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Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Mead’

26 MARCH, 2015

Margaret Mead and James Baldwin on Identity, Race, the Immigrant Experience, and Why the “Melting Pot” Is a Problematic Metaphor

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“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”

NOTE: This is the second installment in a multi-part series covering Mead and Baldwin’s historic conversation. You can read Part 1, focusing on forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, here.

The civil rights movement has been accused of excluding women from its campaign for “a brotherhood of man” and the feminist movement has been accused of excluding women of color. It is both fair and reasonable to suppose that in any movement of goodwill aimed at equality, such exclusions are not deliberate but circumstantial — the product of cultural biases so deep-seated that they require multiple directions of effort and commitment to overcome.

In the summer of 1970, a most emboldening integration of these efforts took place on a stage in New York City. On the evening of August 25, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin sat down for a remarkable public conversation, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library). For seven and a half hours over the course of two days, they discussed everything from power and privilege to race and gender to capitalism and democracy. What emerged was a dialogue of total commitment, deep mutual respect, and profound prescience.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

By that point, Baldwin, forty-six and living in Paris, was arguably the most world-famous poet alive, and an enormously influential voice in the civil rights dialogue; Mead, who was about to turn seventy, had become the world’s first celebrity academic — a visionary anthropologist with groundbreaking field experience under her belt, who lectured at some of the most esteemed cultural institutions and had a popular advice column in Redbook magazine. As a black man and a white woman who had come of age in the first half of the twentieth century, before the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, and as queer people half a century before marriage equality, their formative experiences were at once worlds apart and strewn with significant similarity.

Since the depth and dimension of the conversation between these uncontainable minds cannot be reduced to a single thread of synthesis — this is, after all, the book I have annotated most heavily in a lifetime of reading — I have decided to examine its various facets in a multi-part series, the first installment in which covered forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility. This second installment focuses on identity, how we assemble it as individuals, and how we construct it as a culture.

Mead and Baldwin first consider how identity’s contour is often shaped by the negative space around it:

BALDWIN: It takes a lot to wrest identity out of nothing…

MEAD: But nobody was talking about needing identity fifty years ago. We’ve started to worry about identity since people began losing it. And that gives us a new concept. And now you go back and work on it and figure out what your identity is. Fifty years ago you might have moved to Paris cause it was the thing to do. After all, lots of white writers went to Europe too, in order to understand America. But you wouldn’t have said the same thing about your identity fifty years ago.

[…]

The whole spirit of the North has been to keep other people out. It’s not only been about keeping out black people, it’s been about keeping out everybody… The North has always tried to establish its identity by cutting other people out and off.

[…]

The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out.

Mead later revisits this notion of identity as a function of using what we are not to define what we are:

MEAD: The white world … [has] built its dignity and built its sense of identity on the fact it wasn’t black, the way males in this country built their sense of superiority over the fact that they are not female.

But there exists a certain hierarchy of desirable identities based on the social hierarchy of privilege. She offers a pause-giving empirical perspective on that totem pole of desirability regarding race and gender:

MEAD: [Psychologists] asked the little white boys which they would rather be, little white girls or little Negro boys. What do you think they said? … They said they would rather be little Negro boys.

And yet identity, rather than a static fixture, is an assemblage of responsive parts that reorganize relative to cultural context. Baldwin offers an illustrative example:

BALDWIN: When I first hit Paris, for example, I had dealt with cynical East and North Africans. They did not see me, and it may be argued that I did not see them either. But they did see that I smoked Lucky Strikes and Pall Malls and that I had American sports shirts. They did not see that I did not have a penny; that did not make any difference. I came, I represented the richest nation in the world and there was no way whatever for them to suspect that I considered myself to be far worse off then they… The reason I was in Paris was that I considered my sports shirts, for example, and my cigarettes, had been a little to expensive and cost me a little more than I could afford. They did not know that.

I had a parallel experience learning about race and identity as a child.

When I was growing up in communist Bulgaria, the Iron Curtain prevented practically all influx of foreigners and people of different ethnicities. The only major exception was the International Institute of Sofia University, located near my grandparents’ small apartment, where my parents and I shared a pull-out sofa. Passing by the campus on the way to school, I would occasionally see one of several young black men — graduate students from a handful of communist and socialist countries in North and East Africa. But what registered immediately wasn’t skin color, for the markers of privilege are different in a country whose entire identity was deeply rooted in a sense of poverty.

In encountering strangers, both native and foreign, Bulgarians always engaged in a mental math estimating who is “better off” on the poverty axis — a self-comparison from which emerged a sense of superiority or inferiority, depending on the particular calculation. If those black graduate students were smoking Marlboros or wearing denim — the ultimate, most highly prized, usually contraband marker of Western privilege — the mental math automatically registered them as “better off” than us, people of grater privilege, and thus worthy of that peculiar blend of reverence and begrudging envy. (Never mind that they were poor grad students, likely of the same means as all grad students, anywhere in the world, ever.) If they wore no denim and smoked no American cigarettes, then they were dismissed as irrelevant — no better off or worse off than we were, just members of the same ill-fated human lot. Race was merely a marker of foreignness and a quicker cue for the mental math to be performed. Once again, it was a case of identity contoured by negative space.

Baldwin offers another example that illustrates how other such sociocultural variables can eclipse race in this calculus of privilege even within an ethnic group:

BALDWIN: I remember once a few years ago, in the British Museum a black Jamaican was washing the floors or something and asked me where I was from, and I said I was born in New York. He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” I did not know what he meant. “Where did you come from before that?” he explained. I said, “My mother was born in Maryland.” “Where was your father born?” he asked. “My father was born in New Orleans.” He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” Then I began to get it; very dimly, because now I was lost. And he said, “Where are you from in Africa?” I said, “Well, I don’t know,” and he was furious with me. He said, and walked away, “You mean you did not care enough to find out?”

Now, how in the world am I going to explain to him that there is virtually no way for me to have found out where I came from in Africa? So it is a kind of tug of war. The black American is looked down on by other dark people as being an object abjectly used. They envy him on the one hand, but on the other hand they also would like to look down on him as having struck a despicable bargain.

But identity, Baldwin argues, isn’t something we are born with — rather, it is something we claim for ourselves, then must assert willfully to the world:

BALDWIN: You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.

Remarking on the emerging crop of elite-educated African American boys they had discussed earlier in the conversation, he adds:

I’m tired of being told by people who just got out of the various white colleges and got a dashiki and let their hair grow, I am terribly tired of these middle-class darkies telling me what it means to be black. But I understand why they have to do it!

Illustration by Carla Torres from 'Larry and Friends,' a children's book about immigration. Click image for more.

This assertion of identity transcends race and spills over into other demographic categories. As a first-generation immigrant in America three decades after this historic dialogue, I found Mead’s remarks on national identity particularly pause-giving:

MEAD: It always takes two generations to really lose something, but in two generations you can lose it.

[…]

The culture in this country that is … most limited, is that of the second and third generations away from Europe. They have lost what they had and aren’t ready to take on anything else. They are scared to death and so busy being American.

[…]

What we have in this country at present is a very large number of second- and third-generation Europeans who aren’t really sure they’re here.

Fifteen years ago, if I gave a test to people to fill in: “I am an American, not a _____,” most people would say “foreigner,” and a few said “Communist.” Now, they say “not a Russian,” “not an Italian,” “not an Irishman,” “not a Pole”: over twenty different things.

Once again, the conversation circles back to this notion of constructing identity by the deliberate exclusion of what we are not in order to carve out what we are — a process that calls to mind Rodin’s famous proclamation that the art of sculpting is about removing the stone not part of the sculpture. Baldwin captures this paradox succinctly:

BALDWIN: It is a curious way to find your identity, labeling yourself by labeling all the things that you’re not.

They consider another aspect of identity — identity as an assemblage of ancestry:

BALDWIN: You are always the receptacle of what has gone before you, whether or not you know it and whether or not you can reach it.

[…]

MEAD: “We’re sort of monglers,” I was taught to say as a child. Monglers is a Pennsylvania dialect word for a dog of mixed background.

James Baldwin with Shakespeare, 1969 (Photograph: Allan Warren)

But ancestry isn’t only a function of genealogy — while we can’t choose our genetic ancestors, we can choose and construct our own intellectual, creative, and ideological lineage. I started Brain Pickings with the intention of assembling my own cultural lineage based on ideas from minds belonging to brains I wasn’t genetically related to, a kind of spiritual and intellectual reparenting. Baldwin wasn’t genetically related to Shakespeare — at least directly; all humans are, of course, genetically related further down the line — but the Bard was very much his cultural ancestor. All of us do that, in one form or another — we are cultural stardust.

Mead articulates this elegantly:

MEAD: You see, I think we have to get rid of people being proud of their ancestors, because after all they didn’t do a thing about it. What right have I to be proud of my grandfather? I can be proud of my child if I didn’t ruin her, but nobody has any right to be proud of his ancestors.

[…]

The one thing you really ought to be allowed to do is to choose your ancestors.

[…]

We have a term for this in anthropology: mythical ancestors… They are spiritual and mental ancestors, they’re not biological ancestors, but they are terribly important.

BALDWIN: We are talking about the models that the human race chooses to work from, in effect. It is difficult to imagine anyone choosing Hitler as an ancestor, for example… It runs very close to the terms in which one elects to live and the reasons for that election. It reveals that depth of whatever dreams you have, and everyone lives by his dreams, really.

Mead notes that there are very few black people in America who don’t have some white ancestors, with which Baldwin agrees, and they go on to explore why the “melting pot” metaphor is deeply problematic in honoring the actual architecture of identity:

MEAD: It isn’t a melting pot, is it?

BALDWIN: No, it isn’t. Nobody ever got melted. People aren’t meant to be melted.

MEAD: That old image from World War I is a bad image: to melt everyone down.

BALDWIN: Because people don’t want to be melted down. they resist it with all their strength.

MEAD: Of course! Who wants to be melted down?

BALDWIN: Melted down into what? It’s a very unfortunate image.

[…]

But where this takes us, I do not know. I really do not know. I can’t any longer find the point of departure. Part of it is, of course, the great dispersal of the Africans. But then everyone has been dispersed all over the world for one reason or another. And how out of this one arrives at any kind of sense of human unity, for lack of a better phrase, is a very grave question and obviously would take many, many generations to answer.

Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock from 'All the Buildings in New York.' Click image for more.

In one of his many brilliant asides, Baldwin makes a curious remark about how the eradication of neighborliness makes the “high-rise slums” of housing projects so ghastly and such a threat to the mutual honoring of identity:

BALDWIN: The anonymity of it is a tremendous insult. People won’t bear it. People will become monstrous before they can bear it.

In a way, the internet is a high-rise slum — the very substance of neighborly friendliness, which is predicated on knowing one another’s identity and thus honoring one another’s personhood, vanishes behind the veneer of anonymity, shielded by which people perpetrate monstrous acts.

Margaret Mead, 1972 (Photograph: Charles Dees)

To illustrate the complex variables of identity beyond race, Mead shares a poignant autobiographical anecdote of her own formative experience with the duality of privilege and hardship, underpinned by the conscious choice not to partake in the era’s limiting and bigoted treatment of difference:

MEAD: I was born in a family where I was the child … that both my parents wanted. I had the traits that they liked, that each one of them liked in the other. I was told from the time I was born that I was totally satisfactory. I had a chance to be what I wanted to be and I have always been able to be what I wanted to be… Because I was born where I was, I was fortunate. And it wasn’t only because I was white, because there are an extraordinary number of white people in this country who are born very unfortunately. I might have been very fortunate had I been the third child of my parents instead of the first, with a baby who died in between somewhere so my father decided that he was never going to love the younger children too much.

But I have got to talk to you, you see, and I think that this is a problem. It isn’t only race. It is weighted by race, oh, it’s weighted by race. So you give yourself the same father and the same mother but you grow up in a small Iowa town. Fifty percent, seventy-five percent, God knows how much of suffering you would not have had, see? I mean, you just think of the things that you suffered by, and most of them were created by Harlem. Now, your father. If you had had your father as a father but he had been white… He could have been, you know. There have been white preachers that were just as rigid as your father.

[…]

It wasn’t because I was sitting, vis-à-vis black people, being privileged, as has happened in many parts of the world. I didn’t belong to a separate class. I lived in a small Pennsylvania community and I was brought up with tremendous concern for every person who was poor or different in that community. In a sense my happiness was a function of the fact that my mother did insist that I call the black woman who worked for us Mrs. My felicity was a function of a denial, if you like, or a refusal of a caste position.

A Rap on Race is spectacular in its entirety — a perspective-normalizing read that reminds us both how far we’ve come and how much further we have yet to go, equipping us with that delicate balance of outrage and hope that translates into the very moral courage necessary for building a more just and noble world.

Complement it with Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society and Mead on the root of racism.

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16 DECEMBER, 2014

Margaret Mead on Myth vs. Deception and What to Tell Kids about Santa Claus

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How to instill an appreciation of the difference between “fact” and “poetic truth,” in kids and grownups alike.

Few things rattle the fine line between the benign magic of mythology and the deliberate delusion of a lie more than the question of how, what, and whether to tell kids about Santa Claus. Half a century ago, Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) — the world’s most influential cultural anthropologist and one of history’s greatest academic celebrities — addressed this delicate subject with great elegance, extending beyond the jolly Christmas character and into larger questions of distinguishing between myth and deception.

From the wonderful out-of-print volume Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library) — the same compendium of Mead’s answers to audience questions from her long career as a public speaker and lecturer, which also gave us her remarkably timely thoughts on racism and law enforcement and equality in parenting — comes an answer to a question she was asked in December of 1964: “Were your children brought up to believe in Santa Claus? If so, what did you tell them when they discovered he didn’t exist?”

Mead’s response, which calls to mind Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, is a masterwork of celebrating rational, critical thinking without sacrificing magic to reason:

Belief in Santa Claus becomes a problem mainly when parents simultaneously feel they are telling their children a lie and insist on the literal belief in a jolly little man in a red suit who keeps tabs on them all year, reads their letters and comes down the chimney after landing his sleigh on the roof. Parents who enjoy Santa Claus — who feel that it is more fun talk about what Santa Claus will bring than what Daddy will buy you for Christmas and who speak of Santa Claus in a voice that tells no lie but instead conveys to children something about Christmas itself — can give children a sense of continuity as they discover the sense in which Santa is and is not “real.”

With her great gift for nuance, Mead adds:

Disillusionment about the existence of a mythical and wholly implausible Santa Claus has come to be a synonym for many kinds of disillusionment with what parents have told children about birth and death and sex and the glory of their ancestors. Instead, learning about Santa Claus can help give children a sense of the difference between a “fact” — something you can take a picture of or make a tape recording of, something all those present can agree exists — and poetic truth, in which man’s feelings about the universe or his fellow men is expressed in a symbol.

Recalling her own experience both as a child and as a parent, Mead offers an inclusive alternative to the narrow Santa Claus myth, inviting parents to use the commercial Western holiday as an opportunity to introduce kids to different folkloric traditions and value systems:

One thing my parents did — and I did for my own child — was to tell stories about the different kinds of Santa Claus figures known in different countries. The story I especially loved was the Russian legend of the little grandmother, the babushka, at whose home the Wise Men stopped on their journey. They invited her to come with them, but she had no gift fit for the Christ child and she stayed behind to prepare it. Later she set out after the Wise Men but she never caught up with them, and so even today she wanders around the world, and each Christmas she stops to leave gifts for sleeping children.

But Mead’s most important, most poetic point affirms the idea that children stories shouldn’t protect kids from the dark:

Children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know, when they hear about Kris Kringle and Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas and the little babushka, that this is a truth of a different kind.

Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views is, sadly, long out of print — but it’s an immeasurable trove of Mead’s wisdom well worth the used-book hunt. Complement it with Mead’s beautiful love letters to her soulmate and the story of how she discovered the meaning of life in a dream.

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05 DECEMBER, 2014

Margaret Mead on the Root of Racism and the Liability of Law Enforcement

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“The more complex a society becomes, the more fully the law must take into account the diversity of the people who live in it… It is a matter in which the whole society is involved.”

On her ascent to fame as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead became one of modern history’s greatest academic celebrities. As she toured the world to give university lectures, public talks, and presentations at various institutions, she brought with her the essential tools of anthropology — the art of looking, coupled with a great capacity for listening, for asking and answering questions. In 1963, Redbook Magazine began publishing Mead’s answers to the best questions she had received from audiences over her extensive career.

After Mead’s death in late 1978, her partner of a quarter-century, the anthropologist and Redbook editor Rhoda Metraux, collected the best of these questions and answers in Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library) — a compendium of Mead’s timeless insight into the human condition, bearing remarkably timely relevance to contemporary culture and public life even today. Many of Mead’s views — particularly her beliefs on equal parenting and the fluidity of human sexuality — were decades ahead of her time, but one particular subject stuns with its prescience half a century later, in the heartbreaking aftermath of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner: Mead’s piercing wisdom on the root of racism and the liability of law enforcement.

In January of 1969, Mead rebuffs the then-common belief among psychologists that children are born knowing how to love and are taught to hate, addressing the greater question of the root of intolerance and racial injustice:

Love and hate are two aspects of the same human capacity to react to other human beings in terms of experience. The infant whose world is warm, giving and reliable responds with love that echoes the love he has received. But the infant who is continually hungry, cold and neglected will come to hate those who hurt him and do not attend to his needs. In a sense, both love and hate are learned: the infant is born with the capacity to respond, and experience guides his learning.

It does seem true that hatred of a given person or a category of persons or things must be learned. We have to be taught whom to hate, and if we are not taught to hate people in categories, we won’t.

More than half a century after Tolstoy and Gandhi corresponded about war and why we hurt each other, Mead notes that modern wars are fought not out of personal human hatred but out of institutionalized economic and political agendas. Understanding learned hate, she argues, is more relevant to race and ethnic conflict than to war. She writes:

Children’s initial response to the strange often is one of fear. A brown-skinned child, seeing a white person for the first time, may scream with fear. A white-skinned child, seeing a dark person for the first time, may also. If the screaming, fearful child is comforted, reassured and given a chance to learn to know and trust the stranger, he will have one kind of response — one of trust and expectation of friendship. But if his fear is unassuaged or is reinforced by the attitude of the older children and adults around him, he may come to hate what he has feared.

This is why it is so important in a multiracial world and a multiracial society like ours that children have many experiences with individuals of races different from their own. Only in this way can we hope surely to dispel their early fear of the strange and enable them to distinguish among individuals, caring for some and disliking others, not because they belong to a category of loved or hated people, but because of their own personality, as individuals.

(Many decades earlier, Mark Twain had articulated the same sentiment, then even more ahead of its time, in his moving meditation on slavery and injustice.)

Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926, during her pioneering work in the Samoan Islands (Library of Congress)

In a question from 1964, just as the term “Negro” was beginning to fall out of popular use and shortly before it was replaced by the more politically dignified “African American,” Mead was asked to explain the statistic that “the Chinese, who live as unassimilated a life in America as Negroes do and who have suffered similarly from the effects of poverty and prejudice, have been so remarkably free of a criminal record.” With great sensitivity to nuance, she addresses the complex systemic issues at hand through the lens of anthropology, sociology, and political history:

In spite of superficial resemblances, the experiences of Chinese in America and of American Negroes have been very different. For the most part, Chinese migrants to the United States came of their own accord, and while they lived and worked here most of them remained closely related to their own society, to which, in theory if not always in practice, they expected to return. The Chinese have an ancient tradition of living in extraterritorial communities, and those who settled here organized a way of living which in some respects paralleled the way of living organized for Europeans and Americans who went to Chinese cities. Except for the scholars who came as students, most of those who left China were very poor, and they bettered their lot — and sometimes the lot of their families in China — by coming. Until recently the overwhelming majority were men, and the few women and children were protected within the Chinese community.

This role of independent, self-governing communities within the larger organism of American society, Mead argues, was a crucial factor in maintaining order and moral behavior within the Chinese immigrant communities, allowing them to “exact conforming behavior and punish infractions of accepted rules without, in general, appealing to American law-enforcing agencies.” Such autonomy made possible a self-regulating ecosystem of conduct as the Chinese essentially became “members of a self-selected colony” temporarily taking advantage of “the economic possibilities of an alien land.” Mead, of course, acknowledges the racism to which Chinese immigrants have been subjected in America, but points out a crucial qualitative difference:

When Americans exploited the Chinese through their unfamiliarity with our style of life or treated them to the kind of racism we have meted out to other non-Caucasians (or sometimes to non-Northern Europeans or non-English-speaking peoples), the Chinese colonists were angry and resentful, but the individual was not effectively damaged as a person. The greatest damage was to American clarity – to our own ability to see and understand a people different from ourselves.

Mead contrasts this with the “strikingly different” historical and social backdrop for African Americans, inflicted by the atrocity of slavery:

The ancestors of these Americans were brought from Africa by force, torn from a score of very different societies, speaking many different languages, without any traditional way of bridging the gaps between them and without a means of communicating with their own people still in Africa. Under slavery the family system, which was as strong in Africa as it was in China, was destroyed, and men were denied the right to have responsibility for their women and children. From the beginning, white men ruthlessly abused African women, and a new population grew up that was both bound in speech and custom to its white ancestry and punished by social ostracism and poverty for every trace of its African ancestry.

In a remark particularly — and devastatingly — prescient half a century later as we bear witness to the gruesome fallout of such historical baggage, Mead considers how such factors shaped these respective groups’ relationship with the law enforcement structures of the dominant society:

Unlike the Chinese, Negro Americans have had no ongoing style of social regulation to fall back on; what they have shared is the knowledge that the law is administered in one way for the white men and in other ways for themselves. Whereas the Chinese community has been able to protect its members, control its children, mete out informal punishment and reward, and cover for its members who break American laws, Negro Americans have had until very recently few means of protecting themselves to give them a sense of security and pride as a group.

But Mead’s most poignant and stunningly timely remark comes in her answer to another question about crime, law enforcement, and race in March of 1968:

The difficulty is that laws that attempt to enforce special forms of moral behavior breed disrespect for the law and for law-enforcing agencies among those who do not share the beliefs on which these regulations are based. And where disrespect and lawbreaking by the respectable are combined, one also finds connivance with crime in other areas of living.

The more complex a society becomes, the more fully the law must take into account the diversity of the people who live in it. The approach to crime is not a matter for the police and the courts — or even the lawmakers — alone. It is a matter in which the whole society is involved.

Mead, after all, is the person credited with the undying maxim, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views is an infinitely insightful read in its entirety, spanning sixteen years of Mead’s thoughts on love, sex, religion, politics, social dynamics, gender equality, personal choices, and the human condition. It is a pity that this treasure is long out of print — or, perhaps, evidence that even the most timeless and urgently necessary of humanity’s wisdom is seen by the publishing industry as disposable marketable commodity and quickly abandoned for some new fad — but used copies can still be found and are well, well worth the hunt.

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