As we grapple with a seemingly endless list of forms of violence (sexual and reproductive violence, violence against Indigenous people, transphobia, systemic racism, ongoing gun violence, anti-Asian violence, and the ever-present, daily violence against Black people) in this country, it is crucial once again to consider how the issue of race is at the root of each of these ills.
Faced with the current wave of political interventions against teaching about race, I want to reflect on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project, which contributed to a foundational disruption of the myth of American exceptionalism by exposing the myth of racial progressivism, and look back at another, much earlier, conversation about race. In her book adaptation of the New York Times Magazine series, Hannah-Jones decenters 1776 and uses the project to counternarrate nationhood from the perspective of Black communities and their histories. Each essay, photograph, and literary contribution lays bare contemporary iterations of how popular narratives about the nation’s origin and moral character reproduced beliefs in racial progress. And this despite trends in peer-reviewed sociological, historical, political, and economic research that show racial violence and inequality increasing.
A Rap on Race (1971) is a seven-and-a-half-hour conversation between Margaret Mead and James Baldwin. The lengthy, poignant exchange between Mead, “a persona of the white liberal (but dominant) sector,” and Baldwin, “a persona of the black liberal (but sub-dominant) sector,” is an attempt to understand how the tangled forces of whiteness and blackness have shaped American society. These well-known figures concern themselves with America as a plural social text made up of a dominant white majority and a subdominant nonwhite (whatever that might have meant at any given point in American history) “minority.”
Baldwin places extreme importance on the Black community as a living and breathing entity. His conversations with Mead suggest that he understood the lack of knowledge about Black people of most people outside the Black community—including in Mead. In their conversation Mead highlights “growing up afraid of the dark.” She says, “bad things happen in the dark, you can get hurt in the dark,” microscopically focusing on white fear instead of the problem of racism.
Baldwin argues that rationalizing fear is crucial for the true development of a society. He notes the fundamental nature of accepting your “ancestors” and having a “brother in common,” and he emphasizes how “the tragedy is that most white people deny their brother.” This denial is a direct connection to the element of fear, the understanding that an entire people can actively and consciously abandon their “brother in common” to severe mistreatment and general discrimination.
Baldwin says that lack of trust within the two communities is a direct result of white fear, and the notion that Black individuals are responsible for providing healing and mending for this fear is irrational, as Blacks have been and still remain the targets of this irrational fear. Baldwin stresses the importance of high levels of caution in Black communities, as the historical evidence and representation make it clear that white fear of Black people is a foundational aspect of the distrustful reaction of Black communities, as whites are historically known for abusing their “brother in common” and using him for personal gain. White fear graduated into exploitation and abuse, and the fear was unequivocally rationalized to maintain the abuse, discrimination, and mistreatment. Baldwin notes that Black people attempting to integrate found themselves “in serious psychological trouble, because they weren’t, no matter how well the uniform fitted, really what they were taken to be or were hoping or pretending to be.” For Baldwin, the integration of white people and Black people, given the climate, involved conformity in the name of acceptance. As the distrust of whites remains an issue, the psychological damage to and discrimination against Black people continues.
The questions that Baldwin and Mead addressed more than fifty years ago are still pressing today. Given the social climate in which racial tensions are more than ever shaping everyday American society, the temporary coalition that Mead and Baldwin formed still provides us with concrete examples to juxtapose with cases like Amadou Diallo; Ousmane Zongo; Kimani Gray; Kendrec McDade; Timothy Russell; Malissa Williams; Ervin Jefferson; Patrick Dorismond; Timothy Stansbury, Jr.; Sean Bell; Orlando Barlow; Aaron Campbell; Victor Steen; Steven Eugene Washington; Alonzo Ashley; Wendell Allen; Ronald Madison; James Brissette; Travares McGill; Ramarley Graham; Dante Parker; Oscar Grant; Trayvon Martin; John Crawford III; Michael Brown; Ezell Ford; Eric Garner; Tamir Rice; George Floyd; Breonna Taylor; and Tyre Nichols, among many others. In closing, I encourage us all to read or reread Baldwin’s No Name in the Street and appreciate how he articulates these matters accurately.1 And I urge us to continue our conversations.
1. Readers of French might enjoy Magali Berger’s translation of Baldwin’s No Name in the Street, Chassés de la lumière (Ypsilon, 2015), which includes two important afterwords.
Baldwin, James, and Margaret Mead. A Rap on Race. Lippincott, 1971.