James Baldwin: The Last Interview: and other Conversations
Reviewed by: John Stokdijk
Since I am a Canadian, it would probably not surprise anyone that I had only learned of James Baldwin, a Black American writer, a few years ago. I had discovered Brain Pickings, the excellent blog written by Maria Popova. She had discovered Baldwin and began writing about him in her own beautiful style. She has twenty-five posts tagged James Balwin on her website. What he wrote about race relations, as brought to my attention by Popova, is once again very relevant in 2020.
"Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced." James Baldwin
I noticed the above tagline at the bottom of an email from Ajijic Book Club member Allison Quattrocchi. That led to a brief discussion which eventually led to JAMES BALDWIN: THE LAST INTERVIEW AND OTHER CONVERSATIONS as the ABC selection for September. It is a short book consisting of four interviews of Baldwin by four different individuals.
The date of the first interview is significant, December 29, 1961, before the big legislative gains of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
...I didn’t quite know anymore what being black meant... All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be… you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.
TERKEL: Nobody Knows My Name. Why did you choose that title?
BALDWIN: Well, at the risk of sounding pontifical—I suppose it is a fairly bitter title—it is meant as a kind of warning to my country… To be a Negro in this country is really—Ralph Ellison has said it very well—never to be looked at.
But America did not heed the warnings of Baldwin and many others. Now in 2020, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, the USA has had a wave of protests on a scale not witnessed since the 1960s. Yet what Baldwin points to as a core issue is still not being discussed.
No matter how Southerners, and whites in the rest of the nation, too, deny it, or what kind of rationalizations they cover it up with, they know the crimes they have committed against black people. And they are terrified that these crimes will be committed against them.
Baldwin points to a deep shadow in America, an unconscious dynamic, forces which cannot be contained until understood. The USA is a country built by white people using slave labor. That was a grave injustice from which many white people have benefitted and many Black people have not. And, says Baldwin, it is the white people who live with a suppressed fear of the time when the score must be settled. As a Canadian observer, it seems to me that there is more than a little wisdom in this point of view.
Baldwin has an interesting analysis of the different reactions by white and Black audiences to a 1958 crime film
The Defiant Ones… What the movie is designed to prove, really, to white people, is that Negroes are going to forgive them for their crimes, and that somehow they are going to escape scot-free.
But, says Baldwin,
One has got to pay for it. You either pay for it willingly or pay for it unwillingly.
The idea of reparations has been around since 1865 with the promise of 40 acres and a mule. That promise was never kept and it has never gone away. In 2020 it is one of the policy goals of Black Lives Matter. With the passage of time the matter has become extremely complicated and fair reparation may not be possible today. But I believe something on a grand scale is necessary for the healing of the country. Such an act should be combined with a confession, not a confession of guilt but an acknowledgement of complicity by the white population today of harms tolerated for far too long. It is the white population, not just the Black population, that needs to heal. One population suffers from the trauma of having inflicted violent oppression while the other suffers the trauma of being the victims of that abuse. In my view it is a mistake to deny all responsibility for the acts of past generations. Trauma can be passed from generation to generation. Unhealed trauma can survive as a collective shadow.
“...unless the situation is ameliorated, and very, very quickly, there will be violence” said Baldwin in 1961 and soon he was proved right.
There are many other bits of wisdom in this interview.
If one could accept the fact that it is no longer important to be white, it would begin to cease to be important to be black.
There’s no such thing as safety on this planet. No one knows that much. No one ever will. Not only about the world but about himself. That’s why it’s unsafe.
This seems a very great, well, not illness, exactly, but fear. Frenchmen and Frenchwomen whom I knew spent much less time in this dreadful and internal warfare, tearing themselves and each other to pieces, than Americans do.
The date of the second interview was May 27, 1984, in the midst of the Reagan years, and at this time James Baldwin was almost 60.
No society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.
LESTER: What do you see as the task facing black writers today, regardless of age or generation? BALDWIN: This may sound strange, but I would say to make the question of color obsolete.
LESTER: And how would a black writer do that?
BALDWIN: Well, you ask me a reckless question, I’ll give you a reckless answer—by realizing first of all that the world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is a visceral terror.
The date of the third interview was June 26, 1984 and he discusses his sexuality and connects it to a bigger picture of experiencing trauma.
GOLDSTEIN: You never thought of yourself as being gay?
BALDWIN: No. I didn’t have a word for it. The only one I had was “homosexual” and that didn’t quite cover whatever it was I was beginning to feel.
But the so-called straight person is no safer than I am really. Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility. Loving of children, raising of children. The terrors homosexuals go through in this society would not be so great if the society itself did not go through so many terrors which it doesn’t want to admit. The discovery of one’s sexual preference doesn’t have to be a trauma. It’s a trauma because it’s such a traumatized society.
The sexual question and the racial question have always been entwined, you know. If Americans can mature on the level of racism, then they have to mature on the level of sexuality.
I wonder what Baldwin would think today. Progress was not made in the way he anticipated. It seems to me that much more progress has been made on matters of sexuality than matters of race. The political coalition between gays and Blacks that Baldwin foresaw has not emerged. Shared suffering seems to be an insufficient cause for unity.
I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe.
Well, the basis would be shared suffering, shared perceptions, shared hopes.
The fourth interview, the last interview, took place in France in November, 1987, shortly before his death from cancer on December 1st. Baldwin is clearly reflective as a Black American writer living in France. The wisdom of someone seasoned by life shines through.
In his introduction, the interviewer, Quincy Troupe writes,
David also told me that Jimmy had not been told that his cancer was terminal… remembering that David had admonished me to “act normally,” I quickly pulled myself together and told Jimmy how happy I was to see him… Then those bright luminous owl eyes burned deeply into mine, as if seeking some clue, some sign that would give him a hint as to the seriousness of his condition.
Inwardly I screamed NO, NO, NO as I read these words. This is not a good way to face death, a pretence, a denial. But Baldwin is of the same generation as my mother and I understand this approach.
One passage is chilling in light of the killing of George Floyd.
And, say, you were bigger than I was, you could do it, you could beat me, but you gonna have to do it every day… That was the beginning of it and then later on it was cops, you know. It became just a nightmare. Especially cops.
It’s very important for white Americans to believe their version of the black experience. That’s why they have white and black commentators telling all those lies about us. You see, it’s very important for the nigger to suffer. Therefore, they, white people, can feel guilty.
The whole American optic in terms of reality is based on the necessity of keeping black people out of it. We are nonexistent. Except according to their terms, and their terms are unacceptable.
Ronald Reagan represents the justification of their history, their sense of innocence. He means the justification of Birth of a Nation. The justification, in short, of being white.
And all this, because they want to be white. And why do they want to be white? Because it’s the only way to justify the slaughter of the Indians and enslaving the blacks—they’re trapped.
Like Baldwin, I believe that white America is trapped and that the key to solving the racial divide is freeing white Americans from their trap.
I will give the final words to Maria Popova, written in 2015.
On the evening of August 25, 1970, Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) and James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) sat together on a stage in New York City for a remarkable public conversation about such enduring concerns as identity, power and privilege, race and gender, beauty, religion, justice, and the relationship between the intellect and the imagination. By that point, Baldwin, forty-six and living in Paris, was arguably the world’s most famous living poet, and an enormously influential voice in the civil rights dialogue; Mead, who was about to turn seventy, had become the world’s first celebrity academic — a visionary anthropologist with groundbreaking field experience under her belt, who lectured at some of the best cultural institutions and had a popular advice column in Redbook magazine.
They talked for seven and a half hours of brilliance and bravery over the course of the weekend, bringing to the dialogue the perfect balance of similarity and difference to make it immensely stimulating and deeply respectful. On the one hand, as a white woman and black man in the first half of the twentieth century, they had come of age through experiences worlds apart. On the other, they had worlds in common as intellectual titans, avid antidotes to the era’s cultural stereotypes, queer people half a century before marriage equality, and unflinching celebrators of the human spirit.
Besides being a remarkable and prescient piece of the cultural record, their conversation, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race, is also a bittersweet testament to one of the recurring themes in their dialogue — our tendency to sideline the past as impertinent to the present, only to rediscover how central it is in understanding the driving forces of our world and harnessing them toward a better future. This forgotten treasure, which I dusted off shortly after Ferguson and the Eric Garner tragedy, instantly stopped my breath with its extraordinary timeliness — the ideas with which these two remarkable minds tussled in 1970 had emerged, unsolved and unresolved, to haunt and taunt us four decades later with urgency that can no longer be evaded or denied.