“We have to talk.”
It’s never good when someone tells you that. Even if it’s said with a smile and a pat on the back, you can feel doom in those words. “We have to talk” never helps anyone except when, as in “What Truth Sounds Like” (2018, St. Martin’s Press) by Michael Eric Dyson, it does.
In late May of 1963, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, Attorney General for President John Kennedy, did something remarkable enough to make the front page of The New York Times: he had a “secret” meeting with a group of Black leaders to discuss “an ‘explosive situation’” that could impact the nation.
For many reasons, Civil Rights among them, 1963 was a “landmark.” Since taking the oath of office, Jack Kennedy had walked a fine line between politics and social justice. He and Bobby were “villains in the eyes of… white bigots” for their support for African Americans and Martin Luther King, Jr., in particular, though Jack really only “tiptoed around the prospect of equal rights for Negroes.” Still, in Dyson’s telling, Bobby almost seemed smug in what he thought he knew about 1963’s simmering atmosphere when he met with James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and activist Jerome Smith.
He wanted acknowledgment and gratitude for what was being done on behalf of Black Americans. Instead, the “Negroes” gave Kennedy a verbal trouncing.
Smith said Kennedy “‘… don’t have no idea what trouble is…”
Hansberry threatened to give guns to people on the street (“poetic license,” Dyson muses). Baldwin fanned the flames, Smith dismissed the meeting as “cocktail-party patter,” and Kennedy fumed before Hansberry dropped a final bombshell and Kennedy’s guests stalked out.
In the days after this seminal meeting, Kennedy had chance to ruminate. He’d heard “unvarnished truths in ways white ears… were unaccustomed to.” It changed his life and altered his political career with a lesson that still resonates, especially for liberals and those who are trying this year to capture Congressional seats.
“It’s a lesson we must learn today,” says Dyson, “if we are to overcome our differences and embrace a future as bright as our dreams allow.”
“What Truth Sounds Like” is both the first book you should want this summer – and the last.
Absolutely no one would ever mistake this for a beach read; it’s too serious and thought-provoking for vacation frivolity and it’s absolutely not skimmable like a novel.
Conversely, considering what’s going on in the nation and in the world, this may be the most important book of the season. Author Michael Eric Dyson shows how a meeting held so long ago actually offers a sort of blueprint for anyone concerned about current issues of race. That includes “artists” and entertainers who seem to oppose what Baldwin would’ve advocated, and activists who need to know their history.
Give yourself plenty of time with this book. Pick it up, put it down, read anew, and it may help you to change minds. For sure, “What Truth Sounds Like” holds ideas you’ll want to talk about.