A stunning follow up to New York Times bestseller Tears We Cannot Stop, What Truth Sounds Like examines the events surrounding the 1963 meeting between Robert F. Kennedy and James Baldwin in New York City, as well as its impact on race relations in the United States from then to now.
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.
(Watch! Dyson in conversation with DJ Envy and Cha Tha God, hosts of the radio show The Breakfast Club, where he breaks down What Truth Sounds Like and hip-hops impact on the culture.)
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 Kennedy's' efforts to make things better shows up in our day as the charge that black folk wallow in the politics of ingratitude and victim-hood. 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 inter-racially 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.