A social and political analyst reflects on racial tensions in contemporary America.
In 1963, Robert Kennedy asked James Baldwin to organize a small, private gathering of prominent African-Americans in order to hear their views on combating segregation and discrimination. Dyson (Sociology/Georgetown Univ.; Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, 2017, etc.) uses that meeting as a jumping-off point for an incisive look at the roles of politicians, artists, intellectuals, and activists in confronting racial injustice and effecting change. The meeting, notes the author, was frustrating for Kennedy and his guests. Besides Baldwin, they included playwright Lorraine Hansberry, black activist Jerome Smith, and entertainers Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. Hoping that a conversation would result in a practical “urban agenda,” Kennedy was stunned by “a gut punch of black rage.” For nearly three hours he listened to “violent, emotional verbal assaults,” especially from Smith, who claimed that he was “close to the moment where I’m ready to take up a gun.” To Kennedy, his guests seemed “more interested in witness than policy.” Their emotional testimony struck him as “hysterical.” For their part, they saw Kennedy as a well-meaning but ignorant white liberal. White America’s hatred of blackness, Kennedy’s guests agreed, “could never be solved solely by a governmental program.” The meeting, Dyson asserts, exposed rage that still persists, as blacks struggle to find “room to breathe within the smothering confines of white society” and public figures grapple for solutions. The author points to Minneapolis Councilwoman Andrea Jenkins and California senator Kamala Harris; black intellectuals Ta-Nehisi Coates, Erin Aubry Kaplan, and Farah Jasmine Griffin; artists Jay-Z and Beyoncé; and sports figures Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick as inspiring figures courageous enough “to face down oppression in our land.” Dyson also celebrates the potent image of Wakanda in the movie Black Panther, which helps “remythologize blackness, to see blackness as an imagined kingdom of possibility, to see it as an alternative universe of humane endeavor.”
An eloquent response to an urgent—and still-unresolved—dilemma.