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Podcast: Michael Eric Dyson on Barack Obama

Less than 24 hours after Barack Obama ended his historic victory speech with a rhetorical flourish riffing on the life of 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper -- a life that
spanned black suffering, black suffrage, and now black presidency -- Cooper's grandson, Lawrence D. Bobo, who is the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, was scheduled to introduce Michael Eric Dyson, the preeminent black intellectual, at Harvard's DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research in Cambridge. "The family knew that Barack was going to mention my grandmother," Larry Bobo said. "But no one had any idea that the last 10 miunutes would be seeing the world through my grandmother's eyes."

"Few have carried on the legacy of Du Bois's of public intellectualism as well, or with as much verve, or quite as much rhymin', as Professor Dyson," said Bobo, perhaps understating the case. Earlier this year, Dyson had been invited to deliver the annual Du Bois Lectures at Harvard, and had decided to give three talks on a cultural figure whose works are not universally celebrated by his colleagues, under the quintessentially Dysonesque title "From Homer to 'Hova: Hustling, Religion, and Guerilla Literacy in the Pavement Poetry of Jay-Z." (Larry Bobo is a notable exception: he knows from Sean Carter, though perhaps not as much as does his wife, Marcyliena Morgan, the global hip-hop academic and founder/director/curator of the Hip-Hop Archive, who is also on the Harvard faculty.)

Alas, Jigga's DuBois debut was not to be. Instead, as Henry Louis Gates announced, "Michael's decided that maybe, as interesting as Jay-Z is, he decided he wants to talk about Barack Obama." The crowd, which had spilled out of the wood-paneled Thompson Room and into an adjacent cafeteria, erupted in delight. "The Du Bois Lectures are published by Harvard University Press," Gates grinned, as the sociologist Orlando Patterson walked in and snagged the last front-row seat. "And our editor over there is my friend [executive editor for the humanities] Lindsay Waters. You should have SEEN the smile on his face! He could just hear, 'Ka-CHING'!"

Dyson, who moves as easily between the lexicon of academia and the vernacular of the corner as he does between the podium and the Today Show green room (he'd been interviewed by Matt Lauer that very morning), spent 15 minutes delivering shout-outs to his colleagues in the audience and teasing Gates, his mentor and occasional intellectual rival. And then, working without notes, he dropped a sermon-like 90 minutes of freestyle academic science and blew the doors off the hall.

It's a remarkable performance: celebratory, incantatory, revelatory. Even our attempts at bullet-point paraphrasing are turning into essays, so we'll just tell you to download and listen for yourself. Then read Orlando Patterson's recent Op-Ed in the Times (published the Friday of Dyson's third lecture), and then take a breeze through New Yorker editor David Remnick's 15-page essay on "Race and the Campaign of Barack Obama" (it appeared a week after Dyson's lectures but was likely written before them, although they follow some eerily similar threads). This month's election immediately opened the floodgates for a new discipline: Obama studies. And when the textbooks are written, they will probably begin right . . . here.

THE 2008 W.E.B. DUBOIS LECTURES

DOWNLOAD: Michael Eric Dyson, "Obama and Race" (November 5, 2008) [mp3]

DOWNLOAD: Michael Eric Dyson, "Obama and America" (November 6, 2008) [mp3]

DOWNLOAD: Michael Eric Dyson, "Obama and Rap" (November 7, 2008) [mp3]

The Phoenix is posting these files with the permission of, and in cooperation with, the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute. Special thanks to Vera Grant and Dell Hamilton for their help in making this possible.

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