When One of These Shadows Moves (Part Four)
An interview with James Baldwin, 1972.
BY TONY WOLK
Wolk: In reading Rap on Race also last night, I found it a very puzzling discussion between you and Margaret Mead about the difference history, and who’s responsible, and who has to share the guilt. And Susan and I had the same sort of dilemma here, because Susan, I think, often says that a person is operating within a context of their own time, and you can’t expect other kinds of behavior from them. And I guess, maybe I say—though we always end up sort of agreeing with each other somewhere along the line—I would say that they do have an obligation, that they can be charged with the crimes that were happening when they were alive, they were indirectly contributing to them.
Baldwin: Well, it isn’t even so much that. I think a person comes here with certain antecedents, whether you like it or not. And these antecedents are also you, you know. That’s what I was trying to say when I said to Margaret that the history’s not the past, it’s the present. You know, it can only be undone or confronted in the present. And if one pretends that there isn’t any past or any history—that one came here, as it were, clean, then I think that’s kind of moral abdication.
Wolk: I think she said that the things that happened a hundred thousand years ago, are we responsible for them? But I would say it’s the history you have access to that you’re responsible for.
Baldwin: Yes, yes, exactly. You know, if slavery, or “the Negro problem,” so to call it, were a hundred thousand years in the past, it would be fairly inaccessible. But since it affects the lives of everybody living, everybody living has to take some kind of responsibility for it, if only to avoid it.
Wolk: It seems so simple sometimes, the question, and yet you went on for numbers of pages. I think perhaps you were misunderstanding each other, or else I wasn’t understanding.
Baldwin: No, I think we were misunderstanding each other. I think also that Margaret was resisting the idea that she had any personal responsibility for the present situation. She said, for example—which is perfectly true on the surface—that she would not have dropped the atom bomb herself. I wasn’t accusing her of being guilty of it. I feel myself in some way as not guilty of it, but it was done in my name. I feel also, you know, I’m not guilty of the Vietnam War, but I’m obligated to take some attitude toward it.
Stanley: You have to clean up the mess, whether you made it or not.
Baldwin: Whether you made it or not, yes. Because you know, there it is.
Stanley: And it isn’t charity, it’s self-preservation.
Baldwin: God no! It’s survival. Yes, exactly.
Stanley: So if you want the world to be around for your kids to have a chance, you’ve got to clean it up now.
Baldwin: That’s right. Yes, at once. That’s my whole point.
Wolk: My response at the end of Rap on Race was that it’s a very despairing sort of book. And I was wondering if that was partly a product of the way the book came about. Maybe I’m loading the question when I said how I responded to it.
Baldwin: How do you mean?
Wolk: For instance, you said, “Blow it up.” Or something like that towards the end.
Baldwin: Yes, I did.
Wolk: I was wondering if there was seven and a half hours of talking, or actually just taping plus other hours of talking in a day and a half?
Baldwin: It was a kind of marathon, that’s true. When I finally said, “Blow it up”—well, it’s really very simple. If I can’t live here—I’m not speaking exactly of Jimmy now, as a black person—if I can’t live here, I’m going to make it impossible for you to live here. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life watching your children go to school and my children starving. You know, it cannot be like that.
Wolk: How did that book get done, Rap on Race?
Baldwin: It was the brainstorm of an editor in New York, whom I happen to know, who suggested it. And I had been out of commission, because I’d been ill, and so I thought it was a good opportunity to get back to work. So I did it.
Wolk: It’s a way of writing a book without doing a lot of work, isn’t it?
Baldwin: Oh, it was a lot of work. It was a kind of unprecedented kind of work. I wouldn’t like to do that again.
Wolk: In writing a short article, I’m just thinking of myself, the number of days that go into even writing the ten pages. I think I’m slow.
Baldwin: I am, too.
Stanley: I think you’re slow. I’ve been trying to journalize him. We took one of his scholarly articles, and sexed it up and sent it to Playboy. It was about racism and language and the way kids are taught that your language isn’t good enough, you’ve got to use the who/whom crap, and how it’s part of the whole pervasive thing in our culture. That it isn’t that particular English teacher who hates colored people.
Baldwin: It’s a whole thing.
Wolk: You mentioned a book, The Way It’s Spozed To Be—my memory is so bad that I can’t remember exactly what the book was about. I remember the author, I think he’s by the name of James Herndon.
Baldwin: I’d forgotten that, but I remember the kids. It’s a compilation of—
Wolk: I had a very, almost identical kind of experience in teaching in a program about two years ago called the Neighborhood Youth Corps, where they asked—there were a number of Black teenagers in the Portland ghetto who were in this government-supported program, and the kids knew that the purpose of the program was to keep them off the streets, because otherwise they would rape and loot and burn. And they hated the program. And the woman who was in fact running the program, who was a black woman, was very cruel with them, saying, If you come in two minutes late—
Baldwin: Oh, Jesus!
Wolk: —don’t come in, come to me, and you’re gonna lose your week’s pay. And that sort of thing.
Baldwin: Oh shit!
Wolk: And so this is what was handed to myself and one other white teacher, these students. And they had divided them into two groups, which they said were the quicker ones and the slower ones. Well, it turned out the quicker ones were all girls, except for one boy, and the slower ones were all boys, except for a couple of girls. And the one boy I never saw after the first term, we met once a week. He never came back, he was brilliant. I talked to him, but he never came back. But the others came back, and we agreed that everything that they wrote would be published. And everything that they wrote we did publish. And it was fine writing, no question about it. Sometimes, though—I had a number of students working with me, English students, English majors—and they would be suddenly thrown, because someone would have come in, and would have done this writing and would read this great poem, and they’d find out it was by Langston Hughes. Well, these students weren’t getting graded or anything, so they had no reason to try to get away with something. But they had been reading, and here was Langston Hughes coming out. And it was very apropos. And they were reading all kinds of things. You would find out a year later here’s the root of this thing that was written, it was the back page of a paperback novel which described another book, which they maybe had or had not read. They were about fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old. But the writing they did would’ve caused them to fail.
Baldwin: Yeah, exactly. I watched that in Harlem. I watched it in many ways. During the school battles, the free school set-up, I went up a couple of times to see the work done by the kids, which was really incredible. It could not have been done in any ordinary school situation, they would never have dared to do their paintings and write their poetry, even sculpture. It was very impressive, these kids from ten to sixteen, something like that. And when you think of the tremendous waste, you know. I don’t mean they were all great artists, but every kid, if you give him something to let it out with, is very valuable. But he becomes worthless if he’s treated worthlessly.
Wolk: There’s one place you say, “Face it, no matter whether you’re black or white, there are few exceptional people.” And most people aren’t, I guess maybe on a relative scale that’s by definition true. My experience was that all of the students really had something to say and the way they said it was well done. There was even one girl I remember, who was about fourteen or fifteen, who would write something and throw it in the wastebasket and we would have to go through this ritual of saying, “What is it that you wrote?” It turned out she didn’t want to have to write because her handwriting was almost illegible. And secondly, she couldn’t write—she was almost functionally illiterate, I suppose. And yet if you picked the thing out of the wastebasket and worked with it, it was very well done. Or if you let her say the thing that she wanted to write and wrote it down—she had a tremendous memory, and she was very bright.
Baldwin: It’s horrible to think how many kids like that grow up to be either washerwomen or junkies or go to jail. There’s no good excuse for it.
Wolk: The question I’ve asked myself, and I guess I could throw it at you, is how should the early school years, which are I think very important, first grade or second grade, how should they present material to the children, whether the teacher is black or white. Let’s say, for instance, in a school where most of the students are black: should they use the language that the child is accustomed to in his neighborhood and in his home, or should they start worrying about the King’s English right off?
Baldwin: It’s a very difficult tightrope, between condescension—I think you’ve got to respect the experience out of which a child comes, and the terms he uses in the classroom. And if you don’t speak in the child’s idiom then you shouldn’t pretend to, but let the child speak in his. If you’re pretending to, that creates a barrier between you and the child, because the child knows in a way you’re condescending to him, though he couldn’t put it to himself that way.
Wolk: Did you say that if you don’t speak his idiom you shouldn’t—
Baldwin: If you don’t speak his idiom, you shouldn’t pretend you do. The trick is to make him comfortable enough to talk to you, because children are very private, which everyone forgets.
Wolk: There’s another problem, of course, and that’s reading is such an important thing in the early years, and the books that they’re given to read are—
Baldwin: Are absolutely meaningless. They have no relationship to anybody’s life, really. And certainly not to his life. You’re handicapped when loaded by the textbooks.
Stanley: Maybe they should do the books in their idiom.
Baldwin: It’ll be a cold day in August before they do. So that means that you as a teacher have to be fairly inventive.
Wolk: A publisher, if he writes a book and he wants to sell it across the country, there are a number of states like Texas and California, which there has to be a committee that accepts it. And you really of course want to sell your books in California and Texas, and so you do write to satisfy that audience, and that means that all the other copies of the book are…
Baldwin: That’s right. We’ve been having that battle for about ten years with the textbook industry—which is mainly McGraw Hill—with no results, because that’s the way the system works. So that imposes a burden on the teacher, who has to find other tools, which are not supplied by the board of education.
Wolk: There’s a man who wrote The Way It’s Spozed To Be, I think his name was Jim Herndon. I was observing a teacher in Portland who would—on a Sunday night—would simply call Jimmy Herndon up in San Francisco and say, “Jimmy, I don’t know what to do in class tomorrow.” But this man had his own ditto machine in his classroom, he had bought it himself, and he would manufacture his own materials. He was the only one I’ve ever heard of doing that.
[A break in the recording occurs here while the cassette is changed. When the recording resumes, Wolk asks a question about Richard Wright.]
Wolk: I don’t think I understand what it was that caused you to be uncomfortable with the way that he [Richard Wright] was writing. Would you mind if I asked that question?
Baldwin: No, no, no. But it’s not an easy question to answer. It wasn’t so much that I was dissatisfied with the way he was writing. That wasn’t what was at issue, really, though Richard thought it was. I think there were two things at issue. Of course this leaves me more than twenty years ago. I suppose one of them is simply his history as distinguished from mine. Mississippi to Chicago to Paris—Mississippi to Chicago to New York to Paris—is one journey. You know, I never [unintelligible] in Chicago, and I was twenty years younger. So there was that—which might’ve been bridged if Richard had been different and if I had been different. And the other thing was his—how can I put this?—his notion of…well, his notion of society. It’s the only way I can put it. His—I always thought he was very romantic about society, you know. I always thought that he was—that it came out of perhaps his, probably his style, and his years. Romantic yet mechanical, a notion of how society is put together. And in Paris, from my point of view, it became a great handicap, because these are the years before the Algerian revolution. It was the years of the Algerians and the Africans expecting things which Richard could not supply—which was not Richard’s fault. But he never quite understood what their situation was, and unconsciously looked on them as being more primitive than American black people were, are. At least that’s what they felt. And I felt that, too. There was a kind of unconscious condescension, and we clashed over that. Because my situation, perhaps, to a degree—I lived with the Algerians and the Africans. I knew things about the life they endured, you know, which Richard had no way of knowing. The very same way that as a westerner living in London—I’m up here in this hotel, so I don’t know what’s going on in detail. But I would think, I would hope, that if he came here, talked to me, I would try and understand, and go down to the streets with him, and look at it myself. Which Richard never did. And so it became a temperamental clash, really.
French: Richard lived in—he arrived in Paris and lived in one posh flat after the other. You arrived in Paris and practically lived under one bridge.
Baldwin: Under a bridge, yeah. [Laughing.] Yeah, it’s true. That has nothing to do with—well, it has something to do with where Richard and I were, what the clash was about.
Wolk: Is it that Wright was almost so concerned with the message that he wasn’t observing?
Baldwin: No, I think frankly he was quite understandably tired for one thing, you know. And it was an alien culture. You know, France is quite something if you come from America, especially in the beginning. And I think it took him a long time before he began to make any kind of comparison between the Algerian situation, the African situation, and the American one. And when he did, he was still terribly confused—you could see that in White Man Listen, one of the books about Africa. It’s an interesting book. It doesn’t work. But it’s an interesting book. He was trying, in the beginning he was trying to find out something. At bottom, the battle between Richard and I was involved with the fact that I cared a lot about him.
Wolk: I gathered that much.