Baldwin discusses the nature and goals of the civil rights movement, comparing it to other political revolutions. He concludes that including African Americans in the body politic will require state and national governments, as well as political parties, to change. Baldwin comments on African Americans' embrace of African and black identities and appearances, and he considers the continuing validity of Du Bois' theory of double consciousness. Baldwin expresses some doubt as to whether poor white southerners and black southerners can cooperate politically and socially, and he also discusses then-recent shifts in the leadership and tactics of civil rights activists. Baldwin also discusses activists' focus on integration as a means of gaining civil rights for African Americans.
Photo of Baldwin: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection.
Baldwin with Brando and Heston: Still Pictures Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division, National Archives at College Park.
Audio Note: Tape 1 cuts off early, but transcripts are complete.
Audio courtesy of the University of Kentucky.
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an American writer and civil rights advocate. After briefly working as a minister and as a railroad employee, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village. There, he began working as a freelance writer, during which time The Nation and Partisan Review published his reviews. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, depicts a poor boy’s coming of age in 1930s Harlem. Many of his nonfiction works, particularly The Fire Next Time, which explored issues of black identity and the struggle for racial equality, dealt with concerns that were central to the civil rights movement. Baldwin, who spent much of his life in France, also broached the then-taboo themes of homosexuality and interracial romance in his novels and works of nonfiction.
TAPE 1 Searchable TextCollapse
Mr. WARREN: This is the first tape of a conversation with James Baldwin, April 27. In what sense, Mr. Baldwin, do you think the revolution is a revolution. How would you (cough) previous concepts of revolutions?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, that’s a tough one to answer. I’m not always sure that the word revolution is the right word. I myself use it, but I don’t know of any other. It’s not, in my mind, anyway, like – it’s not a symbol of one class against another, for example. It is not as clearcut, let us say, as the Algerian revolution against the French. It is a very peculiar revolution because it has to, in order to succeed at all, it has to have as its aim the reestablishment of a union, and a great – a radical shift in the American mores, the American way of life, you see, not only as it applies to the Negro obviously, but as it applies to every citizen of the country. This is – it’s a very tall order, and desperately dangerous but inevitable in my view, because of the nature of our history, of the nature of the American Negro’s relationship to the rest of the country, of all these generations, and the attitudes taught him, which is simply now – always was, but now has become overtly and concretely intolerable.
RPW: May I interrupt here for one moment. You say, different from a revolution like the Algerian, which means the liquidation of a class, of another country’s control – more of a regime. And also it is not the liquidation of a class either – something else is involved.
JB: No, because the Algerians and the French have very great differences – partly simply because the Algerians have a country called Algeria which happens to be ruled by France, and the aim of the revolution there would have had to be to break the power of the French.
RPW:An old type of nationalistic revolution, then, is that it?
JB: Yes, that’s right. It doesn’t apply here at all, because this is, at least in principle, one nation – it’s Americans battling to get rid of an invader or to – even to destroy a class, but to liberate themselves and their children from – from what, precisely? From the economic and social sanctions imposed on them traditionally because they were slaves here. Now, there are some concrete things involved in this, I think. I think that, for example, if Washington had the energy to move, to break the power of people like Senator Eastland and Russell so the Negroes began to vote in the South, you would have made a large step forward. If Negroes could vote in this city you would have a different state. If we get a different state in Mississippi you would begin to have a different country. I mean, it’s not as mystical or as fuzzy as you make it seem. It seems to me that the South is ruled, very largely so, by an oligarchy which rules for its own benefit, and not only oppresses Negroes and murders them, but really imprisons and victimizes the bulk of the white population.
RPW:You said once in a print that the Southern mob does not represent the will of the Southern majority.
JB: I still feel that. I that that the –
RPW:How would you discuss that?
JB: Well, those mobs that fill the street, it seems to me – unless one is prepared to say that the South is populated entirely by monsters, which I am not – those mobsters fill the street on reflection of the terror they all – everybody feels. This is on the lowest level. And those mobsters fill the street and then are used by the American economy for generations to keep the Negro in his place. In fact, they have done the – the Americans North and South by the way – dirty work for him. They have always been encouraged to do it. No one has ever even given them any hint that it was wrong, and of course they are now completely bewildered and –
JB: The mob, yes. And they only react in one way, which is survivance, in the same way that the Alabama sheriff, facing a Negro student, knows he’s in danger, knows what the danger is, and all he can do is beat him over the head or counterpart him. He doesn’t know what else to do.
RPW:May I interrupt to make one test here, to make sure we have – (test of tape). All revolutions of the ordinary historical type have depended on, say, the driving force of hope and the driving force of hate. They’re going somewhere and they are mobilizing their adrenalin against something, I suppose we could put it this way. There are other things that may be involved, but those things -. Now, would this be directed against a regime to be liquidated, it’s one thing. When it’s inside of a system which must be reordered but not destroyed -
reordered – then the hope-hate ratio might change. I am thinking of how the hate is to be accommodated in a case like that – this kind of a quotes – revolution.
JB: Well, the American Negro has had to accommodate a vast amount of hatred for – ever since he’s been here, and that was a terrible school to go through. I think, though, that so far and in this context, operates to control what hatred – such hatred as there is. I don’t – I myself – I am accused of hating all white people and saying that all Negroes do – I myself don’t feel that so much as I feel the bitterness and disappointment. One has been too involved to hate anybody whom he raised. You can despise him – you know, you can – you have a great complex of feelings about them and you may even give moments when you could kill them. But it wouldn’t come under the heading for me of the hatred the Algerians felt for the French, which is obviously on one level certainly much less complicated. The Frenchman is simply a Frenchman. But here it’s your brothers and your sisters, whether or not they know it, they are your brothers and your sisters. And that complicates it. It complicates it so much that I can’t possibly myself quite see my way through this. As for the hope, that is fuzzy too. Hope for what? You know, the best people along this revolution certainly don’t hope to become what the bulk of Americans have become. So the hope begins then to ask me to create a new nation under intolerable circumstances and with very little time and against the resistance of most of the country.
RPW:You mean the hope is not simply to move into white middle class values, is that it?
JB: Well, even if that were the hope, as a matter of fact, but even if that were the hope, it would not possible. It is simply not possible for the church, for example, to accept me into it without becoming a different institution and I would be deluded not to realize that. And the church of course realizes it, which is why – you know, why it isn’t about to change. What applies to the church applies to politics, applies to every level of national life. In order to accommodate me, in order to overcome so many centuries of cruelty and bad faith and genocide and fear – simple fear – all the American institutions and all the American values, public and private, will have to change. The Democratic Party will have to become a different party, for example.
RPW:How do you envisage the result of this movement if successful? What kind of a world do you envisage out of it?
JB: Well, I envisage a world which is almost impossible to imagine in the country. Still, the world in which ultimately race would count for nothing, in which Americans simply – not so simply – would grow up enough to recognize that I don’t frighten them. A lot of the problem here is not – has nothing to do with the race at all. It has to do with ignorance and it has to do with the cult of youth.
RPW:Undoubtedly that’s true. May we hold that, though, for a moment. It’s one of the points where other things intercept this. Some people say, like Oscar Handlin and other historians and sociologists, that equality increases rather than diminishes the tendency of ethnic groups to pull together, to find themselves as a group, that once the pressure of discrimination has been lessened or removed, has been for the ethnic group to coalesce rather than to dissolve.
JB: I’m not sure I agree with that, and in any case I’m very badly placed to answer it since the American Negro is not that particular transformation, you know, and as the ethnic group in this context can only really refer to the American Negro.
RPW:In this particular case we’re talking about.
JB: It can’t really apply to the Irish and not really, finally, to the Jew. It – we’re talking about the low man on the American totem pole, the man on whose labor this country – whose free labor this country was built.
RPW:What about this, though, in that connection, as a question to speculate about for a moment. In the last few years, if we can believe the sales of bleaching creams and such things, and the avowed sentiments of many Negroes, there is a movement toward an acceptance of and a pride in Negro identity as opposed to an older tendency to shift from that center, that is the actual passing of that changing personality or appearance. This would seem to indicate something wouldn’t it?
JB: What I think it indicates is simply that for the first time in American Negro history or in American history, the American black man is not at the mercy of the American white man’s image of him. This is because of Africa
because he has not been reached.
RPW:It’s true has he has not been reached, but the question of a tendency or a will is more defined.
JB: I really think it comes out of the fact that for the first time in the memory of anybody living African states mean Africa. The West was forced to deal with Africans on the level of power, and the image of, you know, the shiftless darkie and all that jazz which has lived so long was shattered and kids then – people – had another image to turn to which released them. It’s still, by the way, you know, after all, very romantic for an American Negro to think of himself as an African, but it’s a necessary step in the re-creation of his morale.
RPW:In the matter of – discussed long ago by duBoise and many other people since, of the possible split in the psyche of the American Negro – and you have written something about this, along this line – the tendency to identify with the African culture or African mystique or the mystique noire or to other – even the American Negro culture as opposed to American white culture – the tendency to pull in that direction – as opposed to the tendency to pull over and accept the Western European American white tradition, as another pull – are these things against each other or can be anyway – for some people they are – some people profess to be greatly troubled by this – do you feel this question is real – for yourself or your observation?
JB: Well - answer that – in my own case, for whatever that means – it was very hard for me to accept Western European values because they didn’t accept me. It was – any Negro born in this country spends a great deal of time trying to be accepted, trying to find a way to operate within the culture and to – not to be made to suffer so much by it but nothing you do works. No matter how many showers you take, no matter what you do, these Western values simply – absolutely resist and reject you. So that inevitably at some point you turn away from them or you re-examine them. I think first you turn away, then perhaps you re-examine them. Because there’s something that slaves in you and the masters haven’t found it out yet but the slaves who, you know, who adopted the bloody cross, did know one thing, they knew the masters could not – those masters could not be Christians because Christians couldn’t have treated them that way. You know what I mean – this rejection has been at the very heart of the American Negro psyche from the beginning.
RPW:Let’s take the African side of it. You have written on that along the way, by covering that conference in the past – the piece about that – that would imply a difficulty – what you have written there would imply a difficulty too in identifying with
JB: If one is going to be honest about that, it’s almost – it’s not impossible but at that point certainly in my life and – I mean, I think for many people and until now, it’s hard because it’s all been buried, it’s hard, for that matter, for Africans who only now are beginning to – well - The Long Colonial Night – so there’s a sense in which you can say that Africa – the very word African – the very term is a European invention. I’m not at all convinced that people in villages outside of the cities feel themselves as Africans, you know – and after all, it wasn’t very long ago the Italians didn’t think of themselves as Italians.
RPW:It’s not their horizon – the African village is not the horizon.
JB: Not yet, no. I should think it would take, I don’t know, a couple of generations. And in the case of an American Negro, Africa, - you know, which part of Africa? Which Africa would you be thinking of? Are you thinking of Senegali, are you thinking of St. Louis, are you thinking of the middle – of Freetown? And if you are thinking of any of these places, what do you know about them? And what is there that you can use? What is there that you can contribute to? These are very great impressions. I don’t think that there is – that the word is absolute, that no bridge can be made, but I think it’s – we’ve been away from Africa for four hundred years and no power in the heavens would allow me to find my way back. I can go back, and maybe even function there, but it would have to be on terms which have yet to be worked out.
RPW:Richard Wright didn’t find it very happy, did he?
JB: No, not at all. Not at all. I think Richard went there with the wrong assumptions, but then there’s no way not to go there with the wrong sort of assumptions. I did too, in a way, you know – not Richard’s assumptions, but - I don’t know – I just didn’t know what I would find, and what I found surprised me and I must say sort of gladdened me, but I still would not be able to say exactly what it was, and I still less would be able to tell you what my own relationship to it is.
RPW:Do you remember what your assumptions were?
JB: No, I guess I blocked them out. I remember before I went I did my best to discard whatever assumptions I might have had – but of course you never succeed in doing that, you know. I did realize, but I realized it before, you know, that I was – in some ways very European because that was the way I had been – that’s what I had been stained by, you know, and that there were – and also that I was a Puritan in the sense that – a very serious sense and in the sense that Africans are not – in the sense that to being distrustful of the flesh and the celebration and of being afflicted with its only Western kind of self consciousness which I will always have. I realized, too, that the reality of castration had been uppermost in my mind, as it has been in the minds of almost any American Negro male – since you realized – from the time I realized I was a male. And this has done something to my psyche, no matter how I adjusted myself to it or failed to adjust myself to it, it had been a reality for me in a way that had not been, so far as I could tell, for them. There were a great many differences – but there were also great echoes which were more troubling and I didn’t – because I couldn’t – I found those harder to read.
RPW:Do you think the echoes came from actual cultural transmission or in some other way – or do you know?
JB: That is a blank –
RPW:Or does anyone know?
JB: I just don’t – couldn’t answer that. I saw girls on the streets of Freetown with groceries on their heads and their babies on their backs who looked just like – more like girls on Lenox Avenue. I’m not capable of telling you what this means, but maybe I’ll find out one day. I’m going back.
RPW:I’ve heard young – youngish Negroes in the North who have gone to Mississippi or Alabama to work on voter registrations or such things, say that the salvation is in meeting the purity of expression, the purity of feeling in some poor half literate or cotton picker, you see, who has come awake to his manhood.
JB: I would tend to agree with that.
RPW:This is the force of the real revelation.
JB: I think – I would really agree with that. I’ve seen in my own – you know, myself, some extraordinary people coming, just – coming out of some enormous darkness and there’s something indescribably moving and direct and heroic about these people. And that’s where the hope in my mind lies, much more than in, let’s say, someone like me, who’s, you know, much more corrupted by the psychotic society in which we live.
RPW:This impulse that you have and these people I was speaking of have, is a very common one in many different circumstances, though, isn’t it?
JB: Yes, I know.
RPW:You will find many white people – I use the word “romanticize” now without prejudice –
JB: I know what you mean.
RPW: – about some simpler form of life – the white hunter is – and in the Far West, or the Indian, or even turns toward the Negro in that same romantic way.
JB: Um-hm – or the worker.
RPW:Or the worker. This is an impulse which many people feel inner complications or live in a complicated world which they don’t quite accept or won’t accept, turn to some simpler form.
JB: I’m not sure it’s simpler, though. That’s my real reservation about it. I’m not convinced that some of those old ladies that I talked to down there – I know they aren’t simple – they’re far from simple – and what the emotional psychological make-up is which allows them to endure so long is something of a mystery to me. They are no more simple, for example, than Medgar Evers was simple – you know, he was –
RPW:He was apparently – certainly a different cut from, you know, the –
JB: You know, there’s something very rustic about him and direct, but obviously he was far from simple man. I think that it has something to do with, you know, what one takes – I don’t know, you know – it has something to do with what one thinks the nature of reality is. And especially in this country now, it’s very hard to read the riddle of the human personality because we’ve had so little respect for it. I think this complicates all our endeavors and all our relationships. I don’t – my own father, who was certainly something like those people – was very far from being a simple man. It was simply I think that the nature of his complexity and the nature of the complexity of those field workers in the Deep South
RPW: recalled or thought of as – more as corresponding white types.
JB: Yes, you might. Now, here I’m on very shaky ground. I don’t – I’m not equipped to say yes or no. But I was –
RPW:The son of a Southern sharecropper – a white sharecropper.
JB: Except that I have the feeling that the difference between the Southern white sharecropper and a black one – speaking in terms of – now speaking - this is a generality obviously – so I suspect that the difference is in the nature of the relationship to their own pain. I think the white Southern sharecropper in a general way would have a much harder time using his pain, using his sorrow, putting himself in touch with it, and using it to survive, than a black one. And his melancholy and even tragic in Negro experience which is simply denied in white experience. I think this makes a very great difference – a difference in authority, a difference in growth, a difference in possibility. One thing that is not true of the Negro in this context anyway, is he is not forbidden as all white Southerners are to assess his own beginnings. He may find out well he’s no longer impossible or dangerous or fatal to do so. But a white Southerner I think suffers from the fact that his childhood, his early youth, you know – when his relationships to the black people is very different than it becomes later – is sealed off from him, and he can never dig it up on pain of destruction, nearly, and this creates his torment and his paralysis.
RPW:Do you see any chance of an understanding between, say, the Southern poor white and the poor Southern Negro?
JB: nothing to create that and nothing to defeat that. That is, the bargain struck by the Reconstruction I suppose, you know, which was – use the poor white I don’t know enough about that era, you know, to discuss it in any detail, but I know to what you are referring. But my point in any case is that they didn’t. And now the situation is more grim than ever. It would seem to me, to go back to what I said earlier, that the – part of the answer to that problem, that question, would really be to begin to break the power of a few men in the Democratic Party.
RPW:Some Negroes in Mississippi and Alabama hold out hope for this, for the understanding, for the rapprochement between the Southern poor white, the sharecropper type, the laborer, and the poor Negro.
JB: Well, I don’t see much hope for this the way things are now. In the first place, the labor situation is too complex and too shaky. The white – all workers in this country are in terrible trouble.
RPW:Not enough jobs to go around.
JB: Not enough jobs – that’s right – and they’re all vanishing, such jobs as there are, and this does not make for good relations between workers, as we all know. I really – I still insist on, though, the fact that it really seems to me that if Mississippi could be released from some of Eastland’s great clutches, then there might be much more for the poor white who in effect is kept in prison by men like him.
RPW:Let’s switch for a moment to a matter of the general pattern of leadership in the Negro revolution or whatever we settle on – almost always – I suppose always in successful movements – mass movements – in history – you find a tendency toward greater and greater centralization of leadership – the final – the man- behind him, but The Man. Is there any tendency in that direction now among Negroes, do you think? Do you see a centralization – the process going on?
JB: No. I see a shaking down or something but I don’t see anything yet resembling what we can call a centralization, not according to me. A part of the problem is that the tactics of the old leadership have had to rely very heavily, you know, on the – have been defined very heavily by the white power structure. To put it another way, the college president of, let’s say, forty years ago had to deal with the state governor and with the powers that be in a very different way than now, because the state is no longer able to do what it was able – since the Supreme Court decision – let me put it this way – the college president does not have to go to the state to get a college dormitory because the state is building college dormitories as fast as they can to keep Negroes out of white schools. Now, that changes – that alone changes, you know, the tactics, and changes the whole picture. Furthermore, there have always been in this country two Negro leaders. One was – one you called the leader and one was mine, you know, the real one who was always
RPW:Well, we have – that’s true, but taking things as they are now – may I try to reinterpret what you said, and if I’m wrong stop me and correct me – the NAACP legal techniques defined by the old system –
JB: Yes, to a very large extent they had to be.
RPW:Yes. Well, as legal – they were establishing as a legal reference, wouldn’t they have had to work in terms of law?
JB: Well, there’s a limit even to that, you see, because some of the laws with which you had to work were unjust and unworkable.
RPW:But their effort was to change this, wasn’t it?
JB: I know, but the point is, indeed – and it’s a very admirable effort, I’m not in any sense trying to condemn that – but it still was very complex and his enemy there was time, you know. Time does pass and a man has only one life to live. And it was inevitable that these techniques if they were not, you know, swiftly successful, and they couldn’t be, would have to fail before the, you know – before the weight of human impatience which no one after all – no one can possibly condemn. And what has happened now, it seems to me, is that for the first time in the history of this struggle the poor Negro has hit the streets, really, and has changed the nature of the struggle completely and, according to me, forever. It’s created new problems and it’s created a new leadership too.
RPW:It’s created, too, hasn’t it, a struggle for power, hasn’t it?
JB: Inevitably, but –
JB: Yes. It’s created a tremendous struggle for power but that’s not yet such a menace as a split in the leader -- as a real split in the leadership which is, you know – which is now an open secret. There are – the people have hit the streets and the young people, you know, are not necessarily dedicated to the principles of Martin Luther King. Still less to the principles of Roy Wilkins.
RPW:What about Whitney Young’s remark in the press the other day that the press had some responsibility in building up people as leaders who were
designated leaders and who, by offering some dramatic resolution, claimed power. He was presumably referring to the stall-ins.
JB: Well, it’s very hard to know what he’s referring to, really, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame it on the press. I think this is irrelevant because we know what kind of press we’re dealing with. I think that it’s unrealistic to – as a matter of fact, you know, I’m not at all sure, but I think the stall-in was a good idea, but the dramatization of the American Negro situation is a good idea. My idea in that context was not to have a stall-in but simply to get, you know – have demonstrations in the Fair and have the people have the world in as a witness. Now, this can also be condemned as incendiary and irresponsible. But the point is that it has got to be uncovered, and among all the ways in which it’s got to be uncovered one’s got to face, this is going to be as wise as one might like or as responsible, and some of them are going to be by definition – have to be dangerous.
RPW:Let’s assume that. But dangerous and to whom, and –
JB: Dangerous to us all.
RPW:To us all. In considering the matter of the overreaching of power, the bigger promise, the bigger promise, the bigger threat, the bigger threat
the power – this undermines, perhaps, the responsibilities of leadership – I’m offering this as a question, not an assertion.
JB: I think the problem of leadership is extremely hard. I must – and I’m not in the position of a leader. I know it’s vastly increased James Farmer’s problems, whose –
RPW:Just a moment – I want to change the tape. This is the end of Tape #1, conversation with James Baldwin. Continue on Tape #2.
(end of tape)Collapse
TAPE 2 Searchable TextCollapse
Mr. WARREN: This is Tape #2 of the conversation with James Baldwin – continue. Let's see, where were we? On the question of leadership and the struggle for power.
Mr. BALDWIN: I don't know if it's only a struggle for power. I mean, there are some things –
RPW: Not merely.
JB: Not merely – no. There are some figures in the movement or on the periphery who impress me as being opportunistic – you know. But I think the problem is more complex than that. I think it's involved with the pressure of being brought to bear on everybody, by the people in the streets especially, by the poor and by the young, so that one is always in the position of having to assess very carefully one's tactics, one's moves in terms of the popular desire, because avoid another danger which is this, that if the people feel betrayed you've lowered their morale and then nothing – and then you've opened the door on a holocaust. So there are some things that people have agreed to do. The March on Washington is a very good example. It was not the most popular thing dreamed up. It was not dreamed up by the leaders so far as anyone knows. It was brought off because there was nobody to call it off – nobody dared to call it off. a series of race riots.
RPW: How much was the idea based on the old March on Washington movement of –
JB: ? Very heavily I think. I wasn't in on the – you know, I was hardly ever backstage on this thing, but I think it springs from that border event in the 40's. And it was a very significant day, one that was, we say, contained in – but it was also a turning point. I thought then and I still think that you will never get two or three thousand people to come to Washington again, because – to petition for a redress of grievances.
RPW: How do you explain that?
JB: Well, I think the Negro in America has reached a point of despair and disaffection, you know, and that people now talk about certain techniques being used as destroying the good will of white people, but nobody gives a damn any more about the good will of people whose good will has never been – has never done anything to help you or to save you. Their ill will can hardly do more harm than their good will has. And this is a very significant despair.
RPW: Yet you want to avoid the holocaust.
JB: Indeed – we want to avoid the holocaust, but you see there – that is not simply in the hands of the Negro leaders. That's in the hands of the entire country.
RPW: It's not a one way ticket.
JB: It's not a one way ticket at all. If you have people up there filibustering about whether or not you're human, then obviously you're going to have a reaction in the streets.
JB: And Farmer and King and all those people are doing everything they can, but they cannot do it alone. It's simply not possible. To avoid the holocaust one is going to have to have some help. And very little help is forthcoming.
RPW: Do you distinguish, however, between what you might call legitimate and illegitimate demonstration?
JB: Well, it's becoming increasingly hard to distinguish between them, you know. Is a demonstration in front of the Florida Pavilion at the World's Fair legitimate or illegitimate? It depends on the point of view. I think it's legitimate – you know.
RPW: Well, let's say that I think so too, as I do. We can distinguish between a school boycott or a March on Washington on one side, or, say, an orderly demonstration inside the fair grounds, and a stall-in. There's some distinction.
JB: There is some distinction. The distinction would have to be I think in terms of the clarity of purpose and the likelihood of achieving any – one dare not say concrete gains – there have been so few – but in terms of pinpointing a specific – dramatizing a specific thing – a specific issue.
RPW: That is the – a specific target or a specific issue – then it
is . But when it's a random protest –
JB: Then I think it can do vastly more harm than good.
RPW: - a random protest which may carry grievous social consequences.
JB: Yes, well, of course this entire revolution can carry grievous social consequences.
RPW: Yes, that's always true. Changes are consequences. But the question of the ambulance dashing down the street with a dying man is one thing as opposed to the consequences of somebody having to refurbish a tenement.
JB: Yes. That's an area in which one simply has to play it literally by ear, you know. A school boycott depends very much on where the school is, you know. It depends on a whole complex of issues, and of course a school boycott is designed, as I see it, to dramatize the situation of the school which is really not a situation of the schools but a situation of the cities, you know. It's not only the school boards which are involved – and they are – but it's also the structure of our cities which has created this dilemma. And it's where rent strikes – the same thing, you know – on the face of it one has no right not to pay the rent. On the other hand, the landlord has no right to keep you locked from the tenement and, you know, to penalize you in this way. And one way to dramatize it is to stop paying the rent.
RPW: What about a policy deliberately directed at getting a little bloodshed for the papers?
JB: I haven't really heard of this.
RPW: Well, I know of only one case – a man who sat in such a meeting told me, and the names – or the person made a memorandum, we've got to get a few heads broken here or we are going to lose out.
JB: It sounds very unrealistic to me. In the first place, the problem of getting heads broken doesn't seem to me a problem at all. On the contrary. I don't understand the nature of that – you know, it's obviously madly and criminally irresponsible. But I myself haven't come across that serious suggestion as a tactic yet.
RPW: I have. Just one case – documented. At least, I take the word of the man –
JB: I believe you – I believe you – it just seems insane to me, since – I repeat, it's never been a problem to get your head broken. You haven't got to arrange that.
RPW: Do you see the pattern building up that Congressman Powell said to me was true the other day, that the old organization is on the way out - count?
JB: Well, I'm not so sure they don't really count, but they're certainly either on their way out or in the process of radical changes. And this would – you wouldn't even have to be critical of them to realize this, because there are certain things they will simply have to do if they're going to remain in positions of responsibility or power which they've never had to do before. The situation dictates it, and those that can't do that are on the way out – yes.
RPW: You find an argument now and then, such as this one I heard from Dr. Henry in Mississippi, that the NAACP approach had made it possible for man to know his – well – rights – to give a definition of his rights.
JB: That seems a little simplistic to me, but I see what he's saying. I think that –
RPW: Their history had given him this sense.
JB: I think there's more to it than that. I think that – I think that's true, but there is more to it than that. I think that the whole stream of the American history in a way has done that, even thought it never intended to. And the events of the last twenty years have done that, too. In the terms of the NAACP it would seem to me that you'd have to be talking about which chapter – you know – it would not apply to some chapters in the North, it would seem to me.
RPW: He was taking the long range effect, you see, of the various legal cases over thirty years.
JB: Well, this would apply I think more in the south than it would in the North. Much more in the South. I think it's a very different organization in the South than it is in the North.
RPW: Do you follow the line of thought that Dr. Kenneth Clark takes that Dr. King's method in the South has merit but it's inapplicable in the North?
JB: Yes, I'm afraid I'm forced to agree with that. Negroes in the south still go to church, some of them, and Negroes in the South – which is much more important – still have something resembling a family around which you can build a great deal. But the Northern Negro family has been fragmented for the last thirty years, if not longer, and once you haven't got a family then you have another kind of despair, another kind of demoralization, and Martin King can't reach those people.
RPW: But he doesn't know he can't reach them.
JB: I think Martin does know it, you know. I think that he's determined to – he can't abandon them, on the other hand, either, you know, and his influence is absolutely negligible, you know, he is still the national leader and the national figure.
RPW: He packed a hall in Bridgeport.
JB: Well, he can pack a hall in Bridgeport, but it's – you know – I have packed halls too – it depends on what you're packing the hall with. I mean, the fact itself can mean a great many things.
RPW: Well dressed, middle class people – from observation in Bridgeport - I've heard.
JB: Yes, but he can't pack a hall – you know, the boys in the pool room stay in the pool room, and they're more – it's more important to reach them, you know, to do something about their morale. And I'm not blaming Martin for this. It's not his fault at all. But it – you know, to reach them is very difficult. Malcolm X can reach them. You know, those kids are not Christians and it's very hard to blame them for not being Christians since they are so few in this Christian country.
RPW: Let's take some specific episode, like the school bussing program in Harlem.
JB: I don't know anybody who has a very clear notion what they think about that, and I don't either. I have nieces and nephews who were being bussed for a while, and some of them still are, and their parents took the attitude that if the kid was willing to undergo this, then it was then maybe – you know – it was worth it. But no one thought that it couldn't have any effect, really, since after all those kids come back home.
RPW: To the same house.
JB: To the same house – the white kids do and the black kids do. And what happens in the school day is not going to make that much difference. I think the problem has got to be attacked on another deeper level, though I'm not an expert in these matters.
RPW: Well, God knows I'm not. I've talked to several people about it who know more than I do, like Dr. Clark, for instance, and I've talked with Dr. Dodson – Dan Dodson, and a few people like that who have special interests and special concerns. There's a large group that takes the view, apparently that bussing except in limited fashion is useless. If you have to have a big crash program for building schools as best you can, and then have integration follow rather than preceed this process or at least concomitant with it, but you can't make it as an arbitrary outside criterion.
JB: I would tend to agree with that, but it gets to be a vicious circle because it's not doing to do any good to build schools until you start building neighborhoods. And you've seen New York City neighborhoods being destroyed the last twenty years for money – they're in the hands of, you know, a gang of real estate gangsters, you know. And there are no neighborhoods in New York any more. And if you don't have neighborhoods I don't see what you can do much about schools. Do you see what I mean?
RPW: Yes, I do – yes, I do. Of course, there's the other proposal of having the great school parks which draw from all sorts of neighborhoods.
JB: Well, that's a more interesting proposal, but it still isn't going to get to the root of the matter, which is why we allowed the city to be run this way.
RPW: But meanwhile somebody has to do something.
JB: Yes, I quite agree. The problem there is – what, in terms of schools? I confess myself to be almost completely baffled by it – limited bussing, school parks – yes, but these things, it seems to me – it seems to me that sooner or later we're going to have to carry the battle straight into the real estate boards and banks. That's where the trouble is.
RPW: Well, let's agree on that. This is a peripheral question, but one that has some significance because people are ready to shed blood on it, and Mr. Galamuson [Galamison] would say wreck the schools unless we get integration on my time table, immediately – or almost immediately. This is the sort of argument that makes the bussing a symbol of a thousand other things, and makes a symbolic solution rather than a real solution.
JB: I'm opposed to symbolic solutions, and I – I don't know Reverend Galamuson [Galamison] and I never met him so I can't really discuss his position –
RPW: I don't know him – I give this as an example, not as an attack on him. I don't know him.
JB: But I don't see any point in trying to wreck a school system which is very nearly wrecked already in any case. I don't see any point in saying so. I can only go back to what I said before – in the first place, obviously, you know, if you're going to try to and all this, you can't say – you may determine in your own mind, but you can't say, you know, we're going to have integration on my terms or not at all, because if you're going to be realistic about it – and you have to be – you have to try – one has got to realize that it will take some time. The trick is to get it started, you know. And in this context especially one is not going to get it started, it seems to me, by inflammatory statements of that kid. After all, one is trying to save the children if one is trying to do anything. It does seem to me that one has got to sue for some real confrontation between the city and the schools – between the city, that is, and the forces of integration. That's where the problem is. I repeat, that is where the problem is.
RPW: Well, it would seem that that is the root problem. Other things are involved –
JB: Yes – other things are involved and that and the tactics I suppose one has to evolve and would like to have as their purpose to bring about this confrontation That's a very delicate and incendiary matter.
RPW: Or ameliorative measures along the way.
JB: Well, ameliorative measures along the way are really probably going to be doomed to failure. I think one has got to bring about the confrontation. What ameliorative measures in effect really can anybody make – bring about in this situation?
RPW: If I am not mistaken, Dr. Clark is prepared – I don't want to be certain of this – prepared to accept a period of nonintegrated lower grades because of some massive difficulties and aim for high school integration – offer part.
JB: That seems on the face of it – I'm not talking to him and I feel I'm not an expert in it – I can see why he would take that position and on the face of it I would tend to agree, you know.
RPW: On the face of it I would because the massive complications of the option.
JB: Yes, exactly – exactly. I think that there might be much more hope in that, so it's – still, it's obviously a half measure.
RPW: It clearly is, this is a half measure. How do we get whole measures –
JB: Well, I think you're going to get whole measures by dealing with a great many half measures.
RPW: That's not call a half measure a whole measure in
JB: Exactly – exactly.
RPW: Well, we sound very wise on that point, don't we?
JB: Yes – my golly. I think Ken is right about that.
RPW: I have a question here from Oscar Handlin's new book – may I read it to you since you can't read my writing? The general disillusionment since 1954 – he's talking about – well, you read his book, "Bell in the Night" – The attention of Negroes has focused on one cause, segregation, and on one cure, integration. They have come to consider racial separateness the root of difficulties and racial balance as the sole solution. In arriving at this conclusion, they have paradoxically enough accepted the contention of the white separatists – white suprematists – that there is really no difference between the North and the South. As a result of this development the practical civil rights movements has shifted and racial balance becomes a primary objective rather than equality and justice. rather than an element in it – to paraphrase some other things he said about it.
JB: Well, it's not such a recent development, and long before 1954 I concluded – and every Negro I knew concluded – it wasn't even a conclusion – it was taken as a fact of life – that the difference between the North and the South were really when the chips were down, that they had different techniques of castrating you then than they had in the North, but the fact of the castration remained exactly the same, and that was the intention in both places. And furthermore, it is impossible to be separate but equal. It – if one is equal why should he be separate? And it's that – it's the history of that doctrine which created almost all of the Negro's despair and also the country's despair. So I think that the instinct to destroy that doctrine is quite sound.
RPW: Separate but equal?
JB: Yes, that's right. It's really an attack on the white man's assumption that he knows more about you than you do and that he knows what's best for you, and that he can keep you in your place for your own good and also for his own profit.
RPW: Shifting around a moment – the separate but equal, ore the white man knowing best – of course your read Irving Howe's piece in the Sat. about you and Ralph.
JB: No, I didn't – I was in rehearsal but I heard about it. I have it on my desk but I haven't had time to read it.
RPW: I wish you had read it, I'd like to ask you a little bit about that. Well, it's called in passing Irving Howe—Bilbo thinking he knew best Ralph's place. I'm not asking you to comment because you haven't read the pieces, but this has got that far along – the white man always knowing best.
JB: I think I can imagine some of the things that – you know – there is a tendency – I'm not talking about Irving Howe, because I haven't read the piece, but there's a great tendency on the part of a great many of the Negro's friends – let's put it that way – unconsciously to – and really unconsciously – you know, this is not meant – they don't mean to say the things that they say – but it is an unconscious assumption that somehow, you know, if you don't fit into – you don't take this road or do this or act this way or feel this way, that you have somehow – well, you've betrayed something. What you've betrayed is the image of you. Then of course, when the black man rises then he's furious.
RPW: That's exactly the point that is involved here, that you and Ralph have betrayed Richard Wright – that's the point.
JB: We've betrayed Richard? How?
RPW: Well, you want to be artists instead of keeping angry enough you know, and –
JB: Ralph is as angry as anybody – you know – can be and still live and so am I.
RPW: you and Ralph are in the same boat, that you have betrayed the trust, you see, and –
JB: Well, who is Irving?
RPW: I don't know – that's the next point – that's Ralph's point. That's going back to the Bilbo story.
JB: I myself don't feel that I have betrayed Richard, and I – I certainly don't feel that Ralph has. In the first place I don't know how we'd do it. Richard – you know, Richard's achievement is Richard's achievement, and you have every right in the world to disagree with him and you have every right in the world to go further than he. In fact, we have every duty to do that, and if that offends Irving Howe, well, that's just too bad for Irving Howe.
RPW: How did you feel about the – this is something in the morning news – the news Saturday – of the complicated tangle which you have on the NAACP suit about construction – the injunction, you know, to stop construction in New York state - by a strange series of authorities, the judge passes on – signs the rejection – was a Negro judge in the state court.
JB: That's one of those –
RPW: That's one of those – it was on, I gather, technical grounds, but it makes a strange situation, doesn't it?
JB: Yes, but – it doesn't seem as strange to me as it might seem, you know, to you.
RPW: I don't think it seems strange to you – or to me either. The man is a judge –
JB: A judge is a judge – yes, that's right –
RPW: - the psychological effects can go in many different directions.
JB: The psychological effects – yes.
RPW: Speculating about those psychological effects for both Negroes and whites –
JB: That sort of keeps me awake at nights. It's really the subject of a novel which is very dimly – you know, - in my head. I don't know what that – I really don't know what that means. I just have to sort of beg off. That gets us into the whole realm of – oh, I don't know – power politics, private lives of people, and it is also a fantastic assault on the whole idea of race and the whole myth that Negroes and whites are different, you know.
RPW: But he reads the law – presumably - he's honest.
JB: And that's what he has to do, yes.
RPW: He has to – but people are going to call him hard names for that.
JB: Of course – of course, that that's –
RPW: (talking together)
JB: I think so too.
RPW: Or take the case in the Supreme Court where the dissenting justices – Black, Douglas and two others, were out to protect present Governor Johnson of Mississippi and old Ross Barnett in Federal court by being for the jury trial. You get the four liberals on a legal technicality are trying to throw the case back into the Mississippi courts where we can
JB: Yes, I know – I know what you're saying and I know – I don't know how we're going to get out of this labyrinth.
RPW: Well, here's sort of the same situation, just taking a quote from Handlin again – this is the last book I've read – where forced integration – that is, forced – positive, he calls it – that is, bussing backed by edict or our boards and things – shifts by force – or any shift by force to make racial balance threatens to reduce the individual to to be shuffled about by any authority without reference to any preferences. There may be circumstances under which this is necessary, but those who advocate it usually show no awareness of what this – this does not change the roots of prejudice and – or has other repercussions, principally in law and society.
JB: Well, what that comes to, is that there are going to be very dangerous moments in this struggle which we'll have to avoid if it's at all possible, creating certain very dangerous precedents.
RPW: That's the idea.
JB: That is – that's the trickiest element in the entire revolution, if that is what it is, because one has got to be reconciled, I think, under such stress, to do very dangerous things, and then try to prevent them from having repercussions that they might have. One has got to undo a hundred years of work, you know, in a very short time, and it will not be able to be done as tidily as one might wish.
RPW: It won't be tidy.
JB: No. I'm going to have to go fairly soon because I'm getting a little – just a little sick. I have to get home.
RPW: Well, shall we –
JB: And I'm sorry to say that.
RPW: Shall we knock it off on this tape?
RPW: All right. What is – let's take one question – we have a minute or two left – what is the responsibility of a Negro as you read it – establish equality or justice? Some of the white men's responsibilities are glaringly apparent. What responsibility does the Negro have?
JB: Well, I can only answer that for myself because I'm not altogether sure I know what a Negro is.
RPW: Well, I mean –
JB: You know what I mean – but I suppose I consider the responsibility to be something like this, to – I think one has to take upon oneself a very hard responsibility, which is something you do with the morale of the young, which has to do with a sense of their identify and a sense of their possible achievements, and a sense of themselves. And for this I think one has to take upon himself the necessity of trying to be an example to them, you know, to prove – you know, to prove something by your existence. And further than that, I think one has to try to – if one could get at the morale, then a great many of the problems would be minimized – the problem, for example, of the schools – the problems we were talking about before – the problems of delinquency – which are all problems of despair and demoralization. Then I suppose one has to say, do all things like Jesse Gray is doing in Harlem, which is to mobilize the people – less landlords really, to give the Negro a sense of what they can do for themselves, which is the bottom reason, as I read it, the bottom purpose of the rent strike, because if one can bring this off, then there are several other things that one might be able to think of doing. Part of the problem of being a Negro in this country is that one has been beaten so long – they've been helpless so long, one tends to think of oneself as being helpless. So I think probably the primary responsibility would be I suppose to convey to the people whom one sort of helplessly represents the fact that they are not helpless. And that if they are not helpless they must try to be responsible and to create a leadership out of these boys and girls in the streets, which indeed is happening. They're doing it themselves. I think it's our responsibility as their elders to bear witness to them and to take their risks with them – because if they don't trust their elders then we're in trouble too. This is what – something like that is the way it looks to me.
RPW: I'm going to ask a question now that probably has no answer, and I see some of the to the question right away – how many Negroes read your books? It's like trying to find how many Southerners read your books – you know – white Southerners.
JB: Yes – it's an impossible question to answer. But I do know this, my brother who lives in Harlem, says that the whores and junkies and people like that steal the books and sell them in bars, which is – there have been a lot of hot things sold in Harlem bars, but I never heard of hot books being sold in Harlem bars before, so I gather that means something.
RPW: How do you feel about audience – this is a stupid question because I know what – I think I know what most any writer feels about audience
JB: I don't think of it, you know – just don't think of it.
RPW: That's what I mean. It isn't the way it starts.
JB: No – you just hope whatever you do finds its own audience. It may take a long, long time.
RPW: I think that's about all.
JB: I wouldn't have to go except that I've been a little sick, and this is – I feel sort of shaky, and I got –
RPW: There's no point in torturing you.
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