Wednesday, May 9, 2018

"... It is not despair ..." (James Baldwin) / "... so let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late ..." (Bob Dylan)

Thanks to the Doonesbury video archive on May 9 and Brain Pickings for the inspiration for this post.

After reading about A Rap on Race at Brain Pickings, I downloaded it for free and have been reading it in the last few days.  Although I usually find it difficult, if not impossible, to read anything book length from a computer screen, Open Library's format is easily readable for me.  I'm more than half finished.  It's sobering, well worth reading, provoking a meditation on what has changed and what hasn't changed since 1971, when James Baldwin was 47 years old and Margaret Mead was 70.

It's an entirely different experience to listen to the conversation and hear the emotion in the two voices.  I located the end of the edited conversation (below at what was transcribed for page 256) from the YouTube video for anyone who would like to read along.  Otherwise, I was unable to match the transcript with the quotes I selected below:

Page 25:
James Baldwin:  I realized I was looking at death.  That man wanted to kill me.


Page 117:
Margaret Mead:  No. We only talk about ignorance of something that is known.  We don't have a word for the impossibility of knowing something yet.

James Baldwin:  Exactly.  There isn't a word for that, is there?  No word that I know.  And yet that is where everyone begins.


Page 135:
James Baldwin:  The life of everybody on this planet is menaced by, to put it too simply, the extraordinary and even willful ignorance of people in high places.


Page 138:
Margaret Mead:  And how are we going to -- at a period when there are so many people who have failed to be fitted into the social system in any way, so they are going around shooting twenty people or throwing bombs at random -- how are we going to protect this system which is so vulnerable?

James Baldwin:  I don't think, in this case, that it can be protected.


It's a conversation with a growing edginess to it, a difficult conversation.  Curious, I just turned to the last page to see who had the last word.

Page 256:  (Listen beginning at 1:43:46.  Interesting that the transcript doesn't quite match what was said)
James Baldwin:  We're talking about that.  I have to talk about my beginnings, and I did begin here auctioned like a mule, bred as though I were a stallion.  I was in my country, which I paid for and I'm paying for.  Treated as not even a beast is treated.  Died in ditches not even as a mule is murdered.  And I have to remember that.  I have to redeem that.  I cannot let it go for nothing.  The only reason I'm here is to bear witness.

I don't really like my life, you know.  I don't really want another drink. I've seen enough of the world's cities to make me vomit forever.  But I've got something to do.  It has nothing in it any longer for me.  What I wanted is what everybody wanted.  You wanted it, too.  Everybody wanted it.  It will come.  It comes in different shapes and forms.  It is not despair, and the price one pays is everybody's price.

But on top of that particular price, which is universal, there is something gratuitous which I will not forgive, you know.  It's difficult to be born, difficult to learn to walk, difficult to grow old, difficult to die and difficult to live for everybody, everywhere, forever.  But no one has the right to put on top of that another burden, another price which nobody can pay, and a burden which really nobody can bear.  I know it's universal, Margaret, but the fact that it is universal doesn't mean that I'll accept it.


37paddington said...

This just slays me. James Baldwin is so right, the price is unbearable. It is of such weight as to crush the soul. And yet, and yet, we cannot turn away. As he says: "I cannot let it go for nothing. The only reason I'm here is to bear witness." Those words just pierced me. Because sometimes I don't feel as if I can take in another person shot for no reason, another person of color for whom the police have been called, but I have to do it—bear witness. Otherwise, I am complicit.

Thank you for this wonderful summary of an extraordinary conversation.

Sabine said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. I am reading.