It is especially important, in 2015, in the midst of Black Lives Matter and Moral Monday, to look back through Baldwin’s eyes, in order to look forward. As the younger generation finds its voice and asserts its leadership of the new civil rights struggle, Baldwin’s words ring prophetic.
Kenneth Clark interviewed James Baldwin about his thoughts on the appeal of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam as opposed to the Reverend Martin Luther King, in 1963.
Transcript of Kenneth Clark’s interview of James Baldwin (1963)
Baldwin: 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: It was a great shock to me — I want to say this on the air — The attorney general did not know —
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 monolithic 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.
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 on the levee — we were trying to keep alive; we were trying to survive. It was a very brutal system.
The Negro has never been happy in this place. What those kids first of all proved — first of all, they proved that. They come from a long line of fighters and what they also prove (I want to get to your point, really) is not that the Negro has changed, but that the country has arrived at a place where he can no longer contain the revolt, he can no longer, as he 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 the white man said I was, and I came to get a new chemistry lab, “please suh,” and the tacit price I paid for the chemistry lab was to control the people I represented. And now I can’t do that.
When the boy said this afternoon — we were talking to a Negro student this afternoon who has been through it all, who’s half dead and only about 25, Jerome Smith. That’s an awful lot to ask a person to bear. The country sat back in admiration of all those kids for three or four or five 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 can guarantee, that he won’t reach the 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 non-violent. Those children had to pay a terrible price in discipline, in moral discipline — an interior effort of 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, you know, him.
Baldwin: What Malcolm tells them, in effect, is that they should be proud of being black, and God knows that they should be. That is a very important thing to hear in a country which assures you that you should be ashamed of it. Of course, in order to do this, what he does is destroy a truth and invent a history. What he does is say, “you’re better because you’re black.” Well, of course that isn’t true. That’s the trouble.
I don’t think — to put it as simply as I can, without trying now to investigate whatever the motives of any given Muslim leader may be — it is the only movement in the country, what you can call grass roots — I hate to say that, but it’s true, because it is only — when Malcolm talks or one of the Muslims talks, 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?
It is much more sinister because it is much more effective. It is 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 that we are in this terrible place. It is one of the reasons that we have five cops standing on the back of a 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 my point here is, that the country is for the first time worried about the Muslim movement. It shouldn’t be worried about the Muslim movement. That’s not the problem. The problem is to eliminate the conditions which breed the Muslim movement.
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: probably just because he is, and because he’s a real Christian. He really believes in non-violence. He has arrived at something in himself which permits him — allows him to do it, and he still has great moral authority in the South. He has none whatever in the North.
Poor Martin has gone through God knows what kind of hell to awaken the American conscience, but Martin has reached the end of his rope. There are some things 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 always glorified violence — unless the Negro had the gun. So that Martin is undercut by the performance of the country. The country is only concerned about non-violence if it seems that I’m going to get violent. It’s not worried about non-violence if it’s some Alabama sheriff.
Clark: Jim, 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.
Baldwin: They’re indisssoluble.
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: 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.