What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America

What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America

A stunning follow up to New York Times bestseller Tears We Cannot Stop, a timely exploration of America's tortured racial politics 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 prot...

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Title:What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America
Author:Michael Eric Dyson
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What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America Reviews

  • Andre

    There was a meeting in 1963 between Robert F. Kennedy and James Baldwin and a few of Baldwin’s friends. When you think of an example of speaking truth to power, that meeting as described by Dyson here, will indeed standout as definitive.

    Dyson writes “I heard over the years how explosive it was, how it brought together other folk I had admired, including Harry Belafonte. The gathering pitted an earnest if defensive white liberal against a raging phalanx of thinkers, activists, and entertainers w

    There was a meeting in 1963 between Robert F. Kennedy and James Baldwin and a few of Baldwin’s friends. When you think of an example of speaking truth to power, that meeting as described by Dyson here, will indeed standout as definitive.

    Dyson writes “I heard over the years how explosive it was, how it brought together other folk I had admired, including Harry Belafonte. The gathering pitted an earnest if defensive white liberal against a raging phalanx of thinkers, activists, and entertainers who were out for blood. I’ve always wanted to read a book about that historic moment, and more important, about its meaning for us today as we struggle with many of the same issues America confronted 50 years ago.”

    Dyson has not written that book, but this one has enough details about that meeting to give a clear picture about what took place. He manages to put the reader in that room while brilliantly filling out the book with looks at the various communities represented. There are chapters on the Artists, Activists, Intellectuals and the Politicians. And Dyson doesn’t just lock into 1963, he brings the discussion current because....”racial and political truths that we still confront today.”

    So while that very important and volatile meeting sets the foundation for the book, the actions or inactions of our current community leaders-not in the geographical sense, but community in the sense of interest groups, i.e. Artists, Politicians, etc.-are the brick and mortar that makes this a must read. The melding of the historical with current day concerns and challenges qualifies this work as one of Dyson’s best.

    Dyson’s prose and criticism is as always, electric and sharp, “the enshrinement of ignorance as the basis of power and authority, is the personification of white supremacy and white arrogance.” The indictment of white supremacy while encouraging Whites to wake up and recognize is a continued effort from his most previous work, Tears We Cannot Stop. As evidenced by the subtitle here, Dyson is of the belief that the historic meeting in 1963 was an important conversation about race that no doubt needs be to continued and expanded because it remains unfinished. However in this book he has turned up the volume so it’s clear what truth sounds like! Thanks to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advanced DRC. The publishing date is June 5, 2018. Mark your calendar.

  • Patrice Hoffman

    What the truth sounds like, and is for me as I sit here and write this review is that I don't know how to review books such as this. Part of me wants to offer a review that strictly focuses on the writing. That (cowardly) part wants to remain neutral in all works that are social hot topics such as politics and race. I don't want to take a side. As reviewer, I feel it's a duty of sorts not to take a side. But another part, a bigger part of me knows I can't be honest and not share my opinions on t

    What the truth sounds like, and is for me as I sit here and write this review is that I don't know how to review books such as this. Part of me wants to offer a review that strictly focuses on the writing. That (cowardly) part wants to remain neutral in all works that are social hot topics such as politics and race. I don't want to take a side. As reviewer, I feel it's a duty of sorts not to take a side. But another part, a bigger part of me knows I can't be honest and not share my opinions on the subject matter. The issues Michael Eric Dyson addresses in

    are happening all around whether or not I pick a side or engage in the conversation.

    focuses on an off-the record (so to speak) conversational discussion Robert Kennedy engaged in James Baldwin and other prolific black American figures during the height of the Civil Rights movements. Baldwin, along with Harry Belafonte, Lorraine Hansberry, Lena Horne, Rip Torn, and few others. Kennedy hoped that with the help of those in attendance, they could provide insight on what laws or politics needed to be done in order to reestablish "peace". Kennedy expected that this gathering of black scholars who'd risen from the chains of Jim Crow's oppressive grasp, would understand that change takes time.

    What they explained, and still to this day needs to be explained (for some reason), is that there is no more time.

    More on that later...

    So... let's put on the reviewer hat. Michael Eric Dyson writes

    with a pace that is conversational yet with an urgency that is similar to those who protest that Black Lives Matter. Because I'm a huge fan and have seen him on CNN, MSNBC, and other news outlets, it was refreshing to read his words as opposed to hearing his words and thoughts crammed into a segment. In the same way

    is conversational in tone, there's also an obvious love-letter in there to Baldwin (especially) and those who have chosen to carry the torch since Dr Martin Luther King Jr's assassination. Muhammad Ali, Lebron James, The Carters, Colin Kaepernick, and the women who have pioneered the "Me-Too" and "Black Lives Matters" campaigns.

    I guess this is where I get personal...

    It's not fair to make this review about myself, but as I mentioned, history is happening all around me, us, regardless of my level of participation. Dyson suggests that the Kennedy-Baldwin conversation still needs to be had. Based on the amount of young black men being gunned down by those promising to serve and protect, then beating any charges they are faced, is proof the conversation is not over. The fact that our country elected a bigot that doesn't even denounce the KKK is proof there's more to say. In a world where "BBQ Becky" and the Yale student feel that they need police to protect them from blacks who actually have a right to be where they are.

    And it infuriates me. All of it. I grew up in an extremely diverse Utopia that didn't prepare me for the anger I feel when these stories come to light. When someone white tries to convince me that they voted for Trump because he's a business man and can ignore his bigotry just screams you're probably racist. And we can have a conversation why. I'll hear your point but you must hear mine as well.

    Like Dyson mentions often in this read, there are moral issues as to why these grievances against people of color keep happening. It's sad. It's really sad that there is this mentality that runs rampant in the US of an "us" against "them". I would love to provide quotes from the text but I wouldn't know where to stop. Because I enjoyed reading Dyson's words so much, I was shocked when the references page popped up.

    And then... I continued clicking on the many links provided. To state simply I was engaged in this truth would be a gross understatement. The text is so moving I had to read the references and also go to my local used bookstore to grab a few books (mainly Baldwin's and older Dyson works) that I needed to fuel my soul.

    Ultimately, there's no doubt the discussion on race needs to be had. It's imperative because black Americans are tired of continuing to be exploited. Imagine building, funding, living in a world that doesn't find you fit or suitable. You're an outsider. That's where we live. Thank you Michael Eric Dyson for writing

    .

  • Andre

    There was a meeting in 1963 between Robert F. Kennedy and James Baldwin and a few of Baldwin’s friends. When you think of an example of speaking truth to power, that meeting as described by Dyson here, will indeed standout as definitive.

    Dyson writes “I heard over the years how explosive it was, how it brought together other folk I had admired, including Harry Belafonte. The gathering pitted an earnest if defensive white liberal against a raging phalanx of thinkers, activists, and entertainers w

    There was a meeting in 1963 between Robert F. Kennedy and James Baldwin and a few of Baldwin’s friends. When you think of an example of speaking truth to power, that meeting as described by Dyson here, will indeed standout as definitive.

    Dyson writes “I heard over the years how explosive it was, how it brought together other folk I had admired, including Harry Belafonte. The gathering pitted an earnest if defensive white liberal against a raging phalanx of thinkers, activists, and entertainers who were out for blood. I’ve always wanted to read a book about that historic moment, and more important, about its meaning for us today as we struggle with many of the same issues America confronted 50 years ago.”

    Dyson has not written that book, but this one has enough details about that meeting to give a clear picture about what took place. He manages to put the reader in that room while brilliantly filling out the book with looks at the various communities represented. There are chapters on the Artists, Activists, Intellectuals and the Politicians. And Dyson doesn’t just lock into 1963, he brings the discussion current because....”racial and political truths that we still confront today.”

    So while that very important and volatile meeting sets the foundation for the book, the actions or inactions of our current community leaders-not in the geographical sense, but community in the sense of interest groups, i.e. Artists, Politicians, etc.-are the brick and mortar that makes this a must read. The melding of the historical with current day concerns and challenges qualifies this work as one of Dyson’s best.

    Dyson’s prose and criticism is as always, electric and sharp, “the enshrinement of ignorance as the basis of power and authority, is the personification of white supremacy and white arrogance.” The indictment of white supremacy while encouraging Whites to wake up and recognize is a continued effort from his most previous work, Tears We Cannot Stop. As evidenced by the subtitle here, Dyson is of the belief that the historic meeting in 1963 was an important conversation about race that no doubt needs be to continued and expanded because it remains unfinished. However in this book he has turned up the volume so it’s clear what truth sounds like! Thanks to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advanced DRC. The publishing date is June 5, 2018. Mark your calendar.

  • Didi

    Click the link for my review.

  • Helga Cohen

    This book by Michael Dyson is an eye opening and gives a challenging and different view of life in America. Dyson underscores our need to address systemic racism with in the United States.

    In this book we are in a room in 1963 where the conversation with leading black activists and Robert Kennedy took place. These key African Americans, James Baldwin and some friends told Kennedy the truth about race relations that forced him to have the courage to confront some of these issues and have the leade

    This book by Michael Dyson is an eye opening and gives a challenging and different view of life in America. Dyson underscores our need to address systemic racism with in the United States.

    In this book we are in a room in 1963 where the conversation with leading black activists and Robert Kennedy took place. These key African Americans, James Baldwin and some friends told Kennedy the truth about race relations that forced him to have the courage to confront some of these issues and have the leadership needed in advancing civil rights in the years before he was murdered.

    He addresses the racial bigotry in our nation and the notion of it as “one nation under God”. He looks at the different communities represented, the Artists, Activists, Intellectuals and the Politicians. In so doing, Dyson brings the discussion to current events, the racial and political truths that we still confront today. It was an important discussion that Dyson feels needs to be continued and expanded because it remains unfinished.

    It is an important book to read to understand those who fight for racial justice and to understand the anger and injustice of them. Michael Dyson contributes greatly to our civic discourse and understanding of race relations. It is a powerful read and recommended and should be read by everyone.

  • Marion

    This is a wonderful book! It was very special listening to Michael Eric Dyson read this beautiful book he has written! I loved it! What a great, brilliant writer and a marvelous speaker he is! Thank you for this enlightening opportunity, Michael Eric Dyson!

  • Jenna

    is a powerful and highly relevant book addressing racism. Because I feel that it is important for white America to be silent and LISTEN to the too-long-silenced voices of people of colour, I will keep this review brief and encourage all --

    is a powerful and highly relevant book addressing racism. Because I feel that it is important for white America to be silent and LISTEN to the too-long-silenced voices of people of colour, I will keep this review brief and encourage all -- but especially white people -- to read this book for yourself. Michael Eric Dyson is an incredible writer and thinker, and a voice who urgently needs to be heard. I highly recommend this book along with Mr. Dyson's previous book

    . If we are to ever move beyond racism and its cruel manifestations, white America needs to first and foremost listen.

  • Dustin

    An excellent follow-up to Tears We Cannot Stop. Just as timely, too. I appreciated Dyson’s discussion of Bobby Kennedy’s meeting with James Baldwin and other African-American artists and intellectuals, and showed it as his turning point in advocating for great social justice. He compares it nicely to Hillary Clinton’s progression with race matters. From “super-predators” to sympathizing with BLM, he says “Hillary seems to hear the activists even if they did not hear her.” He shows that everyone

    An excellent follow-up to Tears We Cannot Stop. Just as timely, too. I appreciated Dyson’s discussion of Bobby Kennedy’s meeting with James Baldwin and other African-American artists and intellectuals, and showed it as his turning point in advocating for great social justice. He compares it nicely to Hillary Clinton’s progression with race matters. From “super-predators” to sympathizing with BLM, he says “Hillary seems to hear the activists even if they did not hear her.” He shows that everyone is capable of growth and applauds it when it happens, while pointing out those who still have much to learn.

    Not as impassioned throughout (it didn’t need to be), but the final chapter contains a rather epic rant. One thing I appreciate about Dyson is his discussion of prominent African-American artists and intellectuals. He gives great recommendations (only sometimes intentionally). I want to read more of his earlier works and will continue reading his future works too.

  • Scott  Hitchcock

    A book everybody should read but not one everybody will like. These are very complicated issues and I don't always agree with the author although I do see where he's coming from in all cases. What truth sounds like is always from the speaker's point of view and this is no different.

    The author takes on inequalities other than race and even in race it's not just about people of color. Women, people of different sexualities, muslims, women....he speaks for the

    A book everybody should read but not one everybody will like. These are very complicated issues and I don't always agree with the author although I do see where he's coming from in all cases. What truth sounds like is always from the speaker's point of view and this is no different.

    The author takes on inequalities other than race and even in race it's not just about people of color. Women, people of different sexualities, muslims, women....he speaks for them all. He's not afraid to take on liberals including Obama and Hillary. Trayvon Martin, Colin Kaepernick and their injustices are at the forefront.

    I do wish there was more about Baldwin. I'm going to be reading Another Country soon so having more of a view into his life would have been interesting.

    The author focuses on the topics of blackness and whiteness far too much in what I consider derisiveness. It's complicated because he would argue society elevates one while suppressing another. He's not completely wrong or even mostly wrong. My problem with it lies in that if you're against anything he would consider blackness than your racist and part of the problem.

    Lebron James and his decision to go to Miami is one example. For me it wasn't that he left Cleveland and formed a super team. It was the narcissistic way it was done. Having a show on ESPN to promote it for me was excessive and unnecessary. For me that's more of a generational issue than a race issue. If Tom Brady did that I wouldn't like it any more than I did for James.

    When Richard Sherman taunts opponents and gets in their faces I'm not fan of that behavior. But the author defends it. I actually like Sherman and he's very intelligent. I also think his antics are purely for PR. By making himself the story he's selling himself. With his talent and intelligence I just feel it's unnecessary. Brad Marchand is a white hockey player who plays for the hometown Bruins. His actions are far, far worse than Sherman going into cheapshots and I'm more critical of him. Not everything is about race.

    Most of all I hate the blackness vs whiteness because it paints all whites as racists. The author does point out a lot of prominent white people who he believes support equality. He does point out that poor whites and poor blacks should be united against a system that supports the elite. He doesn't however point out any non prominent whites who have done anything for social equality. Plenty of opportunities.

    When I was a teen a black state trooper pulled me over. It was basically a racial profiling where he pulled myself and my friends out of the car in the dead of winter without coats and in some cases shoes and made us stand around for no reason. He wrote me a ticket for going 75 in a 55 when I was going 58. I'm not sure about the motivation. Perhaps a white cop did the same to some black kids and this was his payback. I'm not comparing this to a lifetime of oppression but I did grow up in a city where a lot of black people hated white people merely for being white. My next door neighbor happened to be black and also happened to be a State Trooper. He knew the other cop and had the ticket squashed for me. Would a white cop have done the same for a black teen? I don't know. I'd think no in some cases and yes in some. The percentage is debatable but the author would probably claim close to zero.

    I worked for a communications and electrical company where the guy, white, who ran the warehouse was a blatant racist. He was spewing a bunch of racist crap one day and I said to him "Do you like any black people?" His reply was "Ya I know who a few who are funny as all hell." I replied "Maybe if you got to know a few more you would think the same about them." He retorted " F that I don't have time for those......."

    The issue point of these two stories is that the author misses the point that only through commonality and compassion can the gap be closed. He's looking for political solutions when in my opinion we need to be looking for humanitarian issues. Only through getting to know people of different races, sexualities, religions can we understand each other. The author loses sight of the fact that by using a wide brush stroke and saying all whites are about keeping whiteness on top he's being racist himself and losing people who would be his allies. It's hard not to feel attacked by this. I think that's part of what the author wants. To shock liberal whites to the next level. To make them social advocates. That's just not in everybody's DNA. He calls out Michael Jordan for it so calling out white liberal America is fair from that standpoint but you're losing people who would help you socially if not politically.

    I get the need to say it's been a 160 years plus and enough is enough. I get the need for individualism and cultural pride and diversification. I think the author wants sweeping changes and looks down on those not willing to follow that path. I think a war can be fought on multiple fronts. The small changes over the past 50 years have added up to a lot of social change.

    It's been a long ramble. Read the book. It is thought inducing. More importantly get to know somebody different. Find the commonality and celebrate the differences.

  • Kusaimamekirai

    I’m not sure how I feel about this book. It’s nominal premise is based on a little known meeting in late May 1963 between then Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Black intellectuals, activists and entertainers ranging from James Baldwin to Lena Horne to Lorraine Hansberry. It was a stunning collection of prominent Black cultural figures and Kennedy was meeting was to collect suggestions as to the best course the government should take in pursuit of Civil Rights. It did not go well.

    As Dyson wr

    I’m not sure how I feel about this book. It’s nominal premise is based on a little known meeting in late May 1963 between then Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Black intellectuals, activists and entertainers ranging from James Baldwin to Lena Horne to Lorraine Hansberry. It was a stunning collection of prominent Black cultural figures and Kennedy was meeting was to collect suggestions as to the best course the government should take in pursuit of Civil Rights. It did not go well.

    As Dyson writes, (for a far more detailed and frankly more coherent breakdown of what happened on that day I would recommend Taylor Branch’s “Pillar of Fire”) Kennedy seemingly was there to talk and not listen. He bristled at any suggestion that Civil Rights could be achieved quickly, or through any method other than methodical passing of legislation. To put it bluntly, the assembled Black luminaries gave him an earful about what the real racial situation in places in Alabama and Mississippi looked like. Kennedy left the meeting that day upset, and probably with hurt feelings (that he also after the meeting soon approved FBI wiretaps for Martin Luther King and some of his associates is an unfortunate byproduct of this meeting) and believing that “Negroes” were more interested in “witness” than the practical reality on the ground.

    This is the jumping off point for Dyson where he defends the importance of practicality but with equal vehemence defends the importance in Black history of witnessing and protest. Through the examples of Malcolm X, James Baldwin, MLK, and some contemporary voices as well, Dyson sees a new generation rising to the challenge thrown down by their predecessors in the 1950’s and ’60’s.

    Dyson makes some excellent and impassioned arguments and his writing jumps off the page at times.

    The problem for me however was Dyson goes on flights of rhetorical fancy that he is at times, unable to extricate himself from. This is most evident in a long passage he writes about Cornel West and his criticism of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Barack Obama. He accuses West of using personal attacks (to be fair West certainly does get personal but his disagreements with Coates and Obama also have some merit and at the very least deserve to be heard) and then proceeds to pillory West with his own personal attacks. At one point he accuses West of being hyper aware of cameras:

    Unless Dyson has a hotline to the soul and inner thoughts of West, this seems to be an irresponsible and somewhat mean spirited charge. The two men have traded nasty barbs back and forth in the past, which is unfortunate, but this book did not seem like the proper forum to inflame what ever grudges these men may have against each other. As West is the only Black figure in the book he excoriates at length, it makes for some very personal and uncomfortable reading. Perhaps Dyson could have taken a page out of the book of James Baldwin when he found himself on the end of a particularly nasty criticism from Eldridge Cleaver who wrote:

    To which Baldwin responded.

    So are we all.

    Lastly, these flights of fancy lead Dyson at various times in the book to compare Barack Obama to Malcom X and Lebron James’s return to his original basketball team after a dalliance with a different team as something:

    LeBron James by many accounts does a lot for local communities in his hometown, and does occasionally speak up on injustice. I laud him for doing so, but I find even the most strained attempt to link the life and sacrifices MLK endured to the life of LeBron James highly questionable. Not the same people. At. All.

    To sum up, there was quite a bit to like in this book. But the need of Dyson to settle personal scores, as well his use of hyperbole that is at best unfortunate, detracts from what could have been something much, much better.

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