A Rap on Race

On August 25, 1970, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead met for the first time and spent about an hour getting to know each other. The next night they discussed race and society, the conversation flowing over into the next morning and evening, lasting over seven hours in total. The transcript of that taped conversation is this book, and it is marvelous.

Towards the end Baldwin careens more and more off the rails, with Mead asking him to “Wait a minute” and not agreeing to take on the sins of her ancestors. They also differ significantly on the Israel question (Mead for, Baldwin against). Mead tries to bring up Women’s Lib several times but Baldwin doesn’t seem to want to stick to that line of thought, instead focusing on race and whether history is present or past. Mead brings up going to the Cosmos Club with Ralph Bunche but there were parts he couldn’t get into and parts she couldn’t, but both exclusions were based on prejudice.

Baldwin points out that no one takes responsibility in society, using Germany as an example. He’d get into fights there after saying to them “You mean to tell me that six million Jews were murdered while the entire nation was out to lunch?”

It’s no use predicting what will happen in the future, “it’s what we do this week that matters… Right now, this minute,” said Mead. But it’s eye-opening to read their sentiments on the fright of conservatives, Mead: “They are terribly easy to frighten, and their fear is frightening. Though all fear is frightening, and certainly all groups that are frightened are frightening.” Baldwin: “Because it may be that their fear will precipitate the kind of social chaos which no society can really survive. This fear can result in a kind of convulsion of apathy.” Mead counters that it’s not apathy but rather that people just don’t know what to do about anything. “There is an enormous sense of frustration, and people feel so strongly in this country that you ought to be able to fix at once anything that goes wrong…. Everybody in the country is in a state of frustration about something. I think irritation rather than apathy is much more important here now. Everybody is irritated. Their skin is sort of scratchy.”