James Baldwin discusses his book," Nobody knows my name: more notes of a native son"
BROADCAST: Jul. 15, 1961 | DURATION: 00:51:13
Interviewing novelist and fighter for civil rights for all, James Baldwin and discussion on the book "Nobody Knows My Name more notes of a native son". They discuss the book and Mr. Baldwin's political beliefs and his work towards change in the civil rights movement.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Bessie Smith, of course, the Empress of the Blues, singing of a disaster, of a flood. Sitting with me, hearing Bessie Smith on this recording, is James Baldwin, brilliant young American writer. But, perhaps a more specific description of Mr. Baldwin, since he is one of the rare men in the world who seems to know who he is today. James Baldwin, a brilliant young Negro American writer. And as you listen to this, Jim, to this record of Bessie Smith, what's your feeling?
James Baldwin It's very hard to describe that feeling. It's a--the first time I ever heard this record was in Europe under very different circumstances than I'd ever listened to Bessie in New York. And what struck me was the fact that she was singing, as you say, about a disaster which had almost killed her and she'd accepted it and was going beyond it. It's a fantastic kind of understatement in it. It's a way I want to write, you know. When she says "my house fell down and I can't live there no mo'", it's a great, it's a great sentence. It's a great, it's a great achievement.
Studs Terkel "The way you want to write," you say.
James Baldwin Yeah.
Studs Terkel I'm looking now at page 5 of your new book and it's a remarkable one: "Nobody Knows My Name". It's a series of essays, articles, opinions of James Baldwin, "More Notes of a Native Son", the subtitle, and on page 5--the reason I've chosen the Bessie Smith record, of course, on page 5 you write of your being in Europe, you're in Switzerland--
James Baldwin Yes.
Studs Terkel And you said you "came armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter and I began to try to recreate the life that I had first known as a child from which I had spent so many years in flight. And it was Bessie Smith who through her tone and her cadence helped me dig back to the way I myself must have spoke when I was little. And I remembered the things I had heard and seen and felt. I buried them deep I hadn't"--here's the part--"I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America, in the same way for years I never touched watermelon. But in Europe she helped me reconcile myself."
James Baldwin Yes. Well, how can I put that? 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'd 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. That, 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 of that and I ran from it. And when I say I was trying to dig back to the way I myself must've 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. And in order, just technically then, you know, to recreate Negro speech, I realized 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 began--
James Baldwin And white snow, and white mountains, and white faces who really thought I was, I had been sent by the devil. It was a very strange--they had never seen a Negro before. And in this kind of isolation, it's very hard to describe, I managed to finish the book. And I played Bessie every day and, really, literally this sounds--this may sound strange--a lot of the book is in dialogue, you know, and I corrected things according to the, according to what I was able to hear when Bessie sang and when James P. Johnson plays. It's that tone and that sound, you know, jazz, which is in me.
Studs Terkel This is in a forthcoming novel?
James Baldwin This is in a forthcoming novel. Yes, yes.
Studs Terkel The point you made a moment ago, the point you were speaking of, the sense of shame. And did you sense this, the sense of shame of a heritage that is so rich, in accepting the white man's stereotype of yourself?
James Baldwin It--I'm afraid it's one of the great dilemmas and one of the great psychological hazards of being an American Negro. And, in fact, it's much more than that--I've seen a great many people go under. And everyone, every Negro in America is, you know, in some way, one way or another, menaced by it. One's born in a white country, in a white, Protestant, Puritan country, where one was once a slave, and where all the standards and all the images that you open your, when you open your eyes in the world, everything you see, none of it applies to you. You go to white movies and, you know, and like everybody else you fall in love with Joan Crawford, or, and you root for the good guys who are killing off the Indians, and it comes as a great psychological collision when you begin to realize that all of these things are really metaphors for your oppression and will lead into a kind of psychological warfare in which you may perish. I was born in a church, for example, and my father was a very rigid and righteous man. But, of course, we were in Harlem, we lived in a, you know, terrible house, and downstairs from us there were, you know, all these what my father called Good Time people--there was a prostitute and all of her paramours and 'all that jazz.' I remember I loved this woman, you know, she was very nice to us. But we weren't allowed to go to our house and if we went there we were beaten for it. And when I was older, that whole odor of gin, you know, homemade gin really, and pigs feet, and chitterlings, and poverty, and debasement, all this got [terribly?] mixed up together in my mind with the whole Holy Roller, white [god? garb?] business. And I really began to go a little out of my mind because it--I obviously wasn't white. There wasn't even a question so much of wanting to be white. But I didn't quite know anymore what being Black meant. I couldn't accept what I'd been told and all you're ever told in this country about being Black is that it's a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now, in order to survive this, you have to really dig down into yourself and re-create yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America, you know. You have to impose--in fact, this may sound very strange--you have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you and not this idea of
Studs Terkel you. You have to decide who you are, whether you are Black or white, who you are.
James Baldwin Who you are. And then it doesn't--and then I must say, at this point, that that pressure, the question of being Black or white, is robbed of its power. I mean, you can still, of course, be beaten up on the South Side by anybody, you know. I mean, the social menace does not lessen. But in some way it is the world now which, perhaps, can destroy you physically, but the danger of your destroying yourself, it does not vanish but is minimized.
Studs Terkel The name of the book, if we may, this is directly connected, "Nobody Knows my Name". For years, you, when I see a pic of you, [somehow?] known as James, never known as James Baldwin. [Holm?] James, sometimes called George, in the old days Sam, or sometimes Boy.
James Baldwin Boy. Sometimes. Yeah.
Studs Terkel "Nobody Knows my Name". Why did you choose that title?
James Baldwin Well, at the risk of sounding pontifical, it's at once, I suppose, it's a fairly bitter title, but it's also meant as a kind of warning to my country, when in the days when people--well, in the days when people call me boy--those days haven't passed, except that I didn't answer then and I don't answer now. To be a Negro in this country is really just--[as?] Ralph Ellison has said it very well--really, never to be looked at. And what white people see when they look at you is not you--
Studs Terkel Invisible.
James Baldwin You're invisible. What they do see when they look at you is what they have invested you with. And what they have invested you with is all the agony, and the pain, and the danger, and the passion, and the torment, you know, and sin, and death, and hell, of which everyone in this country is terrified. You represent a level of experience which Americans deny. And I think this may sound mystical, but I think it's very easily proven, you know. It's proven in great relief in the South when you consider the extraordinary price, the absolutely prohibitive price the South has paid to keep the Negro in his place and they've not succeeded in doing that, but has succeeded in having what is almost certainly the most bewildered, demoralized, white population, you know, in the Western world. [In? On? At?] another level you can see, in the life of the country, not only in the South, what a terrible price the country has paid for this effort to keep a distance between themselves and Black people. It was, in the same way, for example, that it is very difficult, it is hazardous--psychologically, personally hazardous--for a Negro in this country really to hate white people because he is too involved with them, not only socially but historically, and no matter who says what, you know, in fact Negroes and whites in this country are related to each other. You know, half of the Black families in the South are related to, you know, the judges and the lawyers and the white families of the South--they're cousins, and kissing cousins at that, at least kissing cousins. Now, this is a terrible, terrible depth of involvement. It's easy for an African, you know, to hate the invader and drive him out of Africa, but it is very difficult for an American Negro to do this, who obviously cannot do this with white people, there's no place to drive them. This is [a? the?] country which belongs equally to us both and one has got to learn to live together here or else there won't be any country.
Studs Terkel This matter of living together or this ambivalent attitude that the South has toward the Negro, and the ambivalence, perhaps, is most eloquently, and perhaps tragically, expressed in the life, the sayings of William Faulkner, the brilliant American novelist, who writes a remarkable story, "Dry September", in which he seems to analyze the malaise. At the same time he himself makes comments that are shocking. You have a chapter in your book dealing with Faulkner and desegregation, and is it this ambivalence to that, that--
James Baldwin It's this love/hatred, love/hatred--the, I'd hate to think of what the spirit of state of the South would be if all the Negroes moved out of it. The white people there don't want them, you know, want to keep them there, want them in their place but they'd be terrified if they left. I really think the bottom of their world would have fallen out. In the case of Faulkner, you know, in "Dry September", or "Light in August", or even in "The Sound and the Fury", he can really get at, you know, as you said, as you put it, to the bone, he can get at the truth of what the Black-white relation is in the South and how, what a dark force it is in the Southern personality. But at the same time, Faulkner as a citizen, as a man, as a citizen of Mississippi, is committed to what Mississippians take to be their past. And it's one thing for Faulkner to deal with the Negro in his imagination where he can control him and quite another one to deal with him in life where he can't control him. And in life, obviously, the Negro, the uncontrollable Negro, simply is determined to overthrow everything in which Faulkner imagines himself to believe. It's one thing to demand justice in literature and another thing to face a price that one's got to pay for it in life. And I think another thing about the Southerners, and I think that it's also true of the nation, is that no matter how they deny it or what type of rationalizations they cover it up with they know the crimes they've committed against Black people and they are terrified that these crimes will be committed against them.
Studs Terkel The element of guilt, then, is here,
Studs Terkel There's a point you make, and very beautifully, somewhere in the book, in "Nobody Knows My Name", I forget which one of the essays involved--in the South, the white man is continuously bringing up the matter of the Negro; in the North, never.
James Baldwin Yes.
Studs Terkel Ignored. So, obsessed in one case, and so ignored in another, in the
James Baldwin Yeah. It's very funny. It's very funny especially because, you know, the results of, perhaps, being, in the case of the Negro, in the case of the Negro's lot in the world, it's so very much the same. But it seems to me that, you know, it must be, it must be absolute torment to be a Southerner if you imagine that these people, you know, that one day, you know, once, one day even Faulkner himself was born, and certainly, you know, when he was born he was raised by a Black woman, probably the model for [unintelligible], you know. And one fine day, you know, a child of three or four or five who's been involved with Black people on the most intense level, and at the most important time in anybody's life, is suddenly, suddenly it breaks on him like a thundercloud that it's all taboo. And of course, since we know that nobody ever recovers, really, you know, from his earliest impressions, the torment that goes on in a Southerner who is absolutely forbidden, you know, to excavate his beginnings, you know, it seems to me is the key to those terrifying mobs: it isn't hatred that drives those people in the streets, it's pure terror.
Studs Terkel And, perhaps, a bit of schizophrenia here, too?
James Baldwin Well, by this time it's absolutely schizophrenic, you know, it--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
James Baldwin And, honestly, not only in the South, but the South is a very useful example on a personal and social level of what is occurring, really, in the country, you know. And the sexual paranoia, again, you know, it's very important to remember what it means to be born in a Protestant, Puritan country, with all the taboos which are placed on the flesh and to have at the same time in this country such a vivid example of indecent imagination, you know, of Paganism, and the sexual liberty with which white people invest Negroes, you know, and penalize them for.
Studs Terkel The very nature of the American heritage you seem to be just digging into right now, the combination of Puritanism and paganism both--
James Baldwin Yes,
James Baldwin And the terrible tension--
Studs Terkel And the tensions that come as a result.
James Baldwin It's a guilt about flesh. I mean, in this country the Negro pays for that guilt that white people have about the flesh.
Studs Terkel Since you bring up this point of the Negro pays for the guilt the white people have about flesh, we think, too, of the position, the [relative?] position of the Negro woman and the Negro man--
Studs Terkel And in this article, you wrote a beautiful article for "Tone" magazine, you were saying something about the mistress of the house, the white mistress who admires her maid very much but she speaks of the no-count husband--
Studs Terkel What it means to be a Negro male.
James Baldwin It connects with that old, old phrase that Negroes are the last to be hired and the first to be fired. And this does not apply to the Negro maid, particularly, though it can. But it absolutely applies without exception, and with great rigor, to Negro men. And one's got to consider--especially when one begins to talk about this whole theory, the whole tension between violence and nonviolence--the dilemma, and the rage, and the anguish, of a Negro man who, in the first place, is forced to accept all kinds of humiliation in his working day, whose power in the world is so slight that he cannot really protect his home, his wife, his children, you know, and then finds himself out of work and watches his children growing up menaced in exactly the same way that he has been menaced. When a child is 14, when a Negro child is 14, he knows the score already. And there's nothing you can do to--and all you can do about it is try, is pray, really, that this will not destroy him. But the tension that this creates, within the [best?] of the man, is absolutely unimaginable, and some of these [unintelligible] refuses to imagine, and it's very, very dangerous. And it, again, it complicates the sexuality of the country and of the Negro in a hideous way exactly because all Negroes are raised in a kind of matriarchy, since after all the wife can go out and wash the white lady's clothes, you know, and steal things from the kitchen, you know, and this is the way we all, we've all grown up. Now, this creates another, you know, another social psychological problem in what we like to refer to as a subculture, which is a part of the bill that the country, which the country is going to have to pay.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking--
James Baldwin The bills always do come in. One's always
Studs Terkel Yeah, always come, always there, there's always--there's a phrase Sandburg uses--"slums always seek their revenge". In other words--
James Baldwin Yes,
Studs Terkel [Unintelligible], too. Thinking about the matriarchal setup of the Negro family, of the Negro life, even back to slave days, the underground railway leaders, Harriet Tubman, [unintelligible], were the women.
James Baldwin Yeah, yeah. It's a terrible, terrible thing. Negro women have, for generations, have raised white children who've sometimes lynched their children and have tried to raise their, you know, to raise their child like a man. And yet, in the full knowledge that, if he really walks around like a man he is going to be cut down. It's a terrible kind of dilemma, it's a terrible price to make, to ask anybody to pay, and in this country women, Negro women, have been paying it for 300 years. And for a hundred of those years when they were legally and technically free. When people talk about time, therefore, you know, I can't help but be--I really--I can't help but be absolutely, not only impatient, but bewildered. Why should I wait any longer, and in any case even if I were willing to--which I'm not--how?
Studs Terkel The point--do you mean about "Go slow"?
Studs Terkel "Go slow. Take it easy." Again, there's a last sentence you have on that, on the Faulkner chapter, about how a change, about whatever approach to humanity, to being human beings, must be now. The moment, you speak
James Baldwin It's always now.
Studs Terkel The world we're living in, we have to make it over--the world will live in--we made the world we live in, but you speak of now, it's always now.
James Baldwin It's always--time is always now. Everybody, you know, and I think everybody who's ever thought about his own life knows this. You know, you don't make resolutions about something you're going to do next year. You know. You decide to write a book, you know, you may write--the book may be finished 20 years from now but you've got to start it now.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of the subtitle of your book now and the position of the Negro woman, Negro man--"Notes of a Native Son". Naturally, I immediately think of Richard Wright--
Studs Terkel Who has meant so much to you as an artist and as a man.
James Baldwin Yes,
Studs Terkel And his short story, you refer to this beautifully here in the chapter, "Alas, Poor Richard", one of the three chapters on Richard Wright, "Man of All Work", in which the husband, to get a job, dresses himself up in his wife's clothes and hires himself as a cook.
James Baldwin Yeah. It's a beautiful, terrifying story, and it really gets at something which has been hidden for all these generations, which is the ways in which--it really suggests more forcibly than anything I've ever read, really, the humiliation the Negro man endures, and it's this which this country doesn't want to know. And therefore, when people talk about the noble savage, you know, and the greater sexuality of Negroes, and all that jazz, you know, whereas I know I could name--if we were not on the air, you know--six people, you know, who I know, [with?] whom I grew up, six men who are on the needle, just because they're, you know, there's really no--the demoralization is so complete that it--you know, in order to make the act of love there's got to be a certain, a certain confidence, a certain trust. Otherwise it degenerates into nothing but desperate, you know, and futureless brutality.
Studs Terkel You've spoken of the needle, now, and we think of course of junkies--
James Baldwin Yes.
Studs Terkel And we think of narcotics, and here again, perhaps for some, the only means of escape from the brutal reality.
James Baldwin Yes, that's right. That's right. I knew a boy very well once who told me, you know, almost that many, just that many words, that he wasn't trying to get high, he was just trying to hold himself together, you know. Because he also said, you know, talking about himself walking through one of our cities one morning, and the way people looked at him, and he said to him--he said to himself--he told me that, "Well, hell, you know, you ought to be able to bear me if I can bear you." You know. What's [unintelligible] the most appalling about it is that all of these things might not be so terrible if when facing well-meaning white people one didn't realize that they don't know anything about this at all, you know, and don't want to know and this somehow, really, is the last drop in a very bitter cup because if they don't know and don't want to know then what hope is there, you know? When people talk to me about, you know, the strides that have been made and all these dreary movies Hollywood just keeps churning about being, about be kind to Negroes today, you know, and isn't this a good sign. Well, of course, they never seen these movies with a Negro audience watching them, you know.
Studs Terkel What is the reaction?
James Baldwin Well, for example, in "The Defiant Ones", a movie which, of which I really cannot say anything--
Studs Terkel That's OK. Go ahead. No, please
James Baldwin At the end of that movie, when Sidney, who was very brilliant in it and gives it, you know, does his best with a rather dreary role, does something with it which I couldn't, I wouldn't believe could have been done. Anyway, when at the end of that movie when Sidney jumps off the train to rescue Tony Curtis--Downtown, I went, I saw it twice, deliberately. I saw it Downtown, and for a white, liberal audience, I suppose they were liberal. There was a great sigh of relief and, you know, clapping and they felt that this is a very noble gesture on the part of a very noble Black man. And I suppose in a way it was. And I saw it Uptown, and Sidney jumps off the train and there's a tremendous roar of fury from the audience. With which I must say I agree, you know. They told Sidney to "get back on the train, you fool." And what, and in any case, you know, why in the world would he go back to the chain gang when they're obviously going to be separated again? It's still a Jim Crow chain gang. What's the movie supposed to prove? Now, what the movie's designed to prove, really, to white people, is that Negroes are going to forgive them for their crimes, and that somehow they're going to escape scot free. Now, I myself am not, you know, I'm not being vengeful when I say this, at all, because I would hate to see the nightmare begin all over again when the shoe is on the other foot. But I'm [here? only?] talking about a human fact and the human fact is this: that one can't escape anything one's done. One's got to pay for it and you either pay for it willingly or you pay for it unwillingly.
Studs Terkel You know, I was thinking of the Negro audience and the "get back on the train, you fool." We think of two movements happening simultaneously with the Negro in America today: the Black Muslim movement and Martin Luther King.
James Baldwin Yes.
Studs Terkel And here it seemed to be directly connected, doesn't it?
James Baldwin Yes, yes, precisely. And I must con--I must admit, you know, that there is a great ambivalence in myself about--for example, I'm devoted t--I'm devoted to King and I've worked with that, with CORE, and tried to raise, help raise money for the Freedom Riders. And I adore those, I adore those children. I have tremendous respect for them. And yet, at the same time, in talking to very different people, and somewhat older, and also talking to ex sit-in students who said, you know, I simply can't take it anymore. I don't know. Let me put it in another way: King's influence in the South is tremendous but his influence in the North is, is slight and the North doesn't talk about the South. Chicagoans talk about Mississippi, and so they had no South Side, and, you know, and white people in New York talk about Alabama so they had no Harlem. And it's a great device [on the part of?] white people to ignore what's happening in their own backyard. Now whether--let us say I were for or against violence, this is absolutely irrelevant. The question which really obsesses me today is, that whether or not, whether or not I like it, and whether or not you like it, unless [this? the?] situation is ameliorated, and very, very quickly, there will be violence. There will be violence, I'm just as convinced of this as I am that I'm sitting in this chair, one day in Birmingham. And it's not the fau--it won't be the fault of the Negroes in Birmingham. It's the fault of the administration of Birmingham and the apathy of Washington. It is an intolerable situation, it has been intolerable for 100 years. I'm not--I can't, I really cannot tell my nephew or my brother--my nephew is 14, my brother is a grown man--I can't really tell him, I can't really tell my nephew that if someone hits him he shouldn't hit back. I really cannot tell him that. And I, still less can I tell my brother that if someone comes to his house with a gun that he should let him in, you know, and allow him to do what he wants with his children and his wife. But the point is even if I were able to tell my brother that he should, there is absolutely no guarantee that my brother will and I can't blame him. It's too easy, in another way, for the country to sit in admiration before the sit-in students because it doesn't cost them anything. They have no idea what it cost those kids to go through that, to picket a building, for example, when people upstairs in the building are spitting down on your head or trying to vomit down on you. This demands, this is a tremendous amount to demand of people who are technically free in a free country which is supposed to be the leader of the West. It seems to me a great cowardice on the part of [our public? the republic?] to expect that it's going to be saved by a handful of children [for?] whom they refuse to be responsible.
Studs Terkel And, so, it is so much more difficult, then, or so much more easier I should say, for a Black Muslim speaker to win followers than for Martin Luther King who is asking
James Baldwin It is always much easier, obviously, you know, to, to, how can I put this, to, well, in Harlem there's meetings every Saturday night, those people there are listening to those speeches and all kinds of other speeches. Because they're in a, they are in despair and they don't believe--and this is the most dangerous thing that has happened--they don't believe, they've been betrayed so often and by so many people, not all of them white, they don't believe that the country really means what it says and there is nothing in the record to indicate the country means what it says. Now, when they are told that they are better than white people it is a perfectly inevitable development if, you know, for all these hundreds of years white people are going round saying they're better than anybody else, sooner or later they're going to, they have, they were bound to create a counterweight to this, especially with Africa on the stage of the world now. Which is simply turning, which is simply to take the whole legend of Western history and its whole entire theology, changing one or two pronouns, you know, and transferring from Jerusalem to Islam and this is just this small change, and turn it all against the white world. And the white world can't do anything about this, can't call the Muslim leaders or anybody else on this until they're willing to face their own history.
Studs Terkel How does all this, then, connect with a Negro artist, a Negro writer, specifically you coming out and to a man who meant so much to you, Richard Wright? There's, in one of the, again, we come back to Wright's chapter, he escaped. He spoke of Paris as a refuge but you looked upon it as a sort of way station for yourself.
James Baldwin Well, in the beginning I must admit I lived in Paris as a refuge, too. I never intended to come back to this country. I lived there so long, though, and I got to know a great deal about Paris and I suppose that several things happened to me. One of them [was? is?] watching American Negroes there who had dragged Mississippi, so to speak, across the ocean with them and operating now in a vacuum. I myself, you know, carried all my social habits to Paris with me where they were not needed. Where I didn't, it took me a long time to learn how to do without them. And this, this complex frightened me very much. But more important than that, perhaps, was, you know, my relationship with Africans and with Norwegians there--not Norwegians, I mean Algerians there who belonged to France and it didn't demand any spectacular degree of perception to realize that I was treated, insofar as I was noticed at all, differently from them because I had an American passport. I may not have liked this fact but it was a fact. If I, and I can see very well, that if I were an Algerian I would not have been living in the same city in which I imagined myself to be living as Jimmy Baldwin, or if I were an African it would have been a very different city for me. And I also began to see that the West, the entire West, was changing, was breaking up, that its power over me, over Africans, was gone and will never come again. So then it seemed that exile was but another way of being in limbo. But I suppose, finally, the most important thing was that I am a writer, and that sounds grandiloquent, but the truth is that I don't think any, I don't think that, seriously speaking really, that anybody in his right mind would want to be a writer. But you do discover that you are one and then, you know, you haven't got any choice--either you're gonna, either you live that life or you won't live any. And I'm an American writer. This is, this country is my subject. And, in working out the forthcoming novel, I began to realize the New York I was trying to describe was a New York which was by this time nearly 20 years old. And I had to come back to check my impressions and to, as it turned out, be stung again, to look at it again, bear it again, and to be reconciled to it again. Now, I imagine in my own case that I will have to spend the rest of my life, however long that will be, as a kind of transatlantic commuter, because at some point when I'm in this country I always get to a place where I realize that I don't see it very clearly anymore because it's very exhausting to spend, after all, and you do spend 24 hours a day resisting and resenting it, you know, in trying to keep a kind of equilibrium in it. So that, I suppose that I'll keep going away and coming back, you know.
Studs Terkel You feel your years in Europe afforded you more of a perspective?
James Baldwin Yeah. I began to see this country for the first time. If I hadn't gone away I would never have been able to see it, and if I hadn't been able to see it I would have never been able to forgive it. You know. I'm not mad at this country anymore. I'm very worried about it, you know. I'm not worried about the Negroes in the country even so much as I'm worried about the country. The country doesn't know, the country doesn't know what it's done to Negroes. But the country has no notion whatever, and this is disastrous, of what it's done to itself. They don't, they have yet to assess the price they paid, North and South, for keeping the Negro in his place. And from my point of view it shows in every single level of our lives, from the most public
Studs Terkel Could expand on this a bit, Jim? What the country has done to itself?
James Baldwin Well, one of the reasons, for example, I think that our youth are so badly educated, and it is inconceivably badly educated, is because education demands a certain daring, a certain independence of mind. We have to teach young people to think. And to teach young people, in order to teach young people to think you have to teach them to think about everything. There mustn't be something they cannot think about. If there's something, if there's one thing they can't think about then very shortly they can't think about anything, you know. Now, there's always something in this country, of course, one cannot think about. What one cannot think about is the Negro, you know. Now, this may seem like a very subtle argument but I don't think so. I think that, really, time will prove the connection between the level, you know, of the lives we lead and this extraordinary endeavor to avoid Black men. And I think it shows in our public life. I think that when I was living in Europe it occurred to me that what Americans in Europe do not know about Europeans is precisely what they didn't know about me. And what Americans today don't know about the rest of the world, like Cuba or Africa, is what they don't know about me. And the incoherent, totally incoherent foreign policy of this country is a reflection of the incoherence of the private lives here.
Studs Terkel So we don't even, we don't even know our own names?
James Baldwin No, we don't. That's the whole point. And I suggest this: I suggest this: that in order to learn your name you're gonna have to learn mine. You know. In a way, the key to this country, the American Negro is the key figure in this country. And if we don't face him we will never face anything.
Studs Terkel Since you've mentioned, I don't know your name. I, a white man, will never know mine. I'm thinking now, as a country, [originally of the?] country we think of Africa immediately and you have, again, coming back, returning to your work and, by the way, may I suggest this work to listeners: James Baldwin's "Nobody Knows my Name", published by Dial. And even though I say it's a collection of essays, it isn't that, it is a novel. It is a novel, it is, it is an autobiography, really, in a way, it's an autobiography. The, you have a journalistic report, and a very accurate and astute one. "Princes in Power" it's called. You were covering a meeting of Negro writers of the world.
James Baldwin Yes.
James Baldwin Yeah.
Studs Terkel And African writers were speaking, too, as well as writers of
James Baldwin It was really an African conference, dominantly African. The Negroes were there as Africans, or as, well, the Black people of the world, let's put it that way.
Studs Terkel What of, what of the, of the African writer, then? You mention [Toure?] here [unintelligible]. Isn't there a problem here? The uncovering of this rich heritage so long buried by kidnappers, by colonial people, and at the same time we know that technology, technological advances are taking place, changes, slums are being cleared--
James Baldwin It's the 20th century, in fact.
Studs Terkel 20th century. Now, isn't there loss as well as gain here? How, it's a question of things that are happening at the same time.
James Baldwin It's a very great question. I don't know what--it's almost impossible to assess what was lost which makes it impossible to assess what's gained. How can I put this? In a way, in a way I almost envy African writers because there's so much to excavate, you know. And because their relationship to the world, at least from my vantage point, by this I may be wrong, seems much more direct than mine can ever be. But God knows, you know, the colonial experience destroyed so much, blasted so much, and of course changed forever the African personality. So one doesn't know what, what really was there on the other side of the flood. You know. It's going to take, it'll take generations before that past can be reestablished, you know, and in effect used. And at the same time, of course, all the African nations have, are under the obligation, a necessity, are moving into the 20th century at really, you know, it's a fantastic rate of speed which is the only way they can survive. And of course all Africans, whether they know it or not, have endured the European experience and have been stained and, you know, and changed by the European standards. In a curious way the unification of [Africa? Africans?], as far as it can be said to exist, is a white invention, that is to say the only thing that really unites, as far as I can tell, all Black men everywhere is the fact that white men are on their necks. What I'm curious about is what will happen when this is no longer true. And for the first time in the memory of anybody living Black men have their destinies in their own hands. What will come out then and what the problems and tensions and terrors will be then is a very great and very loaded question. I think that if we were more honest here we could do a great deal to aid in this transition. Because we have an advantage, which we still consider to be a disadvantage, over all the other Western nations, that is to say we have created--forgetting, you know, quite apart from everything else--the fact is we have created, and no other nation has, a Black man who belongs, who is part of the West. Now, and in distinction to Belgium or any other European power, we had our slaves on the mainland and therefore no matter how we deny it couldn't avoid a human involvement with them which we've almost perished denying, but which is nevertheless there. Now if we could turn about and face this we would have a tremendous advantage in the world today. But as long as we don't there isn't much hope for the West, really. How can I put his? If one could accept the fact that it is no longer important to be white it will begin to cease to be important to be Black. If we could accept the fact that no nation with 20 million people, 20 million Black people in it, for so long and with such a depth of involvement, no nation under these circumstances can really be called a white nation. This would be a great achievement and it would change a great many things.
Studs Terkel This raises a very interesting point--this is all conjecture, of course--assuming that sanity is maintained, assuming that humanity itself, that humanity, meaning all of us, will triumph. A point is, right, just as you say this, there will be no white nation and no Black nation but nations of people. Now we come to a question of this long-buried heritage. At the beginning a Bessie Smith record was played. You, once upon a time, not knowing who you were, were ashamed of it--
Studs Terkel Yes. Now realize there's a great pride here, and an artistry. Thinking now of the young African: again, if a certain identity, and this is an imposed identity from the outside, is lost, will he reject that which was uniquely his for a grayness, perhaps, even though it be more materially advanced?
James Baldwin I have a tendency to doubt it. But then, of course, there's no way of knowing. I have a tendency, judging only from my very limited experience in Paris with a few Africans after all, my tendency is to doubt it. I think that the real impulse is excavate that heritage at no matter what cost and bring it into the present. And I think that this is a very sound idea because I think it's needed. You know, I think that, that all the things that were destroyed by Europe, which will never really be put in place again, still in that rubble I think there's something of very great value. Not only for Africans but for all of us. I really think that we're living in a moment which is as important as that moment when Constantine became a Christian, you know. I think that all the standards by which the Western world has lived so long are in the process of breakdown and of revision and a kind of, a kind of passion and a kind of beauty and a kind of joy, which was in the world before, has been buried so long, has got to come back.
Studs Terkel The passion and beauty and joy once in the world has been buried.
James Baldwin Yes.
Studs Terkel Now we come to the matter of dehumanization,
Studs Terkel The impersonality of our times.
James Baldwin Yes, yes, yes. And obviously this cannot--well, I would hate to see it continue. I don't, I don't ever intend to make my peace with such a world. There's something much more important than Cadillacs, Frigidaires, and IBM machines, you know. And precisely one of the thing's wrong this country is this notion that IBM machines and Cadillacs prove something. People are always telling me how many Negroes bought Cadillacs last year. You know, and it terrifies me, you know, I always wonder is this what you think the country is for? You know? And do you think this is really what I came here and suffered and died for? You know, a lousy Cadillac?
Studs Terkel Whether it's for white or Black, is this what our country's for?
James Baldwin White or Black, yes, exactly, you know. I think the country's got to find out what it means by freedom. Freedom is a very dangerous thing, you know. Anything else is disastrous. But freedom is dangerous. You know, you've got to make choices, you've got to make very dangerous choices. You've got to be taught that, you know, that your life is in your hands.
Studs Terkel The matter of freedom, this leads to another chapter in your book dealing with your meeting with Ingmar Bergman whom you described as a free, relatively free artist.
Studs Terkel Would you mind telling us a bit about that and what you meant by that?
James Baldwin Well, part of his freedom, of course, is just purely economical and it's based on a social structure, the economic structure of Sweden. That is to say he hasn't got to worry about money for his films which is a very healthy thing for him. But on another level I, he impressed me as being free because he, and this is a great paradox it seems to me about freedom, he'd accepted his limitations--the limitations within himself and the limitations within his society. I don't mean that he necessarily accepted all these limitations, you know, I mean that he was passive in the face of them. But he had recognized that he was Ingmar Bergman who could do some things and therefore could not do some others, and was not going to live forever, you know. Had recognized what people in this country have a great deal of trouble recognizing: that life is very difficult, very difficult for anybody. Anybody born. Now, I don't think people can be free until they recognize this. The same way Bessie Smith, who was much freer, or as terrible as this may sound, much freer than the people who murdered her or let her die. You know. And Big Bill Broonzy is a much freer man than the success-ridden people running around on Madison Avenue today. If you can accept the worst, as someone said to me, then you can see the best. But if you think life is a great big glorious plum pudding, you know. Pshhhh. You'll end up in a madhouse. Which is where, you know--
Studs Terkel To, perhaps, even extend the examples you've just offered, the little girl who walked into the Little Rock school house--
James Baldwin Yes.
Studs Terkel Or the Charlotte, North Carolina, and was spat on, is much freer than the white child who sat there with a misconceived notion.
James Baldwin Well, I think the truth, the Negroes are much stronger in the South today simply, you know--
Studs Terkel She knew who she was.
James Baldwin She knew who she was. She knew who she was. And after all that child's been coming for a very long time, she didn't come out of nothing. The Negro families are able to produce such children, you know, whereas the good white people of the South have yet to make an attempt, have yet to make any appearance, proves something awful about the moral state of the South. You know. Those people in Tallahassee who were never in the streets when the mobs are there, well, you know, why aren't they? It's their town, too.
Studs Terkel What about someone like Lillian Smith?
James Baldwin Lillian Smith is a great, you know, I think a very great and heroic, and very lonely figure. Obviously, you know. She has very few friends in that little hamlet in Georgia where she carries on so gallantly. You know, she's paid a tremendous price for trying to do what she thinks is right. And the price is terribly, terribly high. The only way for the price to become a little less is for more people to do it. To pay
Studs Terkel Of course here is someone of the South, a minority of one, and perhaps there are a few prototypes here and there. This leads to the, I don't know, I didn't, I'm looking for your book now and I feel guilty not having finished it before interviewing you, I'm sure [somebody has asked something?] about majority, minority, perhaps, about the majority is not necessarily right all
James Baldwin The majority is usually, I hate to say this, wrong, you know. I think there's a great confusion in this country anyway about that, you know. I--
Studs Terkel Ibsen's "Enemy of the People".
James Baldwin Yes, yes. You know, I think that, I really think, seriously, there's a division of labor in the world and some people are here to--I can see it--well, let me put it this way: you know, I'm, there's so many things I'm not good at. I can't drive a truck, you know. I couldn't run a bank. Well, all right, so that's, you know, other people have to do that. Well, in a way they're responsible to me and I'm responsible to them, you know. And my responsibility to them is to try to tell the truth as I see it. Not so much about my private life as about their private lives. You know. So that there is in the world a standard, you know, for all of us, you know, to which we, you know, which will get you through your trouble, 'cause your trouble's always coming. You know. And your Cadillacs don't get you through it. And neither do psychiatrists, incidentally, you know. All that gets you through it, really, is some, some faith in life. Which is not so easy to achieve. Now, when you talk about majorities and minorities, you know, I always have the feeling that this country is talking about a kind of a popularity contest, you know, in which everybody works together, you know, toward some absolutely hideous, hideously material end. But in truth I think that, you know, politicians, for example in the South, where it's shown most clearly, I think all the Southern politicians have failed their responsibility to the white people of the South. Somebody in the South must know that obviously the situation, the status quo, will not exist another hundred years and their real responsibility is to prepare the people who are now forming those mobs and prepare those people for that day, you know, to minimize the damage to them, even. Now, the majority rule in the South is not a majority rule at all. It's a mob rule. And what these mobs fill is a moral vacuum which is created by the lack of a leader. You know? And it seems to me this is the way the world is and I'm not talking about dictatorships. I mean that--
Studs Terkel Statesmen.
James Baldwin Statesmen, you know, and people who are sitting in government I suppose know more about government than, you know, than people who are driving trucks and digging potatoes and trying to raise their children. That's what you are in the office for.
Studs Terkel Someone, then, with a sense of history, perhaps?
James Baldwin Yes, which is precisely what we don't have
Studs Terkel A sense of history.
James Baldwin Yes. If you don't know what happened behind you, you have no idea what's happening around you. You know. And that's a law.
Studs Terkel Earlier, Jim, you mentioned that for a national policy to be straightened out the private policy, that private lives, individual lives must be, and you spoke, too, of your job as a writer--you've got to write. And in this chapter with Bergman, "The Northern Protestant", there's a beautiful comment here: "All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up, all of it." The literal, [or fanciful?] when you speak of Bergman, but "all art is a kind of confession" as you apparently do in all your writings.
James Baldwin I think it has to be a kind of confession and I don't mean a true confession in the sense of that dreary magazine. But I mean the effort, it seems to me, is to, if you can examine and face your life you can discover the terms in which you are connected to other lives and they can discover, too, the terms in which they are connected to other people. It's happened to every one of us I'm sure, you know, that one has read something which you thought only happened to you. And you discover that it happened a hundred years ago to Dostoyevsky, and this is a very great liberation, you know, for the suffering, struggling person who always thinks that he's alone, you know. This is why it's important. It is unimportant for any, I don't think that any, art would not be important if life were not more important, you know. And life is important. And life is mainly, you know, most of us, no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what's gonna happen to him one moment to the next or how he will bear it, you know. And this is irreducible and it's true for everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of a society has to be, you know, to create among its citizens an illusion of safety. But it's also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion and all us are here to disturb the peace.
Studs Terkel Artists are here to disturb
James Baldwin Yes. They have to disturb the peace, otherwise chaos, you know.
Studs Terkel Life, and life is risk.
James Baldwin It is, indeed. It is. It always is. It always is. And people have to know this, [somewhere? some way?] they have to know it in order to get through their risks.
Studs Terkel So the safety itself is wholly illusory? Safety.
James Baldwin Yes. There's no such thing as safety on this planet. You know. No one knows that much. No one ever will. Let alone about the world but about himself. That's why it's a, you know, of course it's unsafe. And people in some way have to know this, and this what that whole sense of tragedy is really all about. And people think, I think, that a sense of tragedy is a kind of embroidery or something irrelevant which you can take or leave. But in fact it's a necessity. That's what the blues are all about, it's what spirituals are all about. It is the ability to look on things as they are and survive your losses, you know, or even not survive them, to know that they're coming, you know. To know they're coming is the only possible insurance you have, some think insurance, that you will survive them.
Studs Terkel The book is "Nobody Knows My Name", and it's Dial, and he's written two novels--a prior--I hope they're still in print?
Studs Terkel "Giovanni's Room" and--
Studs Terkel And "Go Tell It On The Mountain". And the forthcoming novel--
James Baldwin "Another Country".
Studs Terkel "Another Country" it's called.
James Baldwin It's about this country.
Studs Terkel About this country. Perhaps one last question, James Baldwin: Who are you, now?
James Baldwin Hmmm. Who, indeed? Well, I may be able to tell you quite who I am but I think I'm discovering who I'm not. I want to be an honest man, and I want to be a good writer. And I don't know if one ever gets to be what one wants to be, you know. I think you just have to play it by ear. And pray for rain.