James Baldwin discusses his book "The Evidence of Things Not Seen"
BROADCAST: Nov. 22, 1985 | DURATION: 00:51:40
John Baldwin talks about his book "The Evidence of Things Not Seen" in which discusses the Wayne Williams Atlanta child murders of 1979-1981. This record is part of the Studs Terkel Almanac.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Rich Warren Welcome to the Studs Terkel Almanac. The almanac features the weekly best of the interviews, short stories, documentaries and music programs from Studs' daily Chicago broadcasts. Today Studs speaks with James Baldwin. Now, here's Studs.
Studs Terkel July 15th, 1961, 24 years ago and several months, first time I met James Baldwin. We had our conversation. Twenty-four years have passed, and the obvious question is, what has changed? There have been changes, of course: what has changed, certainly, as far as Black/white relationship in the United States, for that matter in the world. And James Baldwin's new book is called "The Evidence of Things Not Seen". It's a quote from Paul. It's published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston and it's his reflections on the Atlanta child-killing case several years ago. Wayne Williams, you'll recall, was convicted of it in Atlanta, and it's Jimmy Baldwin's reflections; in fact, that almost becomes a metaphor. And I thought as an experiment, Jimmy, you're here now after some 24 years we stand, we sit across the microphone looking at each other. We've seen each other a couple of times since, 'cause that first meeting was so indelible to me. And you had been in Europe, you had gone, left the country, you'd been to Switzerland, lived for a while. And as I recall the opening, there's a Bessie Smith recording, and your thoughts on hearing Bessie--so we'll hear the Bessie Smith, part of her "Downhearted Blues", and then your voice of 21 years ago at that moment on hearing it.
Bessie Smith [content removed, see
James Baldwin That winter in Switzerland, I was working on my first novel, which I thought I'd never be able to finish. And I finally realized in Europe that one of the reasons that I couldn't finish this novel was because I was ashamed of where I come from and where I'd been, and ashamed of the life in the church and ashamed of my father. Ashamed of the blues and ashamed of jazz and of course ashamed of watermelon, because it was, you know, all of these stereotypes that the country inflicts on Negroes. You know, that we all eat watermelon or we all do nothing but sing the blues and all that. Well, I was afraid of all that, and I ran from it. And when I say I was trying to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken when I was little, I realized that I had acquired so many affectations, I had told myself so many lies, that I really had buried myself beneath a whole fantastic image of myself which wasn't mine, but white people's image of me. And I realized I had not always talked--obviously I hadn't always talked--the way I had forced myself to learn how to talk, and I had to find out what I had been like in the beginning, in order just technically then, you know, to recreate Negro speech. I realize it was a cadence, it was a beat, much more than--it was not a question of dropping Ss or Ns or Gs, but a question of the beat, really, and Bessie had the beat, you know. And in that, this icy wilderness, you know, as far removed from Harlem as anything you can imagine, with Bessie Smith and me I
James Baldwin And white snow and white mountains and white faces, who really thought I was.
Studs Terkel And so now, 24 years later, you see today, you recall that--why not continue 24 years later now? So it was hearing Bessie Smith in white-snowed Switzerland.
James Baldwin Yes. All those alabaster people. It's very hard for me to be even articulate about--I didn't realize since I walked in this room that it has been 24 years. I have forgotten--I have not forgotten, exactly, you know, that--oh, how can I put it? It's a quarter of a century we're talking about. And I didn't know how to, I can't find a perspective on it, you were asking me before--
James Baldwin How much has changed.
Studs Terkel In that quarter of a century, Martin Luther King lived, was celebrated and died. Malcolm X lived, less celebrated, but celebrated, and died. The Civil Rights Act passed, changes, and yet. And so what has happened? As you see it. Now we come, of course, to the Atlanta case. You went down to observe and reflect on.
James Baldwin Listening to myself, listening to you, and listening to Bessie, what struck me about it, and I don't mean to be sardonic, it's one of the things that certainly changed is whatever it means, is language. After saying Negroes then, now we say Blacks. And that that has something to do with--I repeat I'm not trying to be sardonic, but listening to that word in my voice then, and I thought back to my father, who was from New Orleans, a son of a slave, and his word for us was Black, and which is not a term that Black people used then, we were Negroes or we were colored. It was a great deal of trouble doing, trying to find a word to describe oneself. Negro, colored, it was one moment we called "race people," whatever that meant. But that had something to do, you know, it would strike me with great forces, it had something to do with the tremendous problem, conundrum of trying to define oneself in a hostile territory. But not only hostile, it would be one thing if I were a stranger here. I'm not a stranger here, and yet I have, always had to redefine myself perpetually in order to overcome, to get beyond, to surpass the brutal definitions which until this hour my countrymen apply to Black people, Black people as we now call ourselves, and in that effort to discover, to define oneself. Somewhere in that is contained the American possibility and the American dilemma. You know. It is--every generation has had to redefine itself, and the redefinition has been dictated by the necessity to get beyond the brutal definitions which your country imposes on you, and that has not changed in a quarter of a century.
Studs Terkel So brings us to the case. You were sent down by a magazine, it was Playboy. [unintelligible] And you were sent down to see the case, and here you come to Atlanta, and eventually a young Black man, rather gifted and interesting one, is convicted. He was convicted of the slaying of two adults. We're talking of 28 dead people, 26 of whom were children, Black. And that has interested you.
James Baldwin Well, it struck me. You know, I got there after the case was closed or it was on appeal, but Wayne had already been arrested and--
James Baldwin Wayne Williams had been arrested and the case was closed. Well, the case was closed officially, but it was very clear to me that it wasn't closed in the minds and hearts of the people in the streets. You know, I was there after all as a reporter. And as a reporter, you know, you know better than I do, you talk to everyone who would talk to you. Taxi drivers, bartenders, maids, loose ladies, cops, everybody, you know. And it was their reaction which most disturbed me in a sense, you know, that some people really wanted to believe that Wayne Williams was guilty. And I began to realize that I, too, would have liked to believe it. It would have made it easier. But it was impossible to overlook the case. It's very difficult to--it's a very strange legal precedent. You arrest a man for murdering two grown people, and then connect him via a serial pattern to the murder of 26 or 28 children. You know. The evidence for the two murders was, you know, far more conclusive. And the evidence that he had murdered the children really had to be taken--well, it wasn't proven. It had to be taken on faith. When I had to--I had to make an effort. I went to several sites, for example. I went to seven or eight. I must tell you, you know, that that does something to your mind, too, you know, you begin to, I began to think I was about to go crazy. I was about to go mad. The death of anybody's--you know, that murder, murder is a horrible thing, but the murder of children is especially horrible. And to try to imagine what was going on in the mind of the child, try to imagine who in the world could possibly be going around, throwing children--strangling them in the middle, whatever, and then throwing them on the highway, throwing them in the river, throwing them on a bridge, leaving them alive, leaving them, leaving them as though they were garbage by the side of the road. That drove me a little mad, but it meant I had to really look at the case, and I could not--know there's no way. I do not believe the, I couldn't find the pattern that the D.A. talked about at all. I defy anywhere else to find that pattern. And I was not convinced by the overwhelming weight of fiber evidence, which has never been used in a murder case--
James Baldwin Yes.
James Baldwin Yeah, fibers found on the children, fibers found in the house, fibers found in the car. Well--
Studs Terkel Fiber that fits the carpet in this house.
James Baldwin Principally that, but there were all--so many tips, and I forget how many pieces of fiber evidence, you know, in the case. Well, if I were to [certify?] further evidence that can prove that you and I--I'm not even certain that you can prove this, but you can prove, perhaps, that you and I have been in the same environment at some point. You cannot prove we've been in the same environment together. You cannot got prove that I ever met you. And you certainly cannot prove I murdered you. Do you see what I mean? So it seemed to me that what was happening was not so much--was a murder case, indeed, but it was also--it put the Black community, let me put it to you this way, then. It put the Black community in a very peculiar position, because if the Black community agreed, then we were risking a very dangerous kind of collusion, it seemed to me, do you know. And it was very clear to me that the case itself had been opened and was closed by not the city of Atlanta, but by the state of Georgia. And this, I think, created an interesting and a kind of terrifying precedent, and all I wanted to do in the book is ask you, the reader, to look over the case with me. I'm not, after all, obliged, and neither are you, to prove the convicted innocent or guilty, but we do have the obligation to observe whether or not the state has proven him guilty.
Studs Terkel The case was merely--you covered the case, it was merely a catapult for your reflections as to the condition generally.
James Baldwin Yeah. Well, too, in a sense, you know, my reflections of what, indeed, has happened in the last 25 years. You mentioned Martin, you mentioned Malcolm, I think of Medgar, I think of all those kids boys and girls that were braving the armies and National Guardsmen and hoses and bombs, and the--they're co-citizens, in fact. You know. You mentioned Martin and Malcolm and JFK and his brother also went, and carried away by the climate of violence which we allowed in this country, which we allowed to overtake this country. It would seem that my co-citizens imagined the violence would only attack Black people. But as I was trying to say then and repeating it now, a plague is no respecter of delusions. And once that violence is unleashed in any society, nobody in this society is safe. This society is still struggling to--with the infantile question of whether or not a Black person is a human being. And there's a very, very, very dangerous distraction as we approach the end of the 20th century.
Studs Terkel But the case--we'll go back and forth. The case had a Black judge. You mentioned, oh before that, you said Atlanta didn't end the case, Georgia did. And yet you find Atlanta itself considered itself not quite Georgia.
James Baldwin I'm from Atlanta, not from Georgia. Yes, that's the--
James Baldwin It took me years to try to figure out exactly what that meant. After all, I went there for the first time in 1957. And I could see when I look back, I could see then, too. For example, in the '50s when I was, we were all there, you know, trying, testing the law, trying to get signs to come down, trying to desegregate the country. You and I, for example, you white, me Black. We would try to get arrested for sitting in front of the bus together. And the mayor of Atlanta would never, never arrest us. He did not want any of those cases to come into court. And if you remember very, very, there was a--
James Baldwin That was Hartsfield, yes. But there were very, very few test cases. Almost none. Only one [unintelligible] led by Martin. While all the rest of the South was, you know, the cities all over the South were either in ferment or blowing up. But Atlanta was relatively tranquil, partly because it already had enough trouble with being not only with Martin Luther King, Jr., but also with his father. And Ebenezer Baptist Church. And they had to, they did everything in their power to keep the lid on, but the governor of Georgia, on the other hand, wanted every single one of us on the chain gang. Do you see what I mean? It was that kind of tension between the city and the state which according to me is still there. That's why people mean, they say "I'm from Atlanta, I'm not from Georgia," but Atlanta belongs to Georgia.
Studs Terkel But here then, the case in Atlanta, and one of the ironies of the case is that the judge, Clarence Cooper, was Black, the mayor Maynard Jackson at the time, I believe.
Studs Terkel Pre-Andrew Young. You have an interesting portrait of Andrew Young, who also knew Wayne Williams as a kid.
Studs Terkel So we have interesting, crazy juxtapositions. Lee Brown, the police chief.
James Baldwin That's right. He was a very nice man.
Studs Terkel So we have a crazy irony here, don't
James Baldwin We do, we have a very crazy irony, a dangerous irony but it is, also it seems to me, you know, the--it seems to me the irony we are looking at is the Black American, Black/white American situation in some relief, because it is very true after all. No, it is--the older I get, the more I'm convinced that the most dangerous delusion this country has is that it's white. And when the chips are down, and especially in the South, no one can be certain, no one can prove he's white, nobody would dare to try to prove it. And I know that my ancestors are both Black and white, and so does everybody else know that, and in the Deep South, where race became a kind of power, absolute paranoia, do you know, the question of who murdered the children were going to be a terrifying question for everyone in the community because nobody, I have relatives after all, you know, who are as pale as you. And my grandmother, who was a slave, had 14 children, and some of them came out of her womb looking like you, and some of them came out of her womb looking like me.
Studs Terkel As you put it, we were more than kissing cousins.
James Baldwin Yeah, much more than kissing cousins, and everybody knows it. The dilemma, the horror is that everyone denies it. Not everyone denies it, but the country denies it. And that had led us to a very strange place. And that meant that the case of the murdered children in Atlanta, really, whether or not one wished to believe it, implicated everybody.
Studs Terkel And so you speak of the paranoid color wheel. The paranoid color wheel, as something that goes round and round.
Studs Terkel And you have the mother of one of the child victims, Camille Bell, who becomes a member of the defense.
James Baldwin She turned herself into a one-woman defense committee for the parents of the accused. And last week I had to go through Atlanta very, very--I had to [unintelligible], actually, because the lawyers, Bill Kunstler and--well, when Lynn Whatley was the lawyer I was working with when I was down there, Black lawyer, has been joined by William Kunstler and Kunstler's two associates, whose names I don't remember, to reopen the case. I did not really, you know, exactly want to be in Atlanta, but I had to be there because of the book, really. And what struck me was--my brother came with me, and he said--I was very tense, and you know, it was, the whole, [writing? working on?] that book was very painful for me. Anyway, there were, nine of the mothers were there, along with Homer Williams, and David said, "Now, looking at things, look," he said, "If they believed for a moment that Homer Williams was the father, is the father of the murderer of their children, they would not be here." And they've been working together ever since the case was closed to try to get it open. Do you see what I mean? So that I say was confronted, I'm saying I was confronted with two verdicts: one, the official verdict and the other one in the streets summed up by the Camille Bell of it in fact. You know. And that was very troublesome.
Studs Terkel So you find the Black people of Atlanta not really believing that--they hear he was convicted of the murder of the two drifters. But as far as the 26 children are concerned--
James Baldwin The kids, the people don't believe that.
Studs Terkel They don't believe that.
James Baldwin No. They don't believe that. They never did believe it, and they never will. Which is why the case, which is why according to me, I didn't write the book just to do what I asked, what I said, but to make you look at it with me.
James Baldwin It's why the case should be reopened, because the parents of the children, who after all--
Studs Terkel "Faith is the substance of things hoped for. The evidence of things not seen." St. Paul. You use that as an epigraph in the book, that's the title of the book. That's what you're talking about, evidence not--of things not seen.
James Baldwin It's a rather chilling epigraph of--'cause what I'm trying to suggest to my reader, and therefore absolutely after all to my country, I say this is the substance of things hoped for and I'm using it in rather an ironical way because part of the American faith has been in my inferiority. And somewhere years and years and years ago, I said to the South and the nation, I've been successful in one thing at least, which is they managed to create, I said, in every generation only that Negro they wanted to see. That is the substance of things hoped for. And the evidence of things not seen is the resistance precisely on the part of--I, as a Black cat, my resistance historically and actually. My absolutely necessary resistance against your definition. I am not what you say I am. My father was not what the American republic said he was. There is no way for a Black American to accept these definitions without in fact becoming the substance of things hoped for.
Studs Terkel And so just as 24 years ago, you wrote the series of essays "Nobody Knows My Name", it's still the case, nobody knows--or maybe a few know your name, but not very many.
James Baldwin Not very many, no.
Studs Terkel We come back to that again, don't we?
James Baldwin Yeah, and you see, the problem is what breaks my heart, in fact, is that people until this hour are talking about America as though we're talk--as though it has a Black problem. The Negro problem, the Black problem, but it would be interesting, it would be salutary if only for a week one simply changed the vocabulary and talked about a white problem. 'Cause I don't have a problem. I don't have--as a Black person I don't have a problem dealing with white people, I don't have a problem--I have the problems everyone has getting through, you know, a single day, but I don't wake up in the morning, go to bed at night, you know, thinking about Black people. But I have a huge role in the American imagination.
Studs Terkel As you say that, I'm looking, it's funny. Just as you said that, I came across page 81, Jim Baldwin's book "The Evidence of Things Not Seen": "Neither the Europeans nor the Americans are able to recognize that they mercilessly enslaved each other before they attempted a passage to India or hoisted sail for Africa, and all that has united Europe as Europe, or Europe and America until today is not the color white, but what they perceive as the color black. They do not care about each other at all. Never have, and it's inconceivable they ever will. The English treat the Irish and the Scottish, for example, like dogs, and they treat each other the same way. To open your mouth in England is hazardous, not you'll be arrested for opening your mouth, but your accent reveals your origins and thus we come to class and accent and therefore your human value."
James Baldwin Well, it's true isn't it?
Studs Terkel This is what you're talking about.
James Baldwin I'm talking about that. I wish--you know, I mean, well, I'm getting, I'm older now than I was, and a lot of things have changed. People change in many--people change into strange ways. The changes don't ever result in the changes you thought. And I suppose what I'm trying to confront now, you know, in the last, as I'm approaching the last act of my life, I suppose. Is that, for example, when Martin was murdered. I like many other people underwent a kind of devastation. I couldn't--took me a while to begin to write again. I didn't know, I didn't see what purpose it served. On the other hand Martin [unintelligible], Martin hadn't stopped, so I couldn't. But I didn't know how to start again. Well, I was forced to realize that what had happened had happened. And I was different in any case. I was not different the way I thought I would be different, but I was different. I was different because I had had to undergo it, and then I began to realize that that was true for everyone who underwent that, white or Black, because the terms you see, the older I get the more exasperating these terms become, because they don't mean anything. It doesn't mean anything to be white. It doesn't mean anything to be Black. It means something to try to become a human being. It means something you try to create a country, to create a society in which people can live, white and Black, 'cause if can't live in this society, neither can you. You know. What is happening to my children is also happening to yours. You know. And your children and my children are equally sacred. It is a crime not to know that. That is what, you know, that this kind of rough folk wisdom has finally come true in a way. It is not going to happen the way you thought it would. It is not going to happen in your lifetime that way. What has happened, what has happened in the intervening time is that what is, we thought of, perceived then as simply a domestic problem, you know, which could be resolved within the continental limits of the United States is now a global problem. Do you see what I mean? And we are watching in Johannesburg, South Africa for example, the culmination, the bloody culmination of the idea of white supremacy and the peculiar Western notion that in order to civilize a man you make him a slave. Do you know? The reality finally escapes one's definitions. One is, when one has got to deal with that, and perhaps the whole point of the struggle is to force yourself to be enabled again and again and again to confront the necessity with every human being, to change, to move. To understand that you can hold on to nothing. And the past is only useful insofar as you can tell the truth about it and you can use it.
Studs Terkel As you're talking, I was thinking of something else I found here. This is a question of images, how one image connects to another, and somehow there may be a link here, seeming as, some of these kids' bodies were found in the river, were there not? And then quoting James Baldwin's book "Evidence of Things Not Seen": "Some years ago after the disappearance of civil rights workers Chaney Goodman and Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi, some friends of mine were dragging the river for their bodies before they were found in the dug graves. This one wasn't Schwerner. This one wasn't Goodman. This one wasn't Chaney. Then as Dave Dennis tells it, it suddenly struck us: 'What difference did it make if it wasn't them? What are these bodies doing in the river?'" And so while looking for the three civil rights workers, they found bodies of other Blacks in the river.
James Baldwin What are these bodies doing
Studs Terkel So that raises the whole question that's beyond--
Studs Terkel The Atlanta case.
James Baldwin Much beyond the Atlanta case. The Atlanta case is simply a symptom of something, you know, and I want to make--after all, what am I trying to do? I'm trying to bear witness to a country which I believe in, you know, a country which has got to be brought into being somehow, which will be brought into being in any case. With our consent or without it. But unless we can ask those questions, we're in great trouble. What are those bodies doing in the river? And that question applies to everybody. It is everyone's responsibility.
Studs Terkel And so the great many Black people of Atlanta don't believe that Wayne Williams--
James Baldwin No.
Studs Terkel Though convicted of the two drifters did the kids in, because there's a whole history here. And yet some would say, as far as we know the killings of the children has stopped. Suppose some--if that question is asked you, what's your reply?
James Baldwin In the first place, nobody can prove it.
Studs Terkel Nobody proved it.
James Baldwin And you can't--if you say that, then you have to say that runaway children have stopped. You know. It is not a conceivable answer. It is not a conceivable answer. There is no guarantee that the murders have stopped, then if there are murders going on, with Wayne is still in prison. A lot to] be worried, I was told that he might be accused of some of those. And again, I'm taking my, speaking with the authority of the people of Atlanta, the people who talked to me.
Studs Terkel I was thinking, let's just keep this free as we're doing it, free 'cause I realize free association is so much a part of your book. We'll come to that. Wayne Williams himself. You found a fascinating--Wayne Williams. He was someone obviously gifted, was he not?
James Baldwin Was a gifted little--gifted adolescent, and that's how Andrew Young met him, when he and his friends were running an illegal radio station out of Wayne's basement. He was precocious, he was--I mean, according to the legend, precocious, to some people obnoxious, that I can see the 15-year-old kid could be obnoxious. We all are, 15, when we're obnoxious. But of course I was watching him the way you were watching, we were watching him on the witness stand, which as I indicate in the book, when you're watching someone in the witness stand, you're watching a whole series of other reflexes. And you [went in the person?]. Especially if he was accused of being a mass murderer.
Studs Terkel And you, somehow you had there that you don't believe he did it because there was a certain arrogance there, you use the word "indolent," that a certain, that he was beyond doing something like that.
James Baldwin No, it would be beneath him.
James Baldwin It would be beneath him, you know, he would never think of that. He isn't, you, he doesn't seem to me to have that kind of single-minded--whatever it is, then you're lost, what does it take to make a man murder children? Well, I'm convinced that he didn't do that. It's not his--it is, I think he would consider it beneath him, and I think he's right. You know, and he was a spoiled kid. I mean, his parents admit that. And everybody I--who had dealings with him says that. But a spoiled brat is just a spoiled brat, it isn't, he's not, it doesn't mean he's a pathological murderer. The amount of energy and planning, and the amount of convolutions one would have to go through to accomplish the crime of which he is accused, seemed to me to be quite beyond him.
Studs Terkel "The boy seemed to be possessed," quoting Baldwin, "By a blind invalid arrogance and every human being as his eyes flicked over or flinched"--again at the beginning--"Immediately as malleable as his mother and his father. This is the reason, as I have said, I really do not believe him guilty, he is far, far too indolent. I do not believe that for him other people are sufficiently real to elicit anything so dangerous as passion. Passion may be the province of nightmares, but it's far from the land of dreams. Wayne Williams struck me as a spoiled, lost, and vindictive child sheltered somehow from the storm of puberty for whom others exist only as a means of proving his power to manipulate." So "manipulate" is something different from--
James Baldwin Murder.
James Baldwin It's a curious kind of thing. It's a curious kind of scapegoat, and what in interests me of course, is that--what terrifies me is he's the--oh, our situation in this strange place in this strange land. I suppose at bottom that I was most worried about was--I don't want the Black people of this country or the non-white people of this country to become collaborators in their own destruction. You know what I mean? It is a matter--you see, it's always been here insofar--one has to put it very brutally, insofar as a Black man, particularly a Black man, insists on being that, he endangers the attitudes and the legends of our country. A free nigger is still at the very bottom of the popular mind. A bad nigger. I hate to say that, but it's still true. And the nature of the trap is that one does everything in one's power, I have done everything in my power. So did my father, so did my brothers. So does my nephew. Everything to--as it were, pass unnoticed and not to be penalized for the color of your skin or the history written in the color of your skin according to other people. And there has been no way until this hour in this generality for the general American conscience or consciousness to accept their former slave as a human being. And one that tries all kinds of strategies, there was Malcolm on the one hand, there was Martin on the other. Both of them were men, they were both driven. I watched them both being driven by the pressures under which they operated closer and closer together. Do you know? I don't mean that Martin became a racist or that Malcolm became a Christian person, but they both. Malcolm, in fact, ceased being a racist. Which is when he became dangerous. You know. And Malcolm and Martin had to unite, had to shake hands, had to understand they were in the same situation, responsible for the same people, and in front of the same juggernaut. Do you see what I mean? And it was part of an ability of both of those people that they understood that, but they were both dead before they were 40.
Studs Terkel And the aspect we haven't discussed of the case throughout [unintelligible] of your book is the Black mother's fear, especially for the male--
James Baldwin For the male child. Yeah.
Studs Terkel Just--let me just set this here--woman I met, Lucille Dickerson here in Chicago years ago I met her, and she was describing her fears when her son went to join the march, Montgomery to Selma, and her fears, and she held up an apron, the apron she held, to hold in front of him as though it was her apron, but shielding him with the apron, and to behave, and so throughout this book of course we have, whenever a child is late, during this time and place, this overwhelming fear of, especially of the male, for the male.
James Baldwin The woman, Black women have, Black women are, no one has ever written that story yet, really, it's beginning to come out, finally, but Black women responsible after all for the father, their father, they watch him, their lover, they watch him, and their son, they watch him. And all three are endangered by their countrymen the moment they try to become men. Now this says, obviously, Studs, this says something enormous about the trouble we are in, and despair is useless and, you know, even criminal. It is a problem, and the problem is, it could be resolved if one changed the focus, and if one really did--look. This country's never been a white country. Never will be, never can be. I been here for more than 400 years, so this country's not white. I know much more about, in the generality I know much more about white Americans than they know about me. There's a reason for that. You know.
Studs Terkel Just as you say women know more about men than men know about women.
James Baldwin Yes, that's right. There's a reason for that. You know. We--if one could--dealing with a world in which we live. The world is not white, either. And what terrifies me in a way is when I watch--I listen to my countrymen. And I realize that when they look around the world, what they don't see when they look at South America, for example, or Africa, what they don't see--all Europe. Well, they don't see--what they look around the world is what they don't see when they look at me. It's cost--I have cost them their willful blindness, has endangered their sense of reality. And this is the most terrifying thing of all, is no longer a Negro problem, there never was, in fact, but it is beginning to be, is said to be a white problem that's specifically in this country, with the dreadful, dreadful, dreadful orchestration coming from South Africa. Whereas the situation in South Africa implicates the entire Western world morally and economically and it engages the great question of the future of this world.
Studs Terkel Do you realize you and I are talking, certainly you are talking now, as though this were 24 years ago? As though this were 24 years ago. Now, there have been advances.
James Baldwin There have been changes, there have been details, but from the point of view, not necessarily my point of view, but from the point of view of the boy, the girl in the streets. What are they looking at after all? Let us say there have been even better changes since than they have been. I can't tell a 17-year-old boy or girl or a 25-year-old boy or girl what it was like to be 25 when I was 25, it doesn't mean anything to them. You know, what they're facing is what they are facing now. You know?
Studs Terkel So now we're talking, aren't we, about a gap that's occurred here. There are some who are part of a small though increasing Black middle class, some of whom have made it, but you're talking about the great many who may find themselves in a tougher situation than it was 25 years
James Baldwin Yes, that's exactly--
Studs Terkel Because of the impression--
Studs Terkel That advances were made for them.
James Baldwin Exactly. Exactly. Which increases the bitterness and the loss. The suicide rate is mounting, and the enrollment rate is dropping. Well, they don't--they hardly trust me. You know. They don't find anyone else to trust among their presumably elected representatives.
Studs Terkel Well, here is someone on a street corner. He's Black and he's 17 and no job at all in store for him. By the way, we do know that whenever there are jobs, I notice this often in this very building, it says 50 jobs, there are about 500 kids out there, most Black and Hispanic and some poor white. So there is a wanting, you see, but there are no jobs, so therefore, but there is energy here, there's animal energy. Now where is that energy going to go? If it can't go social, it has to go anti-social.
James Baldwin Exactly. It goes inward. It destroys a person. Finally destroys the boy. You know. Who is really, to put it very brutally, as far as he's concerned, what is he facing? They told me what they're facing. I'm not making it up, I wish I'd--they're facing what? They're facing the army, the needle, or the gun.
Studs Terkel So we're talking about reflections, aren't we, reflections on your covering a certain case in Atlanta, you're covering the Wayne Williams case in Atlanta, Georgia. And from that, you go on to other matters that are not peripheral at all.
James Baldwin No, no, no, not at all. We are concerned, after all, we are concerned with the health of the community. And it is not simply the Black community, because the situation with the Black community reveals tremendous--reveals everything we need to know about the white community. We are, whether or not we like it, connected and what happens to me is really also happening to you.
Studs Terkel We know this in the case of drugs, for example, when it first came into light, drugs and the young, we thought, "Oh, Black kids and drugs," We know now it's hit, oh, some time ago as it hit the white suburbs.
James Baldwin Oh, yes, oh yes. It hit the white suburbs a quarter of a century ago. It was dumped into the ghetto but it didn't stay in the ghetto, you know. It's like supposing that cholera will remain in Harlem. The plague spreads, and now it's spread throughout the entire--really spread throughout the entire Western world. But something else has changed, too. Outside this country. When I went to England, for example, [something?] '48, 1949, it could consider itself a white country, and there was, they still had an empire, and the sun never set on it, they said. And the sun can't find it now. But more important than that, the people, for example, who caused the riot in Brussels coming out of Liverpool, if you think back on it, 50 years ago, those people would have been in the colonies civilizing me, and what has happened in the intervening time is not only don't they have any place to go, they can't be shipped out to the colonies anymore. The ended the colonies ships that, that they were going to be shipped out to, the colony was shipping them back home, and they can't leave London or Liverpool. And on top of that, I also have left the colony in England, and I'm on the mainland. And it is true of every col--every ex-colonial power. Amsterdam is now a much darker city than it was 25 years ago. And it's happening all over the Western world, it's happening all over the world. And there is absolutely no way for us who are the leaders of the Western world, the most crucial country in the West, to possibly ignore or deny or turn back. It's reality.
Studs Terkel One question you ask is, "What is a nation? What is a nation?"
James Baldwin Well, I don't know what it is anymore. I thought I did once. A nation--well, I think the whole idea of nations is undergoing some tremendous changes I'm not equipped to talk about. You know, no one is equipped, really, to judge that future. Which again, horrifyingly enough, you know, suggested by what is going on in South Africa, because obviously that nation as a white nation has no future. You know. What comes now nobody can, dares imagine. But what is--we have reached a culmination point, we have reached a point of no return. You know, and that means whether I like it or not that my identity is being changed, or other is being changed. A day may come, I was thinking to myself one day, you know, a day may come when I will look back with longing on the English, on the English system and look back with longing on the American realities which are so menacing today. Even that may come, but in any case, as of this moment, as of this moment, we cannot go back to 1900, we are near the year 2000, and we have to deal with that, and this is true whether or not I say so, whether or not you
Studs Terkel You know, a question. These are called comic questions, they come often, they says, "The Blacks. The trouble they're causing," and then Nelson Algren, before I ask the question, "What would the United States be like if there were no Blacks? What would this country be like?"
James Baldwin What would they eat, what sort of music would they listen to? Yes, I know. How would they move?
Studs Terkel How would they move? Who built the roads and the ditches? There's one old guy, Spencer on the train to Washington, [unintelligible], "Millions of us did it for nothing for 400 years, and then for them a little after that." And then what about this music called jazz, the original American art form? Its one original art form, would there have been that, and then you start thinking.
Studs Terkel What would there be? What kind of country would this have been?
James Baldwin Oh, you're talking about a country built on the backs of slaves. But more importantly than that, the--how can I put this? The maligned personality of Black people is the key to the American personality. And nobody wants to see that. But it is absolutely true. Americans are as unlike Englishmen or Scots or, they're as unlike Europeans as it's possible to be, and that's because of the Black presence here.
Studs Terkel Do you know something, there are several comments you make here that obviously are very--to put it mildly, piquant. Certainly provocative. That the Black it's not so much integration the Black person wants, it's desegregation. But it's not integration. Why don't you expand on that
James Baldwin What I said, what I try to say in the book--I tell a story which is, which people think they're white find it difficult to understand, but I do remember, I quote it from the book. A Black lady in Alabama, standing on her porch looking at me with her arms folded, and she said, "White people don't hate Black people. If they did, we'd all be Black." That's a very, very, that's a kind of, [bottom?] funny, a very shocking statement, but it's absolutely true. You know. No Black person in his right mind was asking integration. You know. I have uncles who look like you. We've been integrated since we got here, you know. After the sun goes down. We wanted to be free. It was desegregation. It was--no longer under the necessity of telling my 3-year-old son why he can't use that restroom. Or why he can't play in that park. Or go to this school. Or do whatever. You know. To raise my children to be free. To be whatever they--to become whatever they could become, without the tremendously, the castrating definitions of the American Republic. We were after that, and we are still after that, and what people do not see is it--the Black freedom in this country is the only hope of white freedom. I am your only hope of freedom.
Studs Terkel You know, it's so often Virginia Durr, a Southern white woman, one of the early ones they called premature integrationist, was saying, whenever a Southern white is in trouble and grieving very much for a loss, the first person he, very often she, runs to is the Black person.
James Baldwin That's right. We have the testimony from Faulkner, we have a testimony from Carson McCullers, from countless others. And "A Member of the Wedding" is about that.
Studs Terkel "Member of the Wedding", of course. Little Frankie and there was Bernice.
Studs Terkel And there is-- Who
James Baldwin Who held up her universe.
Studs Terkel Now this part is the most provocative. This is Baldwin, in "The Evidence of Things Not Seen": "Up until and during that betrayed and co-opted insurrection that American folklorists trivialized into the civil rights movement, the porter and the banker and the dentist all knew they needed each other." And you speak of, you're implying the civil, the condition, the problem, the dilemma was trivialized into the Civil Rights--would you mind explaining that?
James Baldwin Malcolm X asked a very important question during a time of a sit-in student, a radio program that I moderated, and he asked a kid a very important question, he said, "Why are you fighting for your civil rights? If you're a citizen, you have your civil rights." That question that had been answered in my own mind as the struggle wore on, it seemed to me it was not so much--it was not a cause of the civil rights--civil rights were what we were after, but it was being, this demand was being brought about here about not from the top, but from the bottom. It was, it was a Black impulse to freedom. And in that sense, it was more accurately described as I put it to myself later, you know, a slave insurrection. It was an attempt to be--to define oneself outside the crippling boundaries of the Republic's definitions. Above all for one's children. It was that. And that is how we began after all, and it is by no means accidental it was led by preachers, the preachers I say in the book again was our first witness. He was the one who told us that we were all equal in the sight of God, when our masters were assuring us that we were--that God had made us, but not in His image. He was the one who told us that freedom was possible. Freedom was real. Freedom was our responsibility, that we had at whatever price to set ourselves and our children free. And that is still so. And it is still the aspiration of Black people which most terrifies the Republic. The great question is "Why?" Because if that is so, and we know that it is so, that means that countless numbers of white people are living here in chains, that is what it means.
Studs Terkel So the overdog, or the one who thinks he's an overdog is pretty much, he's in worse shape than the underdog.
James Baldwin He is a slave to his illusions. He is a slave to his idea of safety, you know, and never can grow up, and that is terrifying.
Studs Terkel And so we end this conversation as we began. The book is James Baldwin, "The Evidence of Things Not Seen", published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. It is ostensibly, and it is about Wayne Williams and the child murder case in Atlanta that apparently an attempt being to reopen the case. But it's become a catapult, a diving board for James Baldwin to take off and reflect on the condition itself, and at the very beginning you said you carried the stereotype with you, sense of shame, all those things when you left this country way back in Switzerland, working on the book "Another Country". So you've changed, but your question is unfortunately the country has not changed quite in that same way.
James Baldwin Not that same way, no. Not in that same way. On the other hand, I tell you, my friend, when I was younger I was much more impatient than I am now. I'm not reconciled now. But I do see--you see change is inevitable, it's going to happen anyway. You know. There's nothing anyone can do about it. One finds oneself in the paradoxical position of battling for the freedom of white people, you know. White people are clinging to myths, which they know. You're not--I'm not real. They know the [unintelligible] is not true. They know it. They know that what they watch on television has a very, very faint relation to reality. They know that. And they are afraid to deal with what every Black person's got to deal with 24 hours of every day. And that's reality.
James Baldwin It's all, reality is all that can change it.
Studs Terkel So how free is the white from a not-so-grand illusion. From an illusion, obviously. Which is of course a form of slavery.
Studs Terkel And, so, that's what we're talking about, and perhaps we should just hear Bessie Smith, who was about the freest of singers, just as you heard her then, she helped free you. Bessie Smith, and we'll, to use a phrase you used 24 years ago, we'll pray for rain.
James Baldwin Yes, indeed. Let's pray for rain.
Studs Terkel Thank you very much.
James Baldwin Thank
Studs Terkel James
Bessie Smith [content removed, see catalog record]
Rich Warren Next week on the Studs Terkel Almanac, Studs will have as his guest Barry Lopez, author of "Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape". The Almanac is a weekly program produced by WFMT Chicago, featuring the best of Studs' daily interviews, short story readings, documentaries, music programs, and whatever Studs feels will be of interest to his listeners. Now this is Rich Warren hoping you've enjoyed today's program and that you'll join us again next week for the Studs Terkel Almanac. The Almanac is coming to you on the WFMT Fine Arts Network.