In recent years, Dyson has, in particular, made a point of challenging his audiences about their sexism, misogyny and homophobia -- the now defunct Michael Eric Dyson Show was illuminating in this regard -- in ways that simply counter charges that he panders to his audience.As James Peterson, a literature professor at Bucknell University observes, “we need multimedia platforms…we have to record albums, do the radio programs, do the television shows, be in film. That’s the literature of the future.” (Philadelphia Weekly, 16 January 2006).In this regard Dyson is, as Cornel West has suggested, really unprecedented -- but not necessarily so. Dyson’s ability to circulate in multiple public and media spheres is predicated on his ability to seamlessly switch codes.While few would quibble with his ability to break bread with church congregations, the white-bread audiences that comprise the base of NPR and C-Span, traditional academics and congressional committees, it is ultimately his ability to reach black youth -- and to seriously consider the cultures they produce -- that animates derision towards him.
As such this is as much meant to defend Dyson as it is meant to defend the vocation that he, as well as many others, have brilliantly upheld with guile, intelligence, passion.Should black intellectuals simply concede that this is a terrain that they shouldn’t or can’t exploit in the best interests of communities in need of social justice? The ability of the black intelligentsia to manipulate the blogosphere -- Black and Professor Kim’s News Notes immediately come to mind -- are evidence of the value of black intellectuals embracing the technologies of the day.But the reality is that many academics, regardless of race, find it difficult to talk across academic disciplines, let alone to audiences that exist beyond the academy.Many of these same academics are profoundly limited in their ability to translate their research and ideas in layperson’s terms.It is Dyson’s ability to make himself and his work accessible to lay audiences -- ironically much like grassroots activists -- that makes him a target for those folk within the academy and elsewhere, who don’t believe that his work is rigorous enough.