(For James Baldwin, 1924-1987)
by Kofi Natambu
“The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here. Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people, and ours is no exception. It is up to the American writer to find out what these laws and assumptions are. In a society much given to smashing taboos, without thereby managing to be liberated from them, it will be no easy matter..In this endeavor to wed the vision of the Old World with that of the New, it is the writer, not the statesman, who is our strongest arm. Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of a people have a tangible effect on the world..."
"The Discovery of what it Means To Be An American"
NOBODY KNOWS MY NAME (1961)
(b. August 2, 1924--d. December 1, 1987)
As you know James
we are so blind here
Ignorance is what covers our
eyes when we see yr words.
We cower in the huge light that are
yr words. Our feeble jaws lock when we
try to speak those words. Those soaring and
powerful songs that are yr words. Our lips tremble
before their grace and passion. Before their pain and
majesty. Before their love and death.
Before their rich and searching beauty we stand around
and gulp the static air. fumbling before desire we fall in the
endless hole of Memory. It is always there that we find you
talking in the tongues of our dreams.
So many Nights praying for the Day to appear!
So many days waiting for Night to arrive!!
(We are such children here). Yet we lack even their simple
honesty as we hide behind our fear.
The Fear that "insures our survival."
Was it yr sad and accusatory eyes that saw us so clearly?
Was it yr large and prideful head that stood above the storm?
You are so much more than the heartless sage
who waits to see our vapid tears
You are not the Royal Mandarin who aches to feel our sickness
You are the healer who uses wisdom to push us into the Fire and not be afraid of the Heat it makes...mmm
The Melody Never Stops
Past Tents Press, 1991
by Kofi Natambu
The only thing left to do on Jimmy's 90th birthday is to CELEBRATE it. So we shall...
CLICK ON THE FOLLOWING LINKS TO SEE AND HEAR MR. BALDWIN ON VIDEO:
James Baldwin on deluded white people:
"This is from “No Name in the Street” (1972) by James Baldwin. It seems as true to me now as the day when I first read it years ago":
Posted on Sat 12 Jul 2008 by abagond:
"White children, in the main, and whether they are rich or poor, grow up with a grasp of reality so feeble that they can very accurately be described as deluded – about themselves and about the world they live in. White people have managed to get through entire lifetimes in this euphoric state, but black people have not been so lucky: a black man who sees the world the way John Wayne, for example, sees it would not be an eccentric patriot, but a raving maniac. … People who cling to their delusions find it difficult, if not impossible, to learn anything worth learning: a people under the necessity of creating themselves must examine everything, and soak up learning the way the roots of a tree soak up water. As people still held in bondage must believe that “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free”.
Profound speech given by Baldwin at National Press Club one year before his death in 1987:
Books by and about James Baldwin
American Essayist & Novelist
Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953
Notes of a Native Son, 1955
Giovanni's Room, 1956
Nobody Know My Name (, 1962
Another Country, 1962
The Fire Next Time, 1963
Blues for Mister Charlie (a play, produced in 1964)
Going to Meet the Man, 1965
Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, 1968
A Rap on Race, with Margaret Mead, 1971
If Beale Street Could Talk 1974
The Devil Finds Work, 1976
Just Above My Head, 1979
The Evidence of Things Not Seen, 1985
The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction, 1948-1985, 1985
Perspectives: Angles on African Art, 1987
Conversations with James Baldwin, 1989
Early Novels and Stories, 1998
Collected Essays, 1998 (ed. by Toni Morrison)
Take this Hammer—a James Baldwin documentary
KQED's film unit follows poet and activist James Baldwin in the spring of 1963, as he's driven around San Francisco to meet with members of the local African-American community. He is escorted by Youth For Service's Executive Director Orville Luster and intent on discovering: "The real situation of negroes in the city, as opposed to the image San Francisco would like to present." He declares: "There is no moral distance . . . between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham. Someone's got to tell it like it is. And that's where it's at." Includes frank exchanges with local people on the street, meetings with community leaders and extended point-of-view sequences shot from a moving vehicle, featuring the Bayview and Western Addition neighborhoods.
“A Talk to Teachers”
By James Baldwin
(Speech delivered October 16, 1963, as “The Negro Child – His Self-Image”; originally published in The Saturday Review, December 21, 1963, reprinted in The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985, Saint Martins Press, 1985.)
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible – and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people – must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.
Since I am talking to schoolteachers and I am not a teacher myself, and in some ways am fairly easily intimidated, I beg you to let me leave that and go back to what I think to be the entire purpose of education in the first place. It would seem to me that when a child is born, if I’m the child’s parent, it is my obligation and my high duty to civilize that child. Man is a social animal. He cannot exist without a society. A society, in turn, depends on certain things which everyone within that society takes for granted. Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society. Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians. The paradox of education is precisely this - that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.
Now, if what I have tried to sketch has any validity, it becomes thoroughly clear, at least to me, that any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic. On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war. He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.” He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth. But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization – that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured. He is assumed by the republic that he, his father, his mother, and his ancestors were happy, shiftless, watermelon-eating darkies who loved Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann, that the value he has as a black man is proven by one thing only – his devotion to white people. If you think I am exaggerating, examine the myths which proliferate in this country about Negroes.
All this enters the child’s consciousness much sooner than we as adults would like to think it does. As adults, we are easily fooled because we are so anxious to be fooled. But children are very different. Children, not yet aware that it is dangerous to look too deeply at anything, look at everything, look at each other, and draw their own conclusions. They don’t have the vocabulary to express what they see, and we, their elders, know how to intimidate them very easily and very soon. But a black child, looking at the world around him, though he cannot know quite what to make of it, is aware that there is a reason why his mother works so hard, why his father is always on edge. He is aware that there is some reason why, if he sits down in the front of the bus, his father or mother slaps him and drags him to the back of the bus. He is aware that there is some terrible weight on his parents’ shoulders which menaces him. And it isn’t long – in fact it begins when he is in school – before he discovers the shape of his oppression.
Let us say that the child is seven years old and I am his father, and I decide to take him to the zoo, or to Madison Square Garden, or to the U.N. Building, or to any of the tremendous monuments we find all over New York. We get into a bus and we go from where I live on 131st Street and Seventh Avenue downtown through the park and we get in New York City, which is not Harlem. Now, where the boy lives – even if it is a housing project – is in an undesirable neighborhood. If he lives in one of those housing projects of which everyone in New York is so proud, he has at the front door, if not closer, the pimps, the whores, the junkies – in a word, the danger of life in the ghetto. And the child knows this, though he doesn’t know why.
I still remember my first sight of New York. It was really another city when I was born – where I was born. We looked down over the Park Avenue streetcar tracks. It was Park Avenue, but I didn’t know what Park Avenue meant downtown. The Park Avenue I grew up on, which is still standing, is dark and dirty. No one would dream of opening a Tiffany’s on that Park Avenue, and when you go downtown you discover that you are literally in the white world. It is rich – or at least it looks rich. It is clean – because they collect garbage downtown. There are doormen. People walk about as though they owned where they are – and indeed they do. And it’s a great shock. It’s very hard to relate yourself to this. You don’t know what it means. You know – you know instinctively – that none of this is for you. You know this before you are told. And who is it for and who is paying for it? And why isn’t it for you?
Later on when you become a grocery boy or messenger and you try to enter one of those buildings a man says, “Go to the back door.” Still later, if you happen by some odd chance to have a friend in one of those buildings, the man says, “Where’s your package?” Now this by no means is the core of the matter. What I’m trying to get at is that by the time the Negro child has had, effectively, almost all the doors of opportunity slammed in his face, and there are very few things he can do about it. He can more or less accept it with an absolutely inarticulate and dangerous rage inside – all the more dangerous because it is never expressed. It is precisely those silent people whom white people see every day of their lives – I mean your porter and your maid, who never say anything more than “Yes Sir” and “No, Ma’am.” They will tell you it’s raining if that is what you want to hear, and they will tell you the sun is shining if that is what you want to hear. They really hate you – really hate you because in their eyes (and they’re right) you stand between them and life. I want to come back to that in a moment. It is the most sinister of the facts, I think, which we now face.
There is something else the Negro child can do, to. Every street boy – and I was a street boy, so I know – looking at the society which has produced him, looking at the standards of that society which are not honored by anybody, looking at your churches and the government and the politicians, understand that this structure is operated for someone else’s benefit – not for his. And there’s no reason in it for him. If he is really cunning, really ruthless, really strong – and many of us are – he becomes a kind of criminal. He becomes a kind of criminal because that’s the only way he can live. Harlem and every ghetto in this city – every ghetto in this country – is full of people who live outside the law. They wouldn’t dream of calling a policeman. They wouldn’t, for a moment, listen to any of those professions of which we are so proud on the Fourth of July. They have turned away from this country forever and totally. They live by their wits and really long to see the day when the entire structure comes down.
The point of all this is that black men were brought here as a source of cheap labor. They were indispensable to the economy. In order to justify the fact that men were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were, indeed, animals and deserved to be treated like animals. Therefor it is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history. The reason is that this “animal,” once he suspects his own worth, once he starts believing that he is a man, has begun to attack the entire power structure. This is why America has spent such a long time keeping the Negro in his place. What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand. It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in or4der to make money from black flesh. And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.
The Reconstruction, as I read the evidence, was a bargain between the North and South to this effect: “We’ve liberated them from the land – and delivered them to the bosses.” When we left Mississippi to come North we did not come to freedom. We came to the bottom of the labor market, and we are still there. Even the Depression of the 1930’s failed to make a dent in Negroes’ relationship to white workers in the labor unions. Even today, so brainwashed is this republic that people seriously ask in what they suppose to be good faith, “What does the Negro want?” I’ve heard a great many asinine questions in my life, but that is perhaps the most asinine and perhaps the most insulting. But the point here is that people who ask that question, thinking that they ask it in good faith, are really the victims of this conspiracy to make Negroes believe they are less than human.
In order for me to live, I decided very early that some mistake had been made somewhere. I was not a “nigger” even though you called me one. But if I was a “nigger” in your eyes, there was something about you – there was something you needed. I had to realize when I was very young that I was none of those things I was told I was. I was not, for example, happy. I never touched a watermelon for all kinds of reasons that had been invented by white people, and I knew enough about life by this time to understand that whatever you invent, whatever you project, is you! So where we are no is that a whole country of people believe I’m a “nigger,” and I don’t , and the battle’s on! Because if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either! And that is the crisis.
It is not really a “Negro revolution” that is upsetting the country. What is upsetting the country is a sense of its own identity. If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history. And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all. If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself. You are mad.
Now let’s go back a minute. I talked earlier about those silent people - the porter and the maid – who, as I said, don’t look up at the sky if you ask them if it is raining, but look into your face. My ancestors and I were very well trained. We understood very early that this was not a Christian nation. It didn’t matter what you said or how often you went to church. My father and my mother and my grandfather and my grandmother knew that Christians didn’t act this way. It was a simple as that. And if that was so there was no point in dealing with white people in terms of their own moral professions, for they were not going to honor them. What one did was to turn away, smiling all the time, and tell white people what they wanted to hear. But people always accuse you of reckless talk when you say this.
All this means that there are in this country tremendous reservoirs of bitterness which have never been able to find an outlet, but may find an outlet soon. It means that well-meaning white liberals place themselves in great danger when they try to deal with Negroes as though they were missionaries. It means, in brief, that a great price is demanded to liberate all those silent people so that they can breathe for the first time and tell you what they think of you. And a price is demanded to liberate all those white children – some of them near forty - who have never grown up, and who never will grow up, because they have no sense of their identity.
What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors. It’s astounding to me, for example, that so many people really appear to believe that the country was founded by a band of heroes who wanted to be free. That happens not to be true. What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn’t stay there any longer and had to go someplace else to make it. That’s all. They were hungry, they were poor, they were convicts. Those who were making it in England, for example, did not get on the Mayflower. That’s how the country was settled. Not by Gary Cooper. Yet we have a whole race of people, a whole republic, who believe the myths to the point where even today they select political representatives, as far as I can tell, by how closely they resemble Gary Cooper. Now this is dangerously infantile, and it shows in every level of national life. When I was living in Europe, for example, one of the worst revelations to me was the way Americans walked around Europe buying this and buying that and insulting everybody – not even out of malice, just because they didn’t know any better. Well, that is the way they have always treated me. They weren’t cruel; they just didn’t know you were alive. They didn’t know you had any feelings.
What I am trying to suggest here is that in the doing of all this for 100 years or more, it is the American white man who has long since lost his grip on reality. In some peculiar way, having created this myth about Negroes, and the myth about his own history, he created myths about the world so that, for example, he was astounded that some people could prefer Castro, astounded that there are people in the world who don’t go into hiding when they hear the word “Communism,” astounded that Communism is one of the realities of the twentieth century which we will not overcome by pretending that it does not exist. The political level in this country now, on the part of people who should know better, is abysmal.
The Bible says somewhere that where there is no vision the people perish. I don’t think anyone can doubt that in this country today we are menaced – intolerably menaced – by a lack of vision.
It is inconceivable that a sovereign people should continue, as we do so abjectly, to say, “I can’t do anything about it. It’s the government.” The government is the creation of the people. It is responsible to the people. And the people are responsible for it. No American has the right to allow the present government to say, when Negro children are being bombed and hosed and shot and beaten all over the Deep South, that there is nothing we can do about it. There must have been a day in this country’s life when the bombing of the children in Sunday School would have created a public uproar and endangered the life of a Governor Wallace. It happened here and there was no public uproar.
I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person. And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society. Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them - I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him. I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it. And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth. I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man’s respect. That it is up to him to change these standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country. I would suggest to him that the popular culture – as represented, for example, on television and in comic books and in movies – is based on fantasies created by very ill people, and he must be aware that these are fantasies that have nothing to do with reality. I would teach him that the press he reads is not as free as it says it is – and that he can do something about that, too. I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger – and that it belongs to him. I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality; that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything. I would try to show him that one has not learned anything about Castro when one says, “He is a Communist.” This is a way of his learning something about Castro, something about Cuba, something, in time, about the world. I would suggest to him that his is living, at the moment, in an enormous province. America is not the world and if America is going to become a nation, she must find a way – and this child must help her to find a way to use the tremendous potential and tremendous energy which this child represents. If this country does not find a way to use that energy, it will be destroyed by that energy.
by James Baldwin
First Edition, 1955mmm
“Many Thousands Gone” by James Baldwin
Posted on August 2, 2013
Today would have been James Baldwin’s birthday. His essay “Many Thousands Gone” from Notes of a Native Son is one of the most personally affecting essays I’ve ever read. Its text, in full, is below.
Many Thousands Gone
It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear. As is the inevitable result of things unsaid, we find ourselves until today oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told, compulsively, in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphics; it is revealed in Negro speech and in that of the white majority and in their different frames of reference. The ways in which the Negro has affected the American psychology are betrayed in our popular culture and in our morality; in our estrangement from him is the depth of our estrangement from ourselves. We cannot ask: what do we really feel about him–such a question merely opens the gates on chaos. What we really feel about him is involved with all that we feel about everything, about everyone, about ourselves.
The story of the Negro in America is the story of America–or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans. It is not a very pretty story: the story of a people is never very pretty. The Negro in America, gloomily referred to as that shadow which lies athwart our national life, is far more than that. He is a series of shadows, self-created, intertwining, which now we helplessly battle. One may say that the Negro in America does not really exist except in the darkness of our minds.
This is why his history and his progress, his relationship to all other Americans, has been kept in the social arena. He is a social and not a personal or a human problem; to think of him is to think of statistic, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence; it is to be confronted with an endless cataloguing of losses, gains, skirmishes; it is to feel virtuous, outraged, helpless, as though his continuing status among us were somehow analogous to disease–cancer, perhaps, or tuberculosis–which must be checked, even though it cannot be cured. In this arena the black man acquires quite another aspect from that which he has in life. We do not know what to do with him in life; if he breaks our sociological and sentimental image of him we are panic-stricken and we feel ourselves betrayed. When he violates the image, therefore, he stands in the greatest danger (sensing which, we uneasily suspect that he is very often playing a part for our benefit); and, what is not always so apparent but is equally true, we are then in some danger ourselves–hence our retreat or our blind and immediate retaliation.
Our dehumanization of the Negro then is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his. Time and our own force act as our allies, creating an impossible, a fruitless tension between the traditional master and slave. Impossible and fruitless because, literal and visible as this tension has become, it has nothing to do with reality.
Time has made some changes in the Negro face. Nothing has succeeded in making it exactly like our own, though the general desire seems to be to make it blank if one cannot make it white. When it has become blank, the past as thoroughly washed from the black face as it has been from ours, our guilt will be finished — at least it will have ceased to be visible, which we imagine to be much the same thing. But, paradoxically, it is we who prevent this from happening; since it is we, who, every hour that we live, reinvest the black face with our guilt; and we do this — by a further paradox, no less ferocious–helplessly, passionately, out of an unrealized need to suffer absolution.
Today, to be sure, we know that the Negro is not biologically or mentally inferior; there is not truth in those rumors of his body odor or his incorrigible sexuality; or no more truth than can be easily explained or even defended by the social sciences. Yet, in our most recent war, his blood was segregated as was, for the most part, his person. Up to today we are set at a division, so that he may not marry our daughters or our sisters, nor may he–for the most part–eat at our table or live in our houses. Moreover, those who do, do so at the grave expense of a double alienation: from their own people, whose fabled attributes they must either deny or, worse, cheapen and bring to market; from us, for we require of them, when we accept them, that they at once cease to be Negroes and yet not fail to remember what being a Negro means–to remember, that is, what it means to us. The threshold of insult is higher or lower, according to the people involved, from the bootblack in Atlanta to the celebrity in New York. One must travel very far, among saints with nothing to gain or outcasts with nothing to lose, to find a place where it does not matter–and perhaps a word or a gesture or simply a silence will testify that it matters even there.
For it means something to be a Negro, after all, as it means something to have been born in Ireland or in China, to live where one sees space and sky or to live where one sees nothing but rubble or nothing but high buildings, We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key–could we but find it–to all that we later become. What it means to be a Negro is a good deal more than this essay can discover; what it means to be a Negro in America can perhaps be suggested by an examination of the myths we perpetuate about him.
Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom are dead, their places taken by a group of amazingly well-adjusted young men and women, almost as dark, but ferociously literate, well-dressed and scrubbed, who are never laughed at, who are not likely ever to set foot in a cotton or tobacco field or in any but the most modern of kitchens. There are others who remain, in our odd idiom, “underprivileged”; some are bitter and these come to grief; some are unhappy, but, continually presented with the evidence of a better day soon to come, are speedily becoming less so. Most of them care nothing whatever about race. They want only their proper place in the sun and the right to be left alone, like any other citizen of the republic. We may all breathe more easily. Before, however, our joy at the demise of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom approaches the indecent, we had better ask whence they sprang, who they lived? Into what limbo have they vanished?
However inaccurate our portraits of them were, these portraits do suggest, not only the conditions, but the quality of their lives and the impact of this spectacle on our consciences. There was no one more forbearing than Aunt Jemima, no one stronger or more pious or more loyal or more wise; there was, at the same time, no one weaker or more faithless or more vicious and certainly no one more immoral. Uncle Tom, trustworthy and sexless, needed only to drop the title “Uncle” to become violent, crafty, and sullen, a menace to any white woman who passed by. They prepared our feast tables and our burial clothes; and, if we could boast that we understood them, it was far more to the point and far more true that they understood us. They were, moreover, the only people in the world who did; and not only did they know us better than we knew ourselves, but they knew us better than we knew them. This was the piquant flavoring to the national joke, it lay behind our uneasiness as it lay behind our benevolence: Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom, our creations, at the last evaded us; they had a life–their own, perhaps a better life than ours–and they would never tell us what it was. At the point where we were driven most privately and painfully to conjecture what depths of contempt, what heights of indifference, what prodigies of resilience, what untamable superiority allowed them so vividly to endure, neither perishing nor rising up in a body to wipe us from the earth, the image perpetually shattered and the word failed. The black man in our midst carried murder in his heart, he wanted vengeance. We carried murder too, we wanted peace.
In our image of the Negro breathes the past we deny, not dead but living yet and powerful, the beast in our jungle of statistics. It is this which defeats us, which continues to defeat us, which lends to interracial cocktail parties their rattling, genteel, nervously smiling air: in any drawing room at such a gathering the beast may spring, filling the air with flying things and an unenlightened wailing. Wherever the problem touches there is confusion, there is danger. Wherever the Negro face appears a tension is created, the tension of a silence filled with things unutterable. It is a sentimental error, therefore, to believe that the past is dead; it means nothing to say that it is all forgotten, that the Negro himself has forgotten it. It is not a question of memory. Oedipus did not remember the thongs that bound his feet; nevertheless marks they left testified to that doom toward which his feet were leading him. The man does not remember the hand that struck him, the darkness that frightened him, as a child; nevertheless, the hand and the darkness remain with him, indivisible from himself forever, part of the passion that drives him wherever he thinks to take flight.
The making of an American begins at that point where he himself rejects all other ties, any other history, and himself adopts the vesture of his adopted land. This problem has been faced by all Americans throughout our history– in a way it is our history–and it baffles the immigrant and sets on edge the second generation until today. In the case of the Negro the past was taken from him whether he would or no; yet to forswear it was meaningless and availed him nothing, since his shameful history was carried, quite literally, on his brow. Shameful; for he was heathen as well as black and would never have discovered the healing blood of Christ had not we braved the jungles to bring him these glad tidings. Shameful; for , since our role as missionary had not been wholly disinterested, it was necessary to recall the shame from which we had delivered him in order more easily to escape our own. As he accepted the alabaster Christ and the bloody cross–in the bearing of which he would find his redemption, as, indeed, to our outraged astonishment, hw sometimes did–he must, henceforth, accept that image we then gave him of himself: having no other and standing, moreover, in danger of death should he fail to accept the dazzling light thus brought into such darkness. It is this quite simple dilemma that must be borne in mind if we wish to comprehend his psychology.
However we shift the light which beats so fiercely on his head, or prove, by victorious social analysis, how his lot has changed, how we have both improved, our uneasiness refuses to be exorcized. And nowhere is this more apparent than in our literature on the subject–“problem” literature when written by whites, “protest” literature when written by Negroes–and nothing is more striking than the tremendous disparity of tone between the two creations. Kingsblood Royal bears, for example, almost no kinship to If He Hollers Let Him Go, though the same reviewers praised them both for what were, at bottom, very much the same reasons. These reasons may be suggested, far too briefly but not at all unjustly, by observing that the presupposition is in both novels exactly the same: black is a terrible color with which to be born into the world.
Now the most powerful and celebrated statement we have yet had of what it means to be a Negro in America is unquestionably Richard Wright’s Native Son. The feeling which prevailed at the time of its publication was that such a novel, bitter, uncompromising, shocking, gave proof, by its very existence, of what strides might be taken in a free democracy, and its indisputable success, proof that Americans were now able to look full in the face without flinching the dreadful facts. Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle. Such a book, we felt with pride, could never have been written before–which was true. Nor could it be written today. It bears already the aspect of a landmark; for Bigger and his brothers have undergone yet another metamorphosis; they have been accepted in baseball leagues and by colleges hitherto exclusive; and they have made a most favorable appearance on the national screen. We have yet to encounter, nevertheless, a report so indisputably authentic, or one that can begin to challenge this most significant novel.
It is, in a certain American tradition, the story of an unremarkable youth in battle with the force of circumstance; that force of circumstance which plays and which has played so important a part in the national fables of success or failure. In this case the force of circumstance is not poverty merely but color, a circumstance which plays and which has played so important a part in the national fables of success or failure. In this case the force of circumstance is not poverty merely which the protagonist battles for his life and loses. It is, on the surface, remarkable that this book should have enjoyed among Americans the favor it did enjoy; no more remarkable, however, than that it should have been compared, exuberantly, to Dostoevsky, though placed a shade below Dos Passos, Dreiser, and Steinbeck; and when the book is examined, its impact does not seem remarkable at all, but becomes, on the contrary, perfectly logical and inevitable.
We cannot, to begin with, divorce this book from the specific social climate of that time; it was one of the last of all through the thirties, dealing with the inequities of the social structure of America. It was published one year before our entry into the last world war–which is to say, very few years after the dissolution of the WPA and the end of the New Deal and at time when bread lines and soup kitchens and bloody industrial battles were bright in everyone’s memory. The rigors of that unexpected time filled us not only with a genuinely bewildered and despairing idealism–so that, because there at least was something to fight for, young men went off to die in Spain–but also with a genuinely bewildered self-consciousness. The Negro, who had been during the magnificent twenties a passionate and delightful primitive, now became, as one of the things we were most self-conscious about, our most oppressed minority. In the thirties, swallowing Marx whole, we discovered the Worker and realized–I should think with some relief–that the aims of the Worker and the aims of the Negro were one. This theorem to which we shall return–seems now to leave rather too much out of account; it became, nevertheless, one of the slogans of the “class struggle” and the gospel of the New Negro.
As for this New Negro, it was Wright who became his most eloquent spokesman; and his work, from its beginning, is most clearly committed to the social struggle. Leaving aside the considerable question of what relationship precisely the artist bears to the revolutionary, the reality of man as a social being is not his only reality and that artist is strangled who is forced to deal with human beings solely in social terms; and who has, moreover, as Wright had, the necessity thrust on him of being the representative of some thirteen million people. It is a false responsibility (since writers are not congressmen) and impossible, by its nature, of fulfillment. The unlucky shepherd soon finds that, so far from being able to feed the hungry sheep, he has lost the wherewithal for his own nourishment; having not been allowed– so fearful was his burden, so present his audience!–to recreate his own experience. Further, the militant men and women of the thirties were not, upon examination, significantly emancipated from their antecedents, however bitterly they might consider themselves estranged or however gallantly they struggle to build a better world. However they might extol Russia, their concept of a better world. However they might extol Russia, their concept of a better world was quite helplessly American and betrayed a certain thinness of imagination, a suspect reliance on suspect and badly digested formulae, and a positively fretful romantic haste. Finally, the relationship of the Negro to the Worker cannot be summed up, nor even greatly illuminated, by saying that their aims are one. It is true only insofar as they both desire better working conditions and useful only insofar as they unite their strength as workers to achieve these ends. Further than this we cannot in honest go.
In this climate Wright’s voice first was heard and the struggle which promised for a time to shape his work and give it purpose also fixed it in an ever more unrewarding rage. Recording his days of anger he has also nevertheless recorded, as no Negro before to, had ever done, that fantasy Americans hold in their minds when they speak of the Negro: that fantastic and fearful image which we have lived with since the first slave fell beneath the lash. This is the significance of Native Son and also, unhappily, its overwhelming limitation.
Native Son begins with the Bring! of an alarm clock in the squalid Chicago tenement where Bigger and his family live. Rats live there too, feeding off the garbage, and we first encounter Bigger in the act of killing one. One may consider that the entire book, from the harsh Bring! to Bigger’s weak “Good-by” as the lawyer, Max, leaves him in the death cell, is an extension, with the roles inverted, of this chilling metaphor. Bigger’s situation and Bigger himself exert on the mind the same sort of fascination. The premise of the book is, as I take it, clearly conveyed in these first pages: we are confronting a monster created by the American republic and we are, through being made to share his experience, to receive illumination as regards the manner of his life and to feel both pity and horror at his awful and inevitable doom. This is an arresting and potentially rich idea and we would be discussing a very different novel if Wright’s execution had been more perceptive and if he had not attempted to redeem a symbolical monster in social terms.
One may object that it was precisely Wright’s intention to create in Bigger a social symbol, revelatory of social disease and prophetic of disaster. I think, however, that it is this assumption which we ought to examine more carefully. Bigger has no discernible relationship to himself, to his own life, to his own people, nor to any other people–in this respect, perhaps, he is most American–and his force comes, not from his significance as a social (or anti-social) unit, but from his significance as the incarnation of a myth. It is remarkable that, though we follow him step by step from the tenement room to the death cell, we know as little about him when this more remarkable, we know almost as little about the social dynamic which we are to believe created him. Despite the details of slum life which we are given. I doubt that anyone who has thought about it, disengaging himself from sentimentality, can accept this most essential premise of the novel for a moment. Those Negroes who surround him, on the other hand, his hard-working mother, his ambitious sister, his poolroom cronies, Bessie, might be considered as far richer and far more subtle and accurate illustrations of the ways in which Negroes are controlled in our society and the complex techniques they have evolved for their survival. We are limited, however, to not have been disastrous if we were not also limited to Bigger’s perceptions. What this means for the novel is that a necessary dimension has been cut away; this dimension being the relationship that Negroes bear to one another, the depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life. What the novel reflects–and at no point interprets–is the isolation of the Negro within his own group and the resulting fury of impatient scorn. It is this which creates its climate of anarchy and unmotivated and un-apprehended disaster; and it is this climate, common to most Negro protest novels, which has led us all to believe that in Negro life there exists no tradition, no field of manners, no possibility of ritual or intercourse, such as may, for example, sustain the Jew even after he has left his father’s house. But the fact is not that the Negro has no tradition but that there has as yet arrived no sensibility sufficiently profound and tough to make this tradition articulate. For a tradition expresses, after all, nothing more than the long and painful experience of a people; it comes out of the battle waged to maintain their integrity or, to put it more simply, out of their struggle to survive. When we speak of the Jewish tradition we are speaking of centuries of exile and persecution, of the strength which endured and the sensibility which discovered in it the high possibility of the moral victory.
This sense of how Negroes live and how they have so long endured in hidden from us in part by the very speed of the Negro’s public progress, a progress so heavy with complexity, so bewildering and kaleidoscopic, that he dare not pause to conjecture on the darkness which lies behind him; and by the nature of the American psychology which, in order to apprehend or be made able to accept it, must undergo a metamorphosis so profound as to be literally unthinkable and which there is no doubt we will resist until we are compelled to achieve our own identity by the rigors of a time that has yet to come. Bigger, in the meanwhile, and all his furious kin, serve only to whet the notorious national taste for the sensational and to reinforce all that we now find it necessary to believe. It is not Bigger whom we fear, since his appearance among us makes our victory certain. It is the others, who smile, who go to church, who give no cause for complaint, whom we sometimes consider with amusement, with pity, even with affection–and in whose faces we sometimes surprise the merest arrogant hint of hatred, the faintest, with easy; who we cajole, threaten, flatter, fear; who to us remain unknown, though we are not (we feel with both relief and hostility and with bottomless confusion) unknown to them. It is out of our reaction to these hewers of wood and drawers of water that our image of Bigger was created.
One writes out of one thing only — one's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.
Words like "freedom," "justice," "democracy" are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.
"The Crusade of Indignation," The Nation (New York, 7 July 1956), published in book form in The Price of the Ticket (1985)
It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.
"An interview with James Baldwin" (1961)
Most of us, no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what is going to happen to him from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it's true of everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace.
"An interview with James Baldwin" (1961)
I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be "accepted" by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don't wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.
"Letter from a Region of My Mind" in The New Yorker (17 November 1962); republished as "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind" in The Fire Next Time (1963)
Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.
The Fire Next Time (1963)
It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it. And I am not being frivolous here, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become.
The Fire Next Time (1963)
The prison is overcrowded, the calendars full, the judges busy, the lawyers ambitious, and the cops zealous. What does it matter if someone gets trapped here for a year or two, gets ruined here, goes mad here, commits murder or suicide here? It's too bad, but that's the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. I do not claim that everyone in prison here is innocent, but I do claim that the law, as it operates, is guilty, and that the prisoners, therefore, are all unjustly imprisoned. Is it conceivable, after all, that any middle-class white boy -- or, indeed, almost any white boy -- would have been arrested on so grave a charge as murder, with such flimsy substantiation, and forced to spend, as of this writing, three years in prison? What force, precisely, is operating when a prisoner is advised, requested, ordered, intimidated, or forced, to confess to a crime he has not committed, and promised a lighter sentence for so perjuring and debasing himself? Does the law exist for the purpose of furthering the ambitions of those who have sworn to uphold the law, or is it seriously to be considered as a moral, unifying force, the health and strength of a nation?
No Name in the Street (1972)
Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law's protection most! — and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.
No Name in the Street (1972)
The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child's language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.
"If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" in "The New York Times (29 July 197
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.
"Letter from a Region of My Mind" in The New Yorker (17 November 1962); republished as "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind" in The Fire Next Time (1963)
Quote about Baldwin
I want to conclude by quoting from James Baldwin, a courageous writer who refused to let the hope of democracy die in his lifetime and who offered that mix of politics, passion and courage that deserves not just admiration but emulation. His sense of rage was grounded in a working-class sensibility, eloquence and passion that illuminates a higher standard for what it means to be a public intellectual and an engaged intellectual. His words capture something that is missing from the American cultural and political landscape, something affirmative that needs to be seized upon, rethought, and occupied - as part of both the fight against the new authoritarianism and its cynical, dangerous and cruel practices, and the struggle to reclaim a notion of justice and mutuality that seems to be dying in all of us.
----Henry Giroux in an Open Editorial "Why Don't Americans Care About Democracy at Home?" at Truthout at 2012-10-02.
JAMES BALDWIN SPEAKING:
The paradox of education is precisely this - that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.
It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.
There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.
To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.
People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.
It is very nearly impossible... to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.
Education is indoctrination if you're white - subjugation if you're black.
Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.
People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.
Money, it turned out, was exactly like sex, you thought of nothing else if you didn't have it and thought of other things if you did.
Those who say it can't be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
The question of sexual dominance can exist only in the nightmare of that soul which has armed itself, totally, against the possibility of the changing motion of conquest and surrender, which is love.
The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.
Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.
Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
Everybody's journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality.
People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.
Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.
We take our shape, it is true, within and against that cage of reality bequeathed to us at our birth, and yet it is precisely through our dependence on this reality that we are most endlessly betrayed.
To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the making of bread.
Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.
Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.
It is a great shock at the age of five or six to find that in a world of Gary Coopers you are the Indian.
The face of a lover is an unknown, precisely because it is invested with so much of oneself. It is a mystery, containing, like all mysteries, the possibility of torment.
If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.
For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell. It's the only light we've got in all this darkness.
For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
Your crown has been bought and paid for. All you must do is put it on.
PEN AMERICA/ Free Expression. Literature.
With Fire and Bare Hands
By John Edgar Wideman
PUBLISHED ON JANUARY 8, 2007
This excerpt is part of the Twentieth-Century Masters Tribute to James Baldwin, sponsored by PEN American Center and Lincoln Center, with The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and The New Yorker. Excerpts from the event appear in PEN America 2: Home and Away.
James Baldwin bequeathed to me—and to you—a language and a mission. That language was the language of the King James Bible transmuted by African-American vernacular speech into an instrument which gained the attention of all Americans, and I think the power of that language can be measured, can be gauged, because it was the last language which allowed so-called white Americans and so-called black Americans to look each other in the eye and pretend that we shared a country, and shared a destiny, and perhaps there was some way that we could get it together and inch this country forward from the horrors of its past. There has been no writer since, there has been no language since, in the literary community, that has accomplished that kind of magic. And for that alone we owe James Baldwin a great debt.
As a writer, I am tired of hearing Baldwin’s literary heritage chopped up into two pieces: the essays and the fiction. That sort of approach seems to amount to giving with one hand and taking away with the other, so we’re left with—what?—nothing, mediocrity. And that approach is only possible if one forgets that language is language, and good writing is good writing, and the borders that some of Baldwin’s detractors are attempting to trace, in terms of gender, in terms of race, in terms of class, are the very borders that are inhibiting their understanding of the fluidity of Baldwin’s language and his literary heritage. We don’t need to chop him up into kinds, we need to read, and listen to the music and the truth, because his mission was truth.
I remember James Baldwin as a colleague, as a friend. I remember him singing, and I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t remember that social being, because it was his life, it was his energy, his willingness to give—forget whether he’s right or wrong—his ability to be there, to be in the midst, to be present for all of us, that is his legacy. The eyes. Sitting across from him, looking into those eyes:
For James Baldwin
What can we say to this
this knife-edged air
this ice blocking streams
this bluesteel sky
How do we speak to you
who is our voice and
still now. Too patient to
laugh at us but smiling
and the glass in your hand
your steepled knee
that elegant rag of many colors
swirling round your throat
Surely we knew
it would come to this
it always does.
Against fiery last ditch light
trees are x-rays of themselves
prisoners stripped, flayed to the bone
One black boy so scared
pee-pee bout to run down his pantleg
but he ain’t turning round
not today. No woman no
cry. Not today, momma. Gon tear that
old building down. With love
with fire and bare hands
and words like ten thousand
trumpets shaking hills
to their foundations
Poor boy long way from home
Poor boy long way from home
Poor boy long way from home
Been here—and now he’s gone
Been here—and now he’s gone
hink of little David
and his slingshot,
monkey shine signifier
blowing the Emperor away
We wait for the earth
to turn and tilt again
the shadow to lift
Rainbow wisdom of the elders
grandfathers, priests, kings
mother shuffle and warrior
woman strut and tons and tons of
babies still to come
our people our breath
tell us the circle is strong
will not be broken
though the clay, the clay
my brother, is weak, weak
as a slave ship ought to be
in this frozen land
beside a river of mourning.
Saints chant: Be not dismayed
what ere betides
and you march in your billowing
black robes down the aisle
mount the pulpit and
shout us sing us bound
to glory man wherever that
might be wherever you are
now catching your breath and
testing it and amen how sweet
it must be free free
at last the cup to your lips
and emptied and full and
go on with your fine self,
James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78
Interviewed by Jordan Elgrably
Returning Sunday at Baldwin’s invitation, the sun was shining and we were able to lunch outdoors at a picnic table, shaded by a bower that opened onto property dotted with fruit trees and a spectacular view of the Mediterranean littoral. Baldwin’s mood had brightened considerably since the previous day, and we entered the office and study he refers to as his “torture chamber.”
Baldwin writes in longhand (“you achieve shorter declarative sentences”) on the standard legal pad, although a large, old Adler electric sits on one end of his desk—a rectangular oak plank with rattan chairs on either side. It is piled with writing utensils and drafts of several works-in-progress: a novel, a play, a scenario, essays on the Atlanta child murders, these last compiled in The Evidence of Things Not Seen. His most recent work includes The Devil Finds Work, an attack on racial bias and fear in the film industry, and a novel, Just Above My Head, which draws on his experiences as a civil-rights activist in the 1960s.
Would you tell us how you came to leave the States?
I was broke. I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York. My reflexes were tormented by the plight of other people. Reading had taken me away for long periods at a time, yet I still had to deal with the streets and the authorities and the cold. I knew what it meant to be white and I knew what it meant to be a nigger, and I knew what was going to happen to me. My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed. My best friend had committed suicide two years earlier, jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
When I arrived in Paris in 1948 I didn’t know a word of French. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t want to know anyone. Later, when I’d encountered other Americans, I began to avoid them because they had more money than I did and I didn’t want to feel like a freeloader. The forty dollars I came with, I recall, lasted me two or three days. Borrowing money whenever I could—often at the last minute—I moved from one hotel to another, not knowing what was going to happen to me. Then I got sick. To my surprise I wasn’t thrown out of the hotel. This Corsican family, for reasons I’ll never understand, took care of me. An old, old lady, a great old matriarch, nursed me back to health after three months; she used old folk remedies. And she had to climb five flights of stairs every morning to make sure I was kept alive. I went through this period where I was very much alone, and wanted to be. I wasn’t part of any community until I later became the Angry Young Man in New York.
Why did you choose France?
It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.
You say the city beat him to death. You mean that metaphorically.
Not so metaphorically. Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.
Has writing been a type of salvation?
I’m not so sure! I’m not sure I’ve escaped anything. One still lives with it, in many ways. It’s happening all around us, every day. It’s not happening to me in the same way, because I’m James Baldwin; I’m not riding the subways and I’m not looking for a place to live. But it’s still happening. So salvation is a difficult word to use in such a context. I’ve been compelled in some ways by describing my circumstances to learn to live with them. It’s not the same thing as accepting them.
Was there an instant you knew you were going to write, to be a writer rather than anything else?
Yes. The death of my father. Until my father died I thought I could do something else. I had wanted to be a musician, thought of being a painter, thought of being an actor. This was all before I was nineteen. Given the conditions in this country to be a black writer was impossible. When I was young, people thought you were not so much wicked as sick, they gave up on you. My father didn’t think it was possible—he thought I’d get killed, get murdered. He said I was contesting the white man’s definitions, which was quite right. But I had also learned from my father what he thought of the white man’s definitions. He was a pious, very religious and in some ways a very beautiful man, and in some ways a terrible man. He died when his last child was born and I realized I had to make a jump—a leap. I’d been a preacher for three years, from age fourteen to seventeen. Those were three years which probably turned me to writing.
Were the sermons you delivered from the pulpit very carefully prepared, or were they absolutely off the top of your head?
I would improvise from the texts, like a jazz musician improvises from a theme. I never wrote a sermon—I studied the texts. I’ve never written a speech. I can’t read a speech. It’s kind of give-and-take. You have to sense the people you’re talking to. You have to respond to what they hear.
Do you have a reader in your mind when you write?
No, you can’t have that.
So it’s quite unlike preaching?
Entirely. The two roles are completely unattached. When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.
Is that one of the reasons you decided to be a writer—to find out about yourself?
I’m not sure I decided. It was that or nothing, since in my own mind I was the father of my family. That’s not quite the way they saw it, but still I was the oldest brother, and I took it very seriously, I had to set an example. I couldn’t allow anything to happen to me because what then would happen to them? I could have become a junkie. On the roads I traveled and the streets I ran, anything could have happened to a boy like me—in New York. Sleeping on rooftops and in the subways. Until this day I’m terrified of the public toilet. In any case . . . my father died, and I sat down and figured out what I had to do.
When did you find time to write?
I was very young then. I could write and hold a few jobs. I was for a time a waiter . . . like George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London. I couldn’t do it now. I worked on the Lower East Side and in what we now call Soho.
Was there anyone to guide you?
I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, “Look.” I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, “Look again,” which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.
Do you think painters would help a fledgling writer more than another writer might? Did you read a great deal?
I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing this way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. This I learned from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac. I’m sure that my life in France would have been very different had I not met Balzac. Even though I hadn’t experienced it yet, I understood something about the concierge, all the French institutions and personalities. The way that country and its society works. How to find my way around in it, not get lost in it, and not feel rejected by it. The French gave me what I could not get in America, which was a sense of “If I can do it, I may do it.” I won’t generalize, but in the years I grew up in the U.S., I could not do that. I’d already been defined.
Did what you wanted to write about come easily to you from the start?
I had to be released from a terrible shyness—an illusion that I could hide anything from anybody.
I would think that anyone who could time after time, and without notes, address a congregation would never be shy again.
I was scared then and I’m scared now. Communication is a two-way street, really, it’s a matter of listening to one another. During the civil-rights movement I was in the back of a church in Tallahassee and the pastor, who recognized me, called my name and asked me to say a few words. I was thirty-four and had left the pulpit seventeen years before. The moment in which I had to stand up and walk down the aisle and stand in that pulpit was the strangest moment in my life up to that time. I managed to get through it and when I walked down from the pulpit and back up the aisle, a little old black lady in the congregation said to a friend of hers, “He’s little, but he’s loud!”
What was the process whereby you were able to write?
I had to go through a time of isolation in order to come to terms with who and what I was, as distinguished from all the things I’d been told I was. Right around 1950 I remember feeling that I’d come through something, shed a dying skin and was naked again. I wasn’t, perhaps, but I certainly felt more at ease with myself. And then I was able to write. Throughout 1948 and 1949 I just tore up paper.
Those years were difficult, and yet you received four writing grants between 1945 and 1956. How much encouragement did they afford you?
Well, the first one was the most important in terms of morale—the Saxton Fellowship in 1945. I was twenty-one. I was launched into the publishing world, so to speak. And there was the novel, which became Go Tell It on the Mountain several years later.
The Saxton was intended to help you finish the novel you were working on?
It helped me finish the novel, it kept me alive. The novel didn’t work, but I started doing book reviews for the New Leader at ten and twenty dollars a shot. I had to read everything and had to write all the time, and that’s a great apprenticeship. The people I worked with were left-of-center Trotskyites, Socialist Trotskyites. I was a young Socialist. That was a very nice atmosphere for me; in a sense it saved me from despair. But most of the books I reviewed were Be Kind to Niggers, Be Kind to Jews, while America was going through one of its liberal convulsions. People suddenly discovered they had a Jewish problem, with books like Gentleman’s Agreement, Earth and High Heaven, or they discovered they had niggers, with books like Kingsblood Royal and Quality.
Thousands of such tracts were published during those years and it seems to me I had to read every single one of them; the color of my skin made me an expert. And so, when I got to Paris, I had to discharge all that, which was really the reason for my essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” I was convinced then—and I still am—that those sort of books do nothing but bolster up an image. All of this had quite a bit to do with the direction I took as a writer, because it seemed to me that if I took the role of a victim then I was simply reassuring the defenders of the status quo; as long as I was a victim they could pity me and add a few more pennies to my home-relief check. Nothing would change in that way, I felt, and that essay was a beginning of my finding a new vocabulary and another point of view.
If you felt that it was a white man’s world, what made you think that there was any point in writing? And why is writing a white man’s world?
Because they own the business. Well, in retrospect, what it came down to was that I would not allow myself to be defined by other people, white or black. It was beneath me to blame anybody for what happened to me. What happened to me was my responsibility. I didn’t want any pity. “Leave me alone, I’ll figure it out.” I was very wounded and I was very dangerous because you become what you hate. It’s what happened to my father and I didn’t want it to happen to me. His hatred was suppressed and turned against himself. He couldn’t let it out—he could only let it out in the house with rage, and I found it happening to myself as well. And after my best friend jumped off the bridge, I knew that I was next. So—Paris. With forty dollars and a one-way ticket.
Once in Paris, you spent a lot of time upstairs at the Café de Flore. Is that where Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room were written?
A lot of Go Tell It on the Mountain had to be written there, between there and the Hotel Verneuil, where I stayed for a lot of the time I was in Paris. After ten years of carrying that book around, I finally finished it in Switzerland in three months. I remember playing Bessie Smith all the time while I was in the mountains, and playing her till I fell asleep. The book was very hard to write because I was too young when I started, seventeen; it was really about me and my father. There were things I couldn’t deal with technically at first. Most of all, I couldn’t deal with me. This is where reading Henry James helped me, with his whole idea about the center of consciousness and using a single intelligence to tell the story. He gave me the idea to make the novel happen on John’s birthday.
Do you agree with Alberto Moravia, who said that one ought only to write in the first person, because the third projects a bourgeois point of view?
I don’t know about that. The first person is the most terrifying view of all. I tend to be in accord with James, who hated the first-person perspective, which the reader has no reason to trust—why should you need this I? How is this person real by dint of that bar blaring across the page?
When did you first conceive of leaving black characters out of Giovanni’s Room?
I suppose the only honest answer to that is that Giovanni’s Room came out of something I had to face. I don’t quite know when it came, though it broke off from what later turned into Another Country. Giovanni was at a party and on his way to the guillotine. He took all the light in the book, and then the book stopped and nobody in the book would speak to me. I thought I would seal Giovanni off into a short story, but it turned into Giovanni’s Room. I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the “Negro problem.” The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it. I might do it differently today, but then, to have a black presence in the book at that moment, and in Paris, would have been quite beyond my powers.
Was it David who first appeared in Giovanni’s Room?
It was, yes, but that novel has a curious history. I wrote four novels before I published one, before I’d even left America. I don’t know what happened to them. When I came over they were in a duffel bag, which I lost, and that’s that. But the genesis of Giovanni’s Room is in America. David is the first person I thought of, but that’s due to a peculiar case involving a boy named Lucien Carr, who murdered somebody. He was known to some of the people I knew—I didn’t know him personally. But I was fascinated by the trial, which also involved a wealthy playboy and his wife in high-level society. From this fascination came the first version of Giovanni’s Room, something called Ignorant Armies, a novel I never finished. The bones of Giovanni’s Room and Another Country were in that.
Wasn’t it after your first two novels, which were in many ways extremely personal, that you introduced more of the political and sociological counterpoint (evident in your essays) into Another Country?
From my point of view it does not quite work that way, making attempts to be merely personal or to bring in a larger scope. No one knows how he writes his book. Go Tell It on the Mountain was about my relationship to my father and to the church, which is the same thing really. It was an attempt to exorcise something, to find out what happened to my father, what happened to all of us, what had happened to me—to John—and how we were to move from one place to another. Of course it seems rather personal, but the book is not about John, the book is not about me.
“One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience,” you’ve said.
Yes, and yet one’s own experience is not necessarily one’s twenty-four-hour reality. Everything happens to you, which is what Whitman means when he says in his poem “Heroes,” “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” It depends on what you mean by experience.
Nevertheless, it seems that your struggles with social injustices were kept apart as the material for your essays, while your fiction dealt predominantly with your own past.
If I wanted to survive as a writer I would eventually have had to write a book like Another Country. On the other hand, short stories like “Sonny’s Blues” or “Previous Condition,” which appeared before Another Country, were highly personal and yet went further than the immediate dilemmas of the young writer struggling in the Village or of Sonny in “Sonny’s Blues.”
Ralph Ellison said in his Paris Review interview that he writes “primarily not concerned with injustice, but with art,” whereas one might almost find you a sort of spokesman for blacks.
I don’t consider myself a spokesman—I have always thought it would be rather presumptuous.
Although you are aware of the fact that many people read and are moved by your essays, as well as your speeches and lectures . . .
Let’s go back now. Those essays really date from the time I was in my early twenties, and were written for the New Leader and The Nation all those years ago. They were an attempt to get me beyond the chaos I mentioned earlier. I lived in Paris long enough to finish my first novel, which was very important for me (or I wouldn’t be here at all). What held me in Paris later—from ’55 to ’57—was the fact that I was going through a kind of breakup in my private life, yet I knew I had to go back to America. And I went. Once I was in the civil-rights milieu, once I’d met Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and Medgar Evers and all those other people, the role I had to play was confirmed. I didn’t think of myself as a public speaker, or as a spokesman, but I knew I could get a story past the editor’s desk. And once you realize that you can do something, it would be difficult to live with yourself if you didn’t do it.
When you were much younger, what distinctions did you make between art and protest?
I thought of them both as literature and still do. I don’t see the contradiction which some people point out as inherent, though I can sense what Ralph, among others, means by that. The only way I could play it, once indeed I found myself on that road, was to assume that if I had the talent, and my talent was important, it would simply have to survive whatever life brought. I couldn’t sit somewhere honing my talent to a fine edge after I had been to all those places in the South and seen those boys and girls, men and women, black and white, longing for change. It was impossible for me to drop them a visit and then leave.
You were in utter despair after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Did you find it difficult to write then, or do you work better out of anguish?
No one works better out of anguish at all; that’s an incredible literary conceit. I didn’t think I could write at all. I didn’t see any point to it. I was hurt . . . I can’t even talk about it. I didn’t know how to continue, didn’t see my way clear.
How did you eventually find your way out of the pain?
I think really through my brother, David. I was working on No Name in the Street but hadn’t touched it after the assassination. He called me and I told him “I just can’t finish this book. I don’t know what to do with it.” And he came across the ocean. I was here in St. Paul, living in Le Hameau across the road. I was sick, went to four or five hospitals. I was very lucky, because I could’ve gone mad. You see, I had left America after the funeral and gone to Istanbul. Worked—or tried to—there. Got sick in Istanbul, went to London, got sick in London, and I wanted to die. Collapsed. I was shipped down here, out of the American Hospital in Paris. I’d been in the region in 1949, but I had never dreamt of coming to live in St. Paul. Once I was here, I stayed. I didn’t really have anyplace else to go. Well, I could have gone back to America, and I did, to do a Rap on Race, which helped me significantly. But principally, David came and he read No Name in the Street and sent it on to New York.
In an Esquire essay, you once wrote that you’ve been “schooled in adversity and skilled in compromise.” Does that perhaps reflect trying to get your work published?
No, though it has been such a stormy career. It’s a terrible way to make a living. I find writing gets harder as time goes on. I’m speaking of the working process, which demands a certain amount of energy and courage (though I dislike using the word), and a certain amount of recklessness. I don’t know, I doubt whether anyone—myself at least—knows how to talk about writing. Perhaps I’m afraid to.
Do you see it as conception, gestation, accouchement?
I don’t think about it that way, no. The whole process of conception—one talks about it after the fact, if one discusses it at all. But you really don’t understand it. After the fact I may discuss a work, yet I’m uncertain that what I do say about it afterwards can be taken as gospel.
One critic suggested that James Baldwin’s best work was yet to come and would be an autobiographical novel, which Just Above My Head was in part.
He may have a point there. I hope, certainly, that my best work is before me. It depends on what one means by “autobiographical.” I certainly have not told my story yet, I know that, though I’ve revealed fragments.
Are you, or do you remain, very close to your characters?
I don’t know if I feel close to them, now. After a time you find, however, that your characters are lost to you, making it quite impossible for you to judge them. When you’ve finished a novel it means, “The train stops here, you have to get off here.” You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it.
This occurs once it has already been published?
No, no, it happens when you are right here at the table. The publication date is something else again. It’s out of your hands, then. What happens here is that you realize if you try to redo something, you may wreck everything else. But, if a book has brought you from one place to another, so that you see something you didn’t see before, you’ve arrived at another point. This then is one’s consolation, and you know that you must now proceed elsewhere.
Are there a lot of your characters walking around here?
No, they begin walking around before you put them on paper. And after you put them on paper you don’t see them anymore. They may be wandering around here. You might see them.
So once you’ve captured a character in your work, it is no longer a phantom?
Actually, what has happened is that the character has tyrannized you for however long it took, and when the novel is over he or she says Ciao, thanks a lot. Pointe finale. Before Another Country, Ida talked to me for years. We get on very well now.
How soon after you conceived of Rufus, in Another Country, did you know he was going to commit suicide, or was he modeled after your adolescent friend who jumped off the George Washington Bridge in New York?
Oh, he was taken directly from that friend, yet, oddly enough, he was the last person to arrive in the novel. I’d written the book more than once and I’d felt I’d never get it right. Ida was important, but I wasn’t sure I could cope with her. Ida and Vivaldo were the first people I was dealing with, but I couldn’t find a way to make you understand Ida. Then Rufus came along and the entire action made sense.
And Richard, the rather idealistic writer?
This is all far beyond my memory. Well, there was Vivaldo, whose name I didn’t know for some time. He was called Daniel at first, and at one point was black. Ida, on the other hand, was always Ida. Richard and Cass were part of the decor. From my point of view, there was nothing in the least idealistic about Richard. He was modeled on several liberal American careerists from then and now. In any case, in order to make the reader see Ida, I had to give her a brother, who turned out to be Rufus. It’s fascinating from the point of view of styles, and of accomodations to human pain, that it took me so long—from 1946 to 1960—to accept the fact that my friend was dead. From the moment Rufus was gone, I knew that if you knew what had happened to Ida, you’d equally understand Rufus, and you’d see why Ida throughout the book was so difficult with Vivaldo and everybody else—with herself above all, because she wasn’t going to be able to live with the pain. The principal action in the book, for me, is the journey of Ida and Vivaldo toward some kind of coherence.
Is there a big shifting of gears between writing fiction and writing nonfiction?
Shifting gears, you ask. Every form is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass. None of it comes easy.
How many pages do you write in a day?
I write at night. After the day is over, and supper is over, I begin, and work until about three or four a.m.
That’s quite rare, isn’t it, because most people write when they’re fresh, in the morning.
I start working when everyone has gone to bed. I’ve had to do that ever since I was young—I had to wait until the kids were asleep. And then I was working at various jobs during the day. I’ve always had to write at night. But now that I’m established I do it because I’m alone at night.
When do you know something is the way you want it?
I do a lot of rewriting. It’s very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it. In fact, the hardest thing I ever wrote was that suicide scene in Another Country. I always knew that Rufus had to commit suicide very early on, because that was the key to the book. But I kept putting it off. It had to do, of course, with reliving the suicide of my friend who jumped off the bridge. Also, it was very dangerous to do from the technical point of view because this central character dies in the first hundred pages, with a couple of hundred pages to go. The point up to the suicide is like a long prologue, and it is the only light on Ida. You never go into her mind, but I had to make you see what is happening to this girl by making you feel the blow of her brother’s death—the key to her relationship with everybody. She tries to make everybody pay for it. You cannot do that, life is not like that, you only destroy yourself.
Is that the way a book starts for you, though? Something like that?
Probably that way for everybody: something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die. You have to go through that.
Does it purge you in any way?
I’m not so sure about that. For me it’s like a journey, and the only thing you know is that if when the book is over, you are prepared to continue—you haven’t cheated.
What would cheating be?
So there is a compulsion to get it out?
Oh yes, to get it out and get it right. The word I’m using is compulsion. And it is true of the essay as well.
But the essay is a little bit simpler, isn’t it, because you’re angry about something which you can put your finger on . . .
An essay is not simpler, though it may seem so. An essay is essentially an argument. The writer’s point of view in an essay is always absolutely clear. The writer is trying to make the readers see something, trying to convince them of something. In a novel or a play you’re trying to show them something. The risks, in any case, are exactly the same.
What are your first drafts like?
They are overwritten. Most of the rewrite, then, is cleaning. Don’t describe it, show it. That’s what I try to teach all young writers—take it out! Don’t describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple.
As your experience about writing accrues, what would you say increases with knowledge?
You learn how little you know. It becomes much more difficult because the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.
Do you mind what people say about your writing?
Ultimately not. I minded it when I was younger. You care about the people you care about, what they say. You care about the reviews so that somebody will read the book. So, those things are important, but not of ultimate importance.
The attitudes you found in America which made you go to France—are they still with us, are they exactly the same?
I always knew I would have to come back. If I were twenty-four now, I don’t know if and where I would go. I don’t know if I would go to France, I might go to Africa. You must remember when I was twenty-four there was really no Africa to go to, except Liberia. I thought of going to Israel, but I never did, and I was right about that. Now, though, a kid now . . . well, you see, something has happened which no one has really noticed, but it’s very important: Europe is no longer a frame of reference, a standard-bearer, the classic model for literature and for civilization. It’s not the measuring stick. There are other standards in the world. It’s a fascinating time to be living. There’s a whole wide world which isn’t now as it was when I was younger. When I was a kid the world was white, for all intents and purposes, and now it is struggling to remain white—a very different thing.
It’s frequently been noted that you are a master of minor characters. How do you respond to that?
Well, minor characters are the subtext, illustrations of whatever it is you’re trying to convey. I was always struck by the minor characters in Dostoyevsky and Dickens. The minor characters have a certain freedom which the major ones don’t. They can make comments, they can move, yet they haven’t got the same weight, or intensity.
You mean to say their actions are less accountable?
Oh no, if you fuck up a minor character you fuck up a major one. They are more a part of the decor—a kind of Greek chorus. They carry the tension in a much more explicit way than the majors.
Excuse me for asking, but might your mother be standing behind you while you’re writing; is she perhaps behind many of your characters?
I wouldn’t think so, but to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t know. I’ve got five sisters. And in a funny way, there have been many women in my life, so it wouldn’t be my mother.
Have you been through analysis?
God no, never got “adjusted.”
Both you and William Styron (intentionally or not) write about victims and victimization. Styron has said he has never felt like a victim. Have you?
Well, I refuse to. Perhaps the turning point in one’s life is realizing that to be treated like a victim is not necessarily to become one.
Do you believe in a community of writers? Is that of any interest to you?
No. I’ve never seen one in any case . . . and I don’t think any writer ever has.
But weren’t William Styron and Richard Wright, say, important to you in formulating your viewpoints?
Richard was very important to me. He was much older. He was very nice to me. He helped me with my first novel, really. That was 1944–45. I just knocked on his door out in Brooklyn! I introduced myself, and of course he’d no idea who I was. There were no essays then, no fiction—this was 1944. I adored him. I loved him. We were very unlike each other, as writers, probably as people too. And as I grew older, that became more and more apparent. And after that was Paris.
Well, as I was saying, Bill is a friend of mine who happens to be a writer.
Did you take a position on his book about Nat Turner?
I did. My position, though, is that I will not tell another writer what to write. If you don’t like their alternative, write yours. I admired him for confronting it, and the result. It brought in the whole enormity of the issue of history versus fiction, fiction versus history, and which is which . . . He writes out of reasons similar to mine: about something which hurt him and frightened him. When I was working on Another Country and Bill was working on Nat Turner, I stayed in his guest house for five months. His hours and mine are very different. I was going to bed at dawn, Bill was just coming up to his study to go to work; his hours going on as mine went off. We saw each other at suppertime.
What kind of conversations would you hold?
We never spoke about our work, or very rarely. It was a wonderful time in my life, but not at all literary. We sang songs, drank a little too much, and on occasion chatted with the people who were dropping in to see us. We had a certain common inheritance in terms of the music.
What sort of music are you hearing while in the immediate process of writing? Do you experience anything physical or emotional?
No. I’m very cold—cold probably isn’t the word I want: controlled. Writing for me must be a very controlled exercise, formed by passions and hopes. That is the only reason you get through it, otherwise you may as well do something else. The act of writing itself is cold.
I’m going to presage my own question. Most of the novelists I’ve spoken to claim they read exceedingly fewer contemporary novels, but find themselves drawn to plays, history, memoirs, biographies, and poetry. I believe this is true for you as well.
In my case it is due to the fact that I’m always doing some kind of research. And yes, I read many plays and a lot of poetry as a kind of apprenticeship. You are fascinated, I am fascinated by a certain optic—a process of seeing things. Reading Emily Dickinson, for example, and others who are quite far removed from one’s ostensible daily concerns, or obligations. They are freer, for that moment, than you are partly because they are dead. They may also be a source of strength. Contemporary novels are part of a universe in which you have a certain role and a certain responsibility. And, of course, an unavoidable curiosity.
You read contemporary novels out of a sense of responsibility?
In a way. At any rate, few novelists interest me—which has nothing to do with their values. I find most of them too remote for me. The world of John Updike, for instance, does not impinge on my world. On the other hand, the world of John Cheever did engage me. Obviously, I’m not making a very significant judgment about Updike. It’s entirely subjective, what I’m saying. In the main, the concerns of most white Americans (to use that phrase) are boring, and terribly, terribly self-centered. In the worst sense. Everything is contingent, of course, on what you take yourself to be.
Are you suggesting they are less concerned, somehow, with social injustice?
No, no, you see, I don’t want to make that kind of dichotomy. I’m not asking that anybody get on picket lines or take positions. That is entirely a private matter. What I’m saying has to do with the concept of the self, and the nature of self-indulgence which seems to me to be terribly strangling, and so limited it finally becomes sterile.
And yet in your own writing you deal with personal experiences quite often.
Yes, but—and here I’m in trouble with the language again—it depends upon how you conceive of yourself. It revolves, surely, around the multiplicity of your connections. Obviously you can only deal with your life and work from the vantage point of your self. There isn’t any other vantage point, there is no other point of view. I can’t say about any of my characters that they are utter fictions. I do have a sense of what nagged my attention where and when; even in the dimmest sense I know how a character impinged on me in reality, in what we call reality, the daily world. And then, of course, imagination has something to do with it. But it has got to be triggered by something, it cannot be triggered by itself.
What is it about Emily Dickinson that moves you?
Her use of language, certainly. Her solitude, as well, and the style of that solitude. There is something very moving and in the best sense funny. She isn’t solemn. If you really want to know something about solitude, become famous. That is the turn of the screw. That solitude is practically insurmountable. Years ago I thought to be famous would be a kind of ten-day wonder, and then I could go right back to life as usual. But people treat you differently before you realize it. You see it in the wonder and the worry of your intimates. On the other side of that is a great responsibility.
Is one’s past cluttered, as a celebrated writer?
There are many witnesses to my past, people who’ve disappeared, people who are dead, whom I loved. But I don’t feel there are any ghosts, any regrets. I don’t feel that kind of melancholy at all. No nostalgia. Everything is always around and before you. Novels that haven’t worked, loves, struggles. And yet it all gives you something of immeasurable power.
This brings us to your concern with reality as being history, with seeing the present shaded by everything which occurred in a person’s past. James Baldwin has always been bound by his past, and his future. At forty, you said you felt much older than that.
That is one of those things a person says at forty, at forty especially. It was a great shock to me, forty. And I did feel much older than that. Responding to history, I think a person is in sight of his or her death around the age of forty. You see it coming. You are not in sight of your death at thirty, less so at twenty-five. You are struck by the fact of your mortality, that it is unlikely you’ll live another forty years. So time alters you, actually becoming either an enemy or a friend.
You seem very troubled—but not by death?
Yes, true, but not at all by death. I’m troubled over getting my work done and over all the things I’ve not learned. It’s useless to be troubled by death, because then, of course, you can’t live at all.
“Essentially, America has not changed that much,” you told the New York Times when Just Above My Head was being published. Have you?
In some ways I’ve changed precisely because America has not. I’ve been forced to change in some ways. I had a certain expectation for my country years ago, which I know I don’t have now.
Yes, before 1968, you said, “I love America.”
Long before then. I still do, though that feeling has changed in the face of it. I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it. There isn’t any other place to go—you don’t pull up your roots and put them down someplace else. At least not in a single lifetime, or, if you do, you’ll be aware of precisely what it means, knowing that your real roots are always elsewhere. If you try to pretend you don’t see the immediate reality that formed you I think you’ll go blind.
As a writer, are there any particular battles you feel you’ve won?
The battle of becoming a writer at all! “I’m going to be a great writer when I grow up,” I used to tell my mother when I was a little boy. And I’m still going to be a great writer when I grow up.
What do you tell younger writers who come to you with the usual desperate question: How do I become a writer?
Write. Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say. If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.
Can you discern talent in someone?
Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.
Would you suggest that a young writer from a minority consecrate himself to that minority, or is his first obligation his own self-realization as a writer?
Your self and your people are indistinguishable from each other, really, in spite of the quarrels you may have, and your people are all people.
Wasn’t Giovanni’s Room partially an attempt to break down these divisions, pointing out that David could be white, black, or yellow?
Certainly, for in terms of what happened to him, none of that mattered at all.
Yet, later on, notably in the case of Rufus and Another Country, one’s race becomes essential to your story.
Important in that particular novel, yes, but Another Country is called that because it is trying to convey the reality of that country. The story would be different if it were in France, or even in England.
What is your present relationship with people like Ralph Ellison, Imamu Baraka (LeRoi Jones) or Eldridge Cleaver?
I never had a relationship with Cleaver. I was in difficulties because of Cleaver, which I didn’t want to talk about then, and don’t wish to discuss now. My real difficulty with Cleaver, sadly, was visited on me by the kids who were following him, while he was calling me a faggot and the rest of it. I would come to a town to speak, Cleveland, let’s say, and he would’ve been standing on the very same stage a couple of days earlier. I had to try to undo the damage I considered he was doing. I was handicapped with Soul on Ice, because what I might have said in those years about Eldridge would have been taken as an answer to his attack on me. So I never answered it, and I’m not answering it now. Cleaver reminded me of an old Baptist minister I used to work with when I was in the pulpit. I never trusted him at all. As for Baraka, he and I have had a stormy time too, but we’re very good friends now.
Do you read each other’s work?
Yes—at least I read his. And as for Ralph, I haven’t seen him in many years.
You haven’t corresponded at all?
No. I gather Ralph did not like what he considered I was doing to myself on the civil-rights road. And so, we haven’t seen each other.
If you were both to meet over lunch tomorrow, what might you talk about?
I’d love to meet him for lunch tomorrow, and share a bottle of bourbon, and probably talk about the last twenty years we haven’t seen each other. I have nothing against him in any case. And I love his great book. We disagreed about tactics, I suppose. But I had to go through the civil-rights movement and I don’t regret it at all. And those people trusted me. There was something very beautiful about that period, something life-giving for me to be there, to march, to be a part of a sit-in, to see it through my own eyes.
Do you think that now blacks and whites can write about each other, honestly and convincingly?
Yes, though I have no overwhelming evidence in hand. But I think of the impact of spokespersons like Toni Morrison and other younger writers. I believe what one has to do as a black American is to take white history, or history as written by whites, and claim it all—including Shakespeare.
“What other people write about me is irrelevant,” you once wrote in Essence. Was that meant to go unqualified; do you not relate to criticism in any way?
It is never entirely true that you don’t give a shit what others say about you, but you must throw it out of your mind. I went through a very trying period, after all, where on one side of town I was an Uncle Tom and on the other the Angry Young Man. It could make one’s head spin, the number of labels that have been attached to me. And it was inevitably painful, and surprising, and indeed, bewildering. I do care what certain people think about me.
But not literary critics?
Literary critics cannot be one’s concern. Ideally, however, what a critic can do is indicate where you’ve been excessive or unclear. As far as any sort of public opinion is a question, I would say that one cannot possibly react to any of it. Things may be said which hurt, and you don’t like it, but what are you to do? Write a White Paper, or a Black Paper, defending yourself? You can’t do that.
You have often left your home in St. Paul, returning to America and going on the road. Do you feel comfortable as a speaker?
I have never felt comfortable as a speaker, no.
You feel more at ease behind the typewriter?
Well, certainly, although I used to be a preacher, which helps on the road.
Can you talk a little more about your relationship to Richard Wright, under whose aegis you received your first writing grant?
As I said before, I just knocked on his door in New York. I was nineteen. And he was very nice. The only trouble was I didn’t drink in those years. He drank bourbon. Now, I’m going to save you the trouble of asking me about writers and alcohol: I don’t know any writers who don’t drink. Everybody I’ve been close to drinks. But you don’t drink while you’re working. It’s funny, because it is all a reflex, like lighting a cigarette. Your drink is made and then you go off to another place. When you finally get back to the drink it’s mainly water. And the cigarette has gone out. Talking about Richard and our early hostile period, which I thought was ridiculously blown out of proportion, I should say that when I thought I was dealing with Richard, I was in fact thinking of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Richard’s Native Son was the only contemporary representation there was of a black person in America. One of the reasons I wrote what I did about the book is a technical objection, which I uphold today. I could not accept the performance of the lawyer at the end of the book. I was very explicit about that. I think it was simply absurd to talk about this monster created by the American public, and then expect the public to save it! Altogether, I found it too simpleminded. Insofar as the American public creates a monster, they are not about to recognize it. You create a monster and destroy it. It is part of the American way of life, if you like. I reserve, in any case, the utmost respect for Richard, especially in light of his posthumous work, which I believe is his greatest novel, Lawd Today. Look it up.
Is there any resistance today to black writers in publishing houses?
There is an enormous resistance, though it differs from Wright’s time. When I was young, the joke was “How many niggers you got at your plantation?” Or, more snidely, “How many niggers you got at your publishing house?” And some had one, most had none. That’s not true now.
How does it strike you that in many circles James Baldwin is known as a prophetic writer?
I don’t try to be prophetic, as I don’t sit down to write literature. It is simply this: a writer has to take all the risks of putting down what he sees. No one can tell him about that. No one can control that reality. It reminds me of something Pablo Picasso was supposed to have said to Gertrude Stein while he was painting her portrait. Gertrude said, “I don’t look like that.” And Picasso replied, “You will.” And he was right.
Written by James Baldwin
Contribution by Quincy Troupe
On Sale: December 02, 2014
Pages: 192 | ISBN: 978-1-61219-400-4
“I was not born to be what someone said I was. I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself, and myself only.” When, in the fall of 1987, the poet Quincy Troupe traveled to the south of France to interview James Baldwin, Baldwin’s brother David told him to ask Baldwin about everything—Baldwin was critically ill and David knew that this might be the writer’s last chance to speak at length about his life and work.
The result is one of the most eloquent and revelatory interviews of Baldwin’s career, a conversation that ranges widely over such topics as his childhood in Harlem, his close friendship with Miles Davis, his relationship with writers like Toni Morrison and Richard Wright, his years in France, and his ever-incisive thoughts on the history of race relations and the African-American experience.
Also collected here are significant interviews from other moments in Baldwin’s life, including an in-depth interview conducted by Studs Terkel shortly after the publication of Nobody Knows My Name. These interviews showcase, above all, Baldwin’s fearlessness and integrity as a writer, thinker, and individual, as well as the profound struggles he faced along the way.
"...And it is he, this Jimmy of whom I will continue to speak. It is this Jimmy, this glorious, elegant griot of our oppressed African-American nation who I am eulogizing. So let the butchering copy editors of our captivity stay for an eternal moment their dead eraser fingers from our celebration.
There will be, and should be, reams and reams of analysis, even praise, for our friend but also even larger measures of non-analysis and certainly condemnation for James Baldwin, the Negro writer. Alas we have not yet the power to render completely sterile or make impossible the errors and lies which will merely be America being itself rather than its unconvincing promise.
But the wide gap, the world spanning abyss, between the James Baldwin of yellow journalism and English departments (and here we thought this was America), and the Jimmy Baldwin of our real lives is stunning! When he told us Nobody Knows My (he meant Our) Name , he was trying to get you ready for it even then!
For one thing, no matter the piles of deathly prose citing influences, relationships, metaphor and criticisms that will attempt to tell us about our older brother, most will miss the mark simply because for the most part they will be retelling old lies or making up new ones, or shaping yet another black life to fit the great white stomach which yet rules and tries to digest the world!..."
--From 'Jimmy!' Amiri Baraka's eulogy for James Baldwin at Baldwin's funeral in NYC December 8, 1987
Honoring James Baldwin’s 90th Birthday in Harlem
By FELICIA R. LEE
AUGUST 1, 2014
New York Times
James Baldwin, a Harlem native who died in 1987, would have turned 90 on Saturday. Among the many tributes in a year in which his legacy as a major writer is being celebrated, one on Saturday is close to home: a portion of East 128th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue, will be renamed James Baldwin Way.
Baldwin, whose classic works include the novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and the essay collections “The Fire Next Time” and “Notes of a Native Son” attended Public School 24 (now the Harlem Renaissance School) on that block. Nearby, the marquee of the Apollo Theater, at 253 West 125th Street, is scheduled to read “Happy 90th Birthday James Baldwin.”
“We’re reclaiming him as a son of Harlem,” said Rich Blint, a Baldwin scholar and associate director in the Office of Community Outreach and Education at the Columbia University School of the Arts. The university, along with Harlem Stage and New York Live Arts, is participating in a citywide consideration of Baldwin.
In this year of all things Baldwin, some fans and scholars have expressed concern that his complex presence is fading in too many high schools. “We want to reintroduce his contemporary relevance,” said Trevor Baldwin, a nephew who will attend the Saturday festivities.
The writer was known for fiery works about race and for frank portrayals of sexuality, in novels like “Giovanni’s Room” and “Another Country,” as well as for his work in the civil rights movement.
“I want people to be interested in the courage of his life choices,” Trevor Baldwin said.
The street renaming will conclude with a musical procession to the National Black Theater at 2031 Fifth Avenue, between 125th and 126th Streets, with readings from “The Fire Next Time” and testimonials from those who knew Baldwin.
Panel Discussion on American Morality
Panelists talked about contemporary moral and political questions, as well as James Baldwin’s statement that, “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.”
“Achieving our Country: James Baldwin and American Morality” was a panel at the 2014 Harlem Book Fair from the Langston Hughes Auditorium in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
August 2, 1924
Harlem, New York, U.S.
Died December 1, 1987 (aged 63)
Saint-Paul de Vence, France
Occupation Writer, novelist, poet, playwright, activist
Alma mater DeWitt Clinton High School,
The New School
James Arthur Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. Baldwin's essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America, and their inevitable if unnameable tensions. Some Baldwin essays are book-length, for instance The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976).
Baldwin's novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only blacks, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals' quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin's second novel, written well before gay equality was widely espoused in America: Giovanni's Room (1956). Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is said to be his best-known work.
1 Early life
1.3 Greenwich Village
2 Baldwin's expatriation
3 James Baldwin and Saint-Paul de Vence
4 Literary career
5 Social and political activism
6 Inspiration and relationships
10 See also
12 Published as
13 Further reading
13.1 Archival resources
14 External links
When Baldwin was an infant, his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, divorced his father amid his drug abuse and moved to the Harlem section of Manhattan in New York City. There, she married a preacher, David Baldwin. The family was very poor.
James spent much time caring for his several younger brothers and sisters. At age ten, he was beaten by a gang of police officers. His adoptive father, whom James in essays called simply his father, appears to have treated James—versus James's siblings—with singular harshness.
His stepfather died of tuberculosis in summer of 1943 soon before James turned 19. The day of the funeral was James's 19th birthday, the day his father's last child was born, and the day of the Harlem Riot of 1943, which was the portrait opening his essay "Notes of a Native Son". The quest to answer or explain familial and social repudiation—and attain a sense of self, both coherent and benevolent—became a motif in Baldwin's writing.
James attended DeWitt Clinton High School, in the Bronx's Bedford Park section. There, along with Richard Avedon, he worked on the school magazine—Baldwin as its literary editor—but disliked school. After high school, Baldwin studied at The New School, where he found an intellectual community that he could identify with.
The difficulties of his life, as well as his abusive preacher stepfather, led Baldwin to become a part of the church. At age 14 he attended meetings of the Pentecostal Church and, during a euphoric prayer meeting, he converted. Soon, as a junior minister at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly, he drew larger crowds than his stepfather did. At 17, however, Baldwin came to view Christianity as falsely premised and later regarded his time in the pulpit as a remedy to his personal crises.
Baldwin once visited Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam, who inquired about Baldwin's religious beliefs. He answered, "I left the church 20 years ago and haven't joined anything since." Elijah asked, "And what are you now?" Baldwin explained, "I? Now? Nothing. I'm a writer. I like doing things alone." Still, his church experience significantly shaped his worldview and writing. Baldwin reflected that "being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked."
Baldwin admonished Christianity for, as he explained, reinforcing the system of American slavery by palliating the pangs of oppression and delaying salvation until a promised afterlife. Baldwin praised religion, however, for inspiring some American blacks to defy oppression. Baldwin once wrote, "If the concept of God has any use, it is to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God can't do that, it's time we got rid of him". Yet Baldwin never publicly identified himself as atheist. At his funeral, a mostly a cappella recording of the adult Baldwin singing "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" was played.
When Baldwin was 15, his high-school running buddy, Emile Capouya, skipped school one day and, in Greenwich Village, met Beauford Delaney, a painter. Emile gave James the address, and suggested a visit. James, who worked at a sweatshop nearby on Canal Street and dreaded going home after school, visited Beauford at 181 Greene Street. He became a mentor to Baldwin, and Beauford's influence brought him to his first realization that a black person could be an artist.
While working odd jobs, he wrote short stories, essays, and book reviews, some of them collected in the volume Notes of a Native Son (1955). He befriended the actor Marlon Brando in 1944 and the two were roommates for a time. They would remain friends for over 20 years.
During his teenage years in Harlem and Greenwich Village, Baldwin started to realize that he was bisexual. In 1948, Baldwin walked into a restaurant where he knew he could not be served. When the waitress explained that black people were not served the establishment, James Baldwin threw a glass of water at her, shattering the mirror behind the bar. As a result of being disillusioned by American prejudice against blacks and gays, Baldwin left the United States at age 24 and settled in Paris, France. His flight was not just a desire to distance himself from American prejudice, but to see himself and his writing beyond an African American context. Baldwin did not want to be read as not "merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer". Also, he left the United States desiring to come to terms with his sexual ambivalence and flee the hopelessness that many young African American men like himself succumbed to in New York.
In Paris, Baldwin was soon involved in the cultural radicalism of the Left Bank. His work started to be published in literary anthologies, notably Zero, which was edited by his friend Themistocles Hoetis and which had already published essays by Richard Wright.
He would live in France for most of his later life. He would also spend some time in Switzerland and Turkey. During his life and after it, Baldwin would be seen not only as an influential African American writer but also as an influential exile writer, particularly because of his numerous experiences outside of the United States and the impact of these experiences on Baldwin's life and his writing.
James Baldwin and Saint-Paul de Vence
James Baldwin settled in Saint-Paul de Vence (South of France) in 1970, in an old Provence house beneath the ramparts of the famous village. His house was always open to his friends and they would never fail to pop in and say hello when visiting the French Riviera. American painter Beauford Delaney made James Baldwin's house in Saint-Paul de Vence his second home, often setting up his easel in the garden. Beauford Delaney painted several colourful portraits of James Baldwin. Actors Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitiers were also regular house guests.
A lot of Baldwin's musician friends dropped in during the Nice and Juan-les-Pins jazz festivals: Nina Simone, Josephine Baker (whose sister lived in Nice), Miles Davis and Ray Charles for whom James Baldwin composed several pieces of music. In his biography, musician Miles Davis wrote:
"I'd read his books and I liked and respected what he had to say. When I got to know him better, Jimmy and I opened up to each other. We became great friends. Every time I was in the South of France, in Antibes, I would spend a day or two at his villa in Saint-Paul de Vence. We'd get comfy in that beautiful, big house and he would tell us all sorts of stories... He was a great man."
James Baldwin spoke impeccable French and developed friendships with French actor Yves Montand and French writer Marguerite Yourcenar, who translated his play The Amen Corner.
His years in Saint-Paul de Vence were also years of work. Sitting in front of his sturdy typewriter, his days were devoted to writing and to answering the huge amount of mail he received from all over the world. He wrote several of his last works in his house in Saint Paul de Vence, including Just Above My Head in 1979 and Evidence of Things Not Seen in 1985. It was also in his Saint-Paul de Vence house that James Baldwin wrote his famous Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis in November 1970.
In 1953, Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman, was published. Baldwin's first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son appeared two years later. Baldwin continued to experiment with literary forms throughout his career, publishing poetry and plays as well as the fiction and essays for which he was known.
Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room, stirred controversy when it was first published in 1956 due to its explicit homoerotic content. Baldwin was again resisting labels with the publication of this work: despite the reading public's expectations that he would publish works dealing with the African American experience, Giovanni's Room is predominantly about white characters. Baldwin's next two novels, Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, are sprawling, experimental works dealing with black and white characters and with heterosexual, gay, and bisexual characters. These novels struggle to contain the turbulence of the 1960s: they are saturated with a sense of violent unrest and outrage.
Baldwin's lengthy essay Down at the Cross (frequently called The Fire Next Time after the title of the book in which it was published) similarly showed the seething discontent of the 1960s in novel form. The essay was originally published in two oversized issues of The New Yorker and landed Baldwin on the cover of Time magazine in 1963 while Baldwin was touring the South speaking about the restive Civil Rights movement. Around the time of The Fire Next Time's publication, Baldwin became a known spokesperson for civil rights and a celebrity noted for championing the cause of black Americans. He frequently appeared on television and delivered speeches on college campuses. The essay talked about the uneasy relationship between Christianity and the burgeoning Black Muslim movement. After publication, several black nationalists criticized Baldwin for his conciliatory attitude. They questioned whether his message of love and understanding would do much to change race relations in America. The book was eagerly consumed by whites looking for answers to the question: What do blacks really want? His essays never stopped articulating the anger and frustration felt by real-life black Americans with more clarity and style than any other writer of his generation. Baldwin's next book-length essay, No Name in the Street, also discussed his own experience in the context of the later 1960s, specifically the assassinations of three of his personal friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Baldwin's writings of the 1970s and 1980s have been largely overlooked by critics, though even these texts are beginning to receive attention. Several of his essays and interviews of the 1980s discuss homosexuality and homophobia with fervor and forthrightness. Eldridge Cleaver's harsh criticism of Baldwin in Soul on Ice and elsewhere and Baldwin's return to southern France contributed to the sense that he was not in touch with his readership. Always true to his own convictions rather than to the tastes of others, Baldwin continued to write what he wanted to write. As he had been the leading literary voice of the civil rights movement, he became an inspirational figure for the emerging gay rights movement. His two novels written in the 1970s, If Beale Street Could Talk and Just Above My Head, placed a strong emphasis on the importance of black families, and he concluded his career by publishing a volume of poetry, Jimmy's Blues as well as another book-length essay, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which was an extended meditation inspired by the Atlanta Child Murders of the early 1980s.
Social and political activism
Baldwin returned to the United States in the summer of 1957 while the Civil Rights Act of that year was being debated in Congress. He had been powerfully moved by the image of a young girl braving a mob in an attempt to desegregate schools in Charlotte, N.C., and Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv had suggested he report on what was happening in the American south. Baldwin was nervous about the trip but he made it, interviewing people in Charlotte, Atlanta (where he met Martin Luther King), and Montgomery, Alabama. The result was two essays, one published in Harper's magazine ("The Hard Kind of Courage"), the other in Partisan Review ("Nobody Knows My Name"). Subsequent Baldwin articles on the movement appeared in Mademoiselle, Harper's, the New York Times Magazine, and the New Yorker, where in 1962 he published the essay he called "Down at the Cross" and the New Yorker called "Letter from a Region of My Mind". Along with a shorter essay from The Progressive, the essay became The Fire Next Time.
While he wrote about the movement, Baldwin aligned himself with the ideals of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1963 he conducted a lecture tour of the South for CORE, traveling to locations like Durham and Greensboro, North Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana. During the tour, he lectured to students, white liberals, and anyone else listening about his racial ideology, an ideological position between the "muscular approach" of Malcolm X and the nonviolent program of Martin Luther King Jr..
By the Spring of 1963, Baldwin had become so much a spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement that for its May 17 issue on the turmoil in Birmingham, Alabama, Time magazine put James Baldwin on the cover. "There is not another writer," said Time, "who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South." In a cable Baldwin sent to Attorney General Robert Kennedy during the crisis, Baldwin blamed the violence in Birmingham on the FBI, J.Edgar Hoover, Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland, and President Kennedy for failing to use "the great prestige of his office as the moral forum which it can be." Attorney General Kennedy invited Baldwin to meet with him over breakfast, and that meeting was followed up with a second, when Kennedy met with Baldwin and others Baldwin had invited to Kennedy's Manhattan apartment. The delegation included Kenneth B. Clark, a psychologist who had played a key role in the Brown v. Board of Education decision; actor Harry Belafonte, singer Lena Horne, writer Lorraine Hansberry, and activists from civil rights organizations. Although most of the attendees of this meeting left feeling "devastated," the meeting was an important one in voicing the concerns of the civil rights movement and it provided exposure of the civil rights issue not just as a political issue but also as a moral issue.
Baldwin also made a prominent appearance at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963, with Belafonte and long time friends Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando. The civil rights movement was hostile to homosexuals. The only known gay men in the movement were James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin. Rustin and King were very close, as Rustin received credit for the success of the March on Washington. Many were bothered by Rustins sexual orientation. King himself spoke on the topic of sexual orientation in a school editorial column during his college years. The pressure later resulted in King distancing himself from both men. At the time, Baldwin was neither in the closet or open to the public about his sexual orientation. Later on, Baldwin was conspicuously uninvited to speak at the end of the March on Washington. After a bomb exploded in a Birmingham church not long after the March on Washington, Baldwin called for a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience in response to this "terrifying crisis." He traveled to Selma, Alabama, where SNCC had organized a voter registration drive; he watched mothers with babies and elderly men and women standing in long lines for hours, as armed deputies and state troopers stood by—or intervened to smash a reporter's camera or use cattle prods on SNCC workers. After his day of watching, he spoke in a crowded church, blaming Washington—"the good white people on the hill." Returning to Washington, he told a New York Post reporter the federal government could protect Negroes—it could send federal troops into the South. He blamed the Kennedys for not acting. In March 1964, Baldwin joined marchers who walked 50 miles from Selma, Alabama, to the capitol in Montgomery under the protection of federal troops.
Nonetheless, he rejected the label civil rights activist, or that he had participated in a civil rights movement, instead agreeing with Malcolm X's assertion that if one is a citizen, one should not have to fight for one's civil rights. In a 1979 speech at UC Berkeley, he called it, instead, "the latest slave rebellion."
In 1968, Baldwin signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
Inspiration and relationships
As a young man, Baldwin's poetry teacher was Countee Cullen.
A great influence on Baldwin was the painter Beauford Delaney. In The Price of the Ticket (1985), Baldwin describes Delaney as
the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place, he would have been recognized as my teacher and I as his pupil. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken but I never saw him bow.
Later support came from Richard Wright, whom Baldwin called "the greatest black writer in the world." Wright and Baldwin became friends, and Wright helped Baldwin secure the Eugene F. Saxon Memorial Award. Baldwin's essay "Notes of a Native Son" and his essay collection Notes of a Native Son allude to Wright's novel Native Son. In Baldwin's 1949 essay "Everybody's Protest Novel", however, Baldwin indicated that Native Son, like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, lacked credible characters and psychological complexity, and the two authors' friendship ended. Interviewed by Julius Lester, however, Baldwin explained, "I knew Richard and I loved him. I was not attacking him; I was trying to clarify something for myself." In 1965, Baldwin participated in a debate with William F. Buckley, on the topic of whether the American dream has adversely affected African Americans. The debate took place at Cambridge University in the UK. The spectating student body voted overwhelmingly in Baldwin's favour.
In 1949 Baldwin met and fell in love with Lucien Happersberger, age 17, though Happersberger's marriage three years later left Baldwin distraught. Happersberger died on August 21, 2010 in Switzerland.
Baldwin was a close friend of the singer, pianist, and civil rights activist Nina Simone. With Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, Baldwin helped awaken Simone to the civil rights movement then gelling. Baldwin also provided her with literary references influential on her later work. Famously, Baldwin and Hansberry met with Robert F. Kennedy, along with Kenneth Clark and Lena Horne, in an attempt to persuade Kennedy of the importance of civil rights legislation.
Baldwin influenced the work of French painter Philippe Derome, who he met in Paris in the early 1960s. Baldwin also knew Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Billy Dee Williams, Huey P. Newton, Nikki Giovanni, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet (with whom he campaigned on behalf of the Black Panther Party), Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Rip Torn, Alex Haley, Miles Davis, Amiri Baraka, Martin Luther King, Jr., Margaret Mead, Josephine Baker, Allen Ginsberg, Chinua Achebe and Maya Angelou. He wrote at length about his "political relationship" with Malcolm X. He collaborated with childhood friend Richard Avedon on the book Nothing Personal, which is available for public viewing at the Schomburg Center in Harlem.
Maya Angelou called Baldwin her "friend and brother", and credited him for "setting the stage" for her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Baldwin was made a Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur by the French government in 1986.
James Baldwin was also a close friend of Nobel Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison. Upon Baldwin's death, Toni Morrison wrote a eulogy for Baldwin that appeared in the New York Times. In the eulogy, entitled "Life in His Language," Toni Morrison credits James Baldwin as being her literary inspiration and the person who showed her the true potential of writing. She writes,
"You knew, didn't you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn't you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then is no calamity. No. This is jubilee. 'Our crown,' you said, 'has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do,' you said, 'is wear it."'
Early on December 1, 1987 (some sources say late on November 30) Baldwin died from esophageal cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, near New York City.
Baldwin's influence on other writers has been profound: Toni Morrison edited the Library of America two-volume editions of Baldwin's fiction and essays, and a recent collection of critical essays links these two writers.
One of Baldwin's richest short stories, "Sonny's Blues", appears in many anthologies of short fiction used in introductory college literature classes.
In 1987, Kevin Brown, a photo-journalist from Baltimore, founded the National James Baldwin Literary Society. The group organizes free public events celebrating Baldwin's life and legacy.
In 1992, Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, established the James Baldwin Scholars program, an urban outreach initiative, in honor of Baldwin, who taught at Hampshire in the early 1980s. The JBS Program provides talented students of color from underserved communities an opportunity to develop and improve the skills necessary for college success through coursework and tutorial support for one transitional year, after which Baldwin scholars may apply for full matriculation to Hampshire or any other four-year college program.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed James Baldwin on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
In 2005, the USPS created a first-class postage stamp dedicated to him which featured him on the front, and on the back of the peeling paper had a short biography.
Go Tell It on the Mountain (semi-autobiographical novel; 1953)
The Amen Corner (play; 1954)
Notes of a Native Son (essays; 1955)
Giovanni's Room (novel; 1956)
Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (essays; 1961)
Another Country (novel; 1962)
A Talk to Teachers (essay; 1963)
The Fire Next Time (essays; 1963)
Blues for Mister Charlie (play; 1964)
Going to Meet the Man (stories; 1965)
Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (novel; 1968)
No Name in the Street (essays; 1972)
If Beale Street Could Talk (novel; 1974)
The Devil Finds Work (essays; 1976)
Just Above My Head (novel; 1979)
Jimmy's Blues (poems; 1983)
The Evidence of Things Not Seen (essays; 1985)
The Price of the Ticket (essays; 1985)
The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (essays; 2010)
Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems (poems; 2014)
Together with others:
Nothing Personal (with Richard Avedon, photography) (1964)
A Rap on Race (with Margaret Mead) (1971)
One Day When I Was Lost (orig.: A. Haley; 1972)
A Dialogue (with Nikki Giovanni) (1973)
Little Man Little Man: A Story of Childhood (with Yoran Cazac, 1976)
Native Sons (with Sol Stein, 2004)
Music/Spoken Word Recording:
A Lover's Question (CD, Les Disques Du Crépuscule – TWI 928-2, 1990)
List of civil rights leaders
Jump up ^ Public Broadcasting Service. "James Baldwin: About the author". American Masters. November 29, 2006.
Jump up ^ Jean-François Gounardoo, Joseph J. Rodgers (1992). The Racial Problem in the Works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Greenwood Press. p. 158, pp. 148–200
Jump up ^ Baldwin J, Notes of a native son.
Jump up ^ Bobby Allyn, "DeWitt Clinton’s remarkable alumni", City Room blog, New York Times, July 21, 2009.
Jump up ^ Staff. "Richard Avedon", The Daily Telegraph, October 2, 2004 (accessed Sep 14, 2009). "He also edited the school magazine at DeWitt Clinton High, on which the black American writer James' Baldwin was literary editor."
Jump up ^ Baldwin, James (1963). The Fire Next Time. Down at the Cross—Letter from a Region of My Mind: Vintage.
Jump up ^ James, Chireau Y. (2005). "Baldwin's God: Sex, Hope and Crisis in Black Holiness Culture". Church History 74 (4): 883–884.
Jump up ^ James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial Press, 1963 / Vintage Books, 1993), p 37.
^ Jump up to: a b "James Baldwin wrote about race and identity in America". voanews.com.
^ Jump up to: a b Kimberly Winston, "Blacks say atheists were unseen civil rights heroes", USA Today, February 23, 2012.
Jump up ^ Herb Boyd, Baldwin's Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin (New York: Atria Books, 2008), p 178.
^ Jump up to: a b c d Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985 (New York: St Martin's Press, 1985), "The price of the ticket", p ix.
Jump up ^ Field, Douglas (2009). A Historical Guide to James Baldwin. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 36. ISBN 978-0195366532.
Jump up ^ Bisexual Books , "Bisexual Books", June 30th 2014
Jump up ^ James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket. Dir. Karen Thorsen. American Masters, 1989. .
Jump up ^ James Baldwin, "The Discovery of What it Means to be an American," in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985 (New York:St. Martin's Marek, 1985), 171.
Jump up ^ James Baldwin, "Fifth Avenue, Uptown" in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985 (New York: St. Martin’s/Marek, 1985), 206.
Jump up ^ Zero: a review of literature and art, Issues 1–7. Arno Press, A New York Times Company. 1974. ISBN 0-405-01753-7.
Jump up ^ "James Baldwin" at the Wayback Machine (archived May 14, 2008), MSN Encarta. Archived 2009-10-31.
Jump up ^ Zaborowska, Magdalena (2008). James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile. Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-4144-1.
Jump up ^ Alain Roullier, "Le gardien des âmes", 1998
Jump up ^ Collectif James Baldwin
Jump up ^ Field, Douglas. Passing as a Cold War novel : anxiety and assimilation in James Baldwin's Giovanni's room. In: American Cold War culture / edited by Douglas Field. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
^ Jump up to: a b Lawrie Balfour (2001). The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-8698-2. page 51
Jump up ^ Miller, D. Quentin (2003). "James Baldwin". In Parini. American Writers Retrospective Supplement II. Scribner's. pp. 1–17. ISBN 0684312492.
Jump up ^ Paul Goodman (June 24, 1962). "Not Enough of a World to Grow In (review of Another Country)". The New York Times.
Jump up ^ Sheldon Binn (January 31, 1963). "Reivew of The Fire Next Time". The New York Times.
^ Jump up to: a b Palmer, Colin A.. "Baldwin, James." Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History. 2nd ed. 2005. Print.
Jump up ^ Page, Clarence. "James Baldwin: Bearing Witness To The Truth." Chicago News Tribune Dec 16, 1987, sec. Gospel: n. pag. Print.
Jump up ^ Altman, Elias (May 2, 2011). "Watered Whiskey: James Baldwin's Uncollected Writings". The Nation.
^ Jump up to: a b Palmer, Colin A.. "Baldwin, James." Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History. 2nd ed. 2005. Print.
Jump up ^ Cleaver, Eldridge, Notes On a Native Son, Ramparts, June 1966, pp. 51–57
Jump up ^ Carol Polsgrove, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement (2001), pp. 94–99, 155–156.
Jump up ^ David Leeming, James Baldwin: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt, 1994), 134.
Jump up ^ Carol Polsgrove, Divided Minds, p. 175.
Jump up ^ This meeting is discussed in Howard Simon's 1999 play, James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire.
Jump up ^ Carol Polsgrove, "Divided Minds," pp. 176–180.
Jump up ^ David Leeming, James Baldwin: A Biography
Jump up ^ "A Brando timeline". Chicago Sun-Times. July 3, 2004. Retrieved November 30, 2010.
Jump up ^ Anderson, Gary L., and Kathryn G. Herr. "Baldwin, James (1924–1987)." Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice. ed. 2007. Print.
Jump up ^ Carol Polsgrove, Divided Minds, p. 191, 195–198.
Jump up ^ Carol Polsgrove, Divided Minds, p. 236.
Jump up ^ "Lecture at UC Berkeley".
Jump up ^ "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" January 30, 1968 New York Post
^ Jump up to: a b Leeming, David A. (1994). James Baldwin: A Biography. Knopf. p. 442. ISBN 0-394-57708-6.
Jump up ^ Michelle M. Wright '"Alas, Poor Richard!": Transatlantic Baldwin, The Politics of Forgetting, and the Project of Modernity', James Baldwin Now, ed. Dwight A. McBride, New York University Press, 1999, page 208
Jump up ^ "Baldwin Reflections". New York Times.
Jump up ^ James Baldwin Debates William F. Buckley (1965) on YouTube
Jump up ^ Winston Wilde, Legacies of Love p.93
Jump up ^ Fisher, Diane. "Miss Hansberry and Bobby K". Village Voice. Retrieved 8/11/2012.
Jump up ^ Angelou, Maya (December 20, 1987). "A brother's love". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-08.
Jump up ^ Morrison, Toni (December 20, 1987). "Life in His Language". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-10-17.
Jump up ^ James Baldwin Biography, accessed December 2, 2010
Jump up ^ James Baldwin: His Voice Remembered, The New York Times, December 20, 1987
Jump up ^ Books & Writers, accessed December 2, 2010
Jump up ^ James Baldwin, the Writer, Dies in France at 63, The New York Times, December 1, 1987
Jump up ^ James Baldwin: Artist on Fire, by W.J. Weatherby (pp. 367–372)
Jump up ^ Out 14 (8), Here Publishing, Feb 2006, p. 32, ISSN 1062-7928, "Baldwin died of stomach cancer in St. Paul de Vence, France, on December 1, 1987."
Jump up ^ James Baldwin, Eloquent Writer In Behalf of Civil Rights, Is Dead, The New York Times, December 2, 1987
Jump up ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
Early Novels & Stories: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, Another Country, Going to Meet the Man (Toni Morrison, ed.) (Library of America, 1998) ISBN 978-1-883011-51-2.
Collected Essays: Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, No Name in the Street, The Devil Finds Work, Other Essays (Toni Morrison, ed.) (Library of America, 1998) ISBN 978-1-883011-52-9
James Baldwin early manuscripts and papers, 1941–1945 (2.7 linear feet) are housed at Yale University Beinecke Library
James Baldwin letters and manuscripts, ca. 1950–1986 (0.2 linear feet) are housed at the New York Public Library
Wikimedia Commons has media related to James Baldwin.
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: James Baldwin
Works by James Baldwin on Open Library at the Internet Archive
Works by or about James Baldwin in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
James Baldwin at the Internet Movie Database
Altman, Elias. "Watered Whiskey: James Baldwin's Uncollected Writings" April 13, 2011. The Nation.
Jordan Elgrably (Spring 1984). "James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78". Paris Review.
Gwin, Minrose. "Southernspaces.org" March 11, 2008. Southern Spaces
James Baldwin Photographs and Papers Selected manuscripts, correspondence, and photographic portraits from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University
Comprehensive Resource of James Baldwin Information at the Wayback Machine (archived April 20, 2008)
James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket distributed by California Newsreel
"An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis" by James Baldwin
Baldwin's American Masters page
James Baldwin at C-SPAN's American Writers: A Journey Through History
Baldwin in the Literary Encyclopedia
Audio files of speeches and interviews at UC Berkeley
See Baldwin's 1963 film Take This Hammer, made with Richard O. Moore, about Blacks in San Francisco in the late 1950s.
Video: Baldwin debate with William F. Buckley (via UC Berkeley Media Resources Center)
Discussion with Afro-American Studies Dept. at UC Berkeley on YouTube
Guardian Books "Author Page", with profile and links to further articles
The James Baldwin Collective in Paris, France
Transcript of interview with Dr. Kenneth Clark
James Baldwin at Find a Grave
[hide] v t e
Works by James Baldwin
Go Tell It on the Mountain Giovanni's Room Another Country Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone If Beale Street Could Talk Just Above My Head
The Amen Corner Blues for Mister Charlie
Short story collections
Going to Meet the Man "The Rockpile" "The Outing" "The Man Child" "Previous Condition" "Sonny's Blues" "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon" "Come Out the Wilderness" "Going to Meet the Man"
Notes of a Native Son The Fire Next Time No Name in the Street The Devil Finds Work The Evidence of Things Not Seen The Price of the Ticket
A Rap on Race
One day when I was lost
Little Man Little Man: A Story of Childhood