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Inside Dope

Bearing Witness to Black Culture
By Michael Eric Dyson
Oxford University Press

Michael Eric Dyson is one of a fast-growing cohort of African-American essayists who set themselves the thankless if rarely unprofitable task of pondering the nation's fast-growing racial crisis. Like most of them, he's an academic whose career in letters is based more on the insights at his disposal than raw literary ability, and like several of them, he has sometimes been an embarrassingly clumsy stylist. His strength is his deep-seated sympathy for the black urban poor. Dyson is never more effective than when recalling the kind of hard life few of his counterparts know from the inside. A teenaged father who grew up in the Detroit that inspired Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" and worked many factory jobs on an educational journey that ended in Princeton, Dyson is an ordained minister as well as a communications professor, and he sounds it. Whether in Spin, The Christian Century, or the New York Times, he often takes a homiletic tone, and working for general-interest publications has helped relieve his academic stiffness. His frequent comments on popular culture rarely reach deep, but have the virtue of promulgating truths that ought to be more obvious than they are--for instance, that gangsta rap is both noxiously sexist and a calculated offense against a complacent black bourgeoisie. Significantly, however, the most impressive piece here shows off Dyson's area of special expertise: a celebration of the Baptist preacher Gardner Taylor.

New York Times Book Review, Dec. 10, 1995