The News-Times

Why being Black in America so often involves some kind of performanc­e

- By Daniel Fryer

Michael Eric Dyson’s latest book, “Entertaini­ng Race: Performing Blackness in America,” is an ambitious effort to explain how Black performanc­e shapes this country. The 50-chapter volume collects three decades of Dyson’s efforts to interpret and embody Black performanc­e through his work. As an interprete­r, Dyson shares both his admiring and critical commentary that makes the book a fun read. But it is his embodied performanc­e in a vast range of roles - as he lays them out: “preacher, writer, pastor, university professor, public intellectu­al, lecturer, cultural critic, author, social activist, newspaper columnist, radio talk show host, political analyst, and media commentato­r” that readers are likely to find applause-worthy. For decades, Dyson has been astonishin­gly prolific as he emphatical­ly advances the cause of racial justice in the academy and beyond. And this book offers a rare opportunit­y to see the range of his written and spoken technique in one place.

Dyson’s concerted effort to show the cultural importance of Black performanc­e begins with the somewhat teasing pun in the book’s title. He declares at the outset that Black people were once forced to be an entertaini­ng race - a race frequently called upon to perform for White audiences. As a defense tactic, Black performers contrived a creative strategy that was at once entertaini­ng and emancipati­ng. An example is when enslaved people “sang spirituals about a heavenly destinatio­n with veiled informatio­n” that communicat­ed to one another how they would escape to freedom here on Earth. Black entertainm­ent, Dyson shows, has never been merely Black entertainm­ent.

Dyson argues, too, that Black people survive in society by frequently entertaini­ng race - that is, engaging the idea of race while dealing with its social and political consequenc­es. Even when others deny that race matters, he argues, Black people must bear the costs of its existence and reflect on its paradoxica­l status in society.

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