Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

10 APRIL, 2015

Change the Narrative, Change Your Destiny: How James Baldwin Read His Way Out of Harlem and into Literary Greatness

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“You’re playing the game according to somebody else’s rules, and you can’t win until you understand the rules and step out of that particular game, which is not, after all, worth playing.”

NOTE: This is the third installment in a multi-part series celebrating Mead and Baldwin’s historic yet forgotten conversation. Part 1 focused on forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility; part 2 on identity, race, and the immigrant experience.

When Margaret Mead and James Baldwin sat down for their remarkable public conversation in the summer of 1970, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library), the seven and a half hours of generous genius that flowed between them covered such wide-ranging issues as race and gender, power and privilege, capitalism and democracy, and a wealth of nuanced human concerns in between.

One of the most poignant portions of the conversation looks at why real change becomes possible only when we change the cultural narrative. Baldwin recounts how, as a child, he read his way out of his own culturally-imposed narrative of possibility, which allowed him to go beyond what Kafka believed books could do for us — serve as “the axe for the frozen sea inside us” — and go further, turning books into an axe for the frozen sea between us.

I used to tell my mother, when I was little, “When I grow up I’m going to do this or do that. I’m going to be a great writer and buy you this and buy you that.” And she would say, very calmly, very dryly, “It’s more than a notion.” That kind of dry understatement which characterizes so much of black speech in America is my key to something, only I didn’t know it then.

Then I started reading. I read everything I could get my hands on, murder mysteries, The Good Earth, everything. By the time I was thirteen I had read myself out of Harlem. There were two libraries in Harlem, and by the time I was thirteen I had read every book in both libraries and I had a card downtown for Forty-Second Street… What I had to do then was bring the two things together: the possibilities the books suggested and the impossibilities of the life around me… Dickens meant a lot to me, for example, because there was a rage in Dickens which was also in me… And Uncle Tom’s Cabin meant a lot to me because there was a rage in her which was somehow in me. Something I recognized without knowing what I recognized.

Later in the conversation — which took place during the golden age of television — he quips:

I can’t bear television sets. But I can afford not to bear them because I read books.

One of Maurice Sendak's little-known vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading. Click image for more.

Baldwin — who was, at the time of the conversation, based in Paris and was perhaps the world’s most successful living poet — considers how, in stretching himself to create his identity, he reached not only beyond the geographic constraints of his neighborhood and the societal constraints of his culture, but beyond the English language itself:

I was very young, and the assumptions of the people by whom I was surrounded, who now were white people, were so fatally different that I was really in trouble. I was in danger of thinking myself out of existence, because … an unknown helpless black boy, wandering around the way I did and thinking the way I thought, was obviously a dangerous kind of freak. Obviously, you say what you think, and there is no way to hide what you think. People look at you with great wonder and great hostility, and I got scared because I could see that I wouldn’t be able to function in this world or even in this language, and I went away.

But I began to think in French. I began to understand the English language better than I ever had before; I began to understand the English language which I came out of, the language that produced Ray Charles or Bessie Smith or which produced all the poets who produced me. A kind of reconciliation began which could not have happened if I had not stepped out of the English language.

[…]

There is a sense in which I could say I never have left Harlem. But there is another sense in which I certainly never can go back there, if only because the Harlem in which I was born exists no longer. And though that rupture has something to do with race, it also has something to do with the nature or quality or the specialness — I don’t know what the word is — of human experience.

Further into the conversation, Baldwin revisits this particular paradox of the human experience — the great challenge of rewriting the system’s limiting narratives of possibility and the great duty, if we are to escape their traps, of setting out to rewrite them however challenging the task:

If you’re born into that situation, the nature of the trap is with your not even knowing it, acquiescing. You’ve been taught that you’re inferior so you act as though you’re inferior. And on the level that is very difficult to get at, you really believe it. And, of course, all the things you do to prove you’re not inferior only really prove you are. They boomerang… You’re playing the game according to somebody else’s rules, and you can’t win until you understand the rules and step out of that particular game, which is not, after all, worth playing.

He later adds:

Once people know what they know, they make the unconscious assumption that they were born knowing what they know, and forget that they had to learn everything they know.

We are always, Baldwin seems to remind us, the product of what we learn — but we can choose whether to learn it by passive osmosis of the system’s values or by active self-invention. “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” he resonates with Mead in another part of the conversation. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” To learn by such passive osmosis is to acquiesce to the world’s terms of how we are to be treated. To read is to be exposed to other possible versions of ourselves, beyond those bequeathed to us by our direct cultural ancestors and instead borrowed, at will, from what Mead called our “mythical ancestors”. In championing this notion, Baldwin is echoing Seneca — one of his own mythical ancestors, perhaps — who argued two thousand years earlier that reading allows us to be adopted into the “households of the noblest intellects” and raised by parents of our own choosing, becoming persons of our own creation.

Pair this particular passage from the altogether culturally requisite A Rap on Race with C.S. Lewis on why we read, Rebecca Solnit on what books do for the human soul, and Mary Ruefle on why “someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world.”

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10 APRIL, 2015

The Illustrated Story of Harvey Milk, Humanitarian Martyr for Love

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How a little boy with big ears grew up to hear the cry for social justice and answered it with a clarion call for equality in the kingdom of love.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his indispensable 1963 letter from Birmingham City Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” One rainy January Sunday fifteen years later, long before Edie Windsor catalyzed the triumph of marriage equality, Harvey Milk (May 22, 1930–November 27, 1978) was sworn into office on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall and became the first openly gay elected city official in America. His assassination eleven months later devastated millions and rendered him modernity’s great secular martyr for love. His tenure, however tragically brief, forever changed the landscape of civil rights.

In The Harvey Milk Story (public library) — a wonderful addition to the best LGBT children’s books — writer Kari Krakow and artist David Gardner tell the heartening and heartbreaking story of how a little boy with big ears grew up to hear the cry for social justice and how he answered it with a groundbreaking clarion call for equality in the kingdom of love.

Harvey was Born the second child of a middle-class Jewish family in upstate New York. He was a boy at once brimming with joy, frequently entertaining the family by conducting an invisible orchestra in the living room, and full of deep sensitivity to the suffering of others.

He was deeply moved when his mother, Minnie, told him the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews who courageously defended themselves even as the Nazis outnumbered them — a story that imprinted him with a profound empathy for the oppressed even before he had a clear sense that he would grow up to be one of them.

Although Harvey was athletic and popular in school, he anguished under the burden of a deep wistfulness — by the time he was fourteen, he knew he was gay, but like many queer people of his time, he kept this centerpiece of identity a closely guarded secret for a great many years to come.

He came of age, after all, in an era when queer couples celebrated their love only in private and when geniuses as vital to humanity as computing pioneer Alan Turing were driven to suicide after being criminally prosecuted by the government for being gay.

After graduating from college, Harvey joined the Navy, becoming an expert deep-sea diver and ascending through the ranks until he came to head a submarine rescue vessel.

When he went to his bother Robert’s wedding, he looked so handsome in his navy uniform that his family and friends all wondered when he would settle down and get married to the “right girl.”

But instead, like the hero of the heartwarming King & King fairy tale, Harvey fell in love and settled down with the right boy, a young man named Joe.

They moved together to a little town in New York, where Harvey became a high school math and science teacher. But after six years, Harvey and Joe separated — as Krakow points out, the pressure to hide their relationship in fear of losing their jobs put an undue strain on their love. Weary of hiding his identity, Harvey moved to San Francisco’s gay-friendly Castro neighborhood — where queer couples walked down the street holding hands like any other couple would in any other city — and he fell in love again.

Together with Scott, his new partner, Harvey opened a small store called Castro Camera, which soon turned into a community center as Harvey became a one-man Craigslist, counseling neighbors on everything from finding apartments to applying for jobs.

The more Harvey listened to the people, the more he sensed that they needed a leader — not only an informal one, but one who fought on their behalf in the eyes of the law, standing up to the police who harassed them constantly and fighting against the daily indignities of discrimination, from which the political system failed to protect them. Harvey saw only one course of action — to apply for office. His customers and the community embraced his campaign and volunteered their time.

Eleven-year-old Medora Payne came every day after school to lick envelopes and hand out brochures for Harvey. She organized a fundraiser at her school, earning $39.28 for his campaign.

Bigots believed that it wasn’t right or even possible for an openly gay candidate to be elected. Indeed, Harvey lost three consecutive election cycles between 1973 and 1976, but didn’t lose faith. He remained emboldened by the unflinching conviction that the rights of minorities — not only the LGBT community, but also African Americans, Asian Americans, senior citizens, and the disabled — weren’t adequately represented in and protected by the government. His people loved him for the dedication.

At last, in 1977, he was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors and sworn into office the following January as Supervisor Milk. He immediately set out to champion greater quality of life for the people of the city — a kind of Robert Moses without the evil genius, bolstering the city’s parks, schools, and police protection. Eventually, he introduced a pioneering gay bill of rights. After ten of the city’s eleven supervisors voted for it, Mayor George Moscone signed it into law, proclaiming with gusto as Milk stood by his side:

I don’t do this enough, taking swift and unambiguous action on a substantial move for civil rights.

It was a historic moment, marked by a moving speech Milk made in front of City Hall, calling for a gay rights march in Washington.

But as the city celebrated, one man sat consumed with hateful bigotry and personal jealousy — Dan White, the only Supervisor who hadn’t voted for Milk’s bill and who had resigned from office in a petty act of protest, only to ask for his job back ten days later. Sensing his ill will, Mayor Moscone had refused to hire him back.

On a gloomy November morning, White crept into City Hall through a basement window, with a loaded gun. He barged into Moscone’s office and shot the mayor, promptly reloading his gun and heading down the hall to Harvey Milk’s office. Five shots echoed through the marble building.

Harvey Milk was dead.

People everywhere were stunned by the news of the double assassination. They left their homes, jobs and schools to mourn the loss of these two great leaders. Crowds began forming in front of City Hall. By nightfall thousands filled the mile-long street and ran from the Castro to City Hall. They stood in silence, carrying candles. That night the people of San Francisco wept.

Harvey Milk was gone, but his legacy only gained momentum in the fight for civil rights. The following October, a hundred thousand people brought his dream to life and took to the streets of Washington in the capital’s first-ever Gay Pride March, many carrying portraits of the slain San Francisco hero.

Thirty-four years later, one brave woman picked up where he left off and made possible a dream even Milk didn’t dare to dream — one which the president himself proclaimed “a victory for American democracy,” the triumphant road to which Milk had paved.

Complement The Harvey Milk Story with marriage equality patron saint Edie Windsor on love and the truth about equality, these moving vintage photographs of queer couples, and history’s most beautiful LGBT love letters.

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19 MARCH, 2015

A Rap on Race: Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s Rare Conversation on Forgiveness and the Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility

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“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.”

NOTE: This is the first installment in a multi-part series covering Mead and Baldwin’s historic conversation. You can read Part 2, focusing on identity and the immigrant experience, here.

On the evening of August 25, 1970, Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) and James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) sat together on a stage in New York City for a remarkable public conversation about such enduring concerns as identity, power and privilege, race and gender, beauty, religion, justice, and the relationship between the intellect and the imagination. By that point, Baldwin, forty-six and living in Paris, was arguably the world’s most famous living poet, 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 best cultural institutions and had a popular advice column in Redbook magazine.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

They talked for seven and a half hours of brilliance and bravery over the course of the weekend, bringing to the dialogue the perfect balance of similarity and difference to make it immensely simulating and deeply respectful. On the one hand, as a white woman and black man in the first half of the twentieth century, they had come of age through experiences worlds apart. On the other, they had worlds in common as intellectual titans, avid antidotes to the era’s cultural stereotypes, queer people half a century before marriage equality, and unflinching celebrators of the human spirit.

Besides being a remarkable and prescient piece of the cultural record, their conversation, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library), is also a bittersweet testament to one of the recurring themes in their dialogue — our tendency to sideline the past as impertinent to the present, only to rediscover how central it is in understanding the driving forces of our world and harnessing them toward a better future. This forgotten treasure, which I dusted off shortly after Ferguson and the Eric Gardner tragedy, instantly stopped my breath with its extraordinary timeliness — the ideas with which these two remarkable minds tussled in 1970 had emerged, unsolved and unresolved, to haunt and taunt us four decades later with urgency that can no longer be evaded or denied.

Although some of what is said is so succinctly brilliant that it encapsulates the essence of the issue — at one point, Baldwin remarks: “We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.” — this is nonetheless a conversation so complex, so dimensional, so wide-ranging, that to synthesize it in a single article or highlight a single dominant theme would be to instantly flatten it and strip it of power. Instead, I am going to do something I’ve never done in nearly a decade of Brain Pickings — explore this immensely valuable cultural artifact in a multi-part series examining a specific viewpoint from this zoetrope of genius in each installment, beginning with Mead and Baldwin’s tapestry of perspectives on forgiveness, the difference between guilt and responsibility, and the role of the past in understanding the present and building a more dignified future.

As they bring up their shared heartbreak over the bombing in Birmingham that killed four black girls at Sunday school a month after Martin Luther King’s famous letter on justice and nonviolent resistance, Mead and Baldwin arrive at one of the most profound ongoing threads of this long conversation — the question of guilt, responsibility, and the crucial difference between the two in assuring a constructive rather than destructive path forward:

MEAD: There are different ways of looking at guilt. In the Eastern Orthodox faith, everybody shares the guilt of creatureliness and the guilt for anything they ever thought. Now, the Western Northern-European position and the North American position on the whole is that you’re guilty for things that you did yourself and not for things that other people did.

[…]

BALDWIN: The police in this country make no distinction between a Black Panther or a black lawyer or my brother or me. The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger. I’m part of this society and I’m in exactly the same situation as anybody else — any other black person — in it. If I don’t know that, then I’m fairly self-deluded… What I’m trying to get at is the question of responsibility. I didn’t drop the bomb [that killed four black school girls in Birmingham]. And I never lynched anybody. Yet I am responsible not for what has happened but for what can happen.

MEAD: Yes, that’s different. I think the responsibility for what can happen, which in a sense is good guilt — which is sort of a nonsensical term —

BALDWIN: Yes, but I know what you mean. It’s useful guilt.

MEAD: Responsibility. It is saying I am going to make an effort to have things changed. But to take the responsibility for something that was done by others —

BALDWIN: Well, you can’t do that.

Mead illustrates the perils of confusing responsibility and guilt with an exquisite example from her own life as a mother, from the time in the mid-1940s when she was heading a university initiative to foster cross-racial and cross-ethnic relationships:

MEAD: I was walking across the Wellesley campus with my four-year-old, who was climbing pine trees instead of keeping up with me.

I said, “You come down out of that pine tree. You don’t have to eat pine needles like an Indian.” So she came down and she asked, “Why do the Indians have to eat pine needles?” I said, “To get their Vitamin C, because they don’t have any oranges.” She asked, “Why don’t they have any oranges?” Then I made a perfectly clear technical error; I said, “Because the white man took their land away from them.” She looked at me and she said, “Am I white?” I said, “Yes, you are white.” “But I didn’t took their land away from them, and I don’t like it to be tooken!” she shouted.

Now if I had said, “The early settlers took their land away,” she would have said, “Am I an early settler?” But I had made a blanket racial category: the white man. It was a noble sentiment, but it was still racial sentiment.

With an eye to this demand for responsibility in the present rather than guilt over the past, the conversation once again reveals its contemporary poignancy:

MEAD: The kids say — and they’re pretty clear about it — that the future is now. It’s no use predicting about the year 2000.

BALDWIN: No.

MEAD: It’s what we do this week that matters.

BALDWIN: Exactly.

MEAD: That’s the only thing there is; there isn’t any other time.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics. Click image for more.

They revisit the subject of guilt, with its perilous religious roots, and the complexities of forgiveness in discussing the crime of slavery:

BALDWIN: I, at the risk of being entirely romantic, think that is the crime which is spoken in the Bible, the sin against the Holy Ghost which cannot be forgiven. And if that is true —

MEAD: Then we’ve nowhere to go.

BALDWIN: No, we have atonement.

MEAD: Not for the sin against the Holy Ghost.

BALDWIN: No?

MEAD: I mean, after all, you were once a theologian.

BALDWIN: I was once a preacher, yes indeed.

MEAD: And the point about the sin against the Holy Ghost is that —

BALDWIN: It is that it cannot be forgiven.

MEAD: So if you state a crime impossible of forgiveness you’ve doomed everyone.

[…]

Look, there have been millions of crimes committed against humanity. Millions! Now, why is one crime more important than another?

BALDWIN: No, my point precisely is that one crime is not more important than another and that all crimes must be atoned for.

MEAD: All right, all crimes… But when you talk about atonement you’re talking about people who weren’t born when this was committed.

BALDWIN: No, I mean the recognition of where one finds one’s self in time or history or now. I mean the recognition. After all, I’m not guiltless, either. I sold my brothers for my sisters —

[…]

MEAD: I will not accept any guilt for what anybody else did. I will accept guilt for what I did myself.

[…]

BALDWIN: We both have produced, all of us have produced, a system of reality which we cannot in any way whatever control; what we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.

This is a conversation underpinned by a profound baseline mutual respect and punctuated by wonderfully sweet in-the-moment manifestations of it — Mead and Baldwin frequently repeat each other’s words in a gesture of validation, and even bicker amicably about not letting the other be too self-effacing (“If I’m bright at all, and that’s debatable,” Baldwin says in one aside, and Mead quickly interjects, “It’s not very debatable.” “It’s very debatable to me,” Baldwin counters. “Well, permit somebody else to do the debating,” she quips affably.) But they have no reservations about voicing, if courteously, ideological disagreement — which is what makes the conversation so rich, stimulating, and full of wisdom. One of the most moving instances of this dynamic emerges when they return to their divergent views on guilt and responsibility, only to discover under the surface divergence profound common ground:

MEAD: Did you bomb those little girls in Birmingham?

BALDWIN: I’m responsible for it. I didn’t stop it.

MEAD: Why are you responsible? Didn’t you try to stop it? Hadn’t you been working?

BALDWIN: It doesn’t make any difference what one’s tried.

MEAD: Of course it makes a difference what one’s tried.

BALDWIN: No, not really.

MEAD: This is the fundamental difference. You are talking like a member of the Russian Orthodox Church… “We are all guilty. Because some man suffers, we are all murderers.”

BALDWIN: No, no, no. We are all responsible.

MEAD: Look, you are not responsible.

BALDWIN: That blood is also on my hands.

MEAD: Why?

BALDWIN: Because I didn’t stop it.

MEAD: Is the blood of somebody who is dying in Burma today on your hands?

BALDWIN: Yes, yes.

MEAD: Because you didn’t stop that? That’s what I mean by the Russian Orthodox position, that all of us are guilty of all that has been done or thought —

BALDWIN: Yes.

MEAD: And I will not accept it. I will not.

BALDWIN: “For whom the bell tolls.” … It means everybody’s suffering is mine.

MEAD: Everybody’s suffering is mine but not everybody’s murdering, and that is a very different point. I would accept everybody’s sufferings. I do not distinguish for one moment whether my child is in danger or a child in Central Asia. But I will not accept responsibility for what other people do because I happen to belong to that nation or that race or that religion. I do not believe in guilt by association.

BALDWIN: But, Margaret, I have to accept it. I have to accept it because I am a black man in the world and I am not only in America… I have a green passport and I am an American citizen, and the crimes of this Republic, whether or not I am guilty of them, I am responsible for.

MEAD: But you see, I think there is a difference. I am glad I am an American because I think we can do more harm than any other country on this earth at the moment, so I would rather be inside the country that could do the most harm.

BALDWIN: In the eye of the hurricane.

MEAD: In the eye of the hurricane, because I think I may be able to do more good there.

[…]

We are responsible for that. That we are responsible for those unborn children, black, white, yellow, red-green, as the Seventh-Day Adventists say — all of them. We agree completely on that.

Now, is it necessary at this moment in history … for someone who is black to take a different stance in relation to the past although we take the same stance in relation to the future? Now it may be. You see, the question I was raising earlier is that maybe in order to act one has to take a different stance.

BALDWIN: … Now, a thousand years from now it will not matter; that is perfectly true. A thousand years ago it was worse; that is perfectly true. I am not responsible for that. I am responsible for now.

MEAD: Now.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s; found in Cartographies of Time. (Click image for more.)

Reflecting on “that peculiar chemistry which we call time,” Baldwin stresses “the necessity of the long view” — something triply necessary today, amid our epidemic of short-termism — and considers the relationship between the past and the present in making sense of responsibility:

BALDWIN: A man’s life doesn’t encompass even half a thousand years. And whether or not I like it, I am responsible for something which is happening now and fight as hard as I can for the life of everybody on this planet now.

[…]

MEAD: The more one wants to be an activist the narrower the time is.

BALDWIN: Precisely! Precisely!

MEAD: What the kids say … if you cut out all the past —

BALDWIN: You can’t.

[…]

They are acting in the past. They don’t know it. It takes a long time to realize that there is a past… It takes a long time to understand anything at all about what we call the past — and begin to be liberated from it. Those kids are romantic, not even revolutionaries. At least not yet. They don’t know what revolution entails. They think everything is happening in the present. They think they are the present. They think that nothing ever happened before in the whole history of the world.

They return to this dance between past and present a few hours later:

BALDWIN: We are responsible —

MEAD: For the future. For the present and the future.

BALDWIN: If we don’t manage the present there will be no future.

As someone who thinks a great deal about the interplay of hope and cynicism, I was particularly moved by Baldwin’s de facto disclaimer to the whole question of demanding responsibility from others:

BALDWIN: A great deal of what I say just leaves me open, I suppose, to a vast amount of misunderstanding. A great deal of what I say is based on an assumption which I hold and don’t always state. You know my fury about people is based precisely on the fact that I consider them to be responsible, moral creatures who so often do not act that way. But I am not surprised when they do. I am not that wretched a pessimist, and I wouldn’t sound the way I sound if I did not expect what I expect from human beings, if I didn’t have some ultimate faith and love, faith in them and love for them. You see, I am a human being too, and I have no right to stand in judgment of the world as though I am not a part of it. What I am demanding of other people is what I am demanding of myself.

The enactment of this moral optimism, Baldwin argues and Mead agrees, is in the hands of the future generations — those generations to which, half a century later, you and I belong — which lends their conversation extraordinary poignancy:

BALDWIN: The world is scarcely habitable for the conscious young… There is a tremendous national, global, moral waste.

MEAD: I know.

BALDWIN: And the question is, How can it be arrested? That’s the enormous question. Look, you and I both are whatever we have become, and whatever happens to us now doesn’t really matter. We’re done. It’s a matter of the curtain coming down eventually. But what should we do about the children? We are responsible; so far as we are responsible at all, our responsibility lies there, toward them. We have to assume that we are responsible for the future of this world.

MEAD: That’s right.

BALDWIN: What shall we do? How shall we begin it? How can it be accomplished? How can one invest others with some hope?

MEAD: Then we come to a point where I would say it matters to know where we came from. That it matters to know the long, long road that we’ve come through. And this is the thing that gives me hope we can go further.

A Rap on Race is spectacular and pause-giving in its entirety — the kind of 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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18 MARCH, 2015

Martin Luther King on the Two Types of Laws and the Four Steps to Successful Nonviolent Resistance

By:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

On April 3, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began coordinating a series of sit-ins and nonviolent demonstrations against racial injustice in Birmingham, Alabama. On April 12, he was violently arrested on the charge of parading without a permit, per an injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” that a local circuit judge had issued two days earlier, a week into the protests.

On the day of Dr. King’s arrest, eight male Alabama clergymen issued a public statement directed at him, titled “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense.” They accused him of being an “outsider” to the community’s cause, suggested that racial injustice in Alabama shouldn’t be his business, and claimed that the nonviolent resistance demonstrations he led were “unwise and untimely.” “We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations,” they wrote. It was such a blatant example of the very injustice Dr. King had dedicated his life to eradicating — the hijacking of what should be “common sense” to all in the service of what is “common” and convenient to only those in power — that he felt compelled to respond. The following day, while still in jail, he penned a remarkable book-length open letter. (“Never before have I written a letter this long,” he marveled as he penned the final paragraphs.)

Aware of the media’s power to incite the popular imagination, King and his team began distributing mimeographed copies to the clergy of Birmingham and eventually made their way to the press. Major newspapers and magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Post, published excerpts. The full text was eventually published as Letter from Birmingham City Jail (public library) and became not only a foundational text of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s but an enduring manifesto for social justice and the human struggle for equality in every sense of the word, in every corner of the world.

Drawing on his vast pool of intellectual resources — from Socrates to St. Augustine to Thoreau — and his own singular gift for blending the powers of a philosopher, a preacher, and a poet, Dr. King debunks the clergymen’s arguments one by one, beginning with their assertion that the injustice in Birmingham is not his “outsider” business:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

He outlines the four pillars of nonviolent resistance — which bear a poignant parallel to the four rules for arguing intelligently that philosopher Daniel Dennett would formulate more than half a century later — and writes:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: 1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; 2) negotiation; 3) self-purification; and 4) direct action.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s timeless wisdom on the constructive and destructive elements in human nature“Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power,” he wrote in 1926, “but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.” — King puts forth the wonderful notion of “creative tension” as a force of constructive action:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue… There is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

King’s ideas undoubtedly influenced South African writer, freedom-fighter, and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer when, a decade later, she contemplated the role of the writer as precisely such a gadfly on the back of injustice — something King further illuminates when he adds:

We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing create, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

He considers why such nonviolent instigation of “creative tension” is vital to the claiming of freedom:

History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and give up their unjust posture; but … groups are more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

Dr. King's handwritten notes for the letter (The King Center Archive)

He zooms in on the accusation of untimeliness and, arguing that “justice too long delayed is justice denied,” and puts in poignant perspective the relativity of timeliness:

I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; … when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Fun-town is closed to colored children, and see depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; … when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.

Indeed, he argues that at the root of the clergymen’s accusations is a profound misconception of time. Time, as we know, is a human invention that Galileo perfected; like all technology, it is a neutral tool that can be bent to wills good and evil, put toward ends constructive and destructive — something King captures beautifully:

All this … grows out of a tragic misconception of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift out national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

He goes on to explore the expatiation of the legal system for the unjust ends of those in power:

There are two types of laws: There are just and unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” … An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong…

[…]

An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority group that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

In a sense, contemporary popular culture is built on the same foundation as unjust law — on the warping of sameness and difference, which Shonda Rhimes addressed with extraordinary elegance of insight in her Human Rights Campaign award acceptance speech. To King, indeed, the law should be reclaimed as an ally to the populace in its diverse totality rather than a formalized system of objectifying people. He sees nonviolent resistance not as a way to destroy the law but as a way to normalize it:

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law… That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly, … and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.

But the law, of course, cannot and should not be separate from the social forces that support it. In one of his most poignant remarks in the letter, which resonates all the more deeply in our present culture where impenitent reaction has replaced considered response and become the seedbed of misunderstanding, King adds:

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Letter from Birmingham City Jail remains an indispensable read for any thinking, feeling member of the human family. Complement it with Einstein’s little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on race and racial justice and Margaret Mead on the root of racism and how to counter it.

Thank you, Jacqueline

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