60. Michael Eric Dyson

“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much” — from Rudyard Kipling’s “If”

“I’m fearless, now hear this, I’m earless (less)
and I’m peerless (less), that means I’m eyeless
which means I’m tearless which means my iris
resides where my ears is, which means I’m blinded
But I’ma find it, I can feel it’s nearness” — from Lupe Fiasco’s “Dumb It Down”

Dear Mr. Michael Eric Dyson:

I know you’ve heard the aforementioned verses. You’re one of the most intelligent and well-versed people I’ve come across yet. It would be a pleasure to converse with you.

But when that day comes, I have one favor to ask of you. Well, actually two. No. 1: Don’t talk so fast. No. 2, and most important: Don’t use any words with more than five syllables.


A TI-86 calculator is to Trigonometry as a pocket dictionary is to a conversation with Dyson

I don’t say that to be rude. You are undoubtedly smarter and more educated than I am. But I want to be able to have a conversation with you where I’m able to respond without needing a pocket dictionary and two minutes to formulate a comeback. Good conversation should be checkers, not chess.

You have a Swiss Army knife for a tongue. But what good does the utility knife do the world if you’re constantly trying to use the fingernail clip function to fit into a Phillips screwhead? To the sane person, it’s like spraying bullets in a Mega church. It makes no sense.

You know what I’m saying. At times you try to talk over people’s heads to prove your points. It’s not to say that I don’t vibe with you. It’s just that I often have to DVR your televised takes and go to http://www.m-w.com for comprehension.

I’ve checked out a few of your titles from my local public library (think: recession). But I can’t make it past page 25 of any of them because the language is often too much to digest. My first journalism teachers and editors trained my colleagues and I to write short and descriptive.

Two words: Be concise. I know you’ve heard the saying “never use eight words when four will do.” Well, the same thing applies to syllables for your word choice.

He could talk your into submission. Seriously. But he's well-versed and can school you, if you can handle him.

He could talk your into submission. Seriously. But he's well-versed and can school you, if you can handle him.

Any good writer or linguist can weave words like a painter strokes his best brush. But what good is the finished product if too few can interpret the meaning? Too much wordiness can relegate a great writer or orator’s work to a similar dump site where one can find DJ Unk’s “Don’t Hide It, Divide It” and Mark Cronin-produced television shows.

Again, I don’t write this to upset you. I do so because you miss your target audience by speaking and writing on Level 13 when you need to be at a 5 about 92 percent of the time. If “you can walk with kings,” you must be able to “talk with crowds and keep your virtue.”

And no, that doesn’t mean you should become governor of Illinois and allegedly attempt to sell a Senate seat. What it is though is one of the strongest pleas of DuBois’ Talented Tenth, whether you agree with his theory or not. Just because a person can construct a good sentence doesn’t make that person any better than the illiterate guy doing the Stanky Legg on Kingshighway Blvd. in St. Louis (Trust me, he’s there).

I know you understand. If feasible, please acquiesce. If not, I can dig that, too. With this noted, I’m going to end this here and not waste too many more words.



P.S. Nina Simone’s “Misunderstood” or Common’s “Misunderstood”


36 responses to “60. Michael Eric Dyson

  1. “Just because a person can construct a good sentence doesn’t make that person any better than the illiterate guy doing the Stanky Legg on Kingshighway Blvd. in St. Louis (Trust me, he’s there).”

    You’re wrong for that one. And in the Lou, we just say Kingshighway :p

    Anywho, I’ll be the first to say it: The man with my name makes the rest of my family look off. Sometimes I think he talks just because he likes the sound of his voice. He talks over people and doesn’t listen most of the time. He uses $50 words to make it seem like he’s making a point, because if he used the dollar-bin word we’d know he wasn’t saying much.

    Sometimes he makes a valid point, but, for the most part, he’s just showing off.

    • @aye: Sorry, it’s the truth. If you knew how much I’ve heard an extremely similar phrase concerning other streets in STL City proper.

      about your uncle: He’s brilliant. But has to practice talking with kings and walking with crowds. He knows how to do it. Just doesn’t.

  2. Just because a person can construct a good sentence doesn’t make that person any better than the illiterate guy doing the Stanky Legg on Kingshighway Blvd. in St. Louis (Trust me, he’s there).

    @Damon: Hilarious…but true.

    I really like M. E. Dyson but there is something to be said about his word choice.

    Sometimes important & powerful messages are just lost in translation. How many people could have become enlightened on a subject if they knew exactly what some of the eloquent speakers/writers were talking about?

    Regardless of the target audience, speakers/writers should be aware of two things 1. Whether they are being understood 2. The legnth of their speeches or writings. I enjoy listening to speeches & reading and usually enjoy lots of words so, I’m not saying to dumbing things down at all, but to take these things into consideration. In school, I learned that the four basic premises of writing (& speaking) are clarity, brevity, simplicity & humanity. (I didn’t memorize this exactly and had to look it up.)

    P.S. As you (& probably some of your returning commenters know, I struggle w/brevity at times – so, I cannot throw too many stones. 🙂 )

    • throw boulders if you have to … I have a problem with being brief at times (especially on the phone).

      I’m getting better. A lot better. Just don’t piss me off, and disagree with me … I will talk in circles for hours finding different ways to make the same point only to annoy you.

      One of my flaws. Got it from both parents.

  3. so are you Greek?

  4. I do find his use of excessively large words sometimes annoying but it doesn’t bother me nearly as bad as people that do the following:
    1. Misuse/mispronounce big words (think: conversate)
    2. Mess up standard sayings (“no use crying over spilled beans”) – someone actually said that to me before and they were serious.

    • @tam: I’m going to e-mail you something later about “conversate.” I wrote it today. That’s all I’m going to say.

    • “Mess up standard sayings ”

      LOL.. I do this all the time which is why I try not to use them. I told someone once that “I wasn’t born on a turnip truck. ”

      I think I combined two of that sayings for that one. lol.

  5. thecomebackgirl

    “It would be a pleasure to converse with you.

    I’d love to Conversate with MED too..

    LOL..im sorry. Im being silly tonite. so I’ll return with better sense in the A.M

  6. thecomebackgirl

    If you think MED is overly cerebral and wordy…how come you didn’t actually provide the text that you find laborious???

    • “You judge me. That’s what you do.” ~ Terrance Howard’s character from “The Best Man”

      @comeback: You are my Devil’s Advocate (and I love it). I’m just glad you don’t look like Al Pacino. That would be scary.

      You force me to think outside the box often and take it to the next level. I appreciate that…

      M.E. Dyson books that I’ve picked up, started but couldn’t finish:

      _Know What I Mean?: Reflections on Hip Hop
      _April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King’s Death and How it Changed America
      _Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Minds?
      _Why I Love Black Women

  7. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him speak so I’ll just say, if I can’t understand you, I won’t even attempt to listen. **end scene***

    • @nicki: you need to listen to him from time to time. He actually has plenty of good stuff to say, and is extremely well-versed.

      Dude can probably quote every rapper in the United States and most poets and scholars. he’s that smart.

  8. Everytime MED is a commentator on CNN or some other news show my fiance’ rolls his eyes in disgust. He feels exactly the same way you do Damon. Like why make things harder to understand just because you can….we all get that your super smart and overly intelligent but when you talk over people’s heads with big words spat out like rap lyrics they tend to stop listening to you. He makes me laugh and the funny part is that his wife is NOTHING like him…I guess that’s how they work so well…

    • @jlbd: When he cites rap lyrics and weaves $50-dollar words into billion dollar sentences, I can’t do anything but shake my head and open up two windows in Firefox — one for azlyrics.com and the other for dictionary.com

      And I’m serious. But he’s hellafied smart.

    • @jlbd: You’re right. His wife balances him out in that area.

  9. I kinda feel you on this one, but I bet Dyson does it on purpose to
    1) discourage those who are not committed to reading “fo’ serious.”
    2) enourage those who are and inspire them to pick up a dictionary alongside one of his books.

    I have often lamented the 3rd grade reading-level at which Ebony and Jet write. Then this older lady told me is was like that so that those Blacks who grew up unable to get a good or formal education would still have the benefit of reading positive information about their people. Interesting perspective…. but I still won’t read those mags because I feel like it’s insulting ( “Halle Berry is a good actress. She is pretty and smart.” Uggh)

    Having said that, I am against using big words just to show how smart you are. But I am for using big words when they’re the right words to use. Most importantly, I am absolutely for not dumbing down your ideas or presentation just to appeal to the masses. But I do understand you must appeal to the “common folk.”

    So, with the massive flip-floppage of that last paragraph (lol), I’ll conclude with this: ninjas don’t read Dyson anyway… and for the Tenth that do, I think he is trying to raise the number of tools at our disposal for verbal expression.

    • @offdwall: I agree with your assessment. That’s part of why at the end I basically said “I understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

      It’s a conundrum of sorts: Dumb it down so the masses can understand you or speak so only 10 percent know what you’re talking about (and at times not even the entire 10 percent).

      here’s the catch: I think you speak/write to where everyone can understand pieces of what you’re saying. People learn when you confidently interject ideas and stories foreign to them into your writing. They actually use google to learn (I was just having this conversation last night). That’s cool.

      But keep the billion-dollar words locked up for trillion dollar conversation. People don’t want you to speak a mile a minute like you live in wine country in Italy using words that might as well be Italian.

      Now, that I think about it. That’s where he belongs, in Italy. They would appreciate him. He even talks with his hands and everything. lol.

  10. I guess I don’t have an issue with Mr. Dyson’s loquaciousness, probably because I have a bad habit of doing the same thing. More in writing than in speaking.

    But you are right about him talking too fast. Sometimes I have to double check to see if it’s him talking or Twista.

  11. I wouldn’t mind MED, but it always seems like he’s just talking to hear himself talk and using big words just to show he can. He can talk for 30 minutes and really only need 10 for what he has to say. Out of all the black pundits on TV, MED is one of the only ones who really annoys me.

    • I agree, it’s almost like he wishes he didn’t have to debate with anyone and just talk the whole time by himself. He may need a full hour tv show all by himself or his own radio show…that would be perfect for him…

      • @jlbd: You know he has his own radio show, right?

        @eby: brevity and clarity is often the key. But we all fall short at times. I sure do. lol.

  12. Damon, I can understand the frustration that MED can produce, but I’m with OFFDWALL 100. MED reminds me of when I read a book that contains words that are above my everyday vocabulary. It wears me out to keep reaching for the dictionary, but I’m better for it.

    When you see MED on CNN or any of the other “news” shows, I believe it’s combat, and I think he’s letting his combatants know as Paul Mooney would say, “. . . he’s clever . . . smarter than your average runaway . . .”

    He speaks at my church, Friendship West Baptist Church, in Dallas regularly, and we love him. Can he be verbose? Yep, but I doubt very seriously that there’s no strategy behind his tactics. Does he tend to talk fast? Fo’ sho, but he has a hell of lot more to say and convey than 98% of our community. Notice I’m including that so-called “Talented Tenth.”

    • @natturner: This is a real blast from the past. lol.

      No, seriously. I vibe with your comment as well as offdwall’s … I get that he’s attempting to make us aspire to greater heights in learning. That’s commendable.

      But if people in that “Talented Tenth” are refusing to read his stuff because he’s too verbose, what does that say about the to the 90 percent … even if he can quote Pac, Biggie and the Bible better than anyone in that crowd?

      I just think that his vital messages, if he chooses, to do so can penetrate the masses instead of sending them right over their heads.

      In my mind, he’s brilliant. But only 10 percent of people care to listen when he could make a greater percentage hear him and heed his words if he didn’t come off as though “I’m smarter than you, and I’m gonna prove it.”

  13. Damon, I’m with you. When I consider the state of the Black community and where it’s headed, I’m for whatever it takes to massage our minds and penetrate our consciousness. In my brief interactions with MED, I can tell that he would have the humility to accept a little constructive criticism. But I’d still like him to let a “hegemony” or “exetensial” or “exegesis” fly every now and then. Like an “f” bomb, we need words that make us say, “Whoa?”

    As far as reciting rhymes, you already know that can’t stop, won’t stop. Sorry. I couldn’t resist!

  14. I know I am a little late on this one….Last week I tried to listen to MED radio show on NPR….I couldn’t do it. Why? for all the reasons you mentioned above.
    One of my college professors had a term for people that: Verbal Masturbation…Talking for the shear pleasure of hearing oneself talk.

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