MEAD: There are different ways of looking at guilt. In the Eastern Orthodox faith, everybody shares the guilt of creatureliness and the guilt for anything they ever thought. Now, the Western Northern-European position and the North American position on the whole is that you’re guilty for things that you did yourself and not for things that other people did.
BALDWIN: The police in this country make no distinction between a Black Panther or a black lawyer or my brother or me. The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger. I’m part of this society and I’m in exactly the same situation as anybody else — any other black person — in it. If I don’t know that, then I’m fairly self-deluded… What I’m trying to get at is the question of responsibility. I didn’t drop the bomb [that killed four black school girls in Birmingham]. And I never lynched anybody. Yet I am responsible not for what has happened but for what can happen.
MEAD: Yes, that’s different. I think the responsibility for what can happen, which in a sense is good guilt — which is sort of a nonsensical term —
BALDWIN: Yes, but I know what you mean. It’s useful guilt.
MEAD: Responsibility. It is saying I am going to make an effort to have things changed. But to take the responsibility for something that was done by others —
BALDWIN: Well, you can’t do that.
Mead illustrates the perils of confusing responsibility and guilt with an exquisite example from her own life as a mother, from the time in the mid-1940s when she was heading a university initiative to foster cross-racial and cross-ethnic relationships:
MEAD: I was walking across the Wellesley campus with my four-year-old, who was climbing pine trees instead of keeping up with me.
I said, “You come down out of that pine tree. You don’t have to eat pine needles like an Indian.” So she came down and she asked, “Why do the Indians have to eat pine needles?” I said, “To get their Vitamin C, because they don’t have any oranges.” She asked, “Why don’t they have any oranges?” Then I made a perfectly clear technical error; I said, “Because the white man took their land away from them.” She looked at me and she said, “Am I white?” I said, “Yes, you are white.” “But I didn’t took their land away from them, and I don’t like it to be tooken!” she shouted.
Now if I had said, “The early settlers took their land away,” she would have said, “Am I an early settler?” But I had made a blanket racial category: the white man. It was a noble sentiment, but it was still racial sentiment.
With an eye to this demand for responsibility in the present rather than guilt over the past, the conversation once again reveals its contemporary poignancy:
MEAD: The kids say — and they’re pretty clear about it — that the future is now. It’s no use predicting about the year 2000.
MEAD: It’s what we do this week that matters.
MEAD: That’s the only thing there is; there isn’t any other time.
Read the whole thing here.