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Michael Eric Dyson

New York, NY: OUP, 2006.
$17.95, 160 p., ISBN-10: 0-19-516092-4.


Reviewed by Anne Crémieux


Pride is the last book in a collection on the seven deadly sins as listed in the Old Testament. The authors are from very different backgrounds, all are widely published, although Michael Eric Dyson is certainly the most famous of the list. He teaches Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he proudly lectures as a man who moved up from welfare father to Ivy League Professor. He is seen at public rallies and on talk shows, offering insights about rapper Tupac Shakur (Holler if you Hear Me, 2002) or Hurricane Katrina (Come Hell or High Water, 2006). He is an ordained Baptist minister, presently retired—possibly in connection with his strong criticism of the more conservative branches of the Baptist church. All of Michael Eric Dyson’s book are about race—it is no surprise that he would choose this particular angle to study the notion of pride, given his particular interest in two keystones of American culture: black pride, and what he calls white pride.

Pride is a concise, well-structured book composed of five chapters: the Philosophical and Religious Roots of Pride, Personal Pride, White Pride, Black Pride, and National Pride. As suggested above, the question of Pride as a religious issue quickly gives way to Dyson’s political and social agenda. The book is aimed at the general public, although for non-Christians, a quick look through a Sunday School reader may be in order. From St. Augustine to Chris Rock, however, the quotations are always on point, and make for a clear, convincing argument.

Using a historical perspective, Dyson presents pride as having always been ambivalent, quoting Aristotle on the virtue of pride, described as “proper pride” [16]. Not until the late 6th century was pride designated as a mortal sin by Pope Gregory I [10], and elected as the mother of all sins. In the introduction, Dyson hints at how “pride” qualifies both nationalism and patriotism [21], faith and bigotry [23], self assurance and domination [25]. Dyson praises “proper pride” as opposed to misdirected pride, with wonderful quotes from Chris Rock (“God bless America, and no one else”, says his rival for the Presidential office in his film Head of State, 21), historian James Washington (some of us go to Church “to love God instead of our neighbor,” 23), and bell hooks (“In the segregated school of my growing up, to work hard at one’s studies was a source of pride for the race,” 27). Pride is not commonly held as a sin, as shown by a recent poll of the BBC: asked to draw a list of 7 sins relevant to modern society, people cited cruelty, adultery, bigotry, dishonesty, hypocrisy, greed, and selfishness. Pride was not retained [2]. 

Chapter 2 looks at personal pride, quoting Umberto Eco and the pride he takes in writing, or more truthfully, in being read. Here Michael Eric Dyson talks about his own experience of success and fame, looking at the achievement of black writers such as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin or Martin Luther King, and the message of pride they give to young black people, while denouncing the powerful forces against them.

Chapter 3, entitled “Hubris and Hue: White Pride”, logically follows with “the vice that makes black pride necessary” [45]. Instead of limiting the description of white pride to cases of blatant, pervasive white racism and the hypocritical rhetoric it fosters, the second half of the chapter focuses on the “seductive self-loathing” [54] and “whitewishing” [53] some Black Americans embrace. “White pride is most effective when it finds expression in black voices” [54]. Dyson then gives a personal account of an incident with two black female students who disrespected him repeatedly, calling him an “academic minstrel” [55] because his class was so popular with white students. He concludes on the lack of solidarity and distrust Blacks tend to show each other. Dyson explains how internalized racism will lead a black person to seek a white lawyer or agent, assuming superior powers of influence.

This particular example might seem only half convincing. To interpret the students’ behavior as white pride seems questionable, if only because white professors who tackle racial issues to the same extent also face severe criticism from vigilant students. Aware of the many factors that come into play, Dyson rightfully comments about how far the incident went: “It is also doubtful that many white professors would go to the lengths I did just to get to the bottom of their problems instead of simply booting them out of class, which eventually happened to one of the students” [56]. Questions of internalized racism are never simple, and Dyson certainly gives an interesting insight into a thorny situation.

Chapter 4, “I am Somebody: Black Pride”, looks primarily at politics and show business, namely the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, the African American recruits of the Bush administration, and the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony. The recent rise of black actors in Hollywood reached an apogee with the 2002 Oscars celebrating Halle Berry and Denzel Washington’s performances in Monster’s Ball and Training Day, “for their roles, respectively, as a desperate woman seeking sexual and spiritual relief from existential horror in trysts with a racist partner, and as a rogue cop whose ethical impoverishment was matched by the stylish debauchery with which he pursued his fiendish appetites. But the acceptance of the Oscars by Berry and Washington marked a high moment of black pride” [77]. Sidney Poitier also received an Oscar for his career that night. Dyson analyses how the powerful speeches and remarks made by the three actors transcended the limited roles they were offered. In the same way, paradoxically, the pride triggered by the nomination of Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell to George W. Bush’s presidential administration remains despite the political divergence of a large part of the community. Thus, the “black elite expect the admiration of the very blacks they dismiss,” as Dyson points out.“The real lesson may be that a black face does not automatically translate into a progressive political presence” [71], with such divisions making black pride as a sentiment common to the entire black community less than automatic, and more of a bonus feature that different people may feel for different role models. Much like the chapter on white pride, Chapter 4 delves into the complications of black pride, following up on its ambivalence as both vice and virtue. Dyson applies the same paradigm to National Pride in Chapter 5.

Perhaps the most provocative section of the book in these times of terrifying war against terror, Chapter 5 is aptly titled “My Country Right or Wrong?”, with the final mark questioning the American soldier’s pledge to not reason why. The context is September 11, 2001, the patriotism that it generated, and the war against terrorism that led to the attack of Iraq. Dyson pleads for a connection to be made between “the nation’s role in unleashing terror on its own citizens” [88] and “the shameful role our nation has played in unjust practices around the globe” [92]. He compares the accusations of anti-patriotism against dissenting voices to the scapegoating of Martin Luther King by the CIA and the “terrors to which lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender citizens are vulnerable” [100] to the demonizing of Islam by Christian churches. He warns against “reverse terrorism” [108] and explains why blacks still feel a different, more skeptical pride when it comes to loving their nation dearly. Quoting Chris Rock’s sharp humor again, “If you’re black, America’s like the uncle that paid your way through college—but molested you” [112].

Michael Eric Dyson offers a personal yet thorough vision of all that pride comprises, making for a very fluid read, without ever pretending the argumentation is impartial. Pride is a brave, short and snappy discussion of race relations by a charismatic race leader.


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