Michael Eric Dyson's Long Time Coming is a timely, heartfelt book that uses history to slice our nation open and show how racism is a sickness that has shaped our culture and society in a variety of insidious ways.
From the abused, stolen bodies pressed together inside slave ships to the lynching of Emmett Till to the battered body of George Floyd pressed against the ground under a police officer's knee, Dyson uses the history of anti-blackness and violence against Black people to map out the way systemic racism was created and how it has operated, uninterrupted, since America's birth.
In the five chapters and postlude that make up Long Time Coming, Dyson addresses Elijah McClain, Emmett Till, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Hadiya Pendleton, Sandra Bland, and Rev. Clementa Pinckney, all Black victims of systemic racism and police brutality. Each chapter is a letter Dyson writes to explore "the frameworks of perception that we are compelled to adopt to justify questionable or biased racial claims." The writing is smart and the research that informs it is great, but what makes this is an important book is Dyson's voice, which is strong but always pregnant with frustration, pain, admiration and, ultimately, hope.
Long Time Coming is a hard book to read. Dyson's prose is straightforward and his writing easy to understand, but the sum of what he does is a tough pill to swallow. Reading the name of a person of color who died at the hands of a cop is, sadly, almost normal nowadays, but seeing entire pages full of names — to read about those who were senselessly slaughtered in the 80s and the inefficacy of a judicial system that has repeatedly allowed murderers to walk free — is much harder to tolerate. Dyson shows that justice, like funerals, is for the living, and that the dead are "denied first their bodies, their being; then they are denied control over the social consequences of their nonbeing; finally, they are denied the very changes that only their deaths make possible."
Dyson doesn't pull any punches here. He criticizes the way the educational system refuses to engage with slavery and its aftermath and gives examples to support the idea that the police remain "in large part violent enforcers of white supremacy." He also critiques white comfort — " the comfort of not knowing much about Black life; the comfort of depending on our kindness and tempered rage" — and states it must go. When taken together, the points Dyson makes are a call to action, an invitation to reimagine law enforcement, education, workspaces, and all other spaces in ways that eliminate racism, abuse, misogyny, and xenophobia.
There is a lot of history in this book, but it is incredibly timely and current. Dyson discusses the impact of today's pandemic on Black and Brown communities and discusses recent cases of abuse and how they exemplify concepts like white fragility and white privilege. For example, he examines the May 2020 confrontation between Amy Cooper, a white woman walking her dog in New York's Central Park, and Christian Cooper, a black birdwatcher who asked Cooper to leash her dog. Amy Cooper called the cops and made false accusations about the encounter, but the event was caught on video. Dyson uses Amy Cooper to show how white women have historically played a crucial role in establishing law enforcement as an institution that defends white privilege:
"These women seem to believe their white skin and social privilege, both of which they are largely oblivious to but dependent on, have deputized them to handcuff Black liberty and to arrest Black mobility. When they call the cops, they are essentially calling for backup to reinforce their positions and validate their concerns. Most of them are surely aware of how calling the cops can easily lead to havoc for Black folk."
Long Time Coming is a fast, cohesive read. Its only flaw is a critique of cancel culture in which Dyson says cancel culture is "a proxy for white supremacy" that attempts to wipe out the individual but "leaves the system standing." In a book full of names of Black martyrs who died because of white supremacy, saying cancel culture is somewhat like it while failing to name a single victim of it diminishes the strength of every previous instance in which white supremacy is shown as an insidious, deadly force.
Dyson is optimistic, and his writing makes the sentiment contagious. He says we will decisively tackle white comfort soon and "finally proclaim three words that are the very heartbeat of our country and culture, slowly, deliberately, and with appropriate emphasis: Black. Lives. Matter." This thought, delivered after pages upon pages of devastating history and herstory, offers readers a healthy dose of hopefulness after a devastating, powerful book.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.