’s wrath, he said, were the same people who entertain us in the streets and clubs; clean our hotel rooms, wait on our tables and cook our meals during Crescent City vacations.
Dyson wanted the audience to understand that though some blacks may not take responsibility, this does not justify drawing generalities about all poor black people. Anyone who is a victim of a natural disaster or is laid off from a job can easily become poor, he said.
Dyson emphasized that black people have the potential not only to overcome obstacles but to excel. Educated and motivated, they can and will become responsible for their communities. His eloquent message makes him a powerful antidote to Cosby.