As a fourth-generation preacher who grew up during the height of the civil rights movement, C.W. Dawson Jr. says all conversations about race are important, especially in the Columbia community.
Dawson grew up in a house of social activists. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference movement, the NAACP and Marcus Gravey were important to his mother, father and grandparents, so he knew he’d likely follow in their path. He read at a fourth-grade level when he graduated high school in Joplin, but improved during his undergraduate years at Cornell College in Iowa. Dawson graduated with three majors, philosophy, religion and political science, and two minors, French and mathematics. In 1979, he received his first master’s degree from Princeton, and after nearly 10 years of working as a minister, Dawson went to MU and graduated as the first African American to earn a doctorate in philosophy at the university in 2006. Now, Dawson teaches ethics at Moberly Area Community College and philosophy at Columbia College, is the senior minister at Dawson Journeys Ministry and writes a weekly column for the Columbia Missourian. In December 2017, he published his first book, La Conversation Fracturée, which takes a philosophical look at concepts of race in America.
Dawson discussed his history with race and activism and the conversations surrounding the topics with Vox. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Why are you invested in the Columbia community?
There’s an old saying that goes, “You have to bloom where you’re planted.” And Columbia is my place now. It’s one thing to talk theoretically about justice and what we ought to do. But if that person is not very invested in the community they live in, that seems a little hypocritical to me. And I think the problems we have in Columbia are solvable. I really do think we can have a police department that is community-oriented. We have a significant homeless population, but there are a lot of empty places: We can help people. We won’t be perfect. We can be a lot better.
What do you think of this era of activism?
I’m impressed with the younger generation, particularly of African Americans. Black Lives Matter I think is wonderful, but I think it’s been misunderstood. I think it’s always been hard to be socially conscious. I think the demands of academia and the workforce on black people has really either fired young black folks up or has stolen their spirits. While you’re in school, you’re constantly told you are not successful unless you do “X,” where you have to spend all of your time. If you’re not careful, you’ll say, “I’ll be involved when I leave school.” And of course, if you’re really successful, you’re going to have a house, a certain kind of car and so much in the bank account, and then you can be active later. And what happens is (social activism) doesn’t happen.
You were the first African American to earn a doctorate in philosophy at MU. What is it like to carry that kind of history with you?
The wonderful thing is I’m the first one. But I think it’s a shame I’m the first one because I graduated in 2006. From what I’ve been told, there are no African Americans in the department today — either as graduate students or as faculty. I’m glad that I got it done; it has opened some doors for me. But I wish the university would do a better job, particularly in that area, of recruiting and maintaining students of color. I think the only way the institution is going to get better is that it intentionally moves in that direction.
What do you want people to learn from you?
What I tell my students is, first of all, the greatest challenge in life is to know yourself. I think we live in a world that tries to make us be something we’re not. Because they have a stereotype, a category, they have a box they want to put you through. I even told my wife, “Look, baby, when I die, cremate me.” People have been trying to put me in a box for 40 years. Damn if I let them put me in a box in the ground. The second, though, is realize you have a gift in you. And if you take care of your gift, if you believe in your gift, your gift will take care of you. Trust the gift. And three: Learn to be happy. There’s no normal life, good life, bad life; it’s just life.