February 3, 2016

Excerpt: James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations


James BaldwinIn honor of Black History Month, we’re remembering James Baldwin, the great African American writer whose extraordinary contributions to the canon continue to inform the way we think about race, sexuality, politics, and literature, even decades after his death. This interview with Studs Terkel was conducted in December of 1961 and is included in James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.


TERKEL: I’m looking at a passage in your new book, a remarkable one, Nobody Knows My Name, a series of essays, articles, opinions. You say here that when you went to live in the mountains of Switzerland you arrived armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter.“I began to try to re-create the life I had first known as a child and from which I had spent so many years in flight,” you wrote. “It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken when I was a pickaninny, and to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep.” Now, here’s the part, Jim: “I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America (in the same way that, for years, I never touched watermelon), but in Europe she helped me to reconcile myself to being a ‘nigger.’ ”

BALDWIN: Well, that winter in Switzerland, I was working on my first novel—I thought I would never be able to finish it—and I finally realized that one of the reasons that I couldn’t finish this novel was that I was ashamed of where I came from and where I had been. I was ashamed of the life in the Negro church, ashamed of my father, ashamed of the Blues, ashamed of Jazz, and, of course, ashamed of watermelon: all of these stereotypes that the country inflicts on Negroes, that we all eat watermelon or we all do nothing but sing the Blues. Well, I was afraid of all that; and I ran from it. When I say I was trying to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken when I was little, I realized that I had acquired so many affectations, had told myself so many lies, that I really had buried myself beneath a whole fantastic image of myself which wasn’t mine, but white people’s image of me.

I realized that I had not always talked—obviously I hadn’t always talked—the way I had forced myself to learn how to talk. I had to find out what I had been like in the beginning, in order, just technically as a writer, to re-create Negro speech. I realized it was a cadence; it was not a question of dropping s’s or n’s or g’s, but a question of the beat. Bessie had the beat. In that icy wilderness, as far removed from Harlem as anything you can imagine, with Bessie Smith and me . . . I began . . .

TERKEL: And white snow . . .

BALDWIN: And white snow, white mountains, and white faces. Those Swiss people really thought I had been sent by the devil; it was a very strange . . . They had never seen a Negro before. In this isolation I managed to finish the book. And I played Bessie every day. A lot of the book is in dialogue, you know, and I corrected things according to what I was able to hear when Bessie sang, and when James P. Johnson plays. It’s that tone, that sound, which is in me.

TERKEL: This “tone” is in your forthcoming novel?

BALDWIN: Yes, yes, in a forthcoming novel.

TERKEL: Did you feel a sense of shame about a heritage that is really so rich, when you accepted the white man’s stereotype of yourself?

BALDWIN: I’m afraid that is one of the great dilemmas, one of the great psychological hazards, of being an American Negro. In fact, much more than that. I’ve seen a great many people go under because of this dilemma. Every Negro in America is in one way or another menaced by it. One is born in a white country, a white Protestant Puritan country, where one was once a slave, where all standards and all the images . . . when you open your eyes on the world, everything you see: none of it applies to you. You go to white movies and, like everybody else, you fall in love with Joan Crawford, and you root for the Good Guys who are killing off the Indians. It comes as a great psychological collision when you realize all of these things are really metaphors for your oppression, and will lead into a kind of psychological warfare in which you may perish.

I was born in the church, for example, and my father was a very rigid, righteous man. But we were in Harlem—you lived, you know, in a terrible house. Downstairs from us there were what my father called “good-time” people: a prostitute and all of her paramours, and all that jazz. I remember I loved this woman; she was very nice to us; but we were not allowed to go to her house, and if we went there, we were beaten for it.

When I was older, that whole odor of home-made gin, pigs’ feet, chitlin’, and poverty, and the basement: all this got terribly mixed together in my mind with the Holy Roller, White God business. I really began to go a little out of my mind. Obviously I wasn’t white—it wasn’t so much a question of wanting to be white—but I didn’t quite know anymore what being black meant. I couldn’t accept what I had been told.

All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now, in order to survive this, you have to really dig down into yourself and re-create yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to impose, in fact—this may sound very strange—you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.

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Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.