RAPS ON RACE: One heard bilge, the other heard brilliance!


When Mead and Baldwin rapped: It's never been easy to conduct serious discussions of the construct we refer to as "race."

Centuries of brutal inhuman history underlie the concept.  For reasons which are obvious. deep feelings underlie, and may undermine, attempts at such discussion.

It's never been easy to discuss such deeply fraught topics. Consider what happened when James Baldwin and Margaret Mead conducted their once-famous 1970 colloquy—a two-day discussion which came to be known as "A Rap on Race."

In 1971, a transcript of the discussion was published and sold in book form under that catchy title. Chunks of the discussion were also issued as a record album.

The book appeared in August 1971; it has long been out of print. In the following passage, the leading authority on this topic describes the way the book has been viewed down through the many long years:

The book was dismissed as "the same old bilge you've heard from the fellow on the next stool to you in the saloon " by a reviewer at The New York Times when it was first published. More recently, writer Maria Popova called the book "a remarkable and prescient piece of the cultural record" and "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."

Say what? The book was dismissed as "the same old bilge" in the New York Times?

As a matter of fact, it was! The review appeared in June 1971. It was written by Richard Elman, a novelist and reviewer who would almost surely have been described as a man of the left.

In his review of A Rap on Race, Elman was more complimentary to Baldwin than to Mead. But yes, he called their discussion "bilge." Here's how the review began:

ELMAN (6/27/71): No fuss. No bother. Eliminate dirty smudges on the fingertips, broken nails, and messy erasure marks. You don't need to revise, rethink, or rewrite. You don't even need to write. Just think of it, folks: No more bloodshot eyes, or coffee bowels, or angry friends you've stood up to work just a little longer, harder, more. Sealed inside your own angry mortal human vacuum, to be just as fatuous as Margaret Mead and James Baldwin about the crisis of our time—particularly race—all you have to do is talk and not listen, always avoid expressing your feelings openly, refer constantly to other times and other cultures with historical and/or pseudo-historical truths, interrupt whenever possible, call yourself a prophet or a poet, insist that you are being emotionally sincere and/or objectively rational, and record it all on tape, to be transcribed later as a book.

You may perorate endlessly: "Well, I wonder. Perhaps its a very bizarre wonder, but I can't get myself into the head of, let us say—we're speaking in such horrible generalities, speaking of white and black people." And the reader will be sure to note that your Tristram Shandyesque syntax denotes sincerity...

Announce that "love is the only wisdom." Assert such "in the name of your ancestors." Denounce any and all assertions of "racial guilt." Speak out fearlessly against the plight of Chicanos, Filipinos, Sephardic Jews of Israel. Presto! You're off the hook. You've got a book. You haven't had to say anything at all, and it will probably sell fairly well. This is called instantaneous wisdom, although some may call it "A Rap on Race."

Basically, it will be the same old bilge you've heard from the fellow on the next stool to you in the saloon...

Elman didn't like the book. As a matter of fact, he didn't seem to like the book at all. 

He seemed to find the long conversation some form of self-indulgent. Here's more of what he wrote:

ELMAN: Caution: You must either be a world-famous white liberal anthropologist, or a brilliant black writer, or else there isn't much of an audience for this sort of thing except among your friends, or in taverns and bars where people generally call it baloney. But wisdom and baloney are as blither is to blather; here and there ideas are speckled like pieces of fat in a slab of Hebrew National, though most of it is pretty bland, chewy stuff...

With their tape recorder, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin got together one steamy night last August. They had a mutual friend. So first they ate dinner and then they went blah blah blah in front of the recorder late into that night and then again the next day—about New Guinea, South Africa, Women's Lib, the South, slavery, Christianity, their early childhood upbringings, Israel, the Arabs, the bomb, Paris, Istanbul, the English language, Huey Newton, John Wayne, the black bourgeoisie, Baldwin's 2-year-old grand nephew and Professor Mead's daughter.

"We've got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible," he said to her, poignantly enough, at one point, "because we are still each other's only hope." But, eventually, they got so angry and muddled that he was being accused of mouthing anti-Semitic nonsense and, as a final quid pro quo, he lumped her among his potential enemies and victimizers. Rather smugly, the anthropologist has said she could not possibly be a racist because of her impeccable upbringing and because she had once or twice coddled babies in Africa, Samoa, West Irian. Baldwin countered by asking how could he be an anti-Semite since one of his best friends was Jewish.

Was any of that a fair account of what these famous people said? We can't answer your question, but Elman was a figure of the left. He closed his review as shown:

ELMAN: [T]his sort of thing, if obviously impassioned, well-intentioned, and not always wrong-headed, is still not much more than a cut above the sort of thing that most blacks and whites are saying to each other now that we're all supposedly getting together. It may be a little bit more uptight, as Baldwin had the humanity to admit at one point when he said: "Let me tell you something else. I think I do realize some things about other people. Maybe what I realize is more bitter than I would like it to be. I realize that. I was thinking about it all day long, and when this rather terrifying show is over, I'll come and have a drink with you without any microphones or anything, because I want us to be friends and you know I mean that."

Better luck next time, Professor Mead and Mr. Baldwin. For the rest of us, I think we better start talking to each other and stop listening to wise men and women among us except when they deign to write down what they have to say in novels and plays and poems and essays and yes, then revise, if necessary.

In modern parlance, Elman seemed to think that Baldwin and Mead had been "bloviating" in a self-indulgent way during their lengthy "rap on race." They hadn't taken the time or the trouble to restrict and refine their endless  array of thoughts about this most important general subject.

Elman seemed to be angry about this. How insightful was his critique? We have no idea.

Many years later, Maria Popova expressed a quite different view. At her web site, she offered four lengthy essays about what Baldwin and Mead had said.

Today, Popova's site is called The Marginalian. Her essays appeared in 2015. If you want to read the essays, you can start where Popova starts. Headline included, you can start right here:

POPOVA (3/19/15): A Rap on Race: Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s Rare Conversation on Forgiveness and the Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility

On the evening of August 25, 1970, Margaret Mead (1901–1978) and James Baldwin (1924–1987) 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, 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.

Where Elman heard bilge, Popova heard brilliance. As she correctly noted, the conversation had been conducted by two of the most highly regarded intellectuals in the western world.

Was it bilge or was it brilliance? It can hardly matter now. 

Reading through Popova's detailed essays about the conversation, we've been struck by how "airy-fairy"—by how unhelpfully high-minded and abstruse—the conversation seems to have been.

For better or worse, Popova never seems to record anyone making any concrete proposal or suggestion. The conversation occurs on an extremely high intellectual plane, with the occasional odd remark thrown in. 

(Note Mead's remembered admonition to her four-year-old daughter, an admonition she had offered back in the 1940s. Popova regards this as an example of Mead's wisdom. In recent years, such remarks have gotten at least one major (beloved) American author semi-removed from the canon: 

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. 

Popova presents that anecdote in her first essay. It strikes us as a strange anecdote, in at least several ways.

By the way, was Mead's daughter actually "white," as she was told that day? It all depends on what the meaning of "being white" is! Or at least, so we'd still say today!)

Baldwin and Mead conducted a very long discussion; it was published as "a rap." Elman thought he was hearing bilge. Popova thought she heard brilliance.

Inevitably, various people will have various reactions and various feelings concerning such deeply fraught topics. And at that point, our profoundly flawed human impulses start to enter the chase.

This brings us up to the present day, to our own badly failed conversations on race. At this point, a bit of disclosure:

As the past few years have gone by, we've been more and more repelled by the moral and intellectual squalor our own extremely self-impressed blue tribe brings to these failed discussions. 

"I'm so hard to handle, I'm selfish and I'm sad," a brilliant song-writer once brilliantly wrote. She even called the album Blue!

We've long been impressed by the brilliance of her highly unusual candor. Human tribes are rarely inclined to behave in any such way.

Tomorrow: Ignorant armies, by night


  1. tldr. "It's never been easy to conduct serious discussions of the construct we refer to as "race.""

    What "serious discussions", dear Bob? Are you some sort of insane? Don't be a brain-dead liberal, please.

  2. "Reading through Popova's detailed essays about the conversation, we've been struck by how "airy-fairy"—by how unhelpfully high-minded and abstruse—the conversation seems to have been."

    And Somerby still has not read or listened to the rap on race himself! All he can do is excerpt quotes and offer ungrounded opinions, because he is too lazy to do the work of listening to what Mead & Baldwin actually said.

    This is not how someone who thinks about intellectual things or cares about race should function. If he cannot be bothered to participate and express his own impressions, who cares what he says about these second-hand experiences of the rap?

    Somerby again makes clear that his only purpose is to knock journalists and intellectuals, not to seriously consider any of their ideas, much less those on race. His goal is to tell us that these people are not worthy of our consideration -- but the problem is that neither is Somerby.

    1. Somerby has gone full-on anti-intellectual when he calls an essay "airy-fairy". Note the sly gay reference there, as he mocks the suggestion of bi-baiting by others. Professors are all effete (another gay reference to effeminism). Real men are stupid and females who wear comfortable clothes are obviously lesbians (ask any stand-up comedian, Robin Williams used to refer to women in comfortable shoes). But no, clothing doesn't matter and style is a goof, not anything a red-meat-eating tough guy's guy from North Carolina should care about. Who forced Gore to hire Naomi again?

  3. "Popova presents that anecdote in her first essay. It strikes us as a strange anecdote, in at least several ways."

    Maybe if Somerby had considered Mead's anecdote in its original context, he wouldn't find it as strange, but would understand why Mead said it.

    Just sayin'. Popova didn't write the rap on race. Mead and Baldwin did. They deserve to have that be the source of any discussion of their racial attitudes, not filtered through Popova's very limited discussion.

  4. "I'm so hard to handle, I'm selfish and I'm sad."


  5. "Elman seemed to be angry about this. How insightful was his critique? We have no idea."

    Elman said pretty clearly that he disliked it that these two could produce a rap simply by sitting around talking off the tops of their heads, without the hard work that goes into writing, simply because they were both famous.

    I felt the same way when I heard the album of "songs" put out by William Shatner after his stint as Captain Kirk, which sold not because it had musical merit, but because he was a TV icon (too soon to be a cult figure). That sort of thing mocks those who have sweated over becoming better singers.

    And Elman correctly asks whether anyone can produce a brilliant analysis of race without such effort, neglecting that the intent of Mead and Baldwin was to model how two well-intentioned human beings might go about discussing race from their very different perspectives. Both said that this was the sort of dialog that needed to occur among all of us, in order to close the wide gulf separating people in 1970, and as Popova notes, today.

    Somerby and Elman should both evaluate the success of the rap by its own goals, not their own. Not that Somerby and Elman want the same thing.

    Somerby appears content to dismiss Mead and Baldwin's effort as "bilge," as long as someone else called it that first and not he, himself, since Somerby rarely expresses any opinions of his own.

    What is bilge? It sounds like something bad, but it is merely water that seeps into a ship from outside the hull. It must be pumped out because it upsets the balance of the ship. Is that a bad thing, when two intellectuals upset the balance of the current "discussion" of race in our society?

    Somerby, of course, wants to disrupt whatever meeting of the minds anyone achieves on race, because his stance has long been that the South should stop being accused of doing anything wrong in the 1800s, and that slavery should be forgiven and forgotten, never mind that there is a legacy of persistent racism that Somerby refuses to acknowledge. He instead keeps blaming those beautiful black children in his classrooms, citing their ratty NAEP scores as if those kids were deliberately trying to sabotage his vision of harmony that would exist if everyone would just stop mentioning race all the time.

    Meanwhile, this self-labeled liberal has nothing nice to say about any Democratic candidate, wants to excuse Trump and every other male miscreant, from Christie to Roy Moore, and thinks gay and female reporters are among the worst of the worst, while blaming professors for everything that has gone wrong in his own life, now that he has finished performing a stand-up one-man show in which he blamed his mother for his imperfect life.

    One wonders what his rap would sound like.

  6. I didn't know that pine needles contain vitamin C, but it seems that the eastern white pine in particular is a good source.


  7. "As the past few years have gone by, we've been more and more repelled by the moral and intellectual squalor our own extremely self-impressed blue tribe brings to these failed discussions.

    "I'm so hard to handle, I'm selfish and I'm sad," a brilliant song-writer once brilliantly wrote. She even called the album Blue!"

    1. I seriously doubt that Joni Mitchell would agree with a single word said by Somerby.
    2. Her reference to Blue is not to Democrats or liberals, but to her own emotions, because blue is a synonym of sad and not a political reference.
    3. Somerby cannot know how Joni Mitchell feels about the need for dialog between the races. For all we know, she might consider the Mead/Baldwin rap on race to be brilliant and necessary, not bilge at all.
    4. Mitchell has no chance to defend this misuse and abuse of her lyrics. She has not given Somerby permission to use them in an implied endorsement by a liberal of his conservative attack on efforts to promote inter-racial understanding.
    5. If you are a Joni Mitchell fan, this use of her lyrics is a travesty, an insult to Mitchell, and as wrong as the way Trump grabbed songs to use at his disgusting rallies, leaving the artists to complain and sue. Sort of like musical pussy-grabbing, which Somerby repeats here and on frequent other occasions.

    I am sick of this shit. Joni Mitchell doesn't deserve to be a pawn in Somerby's game any more than Mead and Baldwin do.

    1. Pretty good trolling. Not bad. You're not trolling hugely well lately but this is not bad. A little too over the top to be taken as real but pretty close. Overall, your trolls are first rate.

    2. I can't bear to read through these any more.

      They pretty much always start with a quote and then finish with a paragraph concluding something asinine and mentioning Somerby directly.

      So I've learned to recognize them and avoid the loss of brain cells.

    3. Except on this one, apparently.

    4. They are either a brilliant absurdist satirist or a complete mental patient.

    5. "3. Somerby cannot know how Joni Mitchell feels about the need for dialog between the races. "

      I mean - that is fucking hilarious.

    6. @1:18 PM
      Yeah, Poe's law. In this case, though, parody is highly unlikely.

    7. The first seven paragraphs of the post by Anonymouse 10:51am are very well-written and cogent. I was reading and cruising along while experiencing the unusual. but very pleasant surprise of admiring interest at an anonymouse.

      At paragraph six, however, we start the descent into complete asininity. A not irrational downward flitting motion at first, then a head on rush to the ground.

      A mind is a terrible thing to waste and militancy and dogmatism has very VERY sadly done its worse on this poor anonymouse.

    8. Yes, and after that quote comes something like a contradiction of Somerby's facts, with sources cited, or a correction of some other mistake he has made.

      And how is that satire? It justifies the comments made about Somerby at the end.

    9. "very well written and cogent"

      That is so fucking hilarious. You're a very funny troll.

    10. point 6 is:

      "I am sick of this shit. Joni Mitchell doesn't deserve to be a pawn in Somerby's game any more than Mead and Baldwin do."

      How is it not OK for the commenter to express an opinion like this, which seems like the logical conclusion of 1-5?

    11. That’s not the post I was talking about. Mine was about Anonymouse 10:51am.

    12. You are posting responses under a comment you are not discussing? That is confusing!

    13. I posted a comment under a thread about the effects of inane anonymouse posts.

    14. BTW- did you have to google Tristram Shandy?

      I did. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I’m going to read it.

    15. I read it in high school, because I am a meritocratic elitist.

    16. When you have turn someone into The Other, as "Cecelia" does, because you do not like what they say, you have thrown out your integrity along with your moral compass.

      Good for you that you might read a book! Also, go get therapy, you should not have to carry whatever burden is propagating your misguided notions, by yourself.

      A brilliant song-writer once brilliantly wrote:

      You need help
      Look at yourself you need help
      You need life
      So don't hang yourself
      It's OK, OK, OK, OK
      You just can't be a prick teaser all of the time
      A little bit attention, you got it
      Need some affection, you got it...

      Don't try suicide
      Nobody cares
      Don't try suicide
      You're just gonna hate it
      Don't try suicide
      Nobody gives, nobody cares
      Nobody gives a damn

      google that

    17. That’s a lot of opprobrium over Tristram Shandy.

  8. "RAPS ON RACE: One heard bilge, the other heard brilliance!"

    Why should reviewers all agree? They are different people with different experiences and different reactions. That doesn't reflect poorly on what they are reviewing that there is disagreement about the merits of a work.

  9. When you basically don't want to talk about race, anyone who does it isn't going to be pleasing and will be criticized for doing it. That's all Somerby's essay means. He is delighted to find a critic who will do his dirty-work for him and make the reviewer who called the rap brilliant sound silly in comparison. But at heart, Somerby is not on board with the effort to discuss our "brutal racial history" and whether it persists in our society.

    1. I've heard that "we' should have a discussion about "race." I don't know what that is supposed to mean.

    2. Obama explained it all.

    3. @1:42 PM,
      It means that you should hate The Others.

    4. 2:21,
      You spelled "shoot" wrong.

    5. Race needs to be discussed because it is a function of racism which is prevalent enough in our current society to create enormous differences in how people experience life.

    6. Good luck. The NYT can’t fatuously discuss Sen. Sinema’s wardrobe without being accused of making “pinkwashing” allegations.

  10. This was one of Somerby's better efforts. He was fair to a critic and to a supporter of the Rap.

    1. It would be better if he were fair to Mead and Baldwin.

  11. I’d have to check with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

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