Margaret Mead and James Baldwin on Identity, Race, the Immigrant Experience, and Why the “Melting Pot” Is a Problematic Metaphor
By Maria Popova
NOTE: This is the second installment in a multi-part series covering Mead and Baldwin’s historic conversation. You can read Part 1, focusing on forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, here.
The civil rights movement has been accused of excluding women from its campaign for “a brotherhood of man” and the feminist movement has been accused of excluding women of color. It is both fair and reasonable to suppose that in any movement of goodwill aimed at equality, such exclusions are not deliberate but circumstantial — the product of cultural biases so deep-seated that they require multiple directions of effort and commitment to overcome.
In the summer of 1970, a most emboldening integration of these efforts took place on a stage in New York City. On the evening of August 25, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin sat down for a remarkable public conversation, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library). For seven and a half hours over the course of two days, they discussed everything from power and privilege to race and gender to capitalism and democracy. What emerged was a dialogue of total commitment, deep mutual respect, and profound prescience.
By that point, Baldwin, forty-six and living in Paris, was arguably the most world-famous poet alive, and an enormously influential voice in the civil rights dialogue; Mead, who was about to turn seventy, had become the world’s first celebrity academic — a visionary anthropologist with groundbreaking field experience under her belt, who lectured at some of the most esteemed cultural institutions and had a popular advice column in Redbook magazine. As a black man and a white woman who had come of age in the first half of the twentieth century, before the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, and as queer people half a century before marriage equality, their formative experiences were at once worlds apart and strewn with significant similarity.
Since the depth and dimension of the conversation between these uncontainable minds cannot be reduced to a single thread of synthesis — this is, after all, the book I have annotated most heavily in a lifetime of reading — I have decided to examine its various facets in a multi-part series, the first installment in which covered forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility. This second installment focuses on identity, how we assemble it as individuals, and how we construct it as a culture.
Mead and Baldwin first consider how identity’s contour is often shaped by the negative space around it:
BALDWIN: It takes a lot to wrest identity out of nothing…
MEAD: But nobody was talking about needing identity fifty years ago. We’ve started to worry about identity since people began losing it. And that gives us a new concept. And now you go back and work on it and figure out what your identity is. Fifty years ago you might have moved to Paris cause it was the thing to do. After all, lots of white writers went to Europe too, in order to understand America. But you wouldn’t have said the same thing about your identity fifty years ago.
The whole spirit of the North has been to keep other people out. It’s not only been about keeping out black people, it’s been about keeping out everybody… The North has always tried to establish its identity by cutting other people out and off.
The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out.
Mead later revisits this notion of identity as a function of using what we are not to define what we are:
MEAD: The white world … [has] built its dignity and built its sense of identity on the fact it wasn’t black, the way males in this country built their sense of superiority over the fact that they are not female.
But there exists a certain hierarchy of desirable identities based on the social hierarchy of privilege. She offers a pause-giving empirical perspective on that totem pole of desirability regarding race and gender:
MEAD: [Psychologists] asked the little white boys which they would rather be, little white girls or little Negro boys. What do you think they said? … They said they would rather be little Negro boys.
And yet identity, rather than a static fixture, is an assemblage of responsive parts that reorganize relative to cultural context. Baldwin offers an illustrative example:
BALDWIN: When I first hit Paris, for example, I had dealt with cynical East and North Africans. They did not see me, and it may be argued that I did not see them either. But they did see that I smoked Lucky Strikes and Pall Malls and that I had American sports shirts. They did not see that I did not have a penny; that did not make any difference. I came, I represented the richest nation in the world and there was no way whatever for them to suspect that I considered myself to be far worse off then they… The reason I was in Paris was that I considered my sports shirts, for example, and my cigarettes, had been a little too expensive and cost me a little more than I could afford. They did not know that.
I had a parallel experience learning about race and identity as a child.
When I was growing up in communist Bulgaria, the Iron Curtain prevented practically all influx of foreigners and people of different ethnicities. The only major exception was the International Institute of Sofia University, located near my grandparents’ small apartment, where my parents and I shared a pull-out sofa. Passing by the campus on the way to school, I would occasionally see one of several young black men — graduate students from a handful of communist and socialist countries in North and East Africa. But what registered immediately wasn’t skin color, for the markers of privilege are different in a country whose entire identity was deeply rooted in a sense of poverty.
In encountering strangers, both native and foreign, Bulgarians always engaged in a mental math estimating who is “better off” on the poverty axis — a self-comparison from which emerged a sense of superiority or inferiority, depending on the particular calculation. If those black graduate students were smoking Marlboros or wearing denim — the ultimate, most highly prized, usually contraband marker of Western privilege — the mental math automatically registered them as “better off” than us, people of grater privilege, and thus worthy of that peculiar blend of reverence and begrudging envy. (Never mind that they were poor grad students, likely of the same means as all grad students, anywhere in the world, ever.) If they wore no denim and smoked no American cigarettes, then they were dismissed as irrelevant — no better off or worse off than we were, just members of the same ill-fated human lot. Race was merely a marker of foreignness and a quicker cue for the mental math to be performed. Once again, it was a case of identity contoured by negative space.
Baldwin offers another example that illustrates how other such sociocultural variables can eclipse race in this calculus of privilege even within an ethnic group:
BALDWIN: I remember once a few years ago, in the British Museum a black Jamaican was washing the floors or something and asked me where I was from, and I said I was born in New York. He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” I did not know what he meant. “Where did you come from before that?” he explained. I said, “My mother was born in Maryland.” “Where was your father born?” he asked. “My father was born in New Orleans.” He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” Then I began to get it; very dimly, because now I was lost. And he said, “Where are you from in Africa?” I said, “Well, I don’t know,” and he was furious with me. He said, and walked away, “You mean you did not care enough to find out?”
Now, how in the world am I going to explain to him that there is virtually no way for me to have found out where I came from in Africa? So it is a kind of tug of war. The black American is looked down on by other dark people as being an object abjectly used. They envy him on the one hand, but on the other hand they also would like to look down on him as having struck a despicable bargain.
But identity, Baldwin argues, isn’t something we are born with — rather, it is something we claim for ourselves, then must assert willfully to the world:
BALDWIN: You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.
Remarking on the emerging crop of elite-educated African American boys they had discussed earlier in the conversation, he adds:
I’m tired of being told by people who just got out of the various white colleges and got a dashiki and let their hair grow, I am terribly tired of these middle-class darkies telling me what it means to be black. But I understand why they have to do it!
This assertion of identity transcends race and spills over into other demographic categories. As a first-generation immigrant in America three decades after this historic dialogue, I found Mead’s remarks on national identity particularly pause-giving:
MEAD: It always takes two generations to really lose something, but in two generations you can lose it.
The culture in this country that is … most limited, is that of the second and third generations away from Europe. They have lost what they had and aren’t ready to take on anything else. They are scared to death and so busy being American.
What we have in this country at present is a very large number of second- and third-generation Europeans who aren’t really sure they’re here.
Fifteen years ago, if I gave a test to people to fill in: “I am an American, not a _____,” most people would say “foreigner,” and a few said “Communist.” Now, they say “not a Russian,” “not an Italian,” “not an Irishman,” “not a Pole”: over twenty different things.
Once again, the conversation circles back to this notion of constructing identity by the deliberate exclusion of what we are not in order to carve out what we are — a process that calls to mind Rodin’s famous proclamation that the art of sculpting is about removing the stone not part of the sculpture. Baldwin captures this paradox succinctly:
BALDWIN: It is a curious way to find your identity, labeling yourself by labeling all the things that you’re not.
They consider another aspect of identity — identity as an assemblage of ancestry:
BALDWIN: You are always the receptacle of what has gone before you, whether or not you know it and whether or not you can reach it.
MEAD: “We’re sort of mongrels,” I was taught to say as a child. Mongrels is a Pennsylvania dialect word for a dog of mixed background.
But ancestry isn’t only a function of genealogy — while we can’t choose our genetic ancestors, we can choose and construct our own intellectual, creative, and ideological lineage. I started Brain Pickings with the intention of assembling my own cultural lineage based on ideas from minds belonging to brains I wasn’t genetically related to, a kind of spiritual and intellectual reparenting. Baldwin wasn’t genetically related to Shakespeare — at least directly; all humans are, of course, genetically related further down the line — but the Bard was very much his cultural ancestor. All of us do that, in one form or another — we are cultural stardust.
Mead articulates this elegantly:
MEAD: You see, I think we have to get rid of people being proud of their ancestors, because after all they didn’t do a thing about it. What right have I to be proud of my grandfather? I can be proud of my child if I didn’t ruin her, but nobody has any right to be proud of his ancestors.
The one thing you really ought to be allowed to do is to choose your ancestors.
We have a term for this in anthropology: mythical ancestors… They are spiritual and mental ancestors, they’re not biological ancestors, but they are terribly important.
BALDWIN: We are talking about the models that the human race chooses to work from, in effect. It is difficult to imagine anyone choosing Hitler as an ancestor, for example… It runs very close to the terms in which one elects to live and the reasons for that election. It reveals that depth of whatever dreams you have, and everyone lives by his dreams, really.
Mead notes that there are very few black people in America who don’t have some white ancestors, with which Baldwin agrees, and they go on to explore why the “melting pot” metaphor is deeply problematic in honoring the actual architecture of identity:
MEAD: It isn’t a melting pot, is it?
BALDWIN: No, it isn’t. Nobody ever got melted. People aren’t meant to be melted.
MEAD: That old image from World War I is a bad image: to melt everyone down.
BALDWIN: Because people don’t want to be melted down. they resist it with all their strength.
MEAD: Of course! Who wants to be melted down?
BALDWIN: Melted down into what? It’s a very unfortunate image.
But where this takes us, I do not know. I really do not know. I can’t any longer find the point of departure. Part of it is, of course, the great dispersal of the Africans. But then everyone has been dispersed all over the world for one reason or another. And how out of this one arrives at any kind of sense of human unity, for lack of a better phrase, is a very grave question and obviously would take many, many generations to answer.
In one of his many brilliant asides, Baldwin makes a curious remark about how the eradication of neighborliness makes the “high-rise slums” of housing projects so ghastly and such a threat to the mutual honoring of identity:
BALDWIN: The anonymity of it is a tremendous insult. People won’t bear it. People will become monstrous before they can bear it.
In a way, the internet is a high-rise slum — the very substance of neighborly friendliness, which is predicated on knowing one another’s identity and thus honoring one another’s personhood, vanishes behind the veneer of anonymity, shielded by which people perpetrate monstrous acts.
To illustrate the complex variables of identity beyond race, Mead shares a poignant autobiographical anecdote of her own formative experience with the duality of privilege and hardship, underpinned by the conscious choice not to partake in the era’s limiting and bigoted treatment of difference:
MEAD: I was born in a family where I was the child … that both my parents wanted. I had the traits that they liked, that each one of them liked in the other. I was told from the time I was born that I was totally satisfactory. I had a chance to be what I wanted to be and I have always been able to be what I wanted to be… Because I was born where I was, I was fortunate. And it wasn’t only because I was white, because there are an extraordinary number of white people in this country who are born very unfortunately. I might have been very fortunate had I been the third child of my parents instead of the first, with a baby who died in between somewhere so my father decided that he was never going to love the younger children too much.
But I have got to talk to you, you see, and I think that this is a problem. It isn’t only race. It is weighted by race, oh, it’s weighted by race. So you give yourself the same father and the same mother but you grow up in a small Iowa town. Fifty percent, seventy-five percent, God knows how much of suffering you would not have had, see? I mean, you just think of the things that you suffered by, and most of them were created by Harlem. Now, your father. If you had had your father as a father but he had been white… He could have been, you know. There have been white preachers that were just as rigid as your father.
It wasn’t because I was sitting, vis-à-vis black people, being privileged, as has happened in many parts of the world. I didn’t belong to a separate class. I lived in a small Pennsylvania community and I was brought up with tremendous concern for every person who was poor or different in that community. In a sense my happiness was a function of the fact that my mother did insist that I call the black woman who worked for us Mrs. My felicity was a function of a denial, if you like, or a refusal of a caste position.
A Rap on Race is spectacular in its entirety — a perspective-normalizing read that reminds us both how far we’ve come and how much further we have yet to go, equipping us with that delicate balance of outrage and hope that translates into the very moral courage necessary for building a more just and noble world.
Published March 26, 2015