Just back from seeing “I Am Not Your Negro” at the Gene Siskel Film Center (highly recommended), I’m pondering, not for the first time, how history is created and shaped. In the true sense, history is, of course, what has happened. But those who tell the narrative get to define the narrative, so history as we know it can be quite different from the actual events that happened.
This is nothing new, of course. Those who die in battle don’t own the narrative of war. Those who hold power have the luxury of being able to tell their version of events and have that telling accepted as authoritative. There’s nothing inherently sinister in this, just, perhaps…distorting.
What has me pondering this is a segment in “I Am Not Your Negro” where Baldwin (whose writings are narrated by Samuel L. Jackson) declares that so much has been said about author/playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s meeting with Robert F. Kennedy that Baldwin feels compelled to address what really happened. Long story short, in a meeting to discuss civil rights and race relations, Hansberry was so disappointed and disheartened by Kennedy’s response that at one point she verbally dressed him down, then walked out of the room.
Huh? Have you ever heard about this? I had not. I grew up with a narrative that told me Kennedy was a great friend and supporter of civil rights activists—the best of friends. That he ever could have said or done anything so upsetting to civil rights proponents that one would walk out of a meeting with him—the U.S. attorney general and brother of the president—stunned me.
So home I came, and sure enough, I found that the incident was reported at the time. Here, for example, is an excerpt of an interview with Hansberry discussing it with The Village Voice in 1963. It’s also discussed in some detail in a 2016 biography of Kennedy excerpted on HistoryNet, and there’s an entire Wikipedia article about it, calling it the Baldwin-Kennedy meeting. So it hasn’t been forgotten by historians. But it’s not part of any narrative that I ever heard. I wonder if the same is true for my black friends or if a different and perhaps more complete narrative has been passed down within black communities.
Baldwin pointed out that segregation meant that blacks and whites knew nothing or next to nothing about the reality of each other’s lives. It seems likely we don’t know the same history either.