James Baldwin and Margaret Mead A Rap on Race

by Thandi | Last Updated on: October 7th, 2020 at 6:03 pm

Okay – it’s not technically an interview with the long passed maestro of words. But I wanted to share some of the hypnotizing conversations between Baldwin, and American anthropologist Margaret Mead, taken from their recorded conversation in 1970.

To anthropologists, Mead is one of our undisputed rock stars; I studied her work as an undergrad at Cambridge Uni.  So, when my husband gave me this book last year – it was like being given, well, an intellectual cronut! Two great minds with a wealth of information, understanding, and awareness; talking about ‘Race’.

This small excerpt felt ripe for ThandieKay. In it, Mead describes her introduction to ‘racial’ prejudice, and why Polynesian people are considered the most beautiful in the world.

I’ll select other extracts in the weeks to come – because even though they’re speaking decades ago (before Obama, Beyonce, or Empire !)  the truth that comes from their conversations is as fresh and riveting as it would be today.

Mead: I learned about race when I was a child. Margaret Mead on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea circa. The 1930s

Baldwin: How did you learn about that?

Mead: I lived on a farm that had been a station for the underground railroad.

Baldwin: In the North, then.

Mead: In Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I have completely Northern ancestry, and my grandfather fought in the civil war on the Northern side. My father bought a farm that had been a station on the underground railroad.

This history was regarded as very good, romantic, good Northern behavior. And we had two old Negro men in the neighborhood – we called them colored then, in 1912 – who had been slaves but who dropped off and hid and stayed behind.

One of them had a younger wife – he must have been seventy, I suppose, when I was a child, but he had a younger wife – a very fat, very black wife. She had a half-white son, and what I was told by my mother – who believed in telling children the truth and telling it correctly so they wouldn’t get it wrong – was that she’d been raped by a white man. You see, I had the reverse picture that most Americans have; because most white women picture a rapist as a black man. This is one of the important things one has to remember all the time.

Baldwin: This is very funny. Go on.

Mead: But I had reversed it, and my picture of rape was of a black woman raped by a white man. He was a butcher, too, and that’s one of the things I thought of: he was a brutal character. So whenever I dreamt of rape, I dreamt of this black woman being raped by a white man. This is a straight reversal of ordinary American experience.

Baldwin: That’s right. The ordinary American mythology is entirely different. I suppose that explains a lot about you.

Mead: Probably, although I’m not completely free. You see, I don’t think any American – any white American – is free of a special attitude toward American Negroes. Just as you’re saying there aren’t any Negroes outside of America.

Mead with Samoan girls. 1926

We are often nicer to other dark-skinned people.

We treat African princes or Indians with turbans very well.

My first field trip was to Samoa.

We are often nicer to other dark-skinned people.

We treat African princes or Indians with turbans very well.

My first field trip was to Samoa. Well, of course, the Polynesians are people everybody thinks are beautiful. If you look at them closely, they are not really the most beautiful people in the world by any absolute standard. Yet everybody thinks they’re beautiful. Chinese people think so, black people think so, everybody thinks so.

I’ve now figured out why: that for maybe two or three thousand years they never saw anybody but themselves, and they think that they’re beautiful and they are so impressed with themselves that everybody else thinks they’re beautiful.

If you think you’re beautiful, you move like a beautiful person.

The next extract from their conversation deals with ‘Race’ from an anthropological viewpoint, and it’s fascinating. I’ll post it next week.

Watch this space. Love Thandie x

Actress Thandie Newton and make-up artist Kay Montano met nearly 10 years ago on a shoot for UK Vogue (see ‘Our First Shoot Together’ post here). Since then a strong friendship has grown out of countless professional collaborations in fashion, beauty, red carpet, on stage and screen.