During Messina’s Spring Keynote on Monday, April 1, Michael Eric Dyson drew connections between James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and the modern-day society that we live in. In his keynote address, Dyson referenced his latest book, What Truth Sounds Like, which picks up and elaborates on the themes discussed by Baldwin and finishes Baldwin’s conversation on race.
Having little concern for being politically correct, Dyson explained that as a writer and thinker, Baldwin was able to tell the story of race as it truly exists in society. As a result, Baldwin challenged America to rethink its destiny.
Similarly, Dyson titled his keynote, “United States of Amnesia.” In this definition of the word, amnesia refers to the degree in which Americans are addicted to a selective memory of who they are as a nation. Dyson elaborated on this point by defining two American notions that if challenged cause disruption in society because they are viewed as “America.”
“Whiteness is American. To challenge whiteness is to challenge what is America.”
“Racism is so American. To challenge racism is to challenge what is America.”
Admiring how Baldwin discussed race in a political fiction, Dyson applauds him in his ability to challenge what it means to be black, while also challenging what it means to be white. In challenging identity and the notion of “America,” Baldwin’s work continues to be important because it pertains to many of the issues that play a central role in current movements.
This is because Baldwin discusses the importance of understanding identity. Whether referring to sexual orientation, generation, class, gender, race, and so on, Baldwin provides a new rationale and gets rid of the belief that America is one thing only. Dyson emphasizes the importance of celebrating the unique and diverse identity that makes up American by exclaiming, “This country would be nothing without immigration from all places and spaces.”
In exposing all of the American bigotry, Baldwin was originally seen as a fractious gay man. But in time, his reputation has been revived and through his message, movements have begun to “Make America great for the first time.”