Archive for February, 2020

What Hasn’t Changed

Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

Last month, in a post on gun violence and the growing understanding of Robert Kennedy, I mentioned the 1963 meeting between Kennedy, James Baldwin, and other civil rights leaders that went disastrously awry. The consequences of that gathering proved varied and contradictory. Then Attorney General Kennedy quickly instructed FBI Director J Edgar Hoover to increase surveillance on Baldwin to uncover information of “a derogatory nature.” On the other hand, it marked a turn in Kennedy’s evolving attitude regarding racial justice. Within a month, President John F Kennedy – at his brother’s urging – delivered his landmark Civil Right Address, from which the 1964 Civil Rights Act took form.

Another product of that evening, at once more immediate and less procedural, was a video recording of an interview Kenneth Clark conducted with Baldwin. In an attempt to ease Baldwin’s palpable post-meeting tension, Clark started by asking the writer about his childhood memories. What followed was an emotionally powerful and stunningly eloquent exploration of the American soul that only someone with Baldwin’s experience and verbal gifts could pull off. Clothing his indictment in his characteristic – if undeserved – compassion toward white Americans, he says, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive,” and ties the future of America to whether or not its people can “face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they’ve maligned so long.” He then challenges White America “to find in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n—-r in the first place, because I’m not a n—-r. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a n—-r, it means you need it…And if you invented him, you have to find out why.” (more…)

The Curse of Interesting Times

Thursday, February 6th, 2020

What historians of the future will make of this week’s events on Capitol Hill is more than any of us can know. It may seem the United States can hardly grow more divided and angry, but that, I fear, is wishful thinking, an understandable attempt to deny the ongoing drama of disintegration. Those who eventually write the history of this time will, as always, be the victors, or rather, perhaps, those who survived, who did not reap the full force of the now gathering whirlwind. Perhaps historians will say Democrats made a colossal blunder in pushing their case too quickly, forcing a vote before diligently pursuing all legal means to build a case. Republicans may well be judged as having sold their souls for power, a treasure considerably less than the whole world. Most likely, this week will be seen as one step – perhaps a momentous one – in a larger, longer process. (more…)