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Wed Oct 10, 2018, 08:22 PM

A Rap on Race: Margaret Mead and James Baldwin

Last edited Wed Oct 10, 2018, 08:59 PM - Edit history (1)

A Rare Conversation on Forgiveness and the Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility

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

This is the first installment in a multi-part series covering Mead and Baldwin’s historic conversation. Part 2 focuses on identity, race, and the immigrant experience; part 3 on changing one’s destiny; part 4 on reimagining democracy for a post-consumerist culture.



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.

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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.


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.

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Arrow 13 replies Author Time Post
Reply A Rap on Race: Margaret Mead and James Baldwin (Original post)
JHan Oct 10 OP
guillaumeb Oct 10 #1
JHan Oct 10 #2
guillaumeb Oct 11 #7
elleng Oct 10 #3
JHan Oct 10 #4
cachukis Oct 10 #5
bobbieinok Oct 10 #6
mcar Oct 11 #8
sheshe2 Oct 11 #9
brer cat Oct 11 #10
Gothmog Oct 11 #11
oasis Oct 12 #12
murielm99 Oct 13 #13

Response to JHan (Original post)

Wed Oct 10, 2018, 08:28 PM

1. Recommended.

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.

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Response to guillaumeb (Reply #1)

Wed Oct 10, 2018, 08:43 PM

2. if he had a crystal ball and could really see 2000 and beyond...

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Response to JHan (Reply #2)

Thu Oct 11, 2018, 02:17 PM

7. He would think that he was looking back.

8 years of GOP racist obstruction proved that.

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Response to JHan (Original post)

Wed Oct 10, 2018, 08:56 PM

3. WOW! THANKS!

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Response to elleng (Reply #3)

Wed Oct 10, 2018, 09:02 PM

4. The whole series is worth reading too, an extraordinary meeting of minds.

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Response to JHan (Original post)

Wed Oct 10, 2018, 09:58 PM

5. Thanks. Will read.

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Response to JHan (Original post)

Wed Oct 10, 2018, 10:40 PM

6. The magazine Redbook had an article about their dialogue. IIRC readers were young marrieds

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Response to JHan (Original post)

Thu Oct 11, 2018, 03:34 PM

8. Kicking to read later

Thanks.

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Response to JHan (Original post)

Thu Oct 11, 2018, 03:38 PM

9. Powerful exchange.

I will bookmark to read the rest.

Thank you so much for sharing, JHan.

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Response to JHan (Original post)

Thu Oct 11, 2018, 05:22 PM

10. I look forward to reading it all.

Thanks for the post, JHan. That is a powerful duo.

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Response to JHan (Original post)

Thu Oct 11, 2018, 11:37 PM

11. Interesting conversation

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Response to JHan (Original post)

Fri Oct 12, 2018, 10:15 AM

12. Very much worth the time to take in. Thanks for posting. nt

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Response to JHan (Original post)

Sat Oct 13, 2018, 04:42 AM

13. Thanks for posting this.

K&R

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