Cover image for What truth sounds like : Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and our unfinished conversation about race in America
Title:
What truth sounds like : Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and our unfinished conversation about race in America
ISBN:
9781250199416
Edition:
1st ed.
Physical Description:
294 pages ; 21 cm.
Contents:
The martyrs -- The meeting -- The politicians : whiteness and the state -- The artists : dangerous intersections -- The intellectuals : black on black minds -- The activists 1 : policy and witness -- The activists 2 : bad niggers -- After the meeting : resurrection for RFK -- Even if : Wakanda. Forever.
Summary:
In 1963 Attorney General Robert Kennedy sought out James Baldwin to explain the rage that threatened to engulf black America. Baldwin brought along some friends, including playwright Lorraine Hansberry, psychologist Kenneth Clark, and a valiant activist, Jerome Smith. It was Smith's relentless, unfiltered fury that set Kennedy on his heels, reducing him to sullen silence. Kennedy walked away from the nearly three-hour meeting angry--that the black folk assembled didn't understand politics, and that they weren't as easy to talk to as Martin Luther King. But especially that they were more interested in witness than policy. But Kennedy's anger quickly gave way to empathy, especially for Smith. "I guess if I were in his shoes...I might feel differently about this country." Kennedy set about changing policy--the meeting having transformed his thinking in fundamental ways. There was more: every big argument about race that persists to this day got a hearing in that room. Smith declaring that he'd never fight for his country given its racist tendencies, and Kennedy being appalled at such lack of patriotism, tracks the disdain for black dissent in our own time. His belief that black folk were ungrateful for the Kennedys' efforts to make things better shows up in our day as the charge that black folk wallow in the politics of ingratitude and victimhood. The contributions of black queer folk to racial progress still cause a stir. BLM has been accused of harboring a covert queer agenda. The immigrant experience, like that of Kennedy--versus the racial experience of Baldwin--is a cudgel to excoriate black folk for lacking hustle and ingenuity. The questioning of whether folk who are interracially partnered can authentically communicate black interests persists.
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Summary

Summary

NOW A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER | NAMED A BEST/MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2018 BY: Chicago Tribune * Time

A stunning follow up to New York Times bestseller Tears We Cannot Stop

The Washington Post: "Passionately written."

Chris Matthews, MSNBC: "A beautifully written book."

Shaun King: "I kid you not-I think it''s the most important book I''ve read all year...It''s not just informative and enlightening; it tells a story of an essential moment in history."

Harry Belafonte says: "Dyson has finally written the book I always wanted to read. I had the privilege of attending the meeting he has insightfully written about, and it''s as if he were a fly on the wall... a tour de force ...a poetically written work that calls on all of us to get back in that room and to resolve the racial crises we confronted more than fifty years ago."

Joy-Ann Reid says: A work of searing prose and seminal brilliance... Dyson takes that once in a lifetime conversation between black excellence and pain and the white heroic narrative, and drives it right into the heart of our current politics and culture, leaving the reader reeling and reckoning ."

Robin D. G. Kelley says:"Dyson masterfully refracts our present racial conflagration through a subtle reading of one of the most consequential meetings about race to ever take place. In so doing, he reminds us that Black artists and intellectuals bear an awesome responsibility to speak truth to power."

President Barack Obama says: " Everybody who speaks after Michael Eric Dyson pales in comparison."

In 2015 BLM activist Julius Jones confronted Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with an urgent query: "What in your heart has changed that''s going to change the direction of this country?" "I don''t believe you just change hearts," she protested. "I believe you change laws ."

The fraught conflict between conscience and politics - between morality and power - in addressing race hardly began with Clinton. An electrifying and traumatic encounter in the sixties crystallized these furious disputes.

In 1963 Attorney General Robert Kennedy sought out James Baldwin to explain the rage that threatened to engulf black America. Baldwin brought along some friends, including playwright Lorraine Hansberry, psychologist Kenneth Clark, and a valiant activist, Jerome Smith. It was Smith''s relentless, unfiltered fury that set Kennedy on his heels, reducing him to sullen silence.

Kennedy walked away from the nearly three-hour meeting angry - that the black folk assembled didn''t understand politics, and that they weren''t as easy to talk to as Martin Luther King. But especially that they were more interested in witness than policy. But Kennedy''s anger quickly gave way to empathy, especially for Smith. "I guess if I were in his shoes...I might feel differently about this country." Kennedy set about changing policy - the meeting having transformed his thinking in fundamental ways.

There was more: every big argument about race that persists to this day got a hearing in that room. Smith declaring that he''d never fight for his country given its racist tendencies, and Kennedy being appalled at such lack of patriotism, tracks the disdain for black dissent in our own time. His belief that black folk were ungrateful for the Kennedys'' efforts to make things better shows up in our day as the charge that black folk wallow in the politics of ingratitude and victimhood. The contributions of black queer folk to racial progress still cause a stir. BLM has been accused of harboring a covert queer agenda. The immigrant experience, like that of Kennedy - versus the racial experience of Baldwin - is a cudgel to excoriate black folk for lacking hustle and ingenuity. The questioning of whether folk who are interracially partnered can authentically communicate black interests persists. And we grapple still with the responsibility of black intellectuals and artists to bring about social change.

What Truth Sounds Like exists at the tense intersection of the conflict between politics and prophecy - of whether we embrace political resolution or moral redemption to fix our fractured racial landscape. The future of race and democracy hang in the balance.


Author Notes

Michael Eric Dyson is one of America's premier public intellectuals and the author of the New York Times bestseller Tears We Cannot Stop. He occupies the distinguished position of University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, and is a contributing editor of The New Republic and ESPN's The Undefeated. Ebony magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential African Americans and one of the 150 most powerful blacks in the nation.


Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Sociologist and political commentator Dyson (Tears We Cannot Stop) delivers a piercing and wide-ranging analysis of American race relations. The focal point of the book is a 1963 meeting between Sen. Robert Kennedy and a group of notable African-Americans, organized by Kennedy to "sound out the prospects for racial change" during a period of extreme social tension. The group included several prominent and celebrated figures-writer James Baldwin, musician Harry Belafonte, singer Lena Horne, and playwright Lorraine Hansberry-as well as Jerome Smith, a Freedom Rider recovering from vicious beatings. The meeting quickly devolved into a tense and explosive encounter. The group "let the rage run free," forcing Kennedy to finally listen to the anguish of black America. Dyson depicts this as "a watershed moment in American politics" that began a conversation, which continues to this day, about the need to force white people to be witnesses to black suffering, the limits of mainstream liberalism and its gradualist approach, and "the explosive power of truth through testimony." Dyson rounds out the book by bringing contemporary cultural touchstones into the discussion, among them Jay-Z, Beyoncé, the film Get Out, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Black Lives Matter. This is a poignant take on still-festering racial tensions in the United States. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Dyson (Tears We Cannot Stop, 2017) continues his illumination of complex issues of race in his latest compelling book, taking readers back to May 1963, when the great civil rights leaders were in their ascendancy and John F. Kennedy was in the White House. JFK's brother and chief of staff, Robert F. Kennedy, asked author James Baldwin to invite a group of Negroes (the term then used), specifically intellectuals, artists, and activists, to a secret breakfast meeting in the hope of gaining insight into matters of race. Baldwin complied, and he gathered playwright Lorraine Hansberry, entertainers Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte, psychologist Kenneth Clark, and Freedom Rider Jerome Smith, whose witness to the brutalization of blacks at the hands of whites ignited emotions in the room. The unvarnished, pain-filled words Kennedy heard at first offended him, but then struck a chord. After providing the backstories and historical context of the participants, Dyson offers contemporary examples of public figures who struggle for equality. The result is a moving ode to the potentiality of American social progress. Dyson calls on us to return to that room and warns of the consequences of our failure to do so.--Kaplan, Dan Copyright 2018 Booklist


Kirkus Review

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 Beyonc; 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 urgentand still-unresolveddilemma. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

In his latest book, Dyson (Tears We Cannot Stop) uses the historic 1963 meeting between then attorney general Robert F. Kennedy and a group of black cultural leaders organized by James Baldwin to frame the current state of the black artist in America. Dyson jumps between the two moments of cultural change to look at how the fractured racial landscape of America has morphed over the last 50 years. While he never ignores the echoes of pre-civil rights movement racism, Dyson's goal is to highlight the artists and activists who continue to bear witness to the messages that Baldwin, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Jerome Smith, and Lorraine Hansberry delivered that day in May. His list of contemporaries includes Jay-Z, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Kamala Harris, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cornel West, Erin Aubry Kaplan, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Colin Kaepernick, among others. The book concludes with a paean to Wakanda and its imagined "momentum of blackness." VERDICT -Dyson's much-recommended work puts forth the artists and activists who continue to celebrate blackness, offering a welcome reminder of the power of art to maintain dialog with and within America.-John Rodzvilla, Emerson Coll., Boston © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Table of Contents

The Martyrsp. 1
The Meetingp. 11
The Politicians: Whiteness and the Statep. 53
The Artists: Dangerous Intersectionsp. 87
The Intellectuals: Black on Black Mindsp. 143
The Activists 1p. 185
The Activists 2p. 229
After the Meeting: Resurrection for RFKp. 263
Even If: Wakanda Foreverp. 269
Acknowledgmentsp. 279
Notesp. 283