Posts Tagged ‘James Baldwin’

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…)

Caring for Words, X: Tell the Truth

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018


I once was in a group discussion on social justice (is there a justice that’s not social?) at which one the discussants, whom I’ll call Kevin, chose to lecture the rest of us on the nonexistence of truth. “When someone talks about ‘truth,’” he said, “what they mean is what’s true for them. Your truth isn’t necessarily my truth, but they’re both true. Yours is no better than mine. We should stop talking about the truth because there’s no such thing.”

Kevin continued in that postmodern vein for what seemed to me a very long time. I wriggled in my seat, ready to voice disagreement, but when he finally stopped explaining the way things really are, the group leader quickly steered the conversation in another direction. It was later that night (in what the Germans call a Treppenwitz, the perfect witty retort you only think of while heading upstairs to bed) that I arrived at the appropriate response: “But Kevin, is that true?”

No one this side of the grave can claim certain access to “The Truth” in its entirety. Not even “Science” (with a capital “S”) can pull that off. Yet if my truth has precisely the same validity as Adolf Hitler’s or Charlie Manson’s, what’s the point of discussing anything, social or otherwise, each of us forever stranded on the reef of solipsism?

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