James Baldwin Interview (1 of 3)
Dr. Kenneth Clark: Through a strange set of circumstances, we managed to record this conversation with James Baldwin immediately after both of us attended that now-famous meeting between a group of Mr. Baldwin's friends and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. I believe much of the emotion of that historic occasion spilled over into our conversation. In an attempt to ease the tension, I started by asking him to dig back and tell us something about his childhood and his growing up.
James Baldwin: My mind is someplace else, really. But to think back on it -- I was born in Harlem, Harlem Hospital, and we grew up -- first house I remember was on Park Avenue -- which is not the American Park Avenue, or maybe it is the American Park Avenue --
Clark: Uptown Park Avenue?
Baldwin: 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. Those were the first scenes I remember. I remember my father had trouble keeping us alive -- there were nine of us. I was the oldest so I took care of the kids and dealt with Daddy. I understand him 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. He was very religious, very rigid. He kept us together, I must say, and when I look back on it -- that was over 40 years ago that I was born -- when 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 technical legal fact, a Southerner. 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. But that means I was raised by families whose roots were essentially rural --
Clark: Southern rural...
Baldwin: Southern rural, and whose relation 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 my hand -- and it is much worse there today than it was when I was growing up.
Clark: Would you say this is true of the schools too?
Baldwin: It is much worse in the schools.
Clark: What school did you go to?
Baldwin: I went to P.S. 24 and I went to P.S. 139. Frederick Douglass...
Clark: We are fellow alumni. I went to 139.
Baldwin: 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. You ask me these questions and I'm trying to answer you. I remember coming home from school -- you can 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 and a little bit white. But she was about your color. 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 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, precisely, are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel, white majority, that you are here? And to be here means that you can't be anywhere else.
I'm terrified at the moral apathy -- the death of the heart which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long, that they really don't think I'm human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say, and this means that they have become, in themselves, moral monsters. It's a terrible indictment -- I mean every word I say.
Clark: 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 --
Baldwin: In a free country -- in the middle of the 20th century.
Clark: In a free country. This Birmingham, 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?
Baldwin: I think that one has 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, for Jimmy Baldwin, and I think I'm speaking for a great many 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'd done everything that you could do to me. The problem now is, how are you going to save yourselves?
James Baldwin Interview (2 of 3)
Dr. Kenneth Clark: You mean the attorney general of the United States?
Baldwin: Mr. Robert Kennedy -- 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 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, I know how I feel, I know how the cats in the barbershop feel.
A boy last week, he was sixteen, in San Francisco, told me on television -- thank God we got him to talk -- maybe somebody thought to listen. He said, "I've got no country. I've got no flag." Now, he's 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 San Francisco is engaging -- as most Northern cities now are engaged -- in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out. It means Negro removal, that is what it means. The federal government is an accomplice to this fact.
Now, we are talking about human beings, there's not such a thing as a monlithic wall or some abstraction called the 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.
Clark: But now, Jim --
Baldwin: Am I exaggerating?
James Baldwin Interview (3 of 3)
Clark: What do you see? Are you essentially optimistic or pessimistic, and I really don't want to put words in your mouth, because what I really want to find out is what you really believe.
Baldwin: I'm both glad and sorry you asked me that question, but 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'm forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive. But 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 are going to face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long.
What white people have to do, is try and 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, it means you need it.
The question you have got to ask yourself -- the white population of this country has got to ask itself -- North and South, because it's one country, and for a Negro, there's no difference between the North and South. There's just a difference in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact. If I'm not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you've got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it's able to ask that question.
Clark: As a Negro and as an American, I can only hope that America has the strength and the capacity --
Baldwin: And the moral strength.