I tell myself I haven’t gone down the road of anger and despair and unqualified or irrational political estrangement. And, of course, I say to myself that I haven’t done all that, gone in that direction, because I’m a white middle-class doctor, and I haven’t been waging the struggle that Stokely Carmichael has. Yet I wonder whether it cannot be said that in the last five years he has in fact grown and become increasingly aware and sensitive to various issues—and it is for that reason he has moved away from the joint position he and I held in 1964, the joint political and social analysis we made for the “students” we “taught” before they went south to Jackson and the Delta.
I suppose it can be argued that what I fancy to be my “maturity” and “equanimity” and “good sense” and “historical distance” are really all signs of my death. In other words, because of the life I lead I am every day protected and sheltered from the concrete realities that affect (every minute of every day) 90 percent of the people on this planet. It can also be argued that I am fatally compromised, and that my way of looking both at Stokely’s political position and his psychological development, as well as at the economic and social realities of the world around me, reflects my willingness to live as I do, indeed my desire to live as I do, which the critics of people like me would say means living as the beneficiary of a colonial world power, able to command resources from wretchedly poor lands and turn them into the style of living a man like me enjoys, while even in his own land, let alone Africa or South America or Asia, millions live half-desperate lives.
In other words the way I look at Stokely and his development in the last five or six years (as evidence of deterioration, stress, disintegration, violence) is a measure of my own predicament. Do you follow what I am trying to say?—that when I talk about him as I do I am really describing my own situation, my own cast of mind and mode of existence. The way I look at him and his behavior is really a way of expressing my own relationship to a particular society.
B: Well, I’m glad such thoughts are at least occurring to you! It’s important for people like us to feel uneasy, to turn on ourselves with questions. I don’t want to be self-congratulatory when I say that. I just think we have to look at ourselves as others see us—for reasons we too easily can forget. I don’t have access to Stokely, I haven’t known him, so I can’t add much to your remarks. I would be inclined to go a little bit easier on some of the language he has used these recent years. I don’t consider him as bitter and angry as you do.
The blacks I knew at Cornell were struggling, among other things, with the problem of language. Their fiery, heated-up ghetto language, in my own experience, was a way of insisting upon being heard, understood and heard—by people they feared were deaf, dumb, and blind. I find in many cases a profound dichotomy between the way blacks conduct their lives and the way they speak about their lives; they shout to Whitey but they live among and for themselves. Many of the so-called “militant” and “extremist” blacks I knew at Cornell showed themselves capable of leading quite peaceable and quite humane lives among themselves; but they presented a different face to us, as they said out of the need to survive. They considered us to be bestial, and in many cases they were right—witness the cowardly burning down of their black studies program by a gang last Easter.
C: It may be bestial for an observer like me to characterize people (whether they be men like Stokely Carmichael or the students at Cornell) with words like violent, frustrated, embittered while at the same time failing to mention the bitterness and violence and frustration and moodiness and despair their own world generates among its supporters, never mind its critics. Given a certain historical context the acts of those six young students at Cornell or Stokely’s development in the last six years don’t seem so strange or so clinically psycho-pathological. Certainly historians like Richard Hofstadter have shown us how deep and wide are the currents of violence in America.
B: I would want to hear what a black psychiatrist would say. Would he find Stokely Carmichael or the Cornell students exceptional? If so, I would have to stop and think; but I doubt he would.
C: Do you think his black skin would protect him from the white professional values that we’ve been talking about?
B: Well, that’s a good question. I can’t answer it.
C: Has black skin protected seminarians from the pitfalls of their profession?
B: Perhaps, in some cases. I’m not sure. I wouldn’t want to excuse a black seminarian of one thing or another he did or didn’t do, simply because he is black. But I would want to be careful, very careful before I came out with those “liberal,” evenhanded judgments that whites often use as a means of ignoring the special history, the special circumstances of life with which black people have to contend. With respect to a black seminarian, before I said anything to “judge” him, I would want to know whether he has been able to build a compassionate and loving community where he works. I suspect many black priests have been able to do so. I think people like us ought to stand outside and distinguish at all times between the way a black man acts with Whitey, and the way he acts in his own world. Those are two very different things.
C: Yes, and it’s a distinction we don’t often draw. I mean, there is the black man as the white man’s devil, and the black man as he is in his own world, to which the white man has no access. Nevertheless, I wonder how redemptive one’s skin color can actually be. I doubt that skin color will save blacks from the kinds of tensions we’ve been talking about—the bitterness, the meanness man is heir to.
Certainly I’ve seen bitterness and meanness and vicious kinds of exploitation in the black communities—and I don’t think I now speak as a white observer. I mean, I’ve seen physical evidence of it: black people hurting black people, black people cheating black people, robbing them, assaulting them. Nor is that a very unique experience on my part. Blacks have written about such matters—yes, I would say written about the humanity of their people.
I kept on wondering as you were talking about North Vietnam whether the kinds of violence and horror that we’ve just been talking about don’t in some way exist there. After all, they have shown themselves capable of hunting down their own people, killing them. I don’t believe the North Vietnamese people—and certainly not their government—are beyond the sins our people, our government demonstrate.
B: Yes, we should go into all of that, and those are important issues. Perhaps we can distinguish people by what they emphasize about “human nature.” It seems to me that I search out in any given situation whatever elements of hope I can find there—I hope not by way of self-deception. Yes, one has to acknowledge the horror of life, the violence and the bloodletting and all the rest of it, be it found among blacks or whites or North Vietnamese or South Vietnamese. But we have to keep looking for signs of a future: those signs that we try to discern and even to follow, perhaps to enlarge, to give breathing space to. One must keep those signs at the eye’s center, because I think they are the object of one’s true search. What is best in man? What is most hopeful in man? What can be built upon in any particular situation? The other side of the picture is obviously there, but it belongs in the eye’s peripheral vision. I just don’t believe that the truth of things is revealed to us by our cynical, hoarding, businesslike, materialist political philosophers who see evil everywhere—as a means of justifying their own evil. Truth was revealed to us by Jesus Christ, and those who in lesser ways follow His tradition.
C: Christ was killed.
B: Yes, yes—but His truth didn’t die; the truth of His life and of other lives remains available to us.
C: Jesus Christ had a moment of extreme doubt before He died, felt that He had been betrayed, asked why He was forsaken. Isn’t that also a part of the reality of man? In all lives doubt and a sense of abandonment are there, and may well be dominant, at least in a given life. Again, Christ died sad, and afraid all His effort was for naught.
B: Yes, I would agree.
C: You are saying, though, that each man has to choose which of the themes in Christ’s life will obsess him, so to speak; and the choice determines the character of the man’s life. The way one looks at the world, what one does in one’s life, has to do with whether one emphasizes the negatives or seeks out the positives; and it may well be that it is to a particular society’s advantage that we all emphasize the gloomier side of things, because if we do, we needn’t trouble ourselves to undertake any great social and political struggles, since they are doomed almost by definition.
B: You know, it is interesting: as I look back over the last five years, my thinking has moved along in two directions, and let me for a second state them rather than editorialize on them. For one thing I have felt that somehow, however awkwardly and inadequately, I had to keep moving along; that is, I couldn’t stop and become satisfied with myself and my various ideas. Rather I had to keep questioning myself, keep taking one step, then another, even though at the time the step seemed difficult and maybe controversial. And then I have felt that I am not alone, that a number of us are together, struggling for certain things, and that we had to stay together, work together.
C: “We” being?
B: Well, “we” are people I know, my brother and those I have loved and worked with; and “we” are thousands and thousands of people I have never known and never will know; and “we” are some fine people I have met these past weeks while underground. I have learned how much I need others, how much we need one another in this world.
You no doubt are aware of the old philosophical struggle between the Manichaean and Christian view of evil. I guess I have tried hard to believe that there is just so much territory that belongs to evil—that one is obliged to refuse evil substantial control over one’s life, refuse evil so much power that it becomes a shadow over you or an indwelling devil. At one time I knew I was in trouble. I not only feared the Pentagon, for example, I believed in it—I believed its power was there and “there” in a way that transcends mere “fact.” I mean, I despaired. I felt it was hopeless to fight such a monstrous thing. But somehow I survived that kind of thinking. I learned “hope,” perhaps. I learned to have confidence in others and myself—in the power that one’s faith and love can exert—yes, even on the Pentagon.
C: But you don’t think your viewpoint is idiosyncratic, a function of particular psychological qualities in you; you see that hope in others and you see conversions possible—you see a point to fighting against the tendency we all have to despair.
B: I would say that by the grace of God I am able to draw upon something quite important and healthy in a long tradition, and I find around me constantly manifestations of that “something” in the lives of other people—no matter what tradition and what background they happen to draw upon for spiritual strength. For all the bad and evil to be found on this planet, I find much goodness struggling for birth and struggling for expression. So I do not feel alone, I do not feel lonely or eccentric. I feel the kind of steadfastness one experiences in the presence of others—and I am sure we together will persist and keep struggling for what we believe important as long as we are permitted to live.
C: Do you possess the strength to work with—and by you I mean more than you as an individual—the problems of millions and millions of plain, ordinary middle-class Americans who don’t have the same concerns and aspirations you have, or at least don’t demonstrate those concerns in a way that seems to be politically active and responsive to the injustices of the world? Or are you and others you feel close to confining yourselves to those who for various reasons welcome you as allies—certain youths, certain blacks, certain poor people? I’m asking whether there is to be a ministry to suburbia, a ministry to the professions, a ministry to the American working man—not necessarily made up only of ministers, but an effort to find in people who seem without your particular concerns a larger measure of compassion and selflessness and integrity than some of our social critics are willing to allow, or even think to wonder about.
B: Well, I hope I don’t sound hardhearted when I say that one does what one is called upon to do, and lives in a certain way and perhaps dies in a certain way. We do what we can, and none of us does it very well. Sometimes the majority of a nation proves itself wise beyond words; sometimes that majority becomes fatally blind. I feel responsible for a very small area of life. I can only do what I can do.
C: You feel you have enough to do clarifying the ethical dimensions of your own life, and of the relative handful of lives you affect.
B: I hope I am governed by Camus’s sense of modesty. In his treatment of his heroes and his treatment also of political questions Camus reveals a very deep sense of himself as a modest being in the world. That is to say, he was a man who refused to enter into questions which are of quantity, so to speak. He didn’t judge himself by the number of bodies he reached, by the “converts” he made, by the “power” he amassed or the “influence” he was credited with having.
Indeed when he was called influential or successful or whatever, he worried a great deal, because he knew how corrupting a certain kind of “fame” can be. He had a certain length of time to live (we never do know how much, do we?) and he had a certain measure of talent—and he assumed that if he spent his time wisely and worked hard, then something would occur. By the same token, something occurs because you write, something occurs because I write, something occurs because you are who you are and have been where you have been, and the same for me.
A lot of what we achieve we don’t even know about; sometimes inklings of it come through to us—in letters we get, in responses of students and people, in all that goes on in the world as a result of what we say or write or do. Now those responses are important; they are important not only to my ego, but as a corrective. Through others one learns what is happening, how one’s ideas are in keeping with the world—and we can never know the world if we stay apart, rely upon ourselves too exclusively. And yet I have to qualify what I just said, because I really do believe that when a person is at his deepest with himself, the outside world—here I refer to the so-called “pressures” of conformity—means relatively little. For instance, when I went to Catonsville or when I went to Hanoi or when I went on trial or when I went underground, I didn’t have around me voices that urged me on, or wide support which enabled me to feel I was doing an approved and thoroughly respectable thing. I would mistrust that kind of approval very much.
C: You mean you have never asked the Gallup Poll (or commissioned a private pollster to find out) how the American public “feels” about your ideas or actions.
B: No—it would have been unnecessary. I knew at those various critical times in my life what many of my countrymen felt. I don’t mean to say that at those points I was without friends and considerable support from people I have never met, and probably will never meet. But my friends are themselves often struggling against considerable odds; what they offered me was a certain light that emanated from their lives. In one way or another they said to me: you are somewhere and we are somewhere and you come and tell us what you have finally decided, and we will stand with you as best we can.