A Conversation With James Baldwin
Thank you. Thank you. Good evening. I'm Henry Morgenthau producer of the program you're about to see.
It was recorded almost immediately after the much publicized secret meeting between the Attorney General Robert Kennedy and a group of leading negroes invited by author James Baldwin. This program was not planned as a comment on that now historic confrontation. Friday May 24th. However I think you will detect a certain emotional spillover from the highly charged atmosphere of the meeting. Mr. Baldwin is interviewed on this occasion by Dr. Kenneth Clark Professor of Psychology at the City College of New York a community leader in his own right. Dr. Clark also took part in the meeting with the attorney general. One of the significant things for the present revolution of the Negro people in America. Is maybe the fact that for the first time. There is genuine communication between Negroes and whites. Negroes are saying out loud things which belongs only to themselves.
Probably one of the most articulate. Passionate and clear communicators. To the American conscience. Is my. Guess. James Baldwin. James Baldwin. The name is known throughout America. For saying. So passionately so clearly and with such grace and style. What every negro has long known and long felt. Welcome and good to have this opportunity to talk with you. And you to have you share with us some of your present feeling about our country. America. But before we get into. The issues of the day. I'd like to know a little more about you I've read quite quickly everything that you've
written but I still would like to know something about you the young and growing up in Harlem. What school you went to. Maybe a little about the teachers that you might've come in contact with in Harlem. A funny question. I live assemblies OWS really. But I think back on it. I was born in Holland Spittal and we grew up first house I remember was on Park Avenue which is not the American pop Avenue. Maybe it is the American rock uptown Park Avenue where the relevant facts are. We used to play on the roof and. I can call an alley but the river. Was a kind of dump garbage dump. And I was first those first scenes I remember. I mean my father.
Had trouble keeping us alive. There were nine of us and. I was the oldest so I took care of the kids and Doctor Daddy said much better now. Part of his problem was he couldn't beat his kids. I was a kid and I didn't know that. And he was very religious very rigid. He kept us together I must say. And when I look back on it and. That was really 40 years ago that I was born. I think back of my growing up. And walks that same block today. And think of the kids on that block now. I'm aware that something terrible has happened which is very hard to describe. I am in all but no technical legal fact. My father was born in the south. No my mother was born in the south. And if they had
waited two more seconds I might have gone south. That means I was raised by family whose roots were essentially rural. And Southern rural southern and whose range to the church. Was very direct because it was the only means I had of expressing their pain and their despair. But 20 years later. The moral authority. Which. Was present. In the Negro community when I was growing up. Has vanished. And. People talk about progress and I look at home. Which I really know I know I know my hand. And. It is much worse said today than it was when I was growing up. Would you say this is true of the school. It's much worse in the schools. What school did you go to. I went to P.S. 24.
Went to one. And. Unlike a lot of money has been cut the teachers were very nice to me. Teacher. And I remember I was I was really asking these questions and I answer you. I remember coming home from school. And. Guess how young I must have been. And the mother asked me when he was called the wife. And I said you got a little bit white. But because she was about your color. And. As a matter of fact I was right. That's part of the dilemma of being an American Negro. That one is a little bit colored and a bit white. And not only in terms in physical terms. But in the head and in the heart. And there are days is one of them. When you wonder. What your role is in
this country and what your future is in it. How precise you're going to reconcile. Yourself. To your situation here. And how you're going to. Communicate. To the heedless unthinking. White majority. That you are here. And to be here means you can't be anywhere else. I could. Personally leave this country. I could go to Africa. I could go to China. I could go to Russia I go to Cuba. But I'm an American. That is a fact. That my going ahead I'm certainly moving what we're after. But as I read your writing and know that you came here as 24 and my alma mater
in your high school 139 I knew that no one could write with the feeling and with the skill with which you write if you did not get in. P.S. twenty four and one thirty nine. A certain type of education I'd like to go back to the point that you made but you knew when you were growing up is not the Harlem now and see if we can relate this all through even to the school. Let's see if we can. It was probably very important for me. I thought of this for a long time soon. But it's not even important to me that at that point I was going to piece 20 fool. To School principal as well as I know in the entire history of New York. Was the principal was a woman. And she like me.
And in a way I guess she proved to me. That I could. I didn't have to be entirely defined by my circumstances because you know that when you go child knows what his circumstances are going to take them. Because he's brought under a public which shows him. In his many ways it knows how and he's got a great horse. That. Has a certain place and he never rise above it. And what has happened in Holland since. Is that generation has passed away. There was a sort of a model and she was a. She was a living proof. That. I was not necessarily what the country said I was. And it is significant. But we do not have a single negro principle in the New York public school for today.
And it is not because. They nobody around who can do it. You know. What is involved in a very curious and very serious battle. Because I would I think one of the time's going to be is it because it is one knows as one can possibly be. The great victims in this country. And Institution Goldberg ation. It is not a subtle custom. Which has been for 100 years a national way of life. The great victims of the white people. The white mans children. Learn Hansberry said this after. Talking about. The problem of being a negro male in this society. Ryan said that he wasn't too concerned about Negro manhood since they had. Managed and to endure and to even transcend some fantastic things.
But she was very wary. About a civilization which could produce those five policeman standing in the Negro woman's neck. In Birmingham. Everyone. And I am too. I'm terrified. At the moral apathy the death of the heart. Which is happening in my country. These people. Had to themselves for so long. They really don't think I'm human. I had braces on their conduct not on what they say. And this means that they have become themselves. Moral monsters. OK I can see the indictment yes. I mean every word I say. Well. We are confronted with the racial confrontation in America today I think. The pictures of dogs.
In the hands of human beings attacking other human beings in a free country and a freak on the middle of the 20th century Birmingham is clearly not restricted to Birmingham as you so eloquently pointed out. What do you think. Can be done to. Change. To use your term the moral fiber of America. I think the one who's got. To. Find some way. Of putting the present administration of this country. On the spot. When it's got to force somehow. From Washington. A moral commitment. Not to the negro people. But to the life of this country. It doesn't matter any longer. And I'm speaking for myself in Baldwin. And I think I speak for a great many other negroes
too. It doesn't matter any longer what you do to me. You can put me in jail. You can kill me. By the time I was 17. You have done everything that you could do to me. The problem now is are you going to save yourselves. It was a great shock to me. I want to say this on the air. The general General. Did not know. Me the attorney general of the United States. Mr. Roberts. Didn't know. That I would have trouble. Convincing my nephew. To go to Cuba for example. To liberate the Cubans. In defense of a government. Which now says it is doing everything it can do. Which
cannot break me. Now the 20 million people in this country. And you can't put them all in jail though. I know my nephew fields and I feel and how he can feel. A boy last week he was 16 in San Francisco told me on television. Thank God we got to talk. To listen. He said. I got no country I got no flag was only 16 years old. And I couldn't say you do. I don't have any evidence to prove that he does. They were tearing down his house. Because a San Francisco is engaging is most of the cities now are engaged in something called urban renewal which means moving the gross out. Getting it means legal removal. That is what it means. And the federal government is is. Is an accomplice to this fact. Now this we're talking about human
beings is not such a thing as a monolithic wall or you know some abstraction called a Negro Problem these negro boys and girls who had 16 and 17. I don't believe the country means anything that it says No people have any place here. On the basis of the performance of the entire country. No I certainly could say that you're exaggerating but there is this picture of a group of Negro college students. And the south coming from colleges where the whole system seemed to conspire to keep them from having courage. Integrity clarity and the willingness to take the risk which they have been taking for the last three or four years. Could you react to the Student Nonviolent Movement which has made such an impact on America which has
affected both think Rose and white. And seemed to jolt the lethargy of tokenism moderation. How do you cope with it. Well of course one of the things I think that happened in reading is that in the first place the Negro has never been as docile as white Americans wanted to believe. That was a myth. We were not singing and dancing down the levee. We were trying to keep alive or trying to survive a very brutal system. And the guy has never been happy in his place. What those kids first of all prove. First they prove that they come a long line of fighters. And what they also prove. I'm going I want to get to your point really. But they also prove is that the negroes changed. But that the country's arrived at a place they can no longer contain the revolt. You no longer. As a good do once say I. Was a Negro college president.
And I need a new chemistry lab so I wasn't really that I was nobody because a white man said I was. And I came to get them as you please sir. And that's a price I paid. Chemistry. Was going to all the people I represented. And now. I can't do that. When the boys are this afternoon. They're talking to Nigro students that. They've been through it all have dead. What went wrong your moment. That's an awful lot to ask a person to bear. The country sat back in admiration of all those kids. Well three or four or five years and has not lifted a finger to help. Now we all knew. I know you knew and I knew too that a moment was coming. When we couldn't guarantee that no one can guarantee that it will reach a breaking point. You know you don't have as many beatings so much humiliation so
much to span. So many broken promises. Before something gives. Human beings are not by nature nonviolent. Those children had to go. I do pay a terrible price and discipline and discipline and courage which a country cannot imagine was still things Gary Cooper for example was a man. I mean his image and I think in some you know him you saw something that you cannot expect them to remain completely nonviolent. No you can't you can't. And furthermore there were always these students who were talking about. A minority. Students were talking about when I was a has it there were some students protesting. But there were many many many many and most students who had given up. Who were desperate and who Malcolm X can reach for example much more easily than I can. What do you mean when Malcolm tells them. When Malcolm tells
them in effect. Is they should be proud of being black and God knows what they should be. That's a very important thing to hear. They're going to shoot you. We should be ashamed of it. Because what he did in order to do this what he does. Is destroy truth and invent a history. What he does is say. You're better because you're black. Because it isn't true. That's the trouble. Do you think that this is an appealing approach and that the Black Muslims in preaching black supremacy seek to exploit. We prostration of the negro. I don't think put it as simply as I can and without trying to. Investigate Whatever the motives of any given Muslim leader may be. Only move in the country. But you can call grass
roots. I hate to say that but it is true. Because it is only. The Narcan talks on the talk. The articulate. For all the Negro people to hear them. Listen to them. They articulate. Their suffering. The suffering which has been in this country so long denied. That's Malcolm's great authority over any of his audiences. He corroborates their reality. He tells them that they really exist. Do you think that this is more a more effective appeal than the appeal of Martin Luther King. It's much more sinister because it's much more effective. It's much more effective because it is after all. Comparatively easy. To invest a population of the falls by giving him a false sense of superiority and will always break down the crisis to history of Europe simply as one of the reasons we're in this terrible place is one of the reasons we have five cops and a black hole is like in Birmingham because they believe they were taught and I believe that they were
better than the white elites or moral bankruptcy. It is never double cannot but lead there. But the point is my point here is that the country is reversed I'm worried about the Muslim movement. It should be worried about the Muslim movement. That's not the problem the problem is to to eliminate the conditions which breed the Muslim movement. Well I'd like to come back to. Get some of your thoughts about the relationship between. Martin Luther King's appeal. That is if you actively nonviolent and his philosophy of discipline and love for the oppressor. MARTIN And what do you think the relationship between that and the reality of the negro masses. Out of it for a moment. MARTIN very rare very great man for two reasons PA because just just because he's. And because he's a real Christian and he really believes in nonviolence.
He's right it's him thinking himself. Which commits him it's him allows him to do it and he still has great moral authority in the south. Islam whatever in the north. Paul Martin. Has gone through God knows what kind of health. To make to awaken the American conscience. But Martin has reached the end of his rope. If something is not going to be when men can solve the nation's central problem by himself there are lots of people lots of black people I mean now. Who don't go to church and don't listen to Martin you know and you anyway are themselves produced by civilization which is only glorified violence. Alyssa Nigro had the gun to the mountains. Martin is undercut by the performance of the country the country's only concern about nonviolence. If it seems I'm going to get violent but I'm worried about it about about nonviolence. It was some Alabama shouted him.
What do you see deep in the recesses of your own mind. As the future of our nation and I ask that question. In that way because I think that the future of the negro and the future of the nation are linked. There and saw how what do you see. Are you a federally optimistic. Or pessimistic and I really don't want to put words in your mouth because I really want to find out what you really believe. I'm of glad and sorry you asked me that question. I'll do my best to answer it. I can't be a pessimist because I'm alive. To be pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So of course to be an optimist I am forced to believe that we can survive but that we must survive. But.
The Negro in this country. The future of the Negro in this country. Is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people. And our representatives it is entirely up to the American people. Whether or not they're going to face and deal with and embrace the stranger whom they maligned so long. Why people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I'm not a nigger. I'm a man. But if you think I'm a nigger means you needed. The question you gotta ask yourself the white population of this country got to ask itself. North and South because it's one country and one negro. There is order in the south. There's just a difference in the way they way they castrate you. But that's but the fact of the castration.
Is American fact. And I'm not the nigger here. And though you invented it and you the white people invented him. And you can't find out why. Well in the future the country depends on that. Whether I was able to ask that question I was a negro as a member and I can only hope that America has the strength and power the moral strength. To ask a man threw that question in affirmatively he has got to face that question. Thank you very much. Thank you Catherine. This conversation with James Baldwin was recorded as part of a National Educational Television perspectives program. The negro and the American promise the complete program will be broadcast on this station on the evening of Monday June 24th. It will also include conversations between Kenneth clock and Malcolm X. The Black Muslim leader James Flom an executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. president of the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference. I am. I am. I am. I am I am.
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- Episode Description
- This edited version of "A Conversation With James Baldwin" contains the entire interview with Baldwin recorded for "Perspectives: Negro and the American Promise." The full program, produced by Henry Morgenthau, includes Dr. Kenneth Clark interviewing author James Baldwin shortly after Baldwin's now famous 1963 meeting with United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy regarding the state of Civil Rights in this country. This program contains the same Baldwin interview that is found in the program "Negro And The American Promise." The difference between the two is that this interview is presented as a standalone program, with introductory and closing comments by Morgenthau; whereas the "American Promise" program incorporates the Baldwin interview (same run time), along with others, into a longer program. Other "Negro and the American Promise" interviewees are Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
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- This record is part of the Literature section of the Soul of Black Identity special collection.
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- African American authors Interviews; civil rights leaders; race relations; Baldwin, James, 1924-1987; African American authors Biography; Harlem (New York, N.Y.)
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- Chicago: “A Conversation With James Baldwin,” 1963-06-24, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 10, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-9m03xx2p.
- MLA: “A Conversation With James Baldwin.” 1963-06-24. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 10, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-9m03xx2p>.
- APA: A Conversation With James Baldwin. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-9m03xx2p