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 in an adman’s bloated fantasy.
A serious man can, of course, become a celebrity if he is willing to lend himself to the manipulations of the public, that is, if he is willing to risk becoming a buffoon, what Kierkegaard called a failed identity. But Baldwin is particularly ill-suited to public performance. He is an artist; when he speaks of blowing things up, as he does here, he is not making a political statement. His view of the world is aesthetic—in a certain sense religious; he really wants to transcend, not change the world. His moral struggle is with himself, and when he makes political sounds, they disintegrate in rhetoric. The fire next time is for him a biographical, not a social reality; it is an apocalyptic symbol, a literary event. He wants the fact of his blackness to be ultimately important; but he protests too much. He lives in metaphors and being black for him becomes only another metaphor for suffering, which, he mistakenly assumes, is universal enough to include Margaret Mead.
“I have never suffered as you have,” says Miss Mead.
“That’s not true, oh, no,” Baldwin replies, “we are both exiles.”
“No, I am not an exile, when, as an American, I go abroad; I am not an exile.”
But Baldwin insists:
“You are…an exile from the mainstream of the life of this country.”
Mead: “I am not an exile, I am absolutely not an exile.”
Baldwin: What you mean is that you refuse to accept the condition of being an exile.”
Mead: “I what?”
Baldwin sounds as if he believes that the world can be saved through agony and redemption; the anthropologist puts her faith in the diffusion of electricity. She reasons as follows:
- “White skin is a terrible temptation.”
- “Because we look like angels.”
- “…Angles from England were taken to Rome to be sold as slaves…. And a Pope came along and looked at these slaves and he said, ‘What are they called?’ And somebody said, ‘Angles.’ And he said, ‘Oh, no—not Angles, angels.’ “
“…Angels are white.”
“The dead are white everywhere—the bones are white and people associate the dead with skeletons and ghosts.”
“It is not good for people’s character to look like angels, it makes them behave very badly.”
“…there is something else…too, white or light or bright. Funny, they all rhyme.” (Baldwin: “Light, bright and damn near white.”)
“…people have been afraid of the dark always.”
“[The dark is] a terrible danger.”
“Now I think electric lights are going to get rid of that one…press a button and the world is flooded…they don’t have to grow up with a fear of the dark.” (Baldwin: “All that’s very gloomy, in a way.”)
“It is understandable that [there is] an association of white and good and ghosts.”
“Therefore, all Europeans have a temptation to feel a sense of biological superiority.”
“[It is based on a] universal perception.”
“It is in everybody’s nature.” (Baldwin: “That’s a weird and frightening perspective, isn’t it, in a way.”)
“…I think it can be eliminated now that we don’t have to be afraid of the dark.” (Baldwin: “Of course, but we have so many other things to be afraid of.”)
“Most people have electricity…in the past no one knew that there was such a thing as immediate light flooding the world with brightness. A bunch of burning coconut leaves doesn’t light anything.”
To this Baldwin responds: “It doesn’t illuminate.”
Mead: “No illumination.”
Baldwin: “White people are in some sense a kind of tragic case.”
Baldwin could have left at this point. But he stays on for another couple of hundred pages, permitting himself to be instructed in Miss Mead’s certainties. Halfway through he says, weakly, “Without a certain passion…without a certain love, how can I put it, baby?…the world is full of bright people who are entirely irrelevant and most of them are wicked.”
She replies, “That doesn’t change the fact that good, dumb people don’t get very far.”
Mead’s crack-pot factuality reaches a kind of climax at the very end of the dialogue when she stakes her position and, indeed, the position of Western civilization itself, for which she claims to speak, on the belief that history can be reduced to objective facts. Too bad, she feels, that there couldn’t have been cameras at the battle of Waterloo. (“The world is doomed if we can’t reach a point where everyone can understand facts.”)
Somewhere along the line Baldwin has already answered her: “You—generically, historically—write the facts which I am expected to believe…you, historically, generically, have betrayed me so often and lied to me so long that no number of facts according to you will ever convince me.”
But even this cannot rescue him. When issues have been so falsely dealt with in such circumstances as these, only oral mania remains.
December 2, 1971