WATCH: At ALA 2016 Keynote, Michael Eric Dyson Delivers Stirring Case for Diversity

Michael Eric Dyson delivers the keynote address during the Opening General Session.
Michael Eric Dyson delivers the keynote address during the Opening General Session.

ALA 2016 got off to a rollicking start. At the opening general session on Friday, in Orlando, author and political commentator Michael Eric Dyson delivered a timely, impassioned keynote that brought a standing ovation. “When we think about where we are as a nation right now, we know that literacy is critical to sustaining an intelligent citizenry,” he said. “And libraries are critical to that function.”

Over the course of his 35-minute talk, Dyson, a frequent political commentator for MSNBC, mostly steered away from politics. “I’ve been warned against [talking politics]” he said, noting the ALA’s 501(c)(3) status. “And I will for the most part acknowledge that. I ain’t here to tell you who to vote for. You got sense,” he said to laughter and applause. Nevertheless, in referencing his latest book, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) Dyson conceded that it was “a refreshing breath of air” to have someone “who knows how to conjugate verbs up in the White House.”

He then went on to call out a strain of anti-intellectualism he sees gripping the country, calling libraries “citadels of enlightenment” in a culture that is “peppered by a dyspeptic resistance to high intelligence in the service of deep truth,” and alluding to those who “appear proud to be unmolested by enlightenment.” And though he acknowledged the benefits of social media, he stressed the importance of books. “Twitteracy,” he said, “is not literacy.”

Throughout his talk, Dyson delighted the audience with humor, often preaching, rapping, and at one point even singing opera. He recited Tennyson with ease, and placed great American writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Henry Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning alongside “the great philosopher Christopher Wallace,” explaining that “literacy” is more than the mechanics of reading and writing, or whether or not one goes to school. “Literacy is the capacity to engage in intellectual reflection,” he stressed, a “rendezvous with wisdom,” through which we become “more humane.”

Midway through, Dyson turned his attention to the tragic shootings this month at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, pointedly criticizing observers who have strained to portray the murders as an act of Islamic terror. “Here we are in Orlando where we can’t even admit that one of the most powerful forms of hate in the modern world has to do with somebody’s sexual orientation,” he said. “We would rather it be ISIS than us.”

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SOURCE: Publisher’s Weekly
Andrew Albanese