June 19, 2020

James Baldwin debates William F. Buckley


In this amazing video of James Baldwin debating William F. Buckley, in a room that attempts to set a new land record for fustiness, Baldwin offers a profound kind of intellectual leadership about questions of race and society, while Buckley continually hashes up sour witticisms he seems to mistake for profound observations. In short, plenty has changed (just try to imagine erudite bons mots emanating from a prominent conservative today, or, for that matter, people talking this way in public) — but mostly, alas, the wrong things.


If you’re still thirsty for a little more Baldwin — and there’s probably not a person in America who shouldn’t be — here’s an excerpt from a 1961 interview of him by the great Studs Terkel, one of the several included in our James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. The conversation shows its age in some of the language that’s used, but it also shows a genius that has, if anything, grown more relevant in the intervening half-century. The excerpt begins after Baldwin has been talking about overcoming the feeling “that I was ashamed of where I came from and where I had been,” in response to a Besse Smith song Terkel has played him.

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.


Terkel: You have to decide who you are—whether you are black or white—who you are…


Baldwin: Yes, who you are. Then the pressure of being black or white is robbed of its power. You can, of course, still be beaten up on the South Side by anybody; I mean, the social menace does not lessen. The world perhaps can destroy you physically. The danger of your destroying yourself does not vanish, but is minimized.


Terkel: The name of your book—this is directly connected—Nobody Knows My Name. For years you have been known as James but never as James Baldwin—“Home, James”; sometimes called George; in the old days, Sam; sometimes, Boy.


Baldwin: Sometimes…


Terkel: Nobody Knows My Name. Why did you choose that title?


Baldwin: Well, at the risk of sounding pontifical—I suppose it is a fairly bitter title—it is meant as a kind of warning to my country. In the days when people… well, in the days when people called me Boy… Those days haven’t passed except that I didn’t answer then and I don’t answer now. To be a Negro in this country is really—Ralph Ellison has said it very well—never to be looked at. What white people see when they look at you is not visible. What they do see when they do look at you is what they have invested you with. What they have invested you with is all the agony, and pain, and the danger, and the passion, and the torment—you know, sin, death, and hell—of which everyone in this country is terrified.

As a Negro, you represent a level of experience which Americans deny. This may sound mystical, but I think it is proven in great relief in the South. Consider the extraordinary price, the absolutely prohibitive price, the South has paid to keep the Negro in his place; and it has not succeeded in doing that, but has succeeded in having what is almost certainly the most bewildered, demoralized white population in the Western world.

On another level, you can see in the life of the country, not only in the South, what a terrible price the country has paid for this effort to keep a distance between themselves and black people. In the same way, for example, it is very difficult—it is hazardous, psychologically, personally hazardous—for a Negro in the country really to hate white people. He is too involved with them: not only socially but historically.

No matter who says what, in fact, Negroes and whites in this country are related to each other. Half of the black families in the South are related, you know, to the judges and the lawyers and the white families of the South. They are cousins, and kissing cousins at that — at least kissing cousins. Now, this is a terrible depth of involvement.

It is easy for an African to hate the invader and drive him out of Africa, but it is very difficult for an American Negro to do this. He obviously can’t do this to white people; there’s no place to drive them. This is a country that belongs equally to us both. One has got to live toether here or else there won’t be any country.


James Baldwin (1922–1987) was a novelist, essayist, and activist. He is best known for the novels Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Giovanni’s Room (1956), and the collections Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and The Fire Next Time (1963). He was an important figure in the civil rights movement, and his books addressing the African-American and gay experiences have influenced generations of writers.

William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008) was an author of conservative political opinion and spy novels, and the editor, most memorably, of the National Review. He wrote more than fifty books and for more than thirty years hosted Firing Line, a TV show featuring debates between himself and various public intellectuals.

Studs Terkel (1912-2008) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, radio host, and oral historian. His many books include WorkingHard Times, and The Good War.