Reflecting Black is a compilation of select review articles and long essays written by Michael Eric Dyson between 1989 and 1993. Dyson has arranged these pieces (forty-three in total) into three sections: 1) “What’s Going On’?: Black Popular Culture”; 2) “Beyond the Mantra: Reflections on Race, Gender, and Class”; and 3) “This Far By Faith: Black Religion.” While the book’s structure is straightforward, the various shifts in mode of presentation which occur throughout the text are complex and often theoretically perplexing. This feature of the book is, I think, symptomatic of Dyson’s activity as a “Black public intellectual,” to use a term made popular by bell hooks, Cornel West, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
The most striking instance of Dyson’s complex shifting of terms and methods in his approach to cultural and social questions appears in the first section. In an essay on Spike Lee that Dyson originally published in Tikkun magazine, he harshly criticizes Lee for allowing Do the Right Thing to find specific ideological points of contact with the Nation of Islam. Yet in an essay on hiphop music and culture, which appeared first in Z Magazine, Dyson lovingly approves of the work of Public Enemy in Black popular culture. Dyson notes that from PE’s inception the group has been strongly committed to recovering and revaluing “historic black ideas, movements, and figures,” and thoroughly engaged in combating “the racial amnesia that threatens to relegate the achievements of the black past to the ash heap of dismemory.” In this essay Dyson appropriately credits the Nation of Islam for providing Chuck D with a wealth of [End Page 923] ideas and consistent support for the production of PE’s political art. In fact, Dyson endorses this relationship for helping to stimulate PE’s renewal of “black nationalist and black radical thought.”
It is not that Dyson is inconsistent or contradictory in his judgments on Black film and Black music; the fact is that he is writing for contradictory audiences and constituencies. And because his relationship to these constituencies is itself contradictory, no unified theory of Black culture can be said to emerge from this work. It is consequence of Dyson’s decision to include, side-by-side, pieces written for a liberal Jewish readership (Tikkun), with pieces written for a multiracial progressive audience (Z Magazine), with pieces written for a Black middle-class reading public (Emerge Magazine).
However, this strategic form of syncretism does nothing but help Dyson in his attempt to make key interventions in the study of Black popular culture. His interventions are structured by his particular intellectual and moral formation. Dyson tells us in his introduction that it was the popular-democratic example of Dr. King, as well as the life of his Detroit pastor, Dr. Frederick Sampson, that inspired his initial immersion in the Afro-Christian tradition, and that prepared him for a sustained engagement with moral philosophy, cultural and social criticism, religious ethics, and the greater sphere of racial politics in United States society. During the late 1970s, Dyson pastored three churches while working toward a graduate degree in the philosophy of religion at Carson-Newman College, a small Southern Baptist school. Years later he would earn a doctorate degree in religious studies from Princeton University—a course of study personally encouraged by Cornel West, and James Washington, whom Dyson got to know while studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Toward the end of the first chapter, “The Culture of Hip-Hop”—for me, Reflecting Black’s finest essay—Dyson sets the ideological tone for the rest of the essays. After insisting on the Black working-class origins of the art form of rap—a point too often overlooked or under stressed in the commentary on rap—he goes through a rich cross-section of hiphop artists in making a case for the special social location of hiphop culture. Hiphop’s challenge, he argues, “is to maintain its aesthetic, cultural, and political proximity to its site of original expression: the ghetto poor...