Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What Speaking Truth to Power Looks Like

I'm feeling better, though still kinda crummy, so I've been reading more of this posthumous collection of James Baldwin's prose, The Cross of Redemption. Today I read Baldwin's 1979 remembrance "Lorraine Hansberry at the Summit", which in addition to paying tribute to Hansberry, is an account of a May 1963 meeting between then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy several African-American activists and artists (plus "Rip Torn ... a white Southerner, though that does not describe him" [111]). Kennedy didn't conduct himself well. It's said that he improved in later years; I hope so.
We wanted him to tell his brother the President to personally escort to school, on the following day or the day after, a small black girl scheduled to enter a Deep South school.

"That way," we said, "it will be clear that whoever spits on that child will be spitting on the nation."

He did not understand this, either. "It would be," he said, "a meaningless moral gesture" [112].
Among those present was the actress and singer Lena Horne, and among other things she told Kennedy,
"If you are so proud of your record, Mr. Attorney General, you go up to Harlem into those churches and barber shops and pool halls, and you tell the people. We ain't going to do it, because we don't want to get shot" [112].
I love to imagine this scene, because Lena Horne was the embodiment of glamour and elegance. (Which never sheltered her from white racism, of course, in or out of show business.) It's still easy for white people to fuss about Angry Black Men, who they're obscurely aware speak for a good many black people in America; but if they only knew how much anger simmered beneath the professional veneer black entertainers had to cultivate, including the entertainers white audiences thought were safe ... well, it wouldn't change their attitudes, not most of them.

But who knows? Maybe, just maybe, Miss Lena Horne made an impression on Mr. Attorney General Robert Kennedy that day. Not enough for his brother to make a "meaningless moral gesture", not enough for the Kennedy brothers to lay off Martin King or to keep them from trying to prevent the March on Washington that fall. But maybe it tilted him toward the beginning of a better direction.