When One of These Shadows Moves (Part Two)
An interview with James Baldwin, 1972.
BY TONY WOLK
Stanley: Have you ever been interviewed by Playboy?
Baldwin: Yes, Alex interviewed me for Playboy, but it was never published. I suppose it will be one day. I don’t know. I think they hold interviews until you become hot or something.
Wolk: I wonder what they’re waiting for.
Stanley: Strictly for self-interest, the reason I’m fascinated is because I’ve been trying to do an interview for them. I’ve submitted about seventy names, and each one for some reason… Do you know this man named Murray Fisher, who’s on Playboy? He says that Alex Haley is his best friend.
Baldwin: Yeah, yeah, I know Murray.
Stanley: I have yet to hear anybody say Alex Haley wasn’t their best friend.
Baldwin: Alex is a very nice man, that must be said. Cheers.
Stanley: That’s the coldest beer I’ve had since coming to London.
French: That’s because you didn’t ask for it to be cold.
Wolk: One very small kind of question, having to do with the way that you write. I’ve been reading, I think I’ve read all of your novels, and several of your other books, and I’ve noticed you never split an infinitive. But I got to the Rap on Race last night, and both you and Margaret Mead are splitting infinitives all over the place.
Stanley: Left and right.
Baldwin: Well, yeah, but that was a conversation, kind of reckless. [Laughs.] No, I don’t know.
Stanley: We’re carrying on a crusade for splitting infinitives.
Baldwin: I can’t really explain that because, I think, the only thing I picked up from grammar— I never learned grammar, at all, and until today I can’t describe, I couldn’t take apart a sentence.
Stanley: I should think that would be a help rather than a hindrance.
Baldwin: Probably, no. But somebody made me conscious of split infinitives in high school. One of my best friends who was going to be a writer.
Wolk: Well, it was a great fad for many years.
Baldwin: What? Not to split infinitives?
Wolk: To not split infinitives.
Baldwin: Yeah. [Laughs.]
Stanley: To knowingly not split infinitives.
Baldwin: But it’s not conscious really, you know, probably just something which stayed with me.
Wolk: Obviously they’re there in speech.
Baldwin: Yes, yes.
Wolk: I look for strange things at times. I’ll probably have no idea what you were saying, but I was watching for the split infinitives.
Stanley: He takes out this little notebook from his breast pocket, he takes it out and he writes it down whenever he finds a split infinitive, to strengthen his case in favor of splitting them.
Wolk: As an English teacher— English teachers are very often thought of as people who simply are trying to correct your errors rather than to teach you anything useful.
Baldwin: Yeah, that was my experience of them.
Wolk: And I’ve been kind of crusading in teaching teachers that there are other things to do, and I try to explain why they might not do those kind of things. But I’ve noticed that your writing is, I guess you might say very clean as far as grammatical kinds of things that anybody would be looking for. And on the other hand the last few years there’ve been some writers, like Sonia Sanchez, who are actually publishing not poetry, but even prose, in which they try to reconstruct or try to use a dialect which doesn’t depend upon the written language.
Baldwin: Yes, which is very interesting. It’s something I can’t myself do because I’m not of that generation. It would be too self-conscious. But I can see why, I can see what they’re doing, and it’s an attempt to translate, really, the language of the streets, you know, into some viable, you know, literary form where literary [unintelligible] would object to, but still there’s some form there.
Wolk: If it’s in a story, I think you should call it literature. It’s simple enough just to say that.
Baldwin: Yeah, you haven’t got any other word for it. My situation was very different. I had to figure out something—I had to figure out a way, I had to figure out a form.
Wolk: I haven’t read very much of Richard Wright’s things, but in some of his stories from Uncle Tom’s Children he does try to rearrange the spelling of the words. I got the impression at the time that he was having to devise his own system, and it wasn’t always...
Baldwin: Well, it’s a very tricky thing for me. It was a matter—I hate dialect, you can’t read it anyway, you know, so—
Stanley: Frequently it’s condescending.
Baldwin: And you run the terrible risk of condescension, too, so I try to build it on cadence, you know, to recreate black speech, to recreate the beat. You could read it, but you would hear the way it sounded, you know, the way the stresses and…
Wolk: Did you ever know Frantz Fanon?
Baldwin: No, I never did.
Wolk: I wonder—have you read any of his books?
Baldwin: I read Wretched of the Earth, and I’ve read a couple of excerpts of this or that. Apart from Wretched of the Earth, I don’t really know him very well.
Wolk: I think I saw a reference, you made a reference to him, where it’s the sort of thing—I forget where I was reading—Fanon is used kind of as a label. If you really look at Fanon, you’ll find things you can agree with.
Baldwin: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I think he’s very valuable. I think that in America anyway, well, he’s been used as a label without being entirely understood, with the North African situation which he was involved, is very unlike the black American situation. And you can’t simply lift Fanon out of North Africa, you know, into Chicago—it doesn’t work. But everyone has to find that out by himself.
Baldwin: Oh, yes. He was very important to them. But Bobby, for example, knows very well that, you know, I think Bobby knows very well, you know, the extent to which Fanon can be a contribution to the black struggle, and to what extent he can be misleading.
Wolk: In what sense would he be misleading?
Baldwin: Well, misleading if only because it’s one thing to be battling for your freedom in a land which belongs to you, you know? And another thing to be battling for it in the streets of Chicago, in a land which belongs to all of you. You know, there’s no invader to be repelled, there’s no colonial to be sent back to the mother country.
Wolk: Speaking of battling in the streets, do you know what ever happened to Rap Brown, because I just saw…
Baldwin: No, I don’t. What did you see?
Wolk: I saw a Herald Tribune shortly after the apparently abortive bank robbery. About all I remember of it—
Baldwin: All I heard about that was the man who they said was Rap Brown turned out not to be Rap Brown.
Wolk: So that wasn’t Rap Brown?
Baldwin: After all, no.
Wolk: Somehow more people come and visit us in London than anywhere else we’ve been, and I’ve asked them and they don’t know anything about it either, they saw the initial story…
Baldwin: Well, it dropped out of the newspapers at once, except for a brief thing saying it wasn’t Rap Brown. But I friends who know the family, who also say it wasn’t Rap Brown, but no one seems to know exactly what happened to him.
Wolk: It almost figures. It would’ve been a bizarre story for Rap Brown.
Baldwin: Yeah, well, what’s going on in America is so preposterous, you know, that the whole bank robbery thing is insane.
Wolk: Have you read The Spook Who Sat By the Door?
Baldwin: Yes, I’ve read that.
Wolk: They do have a bank robbery in that book. They rob an arsenal or a National Guard office.
Baldwin: Yeah, that’s right, yeah.
Wolk: And they also rob a bank and it’s beautifully done. But this obviously wasn’t beautifully done.
Baldwin: No, no, no. I don’t know what the truth behind that is. I know that neighborhood and the whole story sounds, for someone who knows New York, quite preposterous.
Wolk: At least I found out something, thank you very much.
Stanley: What about Tony Maynard?
Baldwin: Tony is still in jail. I’ll be going to see him when I get back to New York. And one feels a little stymied. There’ve been now three trials, hung juries each time. So you have to start again. It’s now been four, maybe five years—it’ll be five years this year.
Wolk: Has he ever been out on bail?
Baldwin: No, they won’t give him bail.
Stanley: The incredible thing about the American system of justice is if a man ever does get out free, what can you do to make it up to him?
Baldwin: They don’t even think of that. That’s not even a question. You know, sometimes you can sue the authorities, but most of the time you can’t, and if you do, you usually can’t win. It happens too often. It’s one of the reasons, I’m sure, that once a man’s in jail, and he turns out to be intransigent, that they’re reluctant to let him go.
Stanley: Maybe, if they’re lucky, they can get him to do something bad in jail, so that even if he’s innocent—
Baldwin: Well, that’s what happened with the Soledad Brothers. That’s what happened to George Jackson.
Wolk: That’s another instance of something that’s preposterous.
Baldwin: Oh, yes. The gun in the afro.
Baldwin: Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, you know—they did it with such contempt for anyone’s intelligence. The gun in the afro.
Wolk: I had been reading George Jackson’s book about a year or so ago and it was kind of going everywhere I was going. It was a powerful experience. Susan woke me on a Sunday morning and told me that he had been—
Baldwin: Died, trying to escape.
Wolk: It just didn’t make any sense in the context of the book. I mean, that book would have to be a lie, and almost all other books I’ve read would have to be a lie.
Baldwin: But he’s dead.