November 11, 2016
“All that gets you through it, really, is some faith in life.” —an interview with James Baldwin
by Taylor Sperry
We offer below selections from James Baldwin’s 1961 interview with Studs Terkel, as collected in James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. It’s more relevant today than we might like, but Baldwin’s words inspire courage, faith, reflection, and, of course, recognition of the connective power of art.
BALDWIN: When people talk about time, therefore, I can’t help but be absolutely not only impatient but bewildered. Why should I wait any longer? In any case, even if I were willing to—which I am not—how?
TERKEL: You mean the point about “Go slow.”
BALDWIN: “Go slow,” yes.
TERKEL: The final sentences in your essay on Faulkner: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”
TERKEL: The world we are living in . . . we have to make it over. We made the world we live in. You speak of now. It is always now.
BALDWIN: Time is always now. Everybody who has ever thought about his own life knows this. You don’t make resolutions about something you are going to do next year. No! You decide to write a book: the book may be finished twenty years from now, but you’ve got to start it now.
BALDWIN: I really think, seriously, that there is a division of labor in the world. Let me put it this way: there are so many things I am not good at—I can’t drive a truck; I can’t run a bank. Well, all right—other people have to do that. In a way, they are responsible for me; and I am responsible to them.
My responsibility to them is to try to tell the truth as I see it—not so much about my private life, as about their private lives. So that there is in the world a standard, you know, for all of us, which will get you through your troubles. Your troubles are always coming. And Cadillacs don’t get you through. And neither do psychiatrists, incidentally. All that gets you through it, really, is some faith in life, which is not so easy to achieve.
Now, when we talk about majorities and minorities, I always have the feeling that this country is talking about a popularity contest in which everybody works together, you know, towards some absolutely hideously material end. But in truth, I think that all the Southern politicians have failed their responsibility to the white people of the South. Somebody in the South must know that obviously the status quo cannot exist another hundred years. The politicians’ real responsibility is to prepare the people who are now forming those mobs, prepare those people for their day: to minimize the damage to them.
The majority rule in the South is not a majority rule at all. It’s a mob rule. And what these mobs fill is a moral vacuum, which is created by the lack of a leader. This is the way the world is, and I am not talking about dictatorships.
BALDWIN: Statesmen, exactly. People who are sitting in government are supposed to know more about government than people who are driving trucks, and digging potatoes, and trying to raise their children. That’s what you are in office for.
TERKEL: Someone, then, with a sense of history?
BALDWIN: That is precisely what we don’t have here. If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea of what is happening around you.
TERKEL: Earlier, Jim, you mentioned that for a national policy to be straightened out, the private policies, these private, individual lives must be, too. You spoke of your job as a writer, and of how you’ve got to write. In that chapter on Bergman, “The Northern Protestant,” is a beautiful comment: “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.”
BALDWIN: Art has to be a kind of confession. I don’t mean a true confession in the sense of that dreary magazine. The effort, it seems to me, is: if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover, too, the terms with which they are connected to other people.
This has happened to every one of us, I’m sure. You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened one hundred years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.
Most of us, no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what is going to happen to him from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it’s true for everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace.
Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.