Tag Archives: Margaret Mead

James Baldwin talks about race as “a frame of reference”

The most common question I get asked is, “How do you not see race?”  Mystified, irritated, doubtful, persons look at me and wonder how does it happen.  Or they think, “What world are you living in?  Not the real one.  Don’t you see what is happening?”

I am treated like a madwoman.  They shake their heads or wave me off.  “She doesn’t know what she is talking about.”  They confuse racelessness with colorblindness or post- racialism.  No, I’m talking about life before race. I am pre- racial: “For it was you who formed me in my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139.13, NRSV).  I am not choosing one side over the other; I am aracial, neither accepting or desiring the racial nomenclature.

But, I don’t think these people hear me.  Like a cure for cancer or discovering the fountain of youth, solving the race problem is talked about as if a miracle or mythical.  Like parting seas, parting ways with race only seems possible with Divine intervention or some superb detective work.  To be sure, God has stepped in.  But, it also requires a change in the way that we talk about race.   We have to work out our salvation (Philippians 2.12).

And therein lies part of how it happens.  Talking about race as the problem and not our selves is a good place to start.  Because many of us talk about race as if we are afraid of what it will do to us.  We speak well of race though it does not return the favor.  Why?  It is only our tongues that are far- reaching.  We are who we say we are.

This is an agreement, a social contract.  Because race is not an absolute.  We give it meaning and make it meaningful.  We tell generation after generation we have a deal.

Aime Cesaire is right: “It is equally necessary to decolonize our minds, our inner life, at the same time that we decolonize society.”  Because there is a Pharaoh in our heads too.  Race is a mind game.

James Baldwin realized this.  In an interview with Margaret Mead captured in the book A Rap on Race, after Mead talks of an instance when race completely slipped her mind, Baldwin says,

“But, of course.  That’s what I mean when I say… when I hear ‘Ignore race.’  Well, it took me a long time to do that, and perhaps, I would never have been able to do it if I hadn’t left America.  I know I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t left America.  It was a great revelation for me when I found myself finally in France among all kinds of very different people– I mean, at least different from my point of view and different from anybody I had met in America.  And I realized one day that somebody asked about a friend of mine who, in fact, when I thought about it, is probably North African, but I really did not remember whether he was black or white.  It simply had never occurred to me.  The question had never been in my mind.  Never in my mind.

I really had a terrible time.  I suddenly felt as though I were lost.  My whole frame of reference all the years I was growing up had been black and white.  You know, you always knew who was white and who was black.  But suddenly I didn’t have it; suddenly the frame of reference had gone.  And in a funny way– and I don’t know how to make sense of this– as far as I could tell, as far as I can tell till this hour, once that has happened to you, it never comes back.

Mead: I had to make it come back.

Baldwin: Well, I came home.”