a mystical möbius — curating facts, ideas, text, and media to create a contemplative space.
We’re in conversation again this week with a 2019 book written by Mark Anderson entitled: From Boas to Black Power: Racism, Liberalism, and American Anthropology.
In August of 1970 there was a conversation between Margaret Mead and James Baldwin. The conversation became a book in 1971 entitled: A Rap on Race. As we’ll see, the Prologue for Anderson’s book provides helpful observations on their conversation.
Fifty year old fight
When a contentious discourse gets swept under the rug for decades, it’s no surprise that, almost invariably, a Frankenstein will ultimately be created to act out the conflict/confrontation. Critical Race Theory [CRT] is now a hyper-proxy for an old point of disagreement. A Rap on Race (1971) surfaced the rift.
Margaret Mead acknowledged the American problems with race and yet she believed that the founders and the founding documents also created a redemptive legacy within the unrealized ideals embedded in our national creeds. James Baldwin argued that (the artifacts of) White supremacist ideology is the “custom of the country” and that Mead’s argument that our democratic ideals would redeem us was misplaced. Baldwin understood that the Black Power movement was fighting on the basis of the presumption that white power is a characteristic feature of the U.S. republic. [Anderson, Prologue]
The stark division surfaced when Mead sought Baldwin’s identification with the American ideal that she fancied. Anderson quotes from, A Rap on Race:
Mead: So this part of our image of what is American, yours and mine, because our ancestors came here together. We share a notion of a kind of people that formed the ideals of this country and the ideals against which we have always been measuring the country and finding it faulty. But the ideals were here. I mean, Jefferson did postulate ideas of democracy that one could follow.
Baldwin: Yes, but he also owned slaves.
Mead: Sure he did. But he set down the statements on the basis of which one could fight for the vote of everybody in this country. The fact that he owned slaves is one thing. The principles he laid down are something else. (151)
I quote Anderson at length:
Throughout the conversation Mead articulated a vision of “America” as an exceptional country based on ideals of freedom and democracy. If in practice these ideals were violated — by slavery, genocide, and racism — they retained redemptive value for the republic. Baldwin in contrast, refused to accept the distinction, highlighting not simply the failure of the country to live up to its ideals but the violent racial exclusions inherent in becoming and being American. In an exchange that began as a disagreement on Israel and Baldwin’s comparison of himself, as a Black American, to “the Arab at the hands of the Jews” (210), Mead accused Baldwin of racism. Baldwin emphasized that he was not engaging anti-Semitism. Mead responded skeptically, waiting for his “but,” and Baldwin replied:
Well, then, the “but” is that the Jewish American, the Italian American, the Greek American — anyway, all white Americans — all came to America probably to become Americans, and the price for becoming an American, the badge, is very much like being Indian and having a white man’s scalp. In this case, it is my scalp. And it is not the color of the skin that matters, it is the custom of the country. (213)
Baldwin not only drew a distinction across the color line between those that can become white American and those, like himself, forever denied that possibility. He held that the price of being/becoming American was participation in racism, specifically anti-Black racism. He thus highlighted the deep association between whiteness, violence, and “America,” albeit via the overburdened image of the scalp-taking Indian. For Baldwin, endemic racism and the violent exclusions of the color line were “the custom of the country,” as much a part of American culture as the compromised ideals of freedom and democracy they exposed. He could not share Mead’s identification with America in the terms she posited them. [From Boas to Black Power, page 4]
So, is it “the custom of the country,” then?
The past five years have brought the unanswered question from A Rap on Race to the fore and exposed the elephant-in-the-room. Happenings like George Floyd’s killing and the events of January 6, 2021 have catalyzed the open question. Meanwhile, CRT and initiatives like The 1619 Project indicate an increasing public openness by some to Baldwin’s interpretation.
Setting aside CRT‘s ‘Strong Thesis’ as overzealous, the present political question boils down to what I have previously written as CRT‘s ‘Weak Thesis’ (as a spectrum) and the veracity of its strongest ‘strong thesis’ form of CRTWT — i.e., essentially, Baldwin’s (and Black Power’s) claim (right hand circle below).
The present anti-CRT faction overzealously sides with Mead’s redemptive ideals claim and is unwilling/unable to move toward acknowledging CRT, let alone Baldwin’s critique.
Next week: “‘Stage theory… Is BS?’ — pt. 11.” Come see.
[this post ~850 words (about a 3 min. read)]
I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?
New non-stadial graphics: