Michael Eric Dyson didn't just give a speech at the 29th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Event Thursday evening in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts.
This was no dry, lofty recitation of the slain civil rights leader's accomplishments and ideals. Not at all. Dyson got up with King's vision and he got down with King's sacrifices, provoking plenty of laughter and applause as he challenged his audience to live up to King's principles of equality and justice.
The scholar and best-selling author, named by Essence magazine as one of the "50 most inspiring African-Americans," went from a shout to a whisper, wrapping his message in high-flown academic references and hip-hop street slang, invoking Niehbuhr and Nietzsche as well as Snoop Dogg and the Notorious B.I.G., whose raps he quoted.
He pointed out one of King's skills -- "He was a master of code switching," Dyson declared. "He could talk the King's English, and he could talk about corn pone and gutbucket grease."
Dyson immediately set aside the holiday version of King.
"It is so easy to sweep Martin Luther King Jr. along the wave of nostalgia," he said, "and see him with an encircling sense of nobility, which is rather dishonest. It doesn't deal with the life and death issues that were his life."
Dyson, who also is an ordained Baptist minister, went on to ridicule:
The gospel of prosperity -- "We've got preachers making millions of dollars a year from widow's mites."
White people who want to deny affirmative action -- "Mediocrity . . . only gets brought up when they want to talk about women or blacks or Latinos. But there's plenty in white society, too. Just look at the White House."
And the well-to-do who blame poor people for being the way they are -- "That's why I disagree with Bill Cosby. Poor people in the ghetto . . . rich black people are afraid of them. That's not really courageous. That's just blaming the victim."
In answer to a question following his speech, Dyson repeated his challenges to put King's principles to work. "One, look at how he was able to be an internationalist. He saw the global picture. He understood that materialism and militarism went hand in hand.
"Two, find ways to link race with other issues, like sexual orientation. What about people who were black and gay? James Baldwin. . . . Bayard Rustin.
"Three, you've got to forge coalitions with other groups. You've got to work against hubristic tribalism. In a plane, the people in first class, they're eating filet mignon. The people in the back, they're eating peanuts. But when there's trouble with the plane, the whole thing be shakin.' "