{responsibility, guilt & forgiveness: a 1970 rap on race between james baldwin & margaret mead}

BALDWIN: We both have produced, all of us have produced, a system of reality which we cannot in any way whatever control; what we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.

In reading a piece on a new book of essays by the inestimable Ursula K. LeGuin, I ran across this brilliant recounting of a conversation between eminent anthropologist Margaret Mead and eminent poet James Baldwin. An older white lady and a middle-aged black man, in 1970 New York, having a public conversation about ideas and personal philosophies and faith – this conversation is just filled with some stunning ideas. I always recognize that linking to things means you read the first sentence and then pass it on without reading it, so I’ve waited until I read it all to post this, but there are just some gems too good not to share. Read, and pass it along. Read it, even if you think you’re too busy for Deep Thoughts (TM). No, you’re not.


BALDWIN: “For whom the bell tolls.” … It means everybody’s suffering is mine.

MEAD: Everybody’s suffering is mine but not everybody’s murdering, and that is a very different point. I would accept everybody’s sufferings. I do not distinguish for one moment whether my child is in danger or a child in Central Asia. But I will not accept responsibility for what other people do because I happen to belong to that nation or that race or that religion. I do not believe in guilt by association.

BALDWIN: But, Margaret, I have to accept it. I have to accept it because I am a black man in the world and I am not only in America… I have a green passport and I am an American citizen, and the crimes of this Republic, whether or not I am guilty of them, I am responsible for.

MEAD: But you see, I think there is a difference. I am glad I am an American because I think we can do more harm than any other country on this earth at the moment, so I would rather be inside the country that could do the most harm.

BALDWIN: In the eye of the hurricane.

MEAD: In the eye of the hurricane, because I think I may be able to do more good there.


Like Mr. Baldwin, sometimes our disappointment with humanity and American culture in specific is so great because we expect a lot from such a capable species, such privileged people in a privileged place — and we expect a lot from ourselves. We need to demand a lot of ourselves… and we need to keep looking with expectation at ourselves collectively, as a culture, as well as individually. We will improve, if only because we must.


BALDWIN: …Look, you and I both are whatever we have become, and whatever happens to us now doesn’t really matter. We’re done. It’s a matter of the curtain coming down eventually. But what should we do about the children? We are responsible; so far as we are responsible at all, our responsibility lies there, toward them. We have to assume that we are responsible for the future of this world.

MEAD: That’s right.

BALDWIN: What shall we do? How shall we begin it? How can it be accomplished? How can one invest others with some hope?

MEAD: Then we come to a point where I would say it matters to know where we came from. That it matters to know the long, long road that we’ve come through. And this is the thing that gives me hope we can go further.


Read this whole piece, and I encourage you, as you have time, to read the associated pieces on the problematic concept of a “melting pot” in America, the reimagining of democracy for a post-consumerist culture, and an affably contentious one on on religion. If you enjoy reading like this as I do, you could bump the website a donation – these treasures do need to be unearthed and shared in contemporary times, and the work of educating a culture – work like painstaking – certainly takes a lot of hours and labor (and no, nobody paid me to say that, and I don’t even know who runs the site).

Leave a Reply