WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 2021
They're not all that hot, Mead said: Listening to James Baldwin and Margaret Mead conduct their once famous "Rap on Race," we quickly felt sorry for Baldwin.
We were (apparently) listening to the record album which emerged from their lengthy discussion in August 1970—a lengthy discussion in which they seem to have discussed every available topic.
On YouTube, the recording runs a full hour and 45 minutes. The full discussion was apparently much longer—but as presented on YouTube (and perhaps on the record album, A Rap on Race), the discussion starts like this:
MEAD: I learned about race when I was a child.
BALDWIN: How did you learn about that?
Over the next few minutes, Baldwin is unfailingly polite. He agrees with everything Mead says—and the conversation touches on a wide array of topics, not excluding Mead's idea of why everyone thinks Polynesians are good looking, even though they pretty much aren't:
MEAD: My first field trip was to Samoa. But of course, you know Polynesians are people everybody thinks is [sic] beautiful. And you should look at them very closely. They are not really the most beautiful people in the world, and yet everybody thinks they are beautiful. Chinese think so, black people think so. Everybody thinks so.
I have now figured out why...
Margaret Mead apparently thought that she had figured out why. To our ear, the comments we've quoted, and those that followed, sound like pure bloviation, of a very familiar kind.
On the YouTube recording, that rumination by Mead occurs less than three minutes in. During these early exchanges, Baldwin seems to agree with everything Mead says, including her wide-ranging thoughts about the global effects of the invention of boats.
Sometimes these instant agreements seem to make sense. Sometimes, they even seem to point in an important direction.
Sometimes, though, they possibly don't—and in the sixth minute of the recording, Mead launches this:
MEAD: I think you've got to realize one other thing about white people, and that is that white skin is a terrible temptation.
BALDWIN: How do you mean that exactly? I think I know what you mean—
MEAD: Because we look like angels! Did you know that?
BALDWIN: Yeah, I was going to get to that. I was—go on.
Less than six minutes in, Mead launches that particular ship. She goes on to describe an alleged historical event in which an unnamed Pope allegedly said that some very white "Angles"—slaves captured from today's British isles—looked more like "angels" to him.
Searching on that peculiar claim, we find that Mead's comments refer to an apocryphal historical tale concerning Pope Gregory the Great, who died in the year 604. As best we can tell, no one actually knows if the historical tale is true—but as always, so what?
Less than six minutes in, Mead repeats the story as fact, then draws a sweeping conclusion from it. Baldwin, for whom we're feeling sorry now, lets this whole "rap" go.
When we listen to this first six minutes of the YouTube presentation, are we listening to brilliance? Or are we perhaps hearing bilge?
As we noted yesterday, different observers have stated different views:
In a set of essays in 2015, Maria Popova came down very strongly on the side of brilliance. But in a 1971 review of the book, A Rap On Race, the New York Times' Richard Elman angrily described the long conversation as "bilge," but also as "blather" and as "blah blah blah."
For ourselves, we think we may be hearing a bit of bloviation in the excerpts under review, especially on the part of Mead. It seems to us that this might serve as a cautionary tale.
In 1970, Baldwin and Mead were two of the western world's most famous and highly-regarding public intellectuals. Acknowledging that obvious fact, we might also say this:
Intelligent people know that they mustn't blindly trust authority. That includes intellectual authority, and this note of caution carries special weight in the case of such highly fraught topics as the ones under review when we the humans attempt to conduct our present-day "raps on race."
Listening to those first few minutes on YouTube, we were struck by Mead's overpowering sense of certainty concerning all possible matters. Reading Popova's highly favorable review of A Rap on Race, we were struck by this particular statement by Mead, as we noted yesterday:
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.
As a reviewer might have said, Blah blah blah blah blah.
Speaking with a bit more detachment, that rumination strikes us as strange in several ways. Most strikingly, though, we would have answered that 4-year-old's question in a different way:
We wouldn't tell a 4-year-old child that she belonged to a "race." We're somewhat surprised that Mead did.
"Race" is a famously fuzzy concept. Thanks to the brutal history of our nation and the larger world, the general topic is invested with vast emotional content.
For those reasons, our modern attempts to conduct discussions about "racial" topics may tend to be even more deeply flawed than our other attempts at discussion. In recent weeks, we've been embarrassed and dismayed to see the way our own blue tribe attempts to conduct, or pretends to conduct, such highly-fraught discussions.
To cite one example, Robin Givhan's essay in today's Washington Post would strike us as ugly and vile (and nearly insane) if we weren't committed to the idea that we humans are all pretty much doing the best we can. We may flesh out our assessment tomorrow.
At any rate, so it will tend to go when we try to rap about "race." Tomorrow, we'll start to bring our discussion of such failed discussions into the present day.
Tomorrow: What Joe Scarborough recently said (and where you can see it transcribed)