Something to Say: Social Critic David Dennis Jr. Emerges as Powerful Voice on American Culture
It’s where he writes most, fingers clicking on a keyboard late at night while his wife and kids sleep; and in normal times, when they’re at school and work.
As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered businesses and forced many to work from home, Dennis published a widely read article offering tips on how to do it well.
He writes for a variety of publications on topics ranging from the pandemic to politics to pro-wrestling. He’s gone deep and gotten personal in essays about marriage, fatherhood and race.
Dennis also teaches aspiring storytellers as an adjunct journalism professor at Morehouse University. He’s currently working on his first book, The Movement Made Us.
Then there’s Twitter. On any given day he may be provocateur, peacemaker or guy who wants to start a food argument just for fun.
Dennis has many opinions. If you firmly believe that the United States treats all of its residents fairly—that racial, gender, ethnic and economic discrimination don’t exist—you probably won’t like them.
Over the winter, as black and brown Democratic candidates dropped out of the most diverse presidential primary in history, Dennis offered a warning in a Washington Post editorial.
“But here’s the thing about oppression and white privilege: It eventually catches up to all of us. As inequality creeps along, it swallows up each level of marginalized people on its way,” he wrote. “Black women and men of color may get gobbled up first, but that oppressive beast will eventually find its way to white women, too.”
The race came down to a contest between two white men, former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. When Biden swept the primaries and some of Sanders’ supporters vowed not to vote in the general election, Dennis pounced.
“If you’re sitting it out because of a PRIMARY then you weren’t built for this anyway and your ass wasn’t going to help out the next four years beyond and regardless,” he tweeted in April. “You were about looking like work, instead of doing any.”
Not voting—a right people died for—angers him.
“Imagine if we all sat these four years out and pouted,” he wrote. “Because SOME of us are very used to being let down by the system and fighting anyway.”
A few years ago, Dennis produced an apparel line that speaks to his role. “Do I Make You Uncomfortable?” one shirt asks. He recently promoted the line on Twitter as a fundraiser for people struggling through the pandemic. He raised enough to donate about 2,000 meals to the non-profit, Feeding America.
“I think the internet was made for David,” says Alan Michael Parker, Douglas Houchens Professor of English at Davidson. “Twitter has allowed him to find a powerful and specific voice in American culture. He’s a smart social commentator and a terrific writer.”
Parker, a writer, poet and author, taught and advised Dennis at Davidson. They remain close and Parker helped Dennis through the book proposal process. Dennis called him when the book got sold through auction—a rarity for a first-time author.
“I was so touched,” Parker says. “It’s the moment you dream of—for this to happen for your student, especially him. How can you not love what this guy brings, and how deep the well goes?
“As a social critic, he is one of the great editorial writers of our time,” Parker says. “I value the work he’s doing. It’s necessary.”
A Father’s Stories
Dennis’s book explores the life of a prominent civil rights leader—his father. HarperCollins Publishers tentatively scheduled it to come out in 2022.
He has spent countless hours listening to David Dennis Sr.’s chilling accounts of murders, bombings and brutal attacks against friends and fellow civil rights workers.
“I’ve always been interested in my father’s stories, even as a teenager, I thought that someday I might write about him,” Dennis Jr. says.
He describes the book as a series of conversations between a father and son, saying: “I don’t want it to be a biography or a memoir, I just want to tell his stories.”
Dennis Sr. grew up in a sharecropper family in rural Louisiana, went to college and eventually became a lawyer. He joined the civil rights movement in college, leading lunch counter sit-ins and fighting to integrate interstate buses and terminals as an early member of The Freedom Riders.
He led civil rights efforts in Mississippi for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). One night in 1964, a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob murdered three fellow activists near Meridian, Mississippi.
Dennis Sr. had worked closely with Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney to register black voters. He would have been with them that night but bronchitis kept him home.
“What was so shocking and jarring to me was how little time elapsed between so many of these events,” Dennis Jr. says. “And then to realize that he was only in his early 20s when all of this happened.”
Now retired from his law career, Dennis Sr. is executive director at Southern Initiative Algebra Project, which works to bring math skills to students in disadvantaged communities.
Living a Dream
Dennis Jr. fights with words. Vitriol often follows.
In one case, a caller threatened Morehouse University after Dennis wrote a 2017 column criticizing then New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and President Donald J. Trump.
The caller said he supported Trump and Brady, and threatened to bring gun-toting friends to a Morehouse football game.
“Not a day goes by that I’m not blocking someone (as a Twitter follower) and not a day goes by that I don’t get a racial slur hurled at me,” Dennis says.
The upsides of writing help mitigate the ugliness.
Dennis majored in English and ethnic studies at Davidson, then got a master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University. He remains an avid sports fan and sportswriter.
In a 2019 article for ESPN, he interviewed his college friend, Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry ’10, about their days at Davidson and their lives now.
“A decade ago, me and Stephen Curry were friends at Davidson with dreams,” Dennis tweeted. “I dreamed of writing about MVPs for ESPN. He dreamed about being an MVP written about on ESPN.
“And here we are.”
This piece appears in the Spring/Summer issue of the Davidson Journal magazine.
- June 9, 2020
- Alumni and Family Engagement
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