The following is an excerpt from a remarkable interview James Baldwin did in 1984 with the writer Julius Lester, published in The New York Times. Baldwin died three years later in France on Dec. 1, 1987.
JAMES BALDWIN -- REFLECTIONS OF A MAVERICK
Date: May 27, 1984, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 1, Column 1; Book Review Desk
Byline: By Julius Lester
The hair is almost white now, but that is the only indication that James Baldwin will be 60 years old in August. Thirty-one years have passed since the publication of his first book, the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, and 21 years since The Fire Next Time made him an international celebrity.
The intensity and passion that characterize his writing are evident in conversation. His voice, though soft, is deep and resonant, and in its modulations and rhythms one hears echoes of the boy preacher he once was. He gestures with a fluidity reminiscent of a conductor, as if there is an unseen orchestra that must be brought into harmony. The face he has written of as ugly, with its protuberant eyes, flat nose and wide mouth, has, in reality, the ritual beauty of a Benin head. Baldwin looks as if he were sculpted in flesh rather than merely being born of it.
The following is the edited transcript of a three- hour conversation taped in my home in Amherst, Mass., on a Sunday afternoon in April. As writers, 15 years apart in age, we wanted to compare our generations. As it turned out, we embodied our generations more than I, at least, had anticipated. I began by saying to Baldwin:
Your literary beginnings were as a part of the New York intelligentsia. It was right after the end of World War II that you began publishing reviews and essays in publications like The New Leader, The Nation, Commentary and Partisan Review. What was it like for a young black man, 21 years old, to be around people like Randall Jarrell, Dwight Macdonald, Lionel Trilling, Delmore Schwartz, Irving Howe and William Barrett, to name a few.
For me, these people were kind of on Olympus. I mean, in one way I was very intimidated by them, and I don't know what in the world they thought of me. Dwight Macdonald told me that I was ''terribly smart.'' (Laughs) I certainly learned from them, though I could not tell you exactly what I learned. A certain confidence in myself, perhaps.
Did you ever approach Langston Hughes? He was living in Harlem.
I knew of Langston Hughes, but it never occurred to me. I was too shy. Later on I realized that I could have. He didn't live far away, but it wouldn't have occurred to me. You see, there were two Harlems. There were those who lived on Sugar Hill and there was the Hollow, where we lived. There was a great divide between the black people on the Hill and us. I was just a ragged, funky black shoeshine boy and was afraid of the people on the Hill, who, for their part, didn't want to have anything to do with me. Langston, in fact, did not live on the Hill, but in my mind, he was associated with those people. So I would never have dreamed of going and knocking on his door.
And yet, you went and knocked on Richard Wright's door.
I suppose I did that because I had to. I'd just read ''Uncle Tom's Children'' and ''Native Son.'' I knew of Langston and Countee Cullen, they were the only other black writers whose work I knew at that time, but for some reason they did not attract me. I'm not putting them down, but the world they were describing had nothing to do with me, at that time in my life. Later on I realized something else, but then their work did not resound to me. The black middle class was essentially an abstraction to me. Richard was very different, though. The life he described was the life I lived. I recognized the tenements. I knew that rat in ''Native Son.'' I knew that woman in the story ''Bright and Morning Star.'' All of that was urgent for me. And it was through Richard that I came to read the black writers who had preceded me, like Jean Toomer, and came to know Langston and Countee Cullen in a new way. By the time I went to see Richard I was committed to the idea of being a writer, though I knew how impossible it was. Maybe I went to see Richard to see if he would laugh at me.
No. He was very nice to me. I think he found me kind of amusing and I'm sure I was. He was very distant in a way - we never got to be close friends. But he was very tender, very helpful and we saw each other from time to time. I was still very shy, but I was very proud of him and I think he was proud of me . . . for a while. He may have been always, in fact.
In the essay ''Alas, Poor Richard'' you write about Wright's feeling that in your earlier essays, ''Many Thousands Gone'' and ''Everybody's Protest Novel,'' you were trying to kill him -
That I betrayed him.
And, I think, then, about Eldridge Cleaver's essay ''Notes on a Native Son'' from ''Soul on Ice,'' which is critical of you. Have younger black writers looked on you as the literary father who must be killed?
I've never bought that analogy. Eldridge's attack on me - quite apart from everything else - is preposterous. In any case, Eldridge cannot claim to know me in any way whatsoever. And he certainly didn't love me. I knew Richard and I loved him. And that's a very, very, very great difference. I was not attacking him; I was trying to clarify something for myself. The analogy does not hold. I reject it in toto.
It is clear that you were trying to clarify something in yourself, but you certainly were very critical of him. And I can certainly understand how he could've reacted as he did.
But what are the reasons for that? I thought - and I still think - that a lot of what happened to us in Paris occurred because Richard was much, much better than a lot of the company he kept. I mean, the French existentialists. I didn't think that Simone de Beauvoir or Jean-Paul Sartre - to say nothing of the American colony - had any right whatsoever to patronize that man. It revolted me and made me furious. And it made me furious at Richard, too, because he was better than that. A lot of my tone (in the essay) comes out of that. . . . Alas, poor Richard.
Did he have a responsibility for you as a younger black writer, and do you have a responsibility for younger black writers?
No, no. I never felt that Richard had a responsibility for me, and if he had, he'd discharged it. What I was thinking about, though, was the early 1950's when the world of white supremacy was breaking up. I'm talking about the revolutions all over the world. Specifically, since we were in Paris, those in Tunisia, Algeria, the ferment in Senegal, the French loss of their Indo-Chinese empire. A whole lot of people - darker people, for the most part - came from all kinds of places to Richard's door as they do now to my door. And in that sense he had a responsibility that he didn't know - well, who can blame him?
This may be one of those generational differences, but I don't know that I understand this claim you say black people have on you.
I see what you're saying. But it's not only black people, if you like. There is something unjust in it, but it's an irreducible injustice, I think. I found no way around it. But you can't execute the responsibility in the way people want you to. You have to do your work. But, at the same time, you're out there. You asked for it. And no matter how you react to it, you cannot pretend that it is not happening.
Do you ever resent the claim?
It has given me some trying moments, but ''It comes with the territory.'' It is not my fault and it is not their fault that the world thinks it's white. Therefore someone who is not white and attempts to be in some way responsible is going to be claimed by multitudes of black kids. Just or unjust is irrelevant.+ Comment >>