One of our most important black intellectuals limns the lives of black Americans with subtle, lucid rigor. As both an academic and Baptist minister, Dyson (Communications/Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Making Malcolm, 1994, etc.) winningly combines the roles of prophet and teacher for which Cornel West has gotten such acclaim, but to even better effect. Dyson's discussion ranges across the complexities of class, race, and gender, touching on politics, personalities, music, and the culture wars. A regular contributor to the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and other journals (where most of the essays here originally appeared) Dyson comfortably adjusts his pitch to suit the many various audiences he addresses. Uppermost, always, in Dyson's mind is the knotted relations of black men and women. He uses the O.J. Simpson trial in particular to examine gender relations, noting how the pressing issue of spousal abuse was sidelined by many blacks, who focused instead on the oppression of black men by a white system. He also looks hard at black popular culture for its misogyny and impoverished racial vision, although in reviews of popular musicians like Luther Vandross and Anita Baker, he delights in black culture's infinite variety, understanding it as the repository ""of our deepest desires and fears."" In the most moving part of the book, the author reprints a letter he wrote to his brother in jail for murder, offering frightening proof of the tenuousness of the lives of black men. Dyson gladly places his concern for blacks within the larger concern for all Americans, knowing that afflictions of race do not cripple blacks alone, but all who are a part of this national experiment in democracy. Synthesizing the disparate poles of the sacred and the secular, men and women, ""high"" culture and ""low,"" Dyson's wisdom is a needed antidote to the poisons of racial hatred and gender inequality ever present in our lives.