When One of These Shadows Moves (Part Three)
An interview with James Baldwin, 1972.
BY TONY WOLK
Stanley: In your books you talk about the white liberal, and particularly, the McCarthy era, how they were stabbing each other in the back and so forth. What is the white liberal today in America? That’s such a journalesey-sounding question, but I’m all worried. I don’t want to be this person.
Baldwin: Well, you don’t sound like that person. I haven’t had much to do with the liberal community—or they with me—for quite some time. It’s been something like a decade, so I don’t really know what it is. I would hazard the same thing’s happening, the same kind of idle arguments, the same kind of pussy-footing, really, about everything. About the economy, about race relations, about—most liberals are really just good Americans, you know, with a somewhat better education, a set of values which they think they honor, but which they don’t pay anything for. This is a generality. This is not true of everybody.
Wolk: This is the kind of person that, say, Hubert Humphrey was, when he was the mayor—
Baldwin: Yes, he’s a very good example of what I mean.
Wolk: What was it, the ADA or somebody records how you come out on a score of one to a hundred when you vote in Congress…
Baldwin: He was a perfect liberal, you know. The whole civil rights thing which was something really occurring in a vacuum—but he didn’t know that—then he became Vice-President. So if black people distrust liberals, it’s because of their performance. You know, they can never be found when the chips are down.
Wolk: Well, there’s a historical argument for distrust if year after year nothing is done.
Baldwin: Nothing is done. And the main effort seems to be to reconcile you to the fact that nothing is done. They’re always bewildered when something happens, or when you become impatient with them, with the entire situation. They always say, “Well, you should attack your enemies, ’cause we’re your friends.” Well, with friends like those, you don’t need any enemies.
Stanley: The guy at the press conference—the guy is so worried about creeping Communism. You said, “Communism doesn’t bother me. It’s you I’m terrified of.”
Wolk: There’s this kind of division on university campuses, where there are radicals who are calling the non-extremists on the other side liberals, and kind of dispose of everybody. It’s kind of an insane world. I’m talking about the staff, the teachers who are the radicals, not the students.
Stanley: Oh, they’re pretty little radicals. They buy their thirty-thousand-dollar houses, and they stay in very, very white neighborhoods, and send their kids to very private schools, and this kind of thing. But they wear blue work shirts, and have mustaches, and they say “Right on” a lot instead of “Hi.”
Baldwin: [Laughs] Pretty little radicals.
Stanley: And their wives, you know, don’t shave their armpits to show how radical they are. I suppose you just have to get away from the labels.
Baldwin: Yeah, I think so, because the labels are very misleading, and it depends upon the depth and the extent of your commitment. And it can come from anywhere, can come from anybody.
Wolk: Do you think a book like The Spook Who Sat By the Door is fantasy, because there have been two or three other books that at least deal with Manhattan Island being closed off and taken over, and shortly after—I think it was last summer that the people who run the bridges did in fact strike. [Note: I was thinking of Afro-7 and The Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light.] And there was paralysis there. And I know during the American Legion convention a year or so ago in Portland, which has also bridges across the river, that the police really guarded those bridges very carefully, because rumors were that the bridge people were on the side of the radicals.
Baldwin: That day may come. If it is fantasy, it’s very revealing fantasy. And it’s also an attempt at suggestion, too—you know, the idea of fighting, the idea of sabotage, tying up the nation. And it may come to that.
Wolk: There may be a paradox in that, though, in that the thing would work best of all if it were secretive, and yet Sam Greenlee wrote a book about it.
Baldwin: Yeah, well, you see, that’s perfectly safe, in a sense. Because no one will take the book seriously enough to, you know— [Note: An irony: The SLA, Symbionese Liberation Army, picked up its name from Spook.]
Wolk: You don’t think the CIA is reading the book and building up a file of things to do?
Baldwin: Well, the CIA is certainly ever-present, and luckily for us, fairly inefficient. You know, I’m not really afraid of the CIA. No one can afford to be afraid of the CIA in any case, you know, because if you are, you can’t make a move. You walk around every room looking for the microphone. They’re not worth that much trouble. [Note: Wikipedia gives the numbers of how many entries in the CIA files for Baldwin: about a 100,000, no one else even close to that, and on down to 20 for Henry Miller.]
Wolk: I’m fairly sure you’re not a member of the CIA, but you don’t know about me.
Baldwin: I’ve decided everyone I know is a member of the CIA. It’s the only way to get through a lifetime. Everyone I know, including my mother.
Wolk: You laugh about that, but my mother—
Wolk: There are a number of questions that I thought of asking, and then I read, around one o’clock, the first few pages of Notes of a Native Son and immediately resolved some of my questions. Because I hadn’t seen that you’d made any comments on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I know you’d rather not talk about other writers, and a lot of writers say that. But he is one man that, on university campuses, for instance, who is thought of as the—that book is the best thing which has been done.
Baldwin: It’s a very important book. I haven’t read it for a while now. I keep meaning to reread it, but the only reason I haven’t is I haven’t got the time.
Wolk: There’s the metaphor that’s central to the book, of the invisibility of the black man. Is that the same sort of metaphor that’s operating in Nobody Knows My Name?
Baldwin: In a sense, yeah, yeah. It’s the the inability, or the unwillingness, which come to the same thing, to apprehend the nature of the life which is facing you, you know—what that life comes out of. What my mother’s all about right now, you know, how she scrubbed all the white men’s floors for generations, and they still had never seen her. And still less, have any idea that she has any children of her own. They may have wanted her to scrub floors, when they refused to scrub floors themselves. It’s a very curious state of mind, and it’s very difficult for me to get into it. But I don’t know what it’d be like to live in a world in which, you know, you’d blotted out so many people. There must be something terrifying about it, you know, when one of these shadows moves, when many of them come together and do something that you simply didn’t believe that a shadow could do. It’s astounding to realize to what extent Americans still believe the shit they do sometimes, you know, like, Those happy darkies. You know, you can still fool them—though not as much as you used to be able to, because now they’re too scared—but with a smile and a grin and a buck and a wing. [Laughs] You’ve got nothing against that. They don’t know what a concession it is, on their part.
Stanley: One of the things that really hit me, in particular, in your writing, was how much the black people know about the white people that they work for.
Baldwin: They have to know.
Stanley: And how it is not at all so…and this has been brought home to us in particular lately. Tony’s parents, who are well-off and Jewish, who have a fur store in Pittsburgh, that sort of thing, always have people working for them who are black. And one of them has been their laundress for thirty-some years, and she now has cancer, and she’s in the hospital. And she has no hospitalization, because she’s been working for them, she has no social security racked up or anything. And they’re very “charitable,” because they’re paying for this hospital. But, you know, where do they get off being “charitable” for another human being like this, you know, when she’s spent so much time in their cruddy basement, ironing their undershorts and so forth. And they’re worried about what’s going to happen to her. And yet I’ve heard them talking about [unintelligible]. And Tony says he remembers as a little boy, hearing them talking that way.
Baldwin: Yeah, I know, I know.
Stanley: And to go there and be called “Miss Susan” just drives me crazy. That’s no question, obviously, that’s a statement.
Baldwin: But if she has a son, maybe the son would have the same reaction. And they wouldn’t know why the son hated them.
Stanley: Of course, she knows everything.
Stanley: I remember when Martin Luther King died and we were talking to them on the telephone, and Tony’s mother saying something about, well, he may have said he was for peace, but look at all the violence he inspired, I mean, you know, they could hardly leave the house right now, you know, isn’t it terrible? I said, what do you mean all the violence, don’t you remember the march to Washington? And she didn’t know about it. I mean, it wasn’t that she didn’t remember, she didn’t know about it. She had missed it somehow.
Baldwin: Where had she been? Well, it doesn’t make any difference.
Wolk: She’d been reading everything but the front page of the newspaper.
Baldwin: That’s fantastic. That’s what I mean when I say it’s very hard to imagine, you know, a life like that. I’m not even condemning it, even. I just can’t imagine it.
Wolk: I condemn it.
Baldwin: Well, condemn it, of course, but I can’t imagine it. If I had to write a novel about that, they would accuse you of being malicious.