“Fear is the basis of religious dogma,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his magnificent 1925 meditation on why religion exists. Nearly half a century later, two other intellectual titans considered the dark side of religion at the height of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. In the summer of 1970, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin sat down for their 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 issues of astonishing timeliness today — including the injustice perpetrated in the name of religion.
I remember the photographs of white women in New Orleans, several years ago, during the school integration crisis, who were standing with their babies in their arms, and in the name of Jesus Christ they were spitting on other women’s children, women who happened to be black, women with their babies in their arms. I have never been able to understand that at all. To put it in rather exaggerated primitive terms, I don’t understand at all what the white man’s religion means to him. I know that the white man’s religion has done to me. And so, I could — can — accuse the white Christian world of being nothing but a tissue of lies, nothing but an excuse for power, as being as removed as anything can possibly be from any sense of worship and, still more, from any sense of love. I cannot understand that religion. And I really mean that. I am not joking when I say I cannot understand it. I mean, I can have a fight with a bartender or I can have a fight with you, I think, but I can’t have a fight with a baby, with a child.
With his mind’s eye on one of the most iconic and heartbreaking photographs from the Holocaust, Baldwin adds:
There is a photograph from the Second World War which is haunting my memory — stays in my memory forever. It’s of a little Jewish boy about five or six, and by the time I saw this photograph he was dead. The Gestapo had just surrounded him. He was standing in a street looking down at his shoes: a beautiful little boy, and he looked the way little boys look when they’ve peed on themselves. You know, he just did not know what had happened to him. And they were going to take that little boy away and kill him because he was a Jew. And this is in the name of Christianity! I know that human beings do this all the time, but I never understood it.
When Mead protests that she doesn’t believe the Nazis perpetrated this atrocity “in the name of Christianity,” Baldwin — who was a preacher for three and a half years — counters:
BALDWIN: The first European power to sign a concordat with Hitler was the Pope. And I am old enough to remember the Italian-Ethiopian war, when the pope of that church which stands in Rome sent out white Italian boys with his blessings to rape Ethiopia.
MEAD: They also used to bless the Germans when they were going to rape the French, and the French when they were going to rape the Germans. You are dealing with a period where people blessed every army.
BALDWIN: What I am dealing with is the morality beneath all this.
The point, of course, isn’t to vilify any one religion — we live in a world of enough antagonism, and we have hard enough a time cultivating the capacity for true compassion in which, as Tolstoy and Gandhi agreed in their famous correspondence on why we hurt each other, our civilization’s only true salvation lies. The point — Baldwin’s point in saying this, and mine in resurfacing it after all these decades — is that religion is merely a technology of thought, and like any technology it can be used for noble purposes and it can be used for vile ones. The point, above all, is to remember that no doctrine or dogma will ever provide a shortcut for the critical thinking and moral wisdom for which each of us is responsible in how we contact this world.
And yet Mead argues that both she and Baldwin — people in America and most of the West, that is — got their sense of morality from the Christian tradition. She considers where the broader moral idea of universal brotherhood originated:
MEAD: Muslims don’t believe in loving everybody as brothers. They only love Muslims as brothers. They don’t really have an idea of universal brotherhood… You can find it in Buddhism, but you didn’t get it from Buddhism. Now, that’s the point. You and I, what we have in the belief in the brotherhood of man, of all men, of the power of love, we got out of the Christian tradition.
BALDWIN: Did we? I mean, I accept the premise. I know what you are saying. But at the risk of being difficult, did we? I wonder. It seems to me that there are lots of ways to read the New Testament, and in my experience no pope, except perhaps John XXIII, can possibly have read it… What I am trying to get at is if any particular discipline — whether it be Christianity, Buddhism or LSD, God forbid — does not become a matter of your personal honor, your private convictions, then it’s simply a cloak which you can wear or throw off.
Three years before E.F. Schumacher laid out his seminal vision for a Buddhist approach to economics, urging us to stop prioritizing products over people and consumption over creative fulfillment, two other titans of thought shone their luminous intellects on the dark underbelly of capitalism and consumer culture. When Margaret Mead and James Baldwin sat down for their remarkable public conversation in August of 1970, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library), they explored with great insight and dimension the many factors that shape the forces of equality and inequality in our world — the world of 1970 and doubly so the world of today, for such was the prescience produced by cross-pollinating these two formidably fertile minds.
As Mead and Baldwin weave in and out of the subject of capitalism throughout the conversation, they reserve especial criticism for the mainstream models of success we’ve bought into — models that continue to shackle us to social Shoulds as we race on the hedonic treadmill of consumerism:
BALDWIN: I have never accepted the notion that you keep a Cadillac or a yacht or anything at all, except perhaps for convenience. I have always had a quarrel with this country not only about race but about the standards by which it appears to live. People are drowning in things. They don’t even know what they want them for. They are actually useless. You can’t sleep with a yacht. You can’t make love to a Cadillac, though everyone appears to be trying to… I think the great emotional or psychological or effective lack of love and touching is the key to the American or even the Western disease.
Mead considers the origin of this compulsive consumption and how the pursuit of privilege over happiness poisoned the American dream:
MEAD: But most people who came here were terribly poor and wanted things.
BALDWIN: To prove they existed.
MEAD: To prove they could get them all. They had been eating the black bread of poverty, so they came over here and they wanted to eat the white bread that was eaten in the castle. So they instead of eating good, nourishing, whole wheat bread —
BALDWIN: They started eating white bread. Yes, indeed, look at the results.
MEAD: They began eating too much sugar too; thats what the people in the castle had… Old Americans were frugal… I was brought up to untie each package carefully, untie the knots in the string and roll it up and put it away to use again.
BALDWIN: Yes, I still do that too. And I hate myself for it.
Having grown up in Bulgaria during communism, I too had an acute experience of this bread-as-status-symbol phenomenon, as well as of the conflicted self-loathing it produced and still produces. And yet, as Baldwin and Mead both acknowledge, such fallibility is a profoundly human reaction to the oppressive forces of adversity — a testament to the notion of force and counterforce:
BALDWIN: The dream of the starving is to be fed.
MEAD: Yes, that’s it. And the dream of the people who have nothing is to have things…
BALDWIN: The great revolution … that one has dared… The dream of the starving is not only to be fed… One has got to arrive at the point where one realizes that if one man is hungry everyone is hungry.
Indeed, this conversation took place at the height of the New Age movement and the hippie counterculture — a time when Alan Watts admonished that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.” In this call for unity, Mead sees as a model for a better dream of our shared human future — a vision resurrected by the sustainability movement of our own age. Today, Mead’s vision seems remarkably prophetic as we enact a great many of her hopes and some of her fears:
MEAD: What I hope is going to happen in the world is a demand similar to the one in this country, the demand for a simpler form of life. Coming up from the kids of the affluent middle class who say, “We don’t want to live like this. We don’t want to over-capitalize the individual home this way. We want to make things much more collective.” Then maybe we can invent a style in this country that is viable for other countries. Because otherwise what is happening is that other countries are copying this style, so the few educated and elite can get themselves some Cadillacs and big houses. Then all of the rest of the people are miserable. Also we are bleeding the world of its resources and we can’t do that.
This, too, I experienced acutely while growing up in Bulgaria — my mother used to rinse out empty yogurt containers and even previously-used plastic bags, which she reused for various purposes. I was tremendously embarrassed by this practice, which didn’t signify resourcefulness but a lack of resources. And yet by the time I was in my twenties, reusing shopping bags became a status symbol for the conscientious consumer who could, but chose not to, afford disposability. Indeed, recycling today is primarily a political act of the privileged, not a coping mechanism of the poor.
Mead peers backward and forward in time to examine the origin and outcome of these cultural forces:
MEAD: So what is the American dream? The American dream has been the dream of the immigrant. The dream of old Commodore Vanderbilt. What did he borrow? Two hundred dollars from his mother and started bringing potatoes over from Staten Island — who ended up building palaces. But they were not palaces of kings. They were palaces of people who had had nothing and wanted things. And then I go back to my Manus people in New Guinea, who said, “When you have plenty, then you can afford to begin to think about human beings. And when you don’t have, you don’t think about human beings.”
BALDWIN: Well that is both true and not true. I don’t want to be sentimental about poverty, which is a hideous condition. I once flew from Istanbul to Switzerland. Istanbul is exceedingly poor. But the people will give you anything they have, and there is a kind of human warmth which you do not find on the streets of Lausanne.
MEAD: Where everybody is well off.
BALDWIN: Yes. And you wouldn’t dream of asking anybody for the time of day.
MEAD: Well, you can produce a kind of private-property-oriented society, where they also have the private property, where they don’t have any free energy for anyone else at all.
Later in the conversation, Mead and Baldwin revisit the general problem of capitalism and the particular problem of our consumerist dependence on cars, once again presaging the buildup of brokenness that would lead, decades later, to the success of solutions like Tesla:
BALDWIN: Mass production has made human life impossible.
MEAD: No, not really. We never could have things for everybody until we got mass production.
BALDWIN: And what are we going to do with it now?
MEAD: Well, something else. You know, just because the Ford car and the idea of Mr. Ford did give enormous freedom to people in this country, it doesn’t mean that we have to —
BALDWIN: It didn’t give them any freedom, it gave them tremendous mobility.
MEAD: Well, Americans think mobility and freedom are very close together. If you take Detroit, now… A study has just been made that compares somebody without a car only a few blocks away from somebody with a car. The one with a car is not twice as mobile, he is over ten times as mobile.
BALDWIN: This I discovered to my horror when I was living in Hollywood… Human feet have suddenly become obsolete. There’s no point in having feet, except to drive the car. I guess I am badly placed in this society, in many ways. But I see what you mean. I know we had to have these things, we had to have them. I know that it was at one point in human history a tremendous advance for the human race. But now mass production, the consumer society, seems to be one of the things that menace us the most, because we have become so dependent upon it.
MEAD: The automobile in its present shape is a monster. But to envisage a society without automobiles, with the number of people that we have, is also very difficult, We will have to make some new inventions.
BALDWIN: Then we have got to find a way to control this… this monster we have created.
MEAD: That’s right. We have to find different kinds of automobiles, set them up differently.
BALDWIN: And keep them out of the cities.
And yet changes of this magnitude, Mead and Baldwin agree, require that we unmoor ourselves from some of our most basic assumptions about how the world works. They consider the exploitive models upon which capitalism is built and envision a more just alternative:
BALDWIN: It is very difficult to ask people to give up the assumptions by which they have always lived, and yet that is the demand the world has got to make now of everybody.
One has been avoiding the word capitalism and one has been avoiding talking about matters on that level. But there is a very serious flaw in the profit system which is implicit in the phrase itself. And, in some way or another, one can even say at this moment, sitting in this room, that the Western economy is due to the fact that in a way every dime I earn, the system which earns it for me — I don’t mean the fact that I write books, but the way the system works, the base — is standing on the back of some black miner in South Africa, and he is going to stand up presently. Now, if we don’t anticipate that, we will be in terrible trouble. Because he is not going to be bending under his weight ten years from now. And if we don’t understand that and let him stand up, the whole thing is going to be a shambles.
MEAD: I agree. But I also think … that if the systems, whether they call themselves private power or public planning, don’t learn to think ahead further and include all human beings more, they are contributing to the shambles.
Ultimately, such a shift away from exploitive profit requires — then and, even more urgently so, now — that we reimagine what democracy itself might look like if all human beings are to be elevated and none exploited:
BALDWIN: It demands — especially here and now because we are here and now — a vast amount of passion and some courage to attack the forces which menace everybody’s life. The life of everybody on this planet is menaced by, to put it too simply, the extraordinary and even willful ignorance of people in high places. If the democratic notion has led us to where we now find ourselves, some kind of radical revision of the democratic notion is needed.
Democracy should not mean the leveling of everyone to the lowest common denominator. It should mean the possibility of everyone being able to raise himself to a certain level of excellence.
“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.”
By Maria Popova
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.
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 too 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!
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 mongrels,” I was taught to say as a child. Mongrels is a Pennsylvania dialect word for a dog of mixed background.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Garner 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.
MEAD: It’s what we do this week that matters.
MEAD: That’s the only thing there is; there isn’t any other time.
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.
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.
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 —
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.
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.