A Rap on Race
Margaret Mead had nothing to lose as a result of this tape-recorded conversation, which lasted more than seven and a half hours over two days and was arranged by the publisher, previewed in McCall’s, and followed by joint appearances on TV talk shows. James Baldwin had nothing to gain. It does not advance him as an artist, or even as a literary radical, but merely engages him—a mock engagement—with an exemplary daughter of the culture from which he is in flight. Were both participants what they presumed to be, this conversation could hardly have taken place—for their points of difference are, on the face of it, classic, irreconcilable. But here they are, exchanging compliments in the same bugged room.
Baldwin presents himself as male, black, poet, existentialist, slave, exile, ex-Christian. Mead appears as female, white, positivist, Episcopalian, old American, the most famous anthropologist in America. From the beginning they are betrayed by their respective idioms. His is stagy, stale, full of forced rhythms, a parody of the writer’s style. Hers is pretentious, inflated; one feels that one is being beaten to death with a pillow. Through most of the dialogue Margaret Mead is full of what can only be called machismo, while Baldwin seems as nervous and respectful as a bridegroom.
The black American male and the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant female have, of course, met before. It is one of the most delicate and fantasied confrontations in the American consciousness. It can be said at once that what happens in this book hardly does this confrontation justice, although here and there it can be funny:
Mead: “…this is our image of what is America, yours and mine, because our ancestors came here together. We share a notion of the kind of people that formed the ideals of this country….”
She goes on to point out that the nineteenth century was a cultural disaster for the US from which it has never recovered, since millions of immigrants, explicitly the Italians but by implication the Russians, Poles, Irish, Jews, Germans, Greeks, Ukrainians, Chinese, were materialists who did not share the old American dream with wasps and blacks. Moreover many of them really wanted to go back where they came from after getting rich.
While ostensibly a “rap about race,” this book is interesting not for what Mead and Baldwin think, but for the way they reveal themselves—she inadvertently, he with the theatrical skill of the psychic stripper that he is. Still, the book transcends its wholly commercial source, or, rather, its very limitations are of interest.
Mead and Baldwin are celebrities—privileged, immune, created by and dependent on the media, and, like Lord Mellefont in Henry James’s “The Private Life,” constantly seeing themselves only as others see them. To be celebrated is not a drawback for Margaret Mead. This anthropologist says little that a half-educated cultural attaché in the American Embassy in Afghanistan could disagree with on principle. But Baldwin is trapped by the tape recorder. His gifts cannot survive…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.