RAPS ON RACE: How good looking are Polynesians?


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)


  1. "On the YouTube recording, that rumination by Mead occurs less than three minutes in."

    Somerby always focuses on things that occur a few pages into the introduction of a book, and now a few minutes into an 1 hr 45 min recording. Why? I suspect it is because he doesn't read or listen much farther than that. He grabs something he objects to, and that is sufficient for his purposes, without having to understand the whole effort or read an entire book.

    That isn't how criticism of any sort should work. Someone should read the entire work in order to see the big picture of what was accomplished. Not nitpick the first small peevish items he finds, then generalize these to the whole work and call it all bilge (or some similar nasty word).

    Somerby is too lazy to engage in real criticism.

    1. In the words of Frank Zappa, the term is Wowie Zowie.

    2. A Right-winger that is lazy? How on brand can you get?

  2. Anthropologist Donald Brown lists a preference for light or white skin among the human universals found in cross-cultural research worldwide. Margaret Mead was perhaps referring to that phenomenon when she talked about the Angles and the Pope's reaction to them.

    W.E.B. Dubois also talked about this among black people.

    Somerby, who pretends to hobnob with anthropologists appears to be ignorant of this and attributes it to Mead herself, when she did not discover it but is merely mentioning it to explain why people keep calling Polynesians beautiful (a sentiment that even pops up in Michener's book about Hawaii). Somerby, however, in his ignorance, calls it bilge.

  3. Somerby says he wouldn't tell a four-year-old that she belongs to a race (e.g., is white). Does he think that kids do not notice differences in skin color? They do. That's why it is better to plan how to discuss such things with children, instead of letting it happen spontaneously, as Mead did, upsetting the child.

    This "if we don't talk about it, it will go away" approach to parenting doesn't work well. Ask anyone whose parents never talked to them about sex what mistaken notions floated around in their heads before they discovered the truth (hopefully from a library book and not from a misguided peer).

  4. Jeez, dear Bob. How can you - meh, anyone! - listen to this shit for more than 30 seconds without throwing up?

    Are you taking medications for that? Please enlighten.

  5. "To cite one example, Robin Givhan's essay in today's Washington Post would strike us as ugly and vile (and nearly insane)"

    Givhan points out that Kyle Rittenhouse appeared to others at the protest as a danger to others and that Rittenhouse didn't realize himself that he was viewed as the danger, not as a protector or saviour.

    How is it vile or insane to suggest that a person's self-perception may be different than the way others perceive him?

    Givhan links Rittenhouse's failure of empathy to white privilege. She suggests that young white men who carry guns may not realize how threatening they appear to other people. I find that a reasonable suggestion. Somerby no doubt dislikes use of the reference to white privilege, but Givhan tries to downplay the source of the misperception and instead focuses mainly on the mismatch between how Rittenhouse saw his own actions and how those who were assaulted viewed what he did.

    This essay is so reasonable that it strikes me as outrageous that Somerby uses the language he does (vile, insane) to criticize her common sense discussion. And Somerby's knee-jerk reaction to her essay again firmly places him with The Others, the Rittenhouse defenders, the alt-right and Trump supporters. These are the folks who will treat any suggestion that Rittenhouse was dangerous as an assault on innocent youth, even though two of the men Rittenhouse shot were unarmed.

    Every time I think Somerby has outdone himself with his bigoted and ugly remarks, he goes a step further. Defending a vigilante who shot and killed people is not anything you will hear actual liberals do. But again, Somerby is spouting the conservative line with conviction and attacking the mere suggestion that Rittenhouse's actions might arise from the sense of entitlement that men seem to acquire when they strut around with guns and are told that protesters are their enemies.

    Somerby has become a crackpot. It is time to say that out loud.

  6. The fact that Somerby is acting like a lazy sack of shit is all the proof needed to know he's a Right-winger.

  7. ‘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."’

    Well, there would be no “raps on race” if it were up to Somerby: ‘We wouldn't tell a 4-year-old child that she belonged to a "race."’

    Who knows what Somerby would tell the 4-year-old child who was subjected to racism.

    1. You’d tell that child what you’d tell any child subjected to mistreatment.

      You’d tell them that there are people who aren’t always good and kind, as they are good and kind.

      That these people may be trying not to act mean, but failing along the way. People do.

      Then tell them world and most of the people in it are good and that we should all work hard to make it better.

    2. "the 4-year-old child who was subjected to racism"

      Oh dear. Wtf does it even mean? What, 4-year-olds are being discriminated now? Passed over for a promotion?

      Are you insane, dear mh?

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Mao doesn't come from our society, so he doesn't understand what it is like for a 4-year old who isn't invited to a birthday party along with others, or who other kids won't play with, or the parents of the other kids won't allow that child into their home, or who is called names he or she doesn't understand, or who gets accused of shop-lifting while with a parent in a store, or who can't go swim in the pool with other kids, or who is treated as dumb by a preschool teacher who suggests the child start kindergarten late, etc.

    5. "Mao doesn't come from our society, so he doesn't understand..."

      Are you hating us because we are black, dear 9:32 AM dembot?

    6. "...what it is like for a 4-year old who isn't invited to a birthday party along with others, or who other kids won't play with..."

      Oh, dear, sounds like spoken from experience.

      You may try to stop being an asshole, dear dembot. Also: better hygiene.

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