December 5, 2014

“The world we are living in… we have to make it over”: An interview with James Baldwin

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Image via Wikipedia.

James Baldwin in 1969. Photo by Allan Warren.

It’s been a week—a couple of weeks—where James Baldwin’s analyses of race in America seem more relevant than ever. In December 1961, in the midst of the civil rights movement, Studs Terkel interviewed Baldwin on his radio show “Almanac”  for Chicago’s WFMT station. It’s a long, detailed interview that ranges over many subjects: Baldwin’s childhood in Harlem, his development as a writer, violence and protest, the role of tragedy in American life. The interview is included in James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, just published by Melville.

One of the crucial moments of the interview for me is when the conversation turns to art. Baldwin says:

Art has to be a 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.

That awareness of connection is what I keep returning to: the effort that must be made, as strange as it seems that it is necessary; the many ways of doing it; the price that’s paid for not doing it. Baldwin saw it: “Time will prove the connection between the level of the lives we lead and the extraordinary endeavor to avoid black men.”

The WFMT Studs Terkel Radio Archive has also posted the recording of part of the interview on their site. Here it is:

 

Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.

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