A Conversation With James Baldwin
One of the significant things about the present revolution of the Negro people in America, is maybe the fact that for the first time there is genuine communication between negros and whites. Negroes are saying out loud now things which they have long said only to themselves. (Rustling sound) Probably one of the most articulate, passionate, and clear communicators to the American conscience, is my guest, James Baldwin. James Baldwin's name is known throughout America for saying so passionately, and so clearly, and with such grace and style, what every negro has long known and has long felt.
Welcome, James, it's good to have this opportunity to talk with you, and to have you share with us some of your present feelings 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 practically everything that you have written, but I still would like to know something about you, the young man growing up in Harlem. What schools you went to; maybe a little about some of the teachers that you might've come in contact with in Harlem. What a funny question. My mind is someplace else, really. But to think back on it, I was born in Harlem Hospital, you know, and we grew up-. The first house I remember was on Park Avenue which is not the American Park
Avenue, or maybe it is the American Park Avenue. Uptown Park Avenue. Uptown Park Avenue where the railroad tracks are. We used to play on the roof and in the, I can't call it an alley, but, near the river. It was a kind of dump, garbage dump. That was the first- those were first scenes I remember. I remember my father had trouble keeping us alive. There were nine of us and um, I was the oldest, so I took care of the kids, and dealt with daddy. Might I say, he's much better now. Part of his problem was, he couldn't feed his kids. But 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 , after what was nearly 40 years ago that I was born, I think back on my growing up and walk that same block today
because it's still there, 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 been born in the south. That means I was raised by family whose roots were essentially rural and- Southern rural. Southern rural, and whose relationship to the church was very direct because it was the only means they had of expressing their pain and their despair. But 20 years later the moral authority, which was present in the Negro Northern community when I was growing up, has vanished. And people talk about progress, and I look at
Harlem, which I really know. I know it like I know hand. And it is much worse there today than it was when I was growing up. Would you say this is true of the schools, too? It's much worse in the schools. What school did you go to? I went to P.S. 24 and went to P.S. 139. We are fellow alumni. I went to 139. I didn't like a lot of my teachers, but I had a couple of teachers who were very nice to me. One was a Negro teacher and I remember, [stutters]... You asked me these questions, and I'm trying to answer you. I remember coming home from school and [stutters] guess how young I must have been, and my mother asked me if my teacher was colored or white. And I said she was a little bit colored, a little bit white 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 little bit white. And not only in terms, in physical terms, but in the head and in the heart. And there are days, this is one of them, when you wonder, What your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How precise are you going to reconcile [pause] yourself to your situation here? And how you're going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking [silence] cruel white majority that you are here. And to be here means you that can't be anywhere else. I could, my own person, leave this country, and I could go to Africa. I could go to China. I could go to Russia. I could go to Cuba. But I'm
an American. That is a fact. [speaker] Yes, um, Jim [James] Am I going ahead? [speaker] no. [speaker] This is certainly some of the things that we're after but as I read your writing and know that you came out of P.S. 24 and my alma mater in your high school 139, I see that no one could write with the feeling and with the skill with which you write if you did not get in P.S. 24 and 139. A certain type of education. Now, I'd like to go back to the point that you made that the Harlem that you knew when you were growing up is not the Harlem now. And see if we can relate this also even to the school. [James] Let's see if we can [silence] It was probably very important for me.
I haven't thought of this for a long time so. It was really that important to me, that at that point I was going to P.S. 24, the only Negro school principal, as far as I know, in the entire history of New York, was the principal, was a woman named Mrs. ?Air?. And she liked me And, um, in a way I guess she proved to met that I could... um, that I didn't have to be entirely defined by my circumstances because you know that every Negro child knows what his circumstances are, though he can't articulate them. Because he's brought under a public which shows him, in as many ways as it knows how, and it's got great force, that he has a certain place and he can never rise above it. And, what has happened in Holland since is that generation has passed away. [silence] [Host] There was a sort of a model. [James] She was a proof. She was a living proof
[no audio] I was not necessarily what the country said I was. [silence] [Host] And it is significant, Jim, that we do not have a single negro principal in the New York Public School system today. [James] And it is not because there ain't nobody around who can do it. You know. Once involved in a very curious, and a very serious battle, concerning what I think at the time is going to be as explicit as one knows...as one can possibly be. The great victims in this country of the institution called segregation, which is not a Southern custom, which has been for a hundred years a national way of life. The great victims are the white people. The white man's children. Lorraine [?] Hansberry said this afternoon, we were talking about the problem of being a negro male in this
society. Lorraine said that she wasn't too concerned, really, about Negro manhood, since they had managed to do and to endure and to even transcend some fantastic things. But she was very worried about a civilization which could produce those five policeman standing on the Negro woman's neck. In Birmingham, or wherever it was. 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 [unclear] themselves for so long that 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. [silence] [host] Well Jim, I can say... [James] It's a terrible indictment. I mean every word I say. [host] 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... [James] In a free country. [host] In a free country. [James] In the middle of the 20th century. [host] This Birmingham... It's 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? [James] I think that one who's got to find some way of putting the present administration of this country on the spot. One has 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, Jimmy 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 I was 17, you have done everything that you could do to me. The problem now is - how are you going to save yourselves? It was a great shock to me... I want to say this on the air, The attorney general did not know... You mean the attorney general of the United States? Mr. Robert Kennedy. Didn't know [inhale] 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 done, is doing everything it can do. But you cannot liberate me. Now there are 20 million people in this country, and you can't put them all in jail. I know how my nephew feels, and how I feel, and the cats in the barbershop feels. A boy last week, he was 16 in San Francisco told me on television, thank God we got him to talk. Maybe somebody else ought to listen. He said, "I got no country, I've got no flag." Man he's only 16 years old. And I couldn't say you do. [silence] I don't have any evidence to prove that he does. They were tearing down his house because San Francisco is engaging as al- most ?northern? cities now are engaged in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out.
Gettin-, it means negro removal; that is what it means. And the federal government is accom- is, is, is an accomplice to this fact. Now this, we're talking about human beings: there's not such a thing as a monolithic wall, or you know, some abstraction called a "Negro Problem." These are Negro boys and girls who at 16 and 17 don't believe the country means anything that it says and don't feel they have any place here. On the basis of the performance of the entire country... But now Jame- No, am I exaggerating? No, I certainly cannot say that you're exaggerating, but there is this picture of a group of young Negro college students in 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 these last 3 or 4 years.
Could you react to the Student Nonviolent Movement, which has made such an impact on America, which has affected both Negroes and Whites, and seems to have jolted them out of the lethargy of tokenism and moderation. How do account for this, James? Well, of course, one of the things I think that happened, Ken, really, 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. We were trying to survive a very brutal system. The Negro has never been happy in this place. What those kids first of all prove, first of all, they prove that. They come from a long line of fighters. And what they also prove, I'm goin-, I want to get your point, really. What they also prove is not that the Negroe's changed,
but that the country's arrived at a place where they can no longer contain the revolt. You can no longer, as you could do once... Let's say I was a Negro college president and I needed a new chemistry lab. So I was a Negro leader. I was a Negro leader because a white man said I was. And I came to get a new chemistry lab. Please, sir. And the tacit price I paid for that chemistry lab lab was control of the people I represented. And now I can't do that. When the boy said this afternoon, you were talking to Negro students this afternoon, that have been through it all, who is have dead. I mean, by 25. Jerom-. Jerome Smith. And that's an awful lot to ask a person to bear. The country's sat back in admiration of all those kids for 3 or 4 or 5 years and has not lifted a finger to help them.
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 could guarantee, that he won't reach a breaking point. You know. You can only survive so many beatings, so much humiliation, so much despair, so many broken promises, before something gives. Human beings are not by nature nonviolent. Those children had to go, had to pay a terrible price in discipline, in moral discipline, and int- interior effort and courage which the country cannot imagine, because it still thinks Gary Cooper, for example was a man. I mean his image, I have nothing against him. [Moderator] Is that something that you cannot expect them to remain completely nonviolent? [James] No, you can't, you can't. And furthermore there were always these students that we're talking about, a minority... These students we're talking, when I was in Tallahassee, there were some students protesting. But there were many, many, many, many, more students who had given up who were desperate and who
Malcolm X can reach, for example, much more easily than I can. [Moderator] What do you mean? [James] When Malcolm tells them. When Malcolm tells them them, in effect, is that they should be proud of being black, and God knows that they should be. That's a very important thing to hear. They're going to [inaudible] ashamed of it. Because, what he did, in order to do this what he does [silence] is destroy a truth and invent a history. What he does is say, "You're better because you're black." Well, of course, 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 frustration of the Negro? I don't think, put it as simply as I can, and without trying now to
investigate whatever the motives of any given Muslim leader may be- it is the only movement in the country, but you can call grassroots. I hate to say that, but it is true. Because it is only... When Malcolm talks or the Muslims talk, they articulate for all the Negro people who hear them, who 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. You know. Jim, 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 with a false morale
by giving them a false sense of superiority, and it will always break down in a crisis. It's the history of Europe, simply. It's one of the reasons we're in this terrible place. It's one of the reasons we have five cops standing on a black woman's neck in Birmingham. Because at some point they believed, they were taught and they believed that they were better than other people because they were white. It leads to a moral bankruptcy it is inevitable. It cannot but lead there. But the point...my point here is that the country is, for the first time, 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 actively nonviolent and his philosophy of disciplined love for the oppressor. But MARTIN... and is what do you think the relationship between
this and the reality of the Negro masses? Well, to leave Martin out of it for a moment, Martin's a very rare, a very great man. Martin's rare for two reasons, partly because just, because he's...because he's a real Christian and he really believes in nonviolence. He's arrived at some of the thinking himself, which permits him, allows him to do it. And he still has great moral authority in the South. He's known whatever in the North. Poor Martin Has gone through God knows what kind of hell. To wake to awaken the American conscience. But Martin has reached the end of his rope. There's some thing Martin can't do. Martin's only one man. Martin can't 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 no more, and don't listen to Martin, you know, and anyway are themselves produced by a civilization
which has only glorified violence. Alyssa negro had the gun so the Martin's Martin is undercut by the performance of the country the country's only concern about nonviolence, if it seems that I'm going to get violent because I'm worried about it, about nonviolence. It was some Alabama sheriff. Jim, what do you see deep in the recesses of your own mind as the future of our nation? And I asked that question in that way because I think that the future of the Negro and the future of the nation are linked. They're insoluble. . What do you see. Are you essentially optimistic? Or pessimistic? And I really don't want to put words in your mouth because I really want to find out is what you really believe. Well I'm both glad and sorry you asked me that question. And I'll do my best to answer it I can't be a pessimist.
Because I'm alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So I'm forced to be an optimist I am forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive. But [inhales] 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 this stranger whom they maligned so long . What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigga in the first place. Because I'm not a nigga.
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- WGBH Educational Foundation
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- This edited version of "A Conversation With James Baldwin" contains the entire interview with Baldwin from "Perspectives: Negro and the American Promise."
- Civil Rights; Baldwin, James, 1924-1987; African American authors Interviews; race relations; civil rights leaders; African American authors Biography
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- Moving Image
Interviewee: Baldwin, James, 1924-1987
Interviewer: Clark, Kenneth Bancroft, 1914-2005
Producer: Morganthau, Henry
Producing Organization: WGBH Educational Foundation
Publisher: WGBH Educational Foundation
Supervisory Producer: Barzyk, Fred
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- Chicago: “A Conversation With James Baldwin,” 1963-06-24, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 7, 2020, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-0v89g5gf5r.
- MLA: “A Conversation With James Baldwin.” 1963-06-24. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 7, 2020. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-0v89g5gf5r>.
- APA: A Conversation With James Baldwin. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-0v89g5gf5r