From the archives, 1973 | Viewpoint: James Baldwin
Stars and Stripes February 27, 1973
This article was first published by Stars and Stripes European edition on Feb. 27, 1973. It is republished in its original form, including offensive language used by Baldwin to emphasize a point.
The occasion was the inauguration of the Stuttgart branch of the NAACP, but those who flocked into the Mozart Saal of that city's Liederhalle came to see the Man. The Man was James Baldwin, novelist, essayist and playwright and perhaps the most consistently articulate of a generation of Black writers.
There were, of course, several who came to see and hear Chester Himes, the older brother.
Baldwin arrives in Stuttgart from Hollywood where he is making a film on the life of Ray Charles with "the genius." Baldwin is 24 hours late but is determined to keep all dates. He is rushed to and into the Officers Club at Robinson Barracks, where a reception has been arranged.
Two German TV stations have set up their murderous lights and people of all colors are sweltering beneath them, jockeying to get close to Baldwin, hoping to be caught on camera with him. When Baldwin moves, it resembles a many-legged cluster of multicolored humanity.
Baldwin is charming.
"I prefer speaking to kids. I find adults generally ask a question to get themselves off some hook `Mr. Baldwin, what do you think of intermarriage?' etc. The kids ask what they really want to know, and have open minds."
A white man stands up in the Liederhalle and asks how, and in what direction, he should turn to seek a new identity in a culture that is not exclusive.
It's the type of question that comes repeatedly in one form or another from white Americans in the audience. But Baldwin is not a prophet; nor is he there to start a new religious following. He's recording the present in the light of the past.
"Your history," Baldwin answers, "is not your fault. But there it is. I'm not trying to put you down but give you a sensible answer. Now, for all practical purposes, your situation would be very different, and your question would scarcely exist if America had a culture. Now, having said that, I mean, the Americans as a nation cannot be considered to have a culture, as no one can discover what it is that they have in common or respect except things, and that does not make a culture. They also have in common a certain terror and a certain hidden shame and despair, none of which makes a culture, either. Now, what you have to do with all that in order to free yourself from what I referred to as your history is, first of all, accept that history. Learn to accept, for example, that the American people never honored a single treaty that they made with the Indians, not one. That means that you are the issue of very dishonorable people. Now, if you can get that far, you can also see that to condemn a culture is not to condemn a nation nor all the people in it. If you can get that far, you can see that American Slavery had two faces and still has two faces. One of them is visible, and that's my face, because the Americans imagine that I am their slave, but the other face is your face and that's the keystone to American slavery: what is happening to you. Now, it's not a matter of your fighting for my liberty, it's a matter of your contending with your parents, with your leaders for your life!"
The content of the reply is repeated time and again in various forms. Baldwin refuses to give patent answers and panaceas. The answer, he implies, lies within man himself. Baldwin, who reminds us that he is a Harlem boy become black man and writer, reminds this reporter with his reply of black poet Melvin B. Tolson's character of John Laugart, half-blind artist, in Harlem Gallery:
“At once the ebony of his face
became moodless —bare
as the marked-off space
between the feathered areas
of a cock;
as sharp as a lance-
olate leaf, he said:
It matters not a tinker’s dam
on the hither or thither side of
how many rivers you cross
if you fail to cross the Rubicon!”
He tells a young Black boy in the Pattonville theater that he, Baldwin, has no strategy or master plan and that the only thing he could say with certainty is that he, James Baldwin, would not be alive to struggle with him. He advises him to learn as much about his country and himself as he can and to keep his eyes and mind open.
"Mr. Baldwin, what is your opinion of armed revolution," asks a tall Black youth with a proud Afro standing to the far right in the Liederhalle.
"I'm not a general," he replies and starts to look away, almost impolite for the first time that night. The idea of violence is barbaric to Baldwin, but he is not blind to its existence.
The brother catches him. "You're not a general?" which really means: "What the hell does that have to do with my question?"
Baldwin reacts instantaneously. The brother is serious.
"I mean, if I tell you I'm for armed revolution, it would mean very little. Because I'm over 50, and you are the one that's going out there to get killed. I could say I'm for picking up the gun, but anyone in his right mind ought to know that the cops are not going to let you get three blocks."
The brother is satisfied and impressed, as most people in the auditorium are, with Baldwin's refusal to take the cheap way out, the sensational ploy in safe circumstances.
The moderator of the evening at the Liederhalle has the thankless job of posing questions to Baldwin. I spoke to the moderator, Gary Stevens, about his questions at his request, before Baldwin arrived and found them legitimate but also liable to rile Baldwin, depending upon his mood.
There is another factor that I haven't taken into consideration at the moment and that is the phenomenon that Jean-Paul Sartre describes in his essay on Richard Wright: the duality of content contained in one statement. I sense that Stevens, who is white, feels he is being attacked on some questions by Baldwin at times when Baldwin is consciously blackening his language through gesture, rhythm and innuendo more than vocabulary to get a particular message across. Baldwin is only attacking Stevens, or any other white person present, insofar as they identify themselves with the racist structure of the society he is attacking.
Baldwin emphasizes that the writer's craft takes a long time in learning and just now he feels he has his tools finely honed. He is certainly, to judge from observation, at the height of his powers and it's fascinating to witness.
Baldwin is asked where he stands on the matter of the church and Christianity. He has been criticized by younger Blacks for coming down on the side of the Christian religion.
"That's because they are Black," he replies, and we have an answer directed to Blacks and not so much the whites in the audience. He then picks up the thread for whites: "I am here to be criticized especially by my children, so to speak. For we have a lot to learn from each other. I am obviously opposed to the Christian church. It has a pretty shameful record. Let's leave it at that. But to be opposed to the Christian church and to loathe its history is not to say that I hate you or anybody else. In fact, that's my argument with the Christian church: precisely that there is no love in it. And I want my kids to be better than the people that came before us and the people that are trying to destroy us. You don't have to be a Christian to love somebody, you just have to be a human being."
Baldwin on the Communist party: "Now I had my flirtation with the Communist party that was dedicated to the liberation of all people — except me. It was, again, my liberation on their terms. And they knew more about my salvation that I could possibly know because I was just a nigger. They were down there trying to save me. Now, I resented that, you know. You cannot treat another man as a human being if you first of all think that man is Black or that you've got to treat him a certain way because he is in some way benighted, or that you know something he doesn't and that you have to teach him. The man is certainly going to resent it, or kill himself, or you. And that hasn't changed either.
"The battle for the Black man's identity has been taken out of white people's hands. That's what's happened."
A soldier asks him what he thinks of the progress made in the military in race relations through the various programs that have been initiated.
"I don't know anything about the Army, but I know that the Army is made up of Americans, and I do know Americans. If you believe you can change the situation in the military without changing the situation in the larger society, I think you are deluding yourself. I don't believe there has been any real change."
Baldwin is asked his views on the protest novel, his own works and the progress in race relations. A facile question, but destined to give us hearers a broad spectrum of the man's views besides giving the interviewer chance for a breather.
"What I think the question is aimed at is twofold: One is the social responsibility of being a Black writer and the other involves the social effects of his writing. The social responsibility I think we can take for granted. As writers, we work in many different ways for the good of the society. The social effects are something we, as writers, cannot measure.
"As the world has changed," Baldwin continues, "I would not write my earlier books today the way I did 30 years ago. Remember, I grew up during the Depression which ended with the war — for white people.
"A writer is born into the world as anyone else, he is not born into a vacuum. One learns that one is white or Black. Now; the ways in which you learn or discover your color dictate, to a very large extent, whether you will live or die and also dictate the kind of life you'll have or the kind of life you won't have. So, at the crucial point of identity, one must learn to get beneath the color because you cannot write about anybody as Black or white, as Jewish, as Greek: So-and-so is Greek or so-and-so is Japanese, or so-and-so is Black or white, but it must be 'so-and-so' otherwise he's not real.
"The protest novel that was popular when I was growing up such as Kingsblood Royal and Pinky were false in a very subtle way that I was too young to understand then. They did not describe to me anything about my own condition, so the protest novel of those years was a way of lying to me and other Black people about what was happening to them. All of the situations were false, which meant that all the resolutions were false. And, if one believed it, one could become brainwashed into a sterile type of anger which again was part of the trap into which we'd been born.
"Now, I found it difficult understanding this 30 years ago, and I found myself fighting this later to preserve my own sanity. People reacted by asking why I was attacking my own friends. But the Black man has no friends. These people who are lying to you about your experience with a smile are also trying to kill you just as surely as a cop is trying to kill you. Therefore you have to leave or find a way to outwit and survive it. And that, I'm sorry to say, in America, has not, on that level anyway, changed. What has changed is that there is a generation of young people that understands things that my generation had trouble discovering. But the American people, as such, have not changed."
A young Black who identifies himself as a teacher, articulates the root, the underlying concern that most of the Blacks are aiming at in their questions. The question is an expression of anguish and desperation that remains unresolved and existential to Blacks.
"Why am I alone?" the teacher asks, referring to a statement by the Black psychiatrists, Grier and Cobbs, in their book, Black Rage: "Even now each generation grows up alone."
Grier and Cobbs wrote:
"Various groups that have come to these shores have been able to maintain some continuity of social institutions. In the process of Americanization, they have retained an identification with their homeland. The Chinese, who in many instances functioned virtually as slaves, were allowed to preserve a family structure. Other oppressed groups, notably the Irish and Italians, were never infused with the shame of color. In addition, they had the protection and support of the Roman Catholic Church. Except for the Negro, all sizable groups in America have been able to keep some old customs and traditions.
"The black experience in this country has been of a different kind. It began with slavery and with a rupture of continuity and an annihilation of the past. Even now each generation grows up alone. Many individual blacks feel a desperate aloneness not readily explained. The authors have heard stories telling of each generation's isolation from every other. Non-black groups pass on proud traditions, conscious of the benefit they are conferring. For black people, values and rituals are shared and indeed transmitted, but with little acknowledgment of their worth. The Jew achieves a sense of ethnic cohesiveness through religion and a pride in background, while the black man stands in solitude."
Baldwin's expression upon hearing the question revealed not only a fundamental grasp of the problem but a certain pain that he knew he could not spare one or any of "his children." He is not Christ and cannot suffer for them. His answer was full of compassion:
"It is true that you will grow up alone. The Black experience in America is so unique that there is little that tradition can give you to help you survive. But, at the same time, there is no outdated tradition to hinder you. You must make it from day to day."
Read Ed Reavis’ article on fellow Black author Chester Himes’ visit to Stuttgart here.
Ed Reavis again interviewed James Baldwin in 1985 at the author’s home in St. Paul, France. Read the interview here.
Reporter Ed Reavis’ wide knowledge showed in the wide variety of stories he covered for Stars and Stripes from 1972 to 1998, many of which led to changes within the military and brought him awards. He died in 2008. Check out more of his work in our historic archive. We have digitized our 1948-1999 European and Pacific editions, as well as several of our WWII editions and made them available online through https://starsandstripes.newspaperarchive.com/
You can read Stars and Stripes 2008 obituary for Ed Reavis here.