A conversation with James Baldwin
I'm going to begin by asking you if I have understood you correctly. When I read the thing in the New Yorker which is the most recent thing of yours that I have read and therefore it's the most fresh in my mind. I had the feeling that you were speaking not really about the racist issue but about the human issue and that you were speaking for people who are able to be aware of the agony and the beauty and the terror and the nobility of humankind because it doesn't seem to me that you're saying that this is a race problem because the Germans did it to the Jews but Tista did it to the Cubans. There's a three million people who are called outcasts in Japan. No racial differentiation at all. So it seemed to me that although a great deal of what you were saying was put pivoted around the
race issue in this country that that is not the essence of the of the thing that you're conveying. But I don't in the first place. I don't I never have really I don't believe in race. When I was trying to do was precisely to use the greatest metaphor we have in this country. I mean it is the central trouble in this country. I was trying to destroy it and put it this way. The cabin area in which one talks about what we call the Negro problem or the race problem it is a it has been used always in my experience job secure. A very you know a fact so simple that it's been out. That. You are here beneath that sky and this earth. Like I am and what your obligation is in that short time one is alive is my obligation to and that no one you can't and I can't for whatever reason
make oneself less than a human being. And whoever thinks he really hates somebody else and I level on any level from the most private to the most public it's a confession you're making about yourself when the whole population does it it turns into a disaster like Germany. And this could happen to us. And you are involved very deeply in trying to convey that message. I think that the next question's had best come from our director of literature and drama as to how you go about this. But what I'd like most to find out is how you feel I know you're the statement that's so widely quoted that you want to be and I'm an honest man and a good writer. How do you feel. Do you feel satisfied with the kind of reaction you're getting as a writer now not as a not as a moralist but when for instance you pick up on the issue of Commentary and see that
that Norman Podhoretz has been moved to make this kind of confession. Do you feel that you know that you've really made contact or do you feel satisfied with yourself as as a writer individually. No. There's nothing whatever to do with Norman's piece by the way which is a tremendous achievement I think not only for Norman but for all of us and it will be nice to think that more people more white people were able to say when in fact all white people know that they are and what we all really know that whatever you want to afraid of you always will be afraid of them and the part of the terror of living and part of the tribe of the two is very little that frightens you. The American trouble is it what frightens Americans they've never learned to live with. That's and that's the real crisis which we now call racial I think but speaking as a writer it's impossible to nominate First of all as a friend of mine a moment a
long time. We've talked about this for years and I can assume that because I wrote that no one would know the normal way it would have come to it. Anyway it sounds there's something terribly terrible about being a writer because one would like to think that you're making an effect. But in fact in the generality it one's got to be aware that the impact you're making if you're making an impact is probably very little to do with the fact that you're running. The fact that one is that I'm a writer. It is in this context somewhat less relevant than the fact that Americans are now for the first time really scared about what they insist on calling their racial situation. I am not writing about the racial situation really but and I'm not trying to cop out I don't mean that I mean it I don't mean that the way it may sound I mean that I'm trying not to write about the racial situation but I do mean that I what I said before them trying to destroy the rhetoric which is which in effect operates to obscure your
humanity and mine. Do you feel that the that the the the kind of popularity that has happened the situation that you have now of these lecture tours the tremendous audience up at the University of California that the people have been moving toward this kind of consciousness and you just come to symbolize it in your writing. You don't take any personal satisfaction. From from having expressed a desire like this eloquently but I have a great deal of persons I was faction personal satisfaction as I quite heard. When I was running fine next time I was I was sure I never achieve it. And when you're doing when you work when you're working you're always scared. And when it's all over when you realized that you you're not quite what you wanted to do when you've done the very best you could. Well you have that if that's satisfaction you have that you didn't cheat. It may be an element of failure and it will surely be in one way or another entirely misjudged for good reasons of the bad. And furthermore you who wrote it will not be
able to read it when it's over or you can do is try to come closer to what you were after and some other piece of work so that the satisfaction you get when you're done. When it's over and it's about five minutes for that satisfaction and you get on to the next piece yeah. Did you have any other questions John I think I really don't know. I notice up at up at the university today and you pointed out that the that the tactic of nonviolence appeared to have two failed in Birmingham. Do you think therefore that these people should stop that from my notes for instance Jackie Robinson is now going down to burning and this was on the news and he is going to lead the demonstration. And Dick Gregory already has. And it appears not to have worked at it only I guess it only can work when and.
When the authorities are willing to say that there is something very valuable about being a writer. In the sense that it teaches you. It's disclosed you patients. I don't mean this you know any corny way. I mean that in order to do anything at all one's got to be aware that you cannot see the effects. It is not it is not a two and two that make form or maybe a two into the make war but you will not perhaps live to see the some letters and that is not important. I think that what is happening in Birmingham will either prove to be when historians look back on it the end of that endeavor called America or the beginning of it. It had to come to this. The strategy of nonviolence was and is a strategy which is based
really on the American Negro heritage. It is not a matter of negroes having been or being capable of being passive. It's a matter again I'm learning something about patience which most white Americans don't know. Now insofar as a strategy can be said to a failed. One I had to revise the strategy. But on another point of view I'm not at all certain that strategy has failed because if it had failed I don't think the situation in Birmingham would now. Be at such a terrible point. It's been pushed to that point by the energy and the passion of a handful of people in in Birmingham and all of them knew that it had to get to this point before get before we can hope to get past it. So it's a question with a lot it's failed. Why would think it was a big question is it not apt to occur in other places. That's the question there is not whether or not it's not about nonviolence question there is about
throughout the rest of the Republic that although. It is not merely the Negro problem and and the country's not going out will be say by a handful of children the country has always been very proud of. But is never taking any responsibility for the crisis in burning and forces you all of us to be responsible for those who fall for those children. That's what that comes to. It is really up to the republic whether or not we fail. And this is not a black we or a white we we we're really learning we gather here or we will not learn to live at all. And do you think that this can be permanently used in any effective sense on the operation of fear because certainly fear and power are operating very heavily in the situation now. It is a question of power pitted against power in a way even nonviolence
itself as practiced in the south is a question of tactic. It can't it can't become a healthy outcome as long as it's at that stage. But depending which way you mean what we are really living through is nothing how less than a revolution. The people the power never give it away. The power that one is trying and I think it is I'm saying one of you this may be happening for the first time in history the world. When it's trying to achieve a bloodless revolution a moral revolution and our situation we have no choice. The fear that you're talking of is it is a white. Man's Fear. Now Mia losing his power and what he thinks of as his safety. But his very identity. And what is crucial here is it isn't he doesn't realize that. In this terrible struggle that he has waged himself to keep the Negro as he put it quaintly in his place. He destroyed his own identity and integral live in this country no matter who he is I mean from a from a narcotics
addict from the lowest of the low even to the most a political the most hypocritical knows more about who he is than his white counterpart does into conditions imposed by the American public on the negro had made it necessary imperative they not for themselves about that. He may be destroyed by it because of the same thing. I was born knowing having to know by the time I was five that I was going to be hard and I was going to die. White Americans governor about 30 and they got it was a guy a tourist. Do you think that the feeling that this is so is that it. Makes a man like say Norman Mailer jealous in some way and gives birth to this this idea of the of the hipster who's going to live like the negro and is going to find out the things that he senses the negroes know and then. Yes living normal for the moment out of it. It's like watching people who decided they are
going to. Learn how they put it to swing or somebody's going to learn what you know which are going to pay their dues you know the things are going to eat things on the surface it comes from beneath he things that he can pick up and learn and carry it is something that you do because you if you didn't you'd be dead. You know I was beat long before the beat generation ever was heard of I thought of when I was 10 years old he said in Harlem when one's father came down the street having just been fired again. When I was 10 I was only 34. He was beat to his socks. That's what beat means. Now these cats who would have discovered this were capillary 20 years later don't know what they are talking about. I was hep A lot of people were hip and I only meant if you had to take on the world and survive it it doesn't mean that it doesn't mean anything now I resent. I resent the assumption that you can achieve
an experience without undergoing it. You know what do you think of their of their writing of guys like guys like Kerouac. Is it missed the point entirely. As it is it's not right. It is self-indulgence in masturbation it is not right. I have to say that but it is true. I mean he's talented. So is everybody the age of 5. What about Mailer Norman is something else again Norman is known as more than talented Norman could become could have become Anyway a fantastic writer and I don't think. I don't know Norman. And you talk about Norman let me put it another way. There's a moment when you know I was life and he all
his life. When you've done something and you can't do anymore. And every novelist knows this is a very private thing and there's nothing there's no way I can translate it to you. But there's a crucial moment when you can either keep on doing what you've done. All you can make a leap which looked like death in the things you have never done before and you're not sure that you can do is it is an either or. If you don't try to do things that you never done before you can survive the reputation of the rest of your life. But you are effectively stop writing and no one in the world may know it but you. But you know it. And anyone who is trying to write also knows it and this can destroy you.
How do you feel about the the critical reaction to you first as your last novel. Another country that was a good deal more restrained than it's been to the books of essays to the fire next time. I like your use of the word restraint. How does this you know this really bother you I mean you could do you consider your fiction to be the real flesh of this of your work. Yes I'm a novelist. I think and I think essentially it's probably much easier to read my essays essays easy to read and it gives not necessarily easy to write. I mean a novel. Yes I would confess you know that was my first novel in six years and I was very scared and it's true the first week of reviews and events of users were ghastly and I was it was very demoralizing. Can you count for this kind of viciousness that came into these. Well I think. It's a novel did anything end quote meaning at all to discuss
the question was about a bad novel because I would have never know what's best Now what I could do but I think that it is one thing for most of them. My readers let me say you know to. To deal with. It will be very hard to for example attack nobody knows my name because if you did that then you would put yourself in the camp of the bigots and the enemy. No it is it is not fashionable to be a racist. But on the other hand it is not easy to be a person and if one if I attack you as a liberal or to say I have a private personal sexual emotional level then I suppose you react the way the reviewers did react as wide as I committed a personal affront as I wrote the book only to make you angry. But I concluded finally say my life that I know was I going to try couldnt that I can vouch for
and. All those people in it are people we see around us every day all of us all of us. And they got angry and I suppose I drew blood. It is one thing to treat me not to be to feel about me or to feel that I'm an ingrown to deal with me that way and quite another thing for me to become a personal threat to you. And of course if any liberal means what he says he's got to move to a place where I am a personal threat to him and for him get past it. You should ask himself why I'm a personal threat. Is there a chance for a guy like the Volga and you leave him hanging there. That's where we are. Yeah they did break through to each other at least one time. Yeah if you told the truth and he managed to hear it. And I think that was very optimistic of me. Graham and I are very greedy
and I meant to be Graham. My assumption is that if you can if you can if you can if you can face it then you probably bear it. And if you can bear it then you can change it. If you lie about it that's the end. But even on the basis of sensitivity you have you make a certain amount of racial differentiation now it's perfectly obvious that any minority which is subjected to intolerable pressure you're going to get a high percentage of abnormal result because the pressure just simply doesn't. But surely again this this also doesn't divide necessarily racial grounds not all Negroes are anything and not all white people are anything in particular. You see if in fact the undue pressure and horror of
what has happened to the negro had made all of them as aware as you are. It would have indeed been a very strange result of oppression. In other words. Beyond this suffering and this fear there is this level of awareness and of compassion and so on which it doesn't seem to me is arrived at necessarily on any given basis. No it isn't even strange about oppression. I mean some amount of fall. If you put me in jail you going to somebody watch me keep me in jail. That means your two prisoners you and me. It our situation is precisely that.
Oppression is. But now this is it. People do this to each other all the time. What is crucial here is that we are confronted with the results of it not me. More than you white people white people oppress me. Yes indeed but they destroy themselves in the act. That's a crisis. I'm not the victim here. I have the advantage after all. I have nothing whatever to lose. But no white American has that advantage. There is only you can do to me any more to kill me. And for the moment you want have the guts to do that. But as in the US you can do it. Now rests with you. What do you do out of your oppression of yourself. That's a crisis. But I'm trying to get one step
beyond this in some sense of the word. And that is that supposing it's not true that I or any given person and one of the oppressors Supposing I belong to a group of people who. Are capable of this quintessential type of of suffering and awareness and mostly what I or this hypothetical group suffer from is an incredible sense of guilt and guilt for something in which in fact we have not necessarily participated. And I do believe that there is some level at which the people in the white group who feel that way and the people in the Negro group who understand as you understand in whatever the groupings are can make this cross fertilization which may save the whole. In other words
what do I do with my guilt. You do it and you do your job but anybody who goes to grow up does have this guilt. You recognize you'll be guilty until you drop dead. So that's that's classified. That's taken care of. Then then what you do is operate in any despite it. Maybe maybe one is a worthwhile human being maybe one is committed all the crimes in the world and at some point in anybody's life that is certainly where you feel there's always a reason to be guilty. Guilt is easy. Responsibility is hard. And action is even harder because it doesn't mean for you and for me not speaking to you as a white woman and me as a black man that in order for us to establish is cause for lies ational rather to redeem this cross fertilisation because it's already already happened. You have to give up many things and so will I. This is true of any real human connection. People modify each other that's what's called love. When you speak of this of this revolution how do you see it happening.
Do you see it happening through or through the confrontation when you win. When a guy like like Potter it suddenly recognizes that he does that he that he always has hated negroes. And when other people realize this then you then the possibility for the connection is made is this is this how it comes about that you have to first recognize it really in psychoanalytical terms just you know there it is and you as a as a writer help bring this out as the as the analyst helps bring it out. Then do we try to make the love connection before the second when local terms existed. The phenomenon existed. Very simple very simple phenomenon that we were afraid of controlled and if you had if you were going to conquer the fear you had to go back to where the fear was you couldn't and you couldn't deal with it in any other way. You could never get past it in any other way.
If we're going to make. A real collection was going to reduce it to one to one. Now I know this sounds and other sounds in this most popular of ages but this is not life is not popularity or football to the very thing that the first step is to be responsible what you feel what you do and if you really are then you can begin to realize what your responsibility is to other people. If you really are when you have no choice but to act on it and you are divorced in some ways indeed for most people in the great mass of people. But then you are also more connected with them than ever because even though the mass of people may not know it they depend on their lives.
And what the world calls poets. Which I mean the people who write poetry. The first responsibility is yours and the revolution is trying to accomplish is not. This revolution is very pressing. If one looks at history of our history the French Revolution. I was trying to accomplish another kind of revolution and that revolution simply involves changing the moral climate which is within which is impossible to live. It has to begin with a personal responsibility. Do you think many many white Americans have come to this. I mean would would would pirates have said do you think Faulkner did it. Gordon has covered several discomforting things. He discovered that he slaves the slaves he saw Dodd had in effect no descendants
like his way about the right to life is very rough. You can't always bail you discover. I was going to take that into account too. Not many white Americans have come to any consciousness of themselves no. But some have some do. Do you count in one favor of the moral revolution that something like like the fire next time might appear in a magazine like The New Yorker. It's a symptom of something. Once you've been to be too optimistic I'm very glad it appeared there. But it's one thing to be frightened by reading something quite another thing to be responsible for to do something. The act of reading is comparatively easy but to assess what you have to give up to assess what the journey will cost you. That is something else. When we settle on this kind of a long time and talk about how things are getting better and progress is the most Well progress is really an American word. This individual heard Americans were you know for
example the progress can be up or down and the question of what you want one is progressing toward as I was never seen as a vent of the American mind and Americans have begun self-congratulation even over such a thing as as troops carrying Murtha into into Mississippi and as a girdle. What a terrible thing that says about the record the hundred year record before that the troops now have to be used carry one man into a university which is presumably educating. Young. No one is asking as of yet what they have been teaching in almost all these years. Why people must find out what they hate when they say they hate me because it isn't me.
Do you feel that there is a possibility. That what you would like to achieve and what all people who understand this would like to achieve do you feel that there's any chance that we can for years I've been interviewing people out of the song and for years I have marveled at the apparent. Quite sincere graciousness and decency of people who have been he Asli treated and I have continued to marvel at the fact that people what I would have thought would have been militant and hostile and filled with hate did not appear to be. And yet I if I sensed a change in since the rise in popularity of the Black Muslim movement have in fact the white community waited as it waited too long.
Is there is there any hope in your view that it can be done on the on the grounds of of this super structure that so few people participate in. The bills come in. I put it that way. Once I sat in the Birmingham airport waiting for my plane when a reporter who was being asked and no man to everybody they have to pass. I was a Negro sitting there. With one side of his mouth and on the other side of his mouth. I mean it's literally almost. He was telling me about all these people passed and he was man this is very important. They would use
that as a masquerade in this country. This is a man no longer young could be all but destroyed because it is very expensive to be a man in Birmingham Alabama or in Brooklyn or in Chicago if you're black. And he them and they didn't know it. Nothing has changed. All that has changed is that for the first time the white population is confronted with the fact that Negroes have been living in another country for 400 years and it's not because they couldn't know it before is because they didn't want to know it all. That's a bill that is coming. And what happens now depends on your stamina and on my stamina. It's a futile bill. It's a long record. You'll pay it or we won't.
I think we've been here all the time which was a lot and is very grateful to you for coming. Thank you.
- Producing Organization
- KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
- Contributing Organization
- Pacifica Radio Archives (North Hollywood, California)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- Elsa Knight Thompson and John Leonard, Director of literature and drama, talk with the author of ?The fire next time? and ?Nobody knows my name? about both literary and political matters. Among other things, Baldwin discusses what comes after Birmingham in the civil rights movement, and why the critics attacked his novel ?Another country.?
- Broadcast Date
- Created Date
- Talk Show
- Baldwin, James, 1924-1987; Thompson, Elsa Knight; Leonard, John, 1939-2008; African Americans--Civil rights--History
- Media type
Producing Organization: KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Pacifica Radio Archives
Identifier: 2246_D01 (Pacifica Radio Archives)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Pacifica Radio Archives
Identifier: PRA_AAPP_BB0632_A_conversation_with_James_Baldwin (Filename)
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- Chicago: “A conversation with James Baldwin,” 1963-06-06, Pacifica Radio Archives, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed November 28, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-28-8s4jm23q52.
- MLA: “A conversation with James Baldwin.” 1963-06-06. Pacifica Radio Archives, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. November 28, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-28-8s4jm23q52>.
- APA: A conversation with James Baldwin. Boston, MA: Pacifica Radio Archives, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-28-8s4jm23q52