James Baldwin: Reflections of a Maverick

Date: May 27, 1984, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 1, Column 1; Book Review Desk
Byline: By Julius Lester

The hair is almost white now, but that is the only indication that James Baldwin will be 60 years old in August. Thirty-one years have passed since the publication of his first book, the novel ”Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and 21 years since ”The Fire Next Time” made him an international celebrity.

The intensity and passion that characterize his writing are evident in conversation. His voice, though soft, is deep and resonant, and in its modulations and rhythms one hears echoes of the boy preacher he once was. He gestures with a fluidity reminiscent of a conductor, as if there is an unseen orchestra that must be brought into harmony. The face he has written of as ugly, with its protuberant eyes, flat nose and wide mouth, has, in reality, the ritual beauty of a Benin head. Baldwin looks as if he were sculpted in flesh rather than merely being born of it.

The following is the edited transcript of a three- hour conversation taped in my home in Amherst, Mass., on a Sunday afternoon in April. As writers, 15 years apart in age, we wanted to compare our generations. As it turned out, we embodied our generations more than I, at least, had anticipated. I began by saying to Baldwin:

Your literary beginnings were as a part of the New York intelligentsia. It was right after the end of World War II that you began publishing reviews and essays in publications like The New Leader, The Nation, Commentary and Partisan Review. What was it like for a young black man, 21 years old, to be around people like Randall Jarrell, Dwight Macdonald, Lionel Trilling, Delmore Schwartz, Irving Howe and William Barrett, to name a few.

For me, these people were kind of on Olympus. I mean, in one way I was very intimidated by them, and I don’t know what in the world they thought of me. Dwight Macdonald told me that I was ”terribly smart.” (Laughs) I certainly learned from them, though I could not tell you exactly what I learned. A certain confidence in myself, perhaps.

Did you ever approach Langston Hughes? He was living in Harlem.

I knew of Langston Hughes, but it never occurred to me. I was too shy. Later on I realized that I could have. He didn’t live far away, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me. You see, there were two Harlems. There were those who lived on Sugar Hill and there was the Hollow, where we lived. There was a great divide between the black people on the Hill and us. I was just a ragged, funky black shoeshine boy and was afraid of the people on the Hill, who, for their part, didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Langston, in fact, did not live on the Hill, but in my mind, he was associated with those people. So I would never have dreamed of going and knocking on his door.

And yet, you went and knocked on Richard Wright’s door.

I suppose I did that because I had to. I’d just read ”Uncle Tom’s Children” and ”Native Son.” I knew of Langston and Countee Cullen, they were the only other black writers whose work I knew at that time, but for some reason they did not attract me. I’m not putting them down, but the world they were describing had nothing to do with me, at that time in my life. Later on I realized something else, but then their work did not resound to me. The black middle class was essentially an abstraction to me. Richard was very different, though. The life he described was the life I lived. I recognized the tenements. I knew that rat in ”Native Son.” I knew that woman in the story ”Bright and Morning Star.” All of that was urgent for me. And it was through Richard that I came to read the black writers who had preceded me, like Jean Toomer, and came to know Langston and Countee Cullen in a new way. By the time I went to see Richard I was committed to the idea of being a writer, though I knew how impossible it was. Maybe I went to see Richard to see if he would laugh at me.

Did he?

No. He was very nice to me. I think he found me kind of amusing and I’m sure I was. He was very distant in a way - we never got to be close friends. But he was very tender, very helpful and we saw each other from time to time. I was still very shy, but I was very proud of him and I think he was proud of me … for a while. He may have been always, in fact.

In the essay ”Alas, Poor Richard” you write about Wright’s feeling that in your earlier essays, ”Many Thousands Gone” and ”Everybody’s Protest Novel,” you were trying to kill him -

That I betrayed him.

- And, I think, then, about Eldridge Cleaver’s essay ”Notes on a Native Son” from ”Soul on Ice,” which is critical of you. Have younger black writers looked on you as the literary father who must be killed?

I’ve never bought that analogy. Eldridge’s attack on me - quite apart from everything else - is preposterous. In any case, Eldridge cannot claim to know me in any way whatsoever. And he certainly didn’t love me. I knew Richard and I loved him. And that’s a very, very, very great difference. I was not attacking him; I was trying to clarify something for myself. The analogy does not hold. I reject it in toto.

It is clear that you were trying to clarify something in yourself, but you certainly were very critical of him. And I can certainly understand how he could’ve reacted as he did.

But what are the reasons for that? I thought - and I still think - that a lot of what happened to us in Paris occurred because Richard was much, much better than a lot of the company he kept. I mean, the French existentialists. I didn’t think that Simone de Beauvoir or Jean-Paul Sartre - to say nothing of the American colony - had any right whatsoever to patronize that man. It revolted me and made me furious. And it made me furious at Richard, too, because he was better than that. A lot of my tone (in the essay) comes out of that… . Alas, poor Richard.

Did he have a responsibility for you as a younger black writer, and do you have a responsibility for younger black writers?

No, no. I never felt that Richard had a responsibility for me, and if he had, he’d discharged it. What I was thinking about, though, was the early 1950’s when the world of white supremacy was breaking up. I’m talking about the revolutions all over the world. Specifically, since we were in Paris, those in Tunisia, Algeria, the ferment in Senegal, the French loss of their Indo-Chinese empire. A whole lot of people - darker people, for the most part - came from all kinds of places to Richard’s door as they do now to my door. And in that sense he had a responsibility that he didn’t know - well, who can blame him?

This may be one of those generational differences, but I don’t know that I understand this claim you say black people have on you.

I see what you’re saying. But it’s not only black people, if you like. There is something unjust in it, but it’s an irreducible injustice, I think. I found no way around it. But you can’t execute the responsibility in the way people want you to. You have to do your work. But, at the same time, you’re out there. You asked for it. And no matter how you react to it, you cannot pretend that it is not happening.

Do you ever resent the claim?

It has given me some trying moments, but ”It comes with the territory.” It is not my fault and it is not their fault that the world thinks it’s white. Therefore someone who is not white and attempts to be in some way responsible is going to be claimed by multitudes of black kids. Just or unjust is irrelevant.

Witness is a word I’ve heard you use often to describe yourself. It is not a word I would apply to myself as a writer, and I don’t know if any black writers with whom I am contemporary would, or even could, use the word. What are you a witness to?

Witness to whence I came, where I am. Witness to what I’ve seen and the possibilities that I think I see… . But I can see what you’re saying. I don’t think I ever resented it, but it exhausted me. I didn’t resent it because it was an obligation that was impossible to fulfill. They have made you, produced you - and they have done so precisely so they could claim you. They can treat you very badly sometimes, as has happened to me. Still, they produced you because they need you and, for me, there’s no way around that. Now, in order for me to execute what I see as my responsibility, I may have to offend them all, but that also comes with the territory. I don’t see how I can repudiate it. I’m not trying to suggest, by the way, that Richard tried to repudiate it, either.

You have been politically engaged, but you have never succumbed to ideology, which has devoured some of the best black writers of my generation.

Perhaps I did not succumb to ideology, as you put it, because I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is.

What’s the difference between a spokesman and a witness?

A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others. I never assumed that - I never assumed that I could. Fannie Lou Hamer (the Mississippi civil rights organizer), for example, could speak very eloquently for herself. What I tried to do, or to interpret and make clear was that what the Republic was doing to that woman, it was also doing to itself. No society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.

There’s a confidence in your use of the word witness - a confidence about the way the world is and the way it should be. I wonder if it’s possible for writers now, black or white, to have that confidence. I wonder if the world hasn’t changed between the time you started and the time we started.

Well, it may have. In one way or another, one is very much a prisoner of his time. But I know what I’ve seen and what I’ve seen makes me know I have to say, I know. I won’t say I believe, because I know that we can be better than we are. That’s the sum total of my wisdom in all these years. We can also be infinitely worse, but I know that the world we live in now is not necessarily the best world we can make. I can’t be entirely wrong. There’re two things we have to do - love each other and raise our children. We have to do that! The alternative, for me, would be suicide.

That sounds romantic to me.

I don’t think I’m romantic. If I am, I wouldn’t know it, so it’s kind of a fruitless question.

When you say that the two things we have to do are love each other and raise our children, my response is to look at American society and say we don’t do either very well.

That’s quite true. But the fact that American society doesn’t do that doesn’t get us off the hook. In fact, black people have attemped to do that.

Have they? The first thing I think of is the black men selling junk to black children.

I know that very well. I think I know why in any case, and I’m not claiming that black people are better than white people. We treat each other just the way the rest of the human race treats itself. Abominably. Well, what am I to do in the face of that? The black man selling junk to kids, I’d like to kill him. I don’t think I’m romantic about that. But I do know, too, that some of the evils that we live with are really produced by the society we live in, by the choices that society offers. I’m not trying to get anybody off the hook when I say that.

It sounds like it.

No, I don’t think so. For example, going back to the years in Greenwich Village, the years I was getting my head beaten when I was walking the streets, that doesn’t happen now. Or it happens more rarely, or in a different way. This means that the choice that a white person had to make when I was growing up - to be seen or not be seen with me, to be on my side or not to be on my side - that choice is a little less dangerous now. That infinitesimal change makes things a little easier for everybody.

Are there any white writers you would describe as witnesses?

Dostoyevsky, Dickens, James, Proust.

What about of your generation?

Well, bearing in mind that this is for The New York Times, whatever I say I’m in a trick bag. Whomever I name, there’ll be a lot of people I’ll have left out. I won’t have a friend left. The only way I can answer the question would be to say that, generally, most white American writers think of themselves as white. To be a white American is to have a very peculiar inheritance. All white American writers came from someplace else, even if they were born here. My past, after all, stretches back to Africa by way of Europe. But most white American writers seem to have cut off their heritage at Ellis Island. Their testimony, for me, does not include enough. Or, one could put it another way. One could say that they reveal their heritage in unconscious ways. I could say this about Norman Mailer, for example. I think, for example, of John Updike and John Cheever, whose subject matter is roughly the same. But Cheever brought something to that subject that engages me - while John Updike’s people do not engage me.

What do you think Cheever brought to his work?

Perhaps a depth of anguish. Somehow those lost suburbanites in Cheever’s fiction are very moving. He engages your compassion. His people are not remote. The work of so many white writers is remote for me. I’m not trying to put them down. It’s simply that they are not relevant to my experience. My experience is larger, and my comment says more about me than them. I think, too, that the effort on the part of the Republic to avoid the presence of black people reflects itself in American literature fatally, to the detriment of that literature.

What about somebody like William Styron?

Bill? Bill is a kind of exception, if only in the effort. I’m thinking, of course, of his ”Confessions of Nat Turner,” which has been so violently attacked and so praised and over-praised. It’s a book I admire very much. But, you see, I read that book as the ”Confessions of Bill Styron” - and I’m not trying to put the book down when I say that. I respect the book very much. I respect him very much and I respect his attempt to grapple with something almost no one in his generation is prepared to even look at.

I was curious about that, because when the book came out, you were the only black writer, as I recall, who liked it, and I felt a large generational gap between you and me. I think that I was right.

Well, I have to question that. Perhaps my profound dissatisfaction with ”The Confessions of Nat Turner” comes from my sense of its inadequate execution, as well as my wish that he had written it from the point of view of a white person affected by the Turner uprising. If he’d done that I could agree with you that he was attempting to grapple with something.

I can understand the objection you’re raising, but I think it’s finally irrelevant. I think Bill wrote the book from that point of view because he couldn’t find another one, he had to try to put himself in the skin of Nat Turner. Now that may have been a great error, but I can’t condemn him for it. It’s beyond my province, really. The book meant something to me because it was a white Southern writer’s attempt to deal with something that was tormenting him and frightening him. I respect him very much for that. Now, as to his execution, what is one to say about it?

I’m still waiting for the white writer to write a novel about a lynching from the point of view of the lyncher.

Yes, I quite agree with you. I said before that America’s effort to avoid the presence of black people constricts American literature. It creates a trap white writers find themselves in.

We were talking about white writers as witnesses and you alluded to Mailer. How do you see Mailer?

Well, Mailer is something I’ve been desperately trying to avoid. (Laughs) All I can say is that - well, one of the hazards of being an American writer, and I’m well placed to know it, is that eventually you have nothing to write about. A funny thing happens on the way to the typewriter. There is a decidedly grave danger of becoming a celebrity, of becoming a star, of becoming a personality. Again, I’m very well placed to know that. It’s symptomatic of the society that doesn’t have any real respect for the artist. You’re either a success or a failure and there’s nothing in between. And if you are a success, you run the risk that Norman has run and that I run, too, of becoming a kind of show business personality. Then the legend becomes far more important than the work. It’s as though you’re living in an echo chamber. You hear only your own voice. And, when you become a celebrity, that voice is magnified by multitudes and you begin to drown in this endless duplication of what looks like yourself. You have to be really very lucky, and very stubborn, not to let that happen to you. It’s a difficult trap to avoid. And that’s part of Norman’s dilemma, I think. A writer is supposed to write. If he appears on television or as a public speaker, so much the better or so much the worse, but the public persona is one thing. On the public platform or on television, I have to sound as if I know what I’m talking about. It’s antithetical to the effort you make at the typewriter, where you don’t know a damned thing. And you have to know you don’t know it. The moment you carry the persona to the typewriter, you are finished. Does that answer your question?

No, but it’s an eloquent evasion.

Is it? But I don’t want to talk about Norman! Why should I talk about Norman? I’m very fond of him and have great respect for his gifts. Well, perhaps he’s a perfect example of what it means to be a white writer in this century, a white American writer in this country. It affords too many opportunities to avoid reality… . And I know much more about Norman than I’m willing to say in print. After all, I care about him.

I respect that, but I’d like to pursue it from another angle.

I’ll have another drink, then.

In ”Alas, Poor Richard,” you write that it’s ”not possible to overstate the price a Negro pays to climb out of obscurity.” And you go on to write that ”The higher he rises, the less is his journey worth.” Thinking about what you’ve just said about Mailer, I couldn’t help also thinking that you’ve risen higher than any black writer, even higher than Wright in terms of public acclaim, recognition and esteem. How much has the journey been worth?

What happened to me came as a great surprise. Obviously, in the essay, I’m speaking to some extent of a public journey, though the word public is not used. I don’t feel bitter about the journey, and that may be indicative of something. I don’t feel bitter and I don’t feel betrayed. I was a maverick, a maverick in the sense that I depended on neither the white world nor the black world. That was the only way I could’ve played it. I would’ve been broken otherwise. I had to say, ”A curse on both your houses.” The fact that I went to Europe so early is probably what saved me. It gave me another touchstone - myself. Then the idea of becoming an artist as distinguished from a celebrity was real. I never wanted to become a celebrity. Being a maverick saved my life. What club could I have joined? I had to make peace with a great many things, not the least of which was my intelligence. You don’t realize that you’re intelligent until it gets you into trouble.

Is the celebrity James Baldwin anyone that you know?

That’s a very good question. Not really. Not really. It’s almost a garment I wear. But the celebrity never sees himself. I have some idea what I’m doing on that stage; above all, I have some idea what sustains me on that stage. But the celebrity is not exactly Jimmy, though he comes out of Jimmy and Jimmy nourishes that, too. I can see now, with hindsight, that I would’ve had to become a celebrity in order to survive. A boy like me with all his handicaps, real and fancied, could not have survived in obscurity. I can say that it would have had to happen this way, though I could not see it coming.

One night you were talking semicoherently about facing the fact of having to find a new language.

Where was I? Oh, yes! I was here - at least I wasn’t on television. Anyway, a language is a frame of reference, isn’t it? And I can only be semicoherent about it now because I’m in the process of experimenting. I say a new language. I might say a new morality, which, in my terms, comes to the same thing. And that’s on all levels - the level of color, the level of identity, the level of sexual identity, what love means, especially in a consumer society, for example. Everything is in question, according to me. One has to forge a new language to deal with it. That’s as coherent as I can be about it.

What do you see as the task facing black writers today, regardless of age or generation?

This may sound strange, but I would say to make the question of color obsolete.

And how would a black writer do that?

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. I can’t prove this, but I know it. It’s the terror of being described by those they’ve been describing for so long. And that will make the concept of color obsolete. Do you see what I mean?

I see what you mean, but some black writers of my generation might say that the responsibility of black writers is to write about black people.

That is not a contradiction. If our voices are heard, it makes the concept of color obsolete. That has to be its inevitable result.

Julius Lester teaches in the Afro-American Studies and Judaic Studies programs at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His novel, ”Do Lord Remember Me,” will be published in January.

(Source: The New York Times)