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What Truth Sounds Like

Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America

By Michael Eric Dyson
16-minute read
Audio available
What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson

What Truth Sounds Like (2018) revisits a relatively short meeting in 1963 between Robert Kennedy and a group of black artists, using it as a jumping-off point for the ongoing conversation about race in America. This meeting was an eye-opening experience for Kennedy, and author Michael Eric Dyson explains why more politicians need to be woken up to the realities of the black experience. Dyson also takes a look at some of the important writers and artists who are keeping the conversation alive today.

  • Students of American history and sociology
  • Readers interested in black culture
  • Activists and anyone who wants to get woke

Michael Eric Dyson is one of America’s most respected public intellectuals and the current University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. His writing can be found in the editorial pages of the New York Times and the New Republic, and in the bestselling book Tears We Cannot Stop (2017).

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What Truth Sounds Like

Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America

By Michael Eric Dyson
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson
Synopsis

What Truth Sounds Like (2018) revisits a relatively short meeting in 1963 between Robert Kennedy and a group of black artists, using it as a jumping-off point for the ongoing conversation about race in America. This meeting was an eye-opening experience for Kennedy, and author Michael Eric Dyson explains why more politicians need to be woken up to the realities of the black experience. Dyson also takes a look at some of the important writers and artists who are keeping the conversation alive today.

Key idea 1 of 10

The lives of Robert Kennedy and James Baldwin were quite different, but both struggled with difficult truths.

For much of his life, Robert F. Kennedy lived in the shadow of his brothers, especially his older brother by eight years, John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States.

When his brother became president in 1960, it was with some hesitation that Robert accepted the position of attorney general in the Kennedy administration. In taking on this role, Robert was determined to establish himself as an individual and a political force in his own right.

Due to his short stature, limited experience as an attorney and insinuations that he got the job out of nepotism, Robert was eager to prove himself. As it turned out, America was about to enter the tumultuous sixties, and it gave the runt of the Kennedy litter plenty of opportunities to make some important decisions, especially around the issue of civil rights.

One of the people who was very invested in those decisions was the celebrated writer, James Baldwin.

Baldwin grew up in Harlem, the New York neighborhood that’s been home to countless black artists and intellectuals. Luminaries hailing from there include jazz legends Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, esteemed actor Paul Robeson and the influential author and activist W. E. B. Du Bois.

Starting out as a young preacher in a storefront Pentecostal church, Baldwin would use his tremendous grasp of language to become the nation’s preeminent writer, his face gracing the cover of Time magazine in 1963. This high-profile attention was due to his incendiary New Yorker essays, which became the book The Fire Next Time.

Baldwin’s writing tackled the thorny issues of race and religion in America with a such a gripping and compelling style that it made Baldwin a spokesperson for the black community. However, because Baldwin was a gay man, some of the other black leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., struggled to embrace his voice.

While Baldwin and Kennedy were, of course, quite different people, by 1963, they were both facing a segregated nation that was growing increasingly violent and searching for a way to move forward. In August 1962, King had given his “I have a dream” speech, but it was still unclear how the Kennedy administration was going to respond.

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