Michael Eric Dyson
What Truth Sounds Like:
Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America
in conversation with DERAY MCKESSON
This event includes a book signing
June 6, 2018
(Doors at 6:30)
First Parish Church
1446 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138
Harvard Book Store and Mass Humanities welcome acclaimed writer and Georgetown professor MICHAEL ERIC DYSON for a discussion of his latest book, What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America. He will be joined in conversation by prominent civil rights activist DERAY MCKESSON.
About What Truth Sounds Like
In 2015 BLM activist Julius Jones confronted Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with an urgent query: “What in your heart has changed that’s going to change the direction of this country?” “I don’t believe you just change hearts,” she protested. “I believe you change laws.”
The fraught conflict between conscience and politics—between morality and power—in addressing race hardly began with Clinton. An electrifying and traumatic encounter in the sixties crystallized these furious disputes.
In 1963 Attorney General Robert Kennedy sought out James Baldwin to explain the rage that threatened to engulf black America. Baldwin brought along some friends, including playwright Lorraine Hansberry, psychologist Kenneth Clark, and a valiant activist, Jerome Smith. It was Smith’s relentless, unfiltered fury that set Kennedy on his heels, reducing him to sullen silence.
Kennedy walked away from the nearly three-hour meeting angry—that the black folk assembled didn’t understand politics, and that they weren’t as easy to talk to as Martin Luther King. But especially that they were more interested in witness than policy. But Kennedy’s anger quickly gave way to empathy, especially for Smith. “I guess if I were in his shoes…I might feel differently about this country.” Kennedy set about changing policy—the meeting having transformed his thinking in fundamental ways.
There was more: every big argument about race that persists to this day got a hearing in that room. Smith declaring that he’d never fight for his country given its racist tendencies, and Kennedy being appalled at such lack of patriotism, tracks the disdain for black dissent in our own time. His belief that black folk were ungrateful for the Kennedys’ efforts to make things better shows up in our day as the charge that black folk wallow in the politics of ingratitude and victimhood. The contributions of black queer folk to racial progress still cause a stir. BLM has been accused of harboring a covert queer agenda. The immigrant experience, like that of Kennedy—versus the racial experience of Baldwin—is a cudgel to excoriate black folk for lacking hustle and ingenuity. The questioning of whether folk who are interracially partnered can authentically communicate black interests persists. And we grapple still with the responsibility of black intellectuals and artists to bring about social change.
What Truth Sounds Like exists at the tense intersection of the conflict between politics and prophecy—of whether we embrace political resolution or moral redemption to fix our fractured racial landscape. The future of race and democracy hang in the balance.
“Dyson has finally written the book I always wanted to read. I had the privilege of attending the meeting he has insightfully written about, and it’s as if he were a fly on the wall . . . a tour de force . . . a poetically written work that calls on all of us to get back in that room and to resolve the racial crises we confronted more than fifty years ago.” —Harry Belafonte
“Dyson masterfully refracts our present racial conflagration through a subtle reading of one of the most consequential meetings about race to ever take place. In so doing, he reminds us that Black artists and intellectuals bear an awesome responsibility to speak truth to power." —Robin D. G. Kelley
"Everybody who speaks after Michael Eric Dyson pales in comparison.” —President Barack Obama
All pre-sales tickets include a copy of What Truth Sounds Like, admission into the event, and a $5 coupon for use in the bookstore. Pre-sales tickets (online only) become available first, after which a $5 ticket option will also go on sale. Books bundled with pre-sale tickets may only be picked up at the venue the night of the event, and cannot be picked up in-store beforehand.
$5 tickets will also be available at Harvard Book Store and over the phone at 617-661-1515. Unless the event is sold out, any remaining tickets will be on sale at the door of the venue when doors open.
Tickets are non-refundable and non-returnable.
Walking from the Harvard Square T station: 2 minutes
As you exit the station, cross Mass. Ave. and look for the newsstand called Crimson Corner. Turn right and proceed north along Mass. Ave. going toward the Cambridge Common. You will pass the Harvard Coop, Bank of America, and CVS. The First Parish Church is located at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Church St. Please enter through the front door of the church.
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Mass Humanities conducts and supports programs that use history, literature, philosophy, and the other humanities disciplines to enhance and improve civic life in Massachusetts. Learn more at masshumanities.org.
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