Art

James Baldwin: The Last Interviews

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Based on a work James Baldwin left unfinished at the time of his death, Raoul Peck’s passionate, haunting Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro is currently making its way around the country. In the January 12, 1988, issue of the Village Voice — published just a couple of weeks after his passing — the paper ran a lengthy excerpt of Baldwin’s final interview. (The full interview, with author Quincy Troupe, would later be published in book form, as The Last Interview and Other Conversations.)

Also included here is an interview Baldwin did in 1984 with Richard Goldstein about being gay and black in America. “The world also belongs to me,” he concludes near the end of that discussion.

On November 13 and 14, 1987, writer Quincy Troupe interviewed James Baldwin at his home in St. Paul de Vence, France. It was to be the last known public commentary from Baldwin the writer, a man who had been labeled a firebrand, a polemicist, a man in self-imposed exile — a man whom Amiri Baraka termed in his eulogy, “God’s revolutionary mouth.” The interview reveals, however, a man who struggled with imposed identities — as a young minister, as a writer, and as a man.

While many writers live with the fear and inspiration that what needs to be said has still not been said, Baldwin warns that “it’s been said, and it’s been said. It’s been heard and not heard.” The interview, too lengthy to print here in its entirety, has been excerpted. As it begins Troupe and Baldwin have been talking about Baldwin’s friend trumpeter Miles Davis, which leads Baldwin into some thoughts on living with fame. —Thulani Davis

James Baldwin: It’s difficult to be a legend. It’s hard for me to recognize me. You spend a lot of time trying to avoid it. It’s really something, to be a legend, unbearable. The way the world treats you is unbearable, and especially if you’re black. It’s unbearable because time is passing and you are not your legend, but you’re trapped in it. Nobody will let you out of it. Except other people who know what it is. But very few people have experienced it, know about it, and I think that can drive you mad; I know it can. I know it can.

You have to be lucky. You have to have friends. I think at bottom you have to be serious. No one can point it out to you; you have to see it yourself. That’s the only way you can act on it. And when it arrives it’s a great shock.

Quincy Troupe: To find out?

It’s a great shock to realize that you’ve been so divorced. So divorced from who you think you are — from who you really are. Who you think you are, you’re not at all… I don’t know who I thought I was. I was a witness, I thought. I was very despairing witness though, too. What I was actually doing was trying to avoid a certain estrangement perhaps, an estrangement between myself and my generation. It was virtually complete, the estrangement was, in terms of what I might have thought and expected — my theories. About what I might have hoped — I’m talking now in terms of one’s function as an artist. And the country itself, being black and trying to deal with that.

Why do you think it occurred? That estrangement between your generation and the country?

Well, because I was right. That’s a strange way to put it. I was right. I was right about what was happening in the country. What was about to happen to all of us really, one way or another. And the choices people would have to make. And watching people making them and denying them at the same time. I began to feel more and more homeless in terms of the whole relationship between France and me, and America and me has always been a little painful, you know. Because my family’s in America I will always go back. It couldn’t have been a question in my mind. But in the meantime you keep the door open and the price of keeping the door open was to actually be, in a sense, victimized by my own legend.

You know, I was trying to tell the truth and it takes a long time to realize that you can’t — that there’s no point in going to the mat, so to speak, no point in going to Texas again. There’s no point in saying this again. It’s been said, and it’s been said, and it’s been said. It’s been heard and not heard. You are broken motor.

A broken motor?

Yes. You’re a running motor and you’re repeating, you’re repeating, you’re repeating and it causes a breakdown, lessening of will power. And sooner or later your will gives out — it has to. You’re lucky if it is a physical matter — most times it’s spiritual. See, all this involves hiding from something else — not dealing with how lonely you are. And of course, at the very bottom it involves the terror of every artist confronted with what he or she has to do, you know, the next work. And everybody, in one way or another, and to some extent, tries to avoid it. And you avoid it more when you get older than you do when you’re younger; still there’s something terrifying about it, about doing the work.

O.K. Let’s change the subject and talk about some writers. Amiri Baraka?

I remember the first time I met Amiri Baraka, who was then Leroi Jones. I was doing The Amen Corner and he was a student at Howard University. I liked him right away. He was a pop-eyed little boy poet. He showed me a couple of his poems. I liked them very much. And then he came to New York a couple of years later. He came to New York when I came back to New York from Paris. And by this time I knew the business. I’d been through the fucking business by that time. I was a survivor.

And I remember telling him that his agent wanted him to become the young James Baldwin. But I told him you’re not the young James Baldwin. There’s only one James Baldwin and you are Leroi Jones and there’s only one Leroi Jones. Don’t let them run this game on us, you know? You’re Leroi Jones, I’m James Baldwin. And we’re going to need each other. That’s all I said. He didn’t believe it then but time took care of that.

He believes you now?

Yes he knows it now.

What person has hurt you the most recently?

Ishmael Reed.

Why?

Because he is a great poet and it seemed to be beneath him. His anger and his contempt for me, which was both real, and not real. He ignored me for so long and then called me a cock sucker, you know what I mean? It’s boring. But I always did say he was a great poet, a great writer. But that does not mean I can put up with being insulted by him everytime I see him, which I won’t. [Ed.: Ishmael Reed disputes this statement by Baldwin: “I never called James Baldwin ‘a cocksucker’ every time I met him, which was maybe two or three times in my whole life….I didn’t answer the accusation when it first appeared because it would have been calling a dying man a liar.”]

What do you think about Toni Morrison?

Toni’s my ally and it’s really probably too complex to get into. She’s a black woman writer, which in the public domain makes it more difficult to talk about.

What do you think are her gifts?

Her gift is in allegory. Tar Baby is an allegory. In fact all her novels are. But they’re hard to talk about in public. That’s where you get in trouble because her books and allegory are not always what they seem to be about. I was too occupied with my recent illness to deal with Beloved. But, in general, she’s taken a myth, or she takes what seems to be a myth, and turns it into something else. I don’t know how to put this — Beloved could be about the story of truth. She’s taken a whole lot of things and turned them upside down. Some of them — you recognize the truth in it. I think that Toni’s very painful to read.

Why?

Because it’s always, or most times, a horrifying allegory; but you recognize that it works. But you don’t really want to march through it. Sometimes people have a lot against Toni, but she’s got the most believing story of everybody, this rather elegant matron, whose intensions really are serious, and according to some people, lethal…

We were talking once about the claustrophobia among writers. You said you prefer actors and painters to writers.

Yes. Well, first of all, when I was coming up there weren’t any writers that I knew. Langston Hughes was far away. The first writer I met was Richard Wright and he was much older than me. And the people I knew were people like Beauford Delaney and the women who hung out it with him; it was a whole world that was not literary. That came later; then it wasn’t literary. It came later in Paris, with Sartre and others. But there was something else. And in Paris it had nothing whatsoever to do with race for one thing. It was another kind of freedom there altogether. It had nothing to do with literature. But when I looked back on it years and years later, looked back at myself on the American literary scene, I could see what almost happened to me was an attempt to make myself fit in, so to speak, to wash myself clean for the American literary academy.

You mean they wanted you scrubbed and squeaky clean?

Exactly. You have to be scrubbed and squeaky clean and then there’s nothing left of you. Let me tell you a story.

When Ralph Ellison won the National Award in ’52 for Invisible Man, I was up for it the next year, in 1953, for Go Tell It on the Mountain. But at the same time, I was far from scrubbed. I didn’t win. Then, years later, someone who was on the jury told me that since Ralph won it the year before they couldn’t give it to a Negro two years in a row. Now, isn’t that something? …

Once, after I published Go Tell It on a Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, my publisher, Knopf, told me I was “a Negro writer” and that I reached “a certain audience.” “So,” they told me, “you cannot afford to alienate that audience. This new book will ruin your career because you’re not writing about the same things and in the same manner as you were before and we won’t publish this book as a favor to you.”

As a favor to you?

So I told them, “Fuck you.” My editor, whose name I won’t mention here, is dead now, poor man. I told them that I needed a boat ticket. So I took a boat to England with my book and I sold it in England before I sold it in America. You see, whites want black writers to mostly deliver something as if it were an official version of the black experience. But the vocabulary won’t hold it, simply. No true account really of black life can be held, can be contained, in the American vocabulary. As it is, the only way that you can deal with it is by doing great violence to the assumptions on which the vocabulary is based. But they won’t let you do that.

And when you go along, you find yourself very quickly painted into a corner, you’ve written yourself into a corner — because you can’t compromise as a writer. By the time I left America in 1948 I had written myself into a corner as I perceived it. The book reviews and the short essays had led me to a place where I was on a collision course with the truth; it was the way I was operating. It was only a matter of time before I’d simply be destroyed by it. And no amount of manipulation of vocabulary or art would have spared me. It’s like I think that Al Murray and Ralph Ellison are totally trapped. It’s sad, because they’re both trapped in the same way, and they’re both very gifted writers.

But you can’t do anything with America unless you are willing to dissect it. You certainly cannot hope to fit yourself into it; nothing fits into it, not your past, not your present. The Invisible Man is fine as far as it goes until you ask yourself who’s invisible to whom? You know, what is this dichotomy supposed to do? Are we invisible before each other? And invisible why, and by what system can one hope to be invisible? I don’t know how anything in American life is worthy of this sacrifice. And further, I don’t see anything in American life — for myself — to aspire to. Nothing at all. It’s all so very false, so shallow, so plastic, so morally and ethically corrupt. 

What follows is “Go the Way Your Blood Beats,” Baldwin’s 1984 Voice interview with Richard Goldstein.

Do you feel like a stranger in gay America?

Well, first of all I feel like a stranger in America from almost every conceivable angle except, oddly enough, as a black person. The word gay has always rubbed me the wrong way. I never understood exactly what is meant by it. I don’t want to sound distant or patronizing because I don’t really feel that. I simply feel it’s a world that has little to do with me, with where I did my growing up. I was never at home in it. Even in my early years in the Village, what I saw of that world absolutely frightened me, bewildered me. I didn’t understand the necessity of all the role playing. And in a way I still don’t.

You never thought of yourself as being gay?

No. I didn’t have a word for it. The only one I had was homosexual and that didn’t quite cover whatever it was I was beginning to feel. Even when I began to realize things about myself, began to suspect who I was and what I was likely to become, it was still very personal, absolutely personal. It was really a matter between me and God. I would have to live the life he had made me to live. I told him quite a long, long time ago there would be two of us at the Mercy Seat. He would not be asking all the questions.

When did you begin to think of yourself in those terms?

It hit me with great force while I was in the pulpit. I must have been 14. I was still a virgin. I had no idea what you were supposed to do about it. I didn’t really understand any of what I felt except I knew I loved one boy, for example. But it was private. And by time I left home, when I was 17 or 18 and still a virgin, it was like everything else in my life, a problem which I would have to resolve myself. You know, it never occurred to me to join a club. I must say I felt very, very much alone. But I was alone on so many levels and this was one more aspect of it.

So when we talk about gay life, which is so group oriented, so tribal…

And I am not that kind of person at all

… do you feel baffled by it?

I feel remote from it. It’s a phenomenon that came along much after I was formed. In some sense, I couldn’t have afforded it. You see, I am not a member of anything. I joined the church when I was very, very young, and haven’t joined anything since, except for a brief stint in the Socialist Party. I’m a maverick, you know. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel very strongly for my brothers and sisters.

Do you have a special feeling of responsibility toward gay people?

Toward the phenomenon we call gay, yeah. I feel special responsibility because I would have to be a kind of witness to it, you know.

You’re one of the architects of it by the act of writing about it publicly and elevating it into the realm of literature.

I made a public announcement that we’re private, if you see what I mean.

When I consider what a risk it must have been to write about homosexuality when you did…

You’re talking about Giovanni’s Room. Yeah, that was rough. But I had to do it to clarify something for myself.

What was that?

Where I was in the world. I mean, what I’m made of. Anyway, Giovanni’s Room is not really about homosexuality. It’s the vehicle through which the book moves. Go Tell It on the Mountain, for example, is not about a church and Giovanni is not really about homosexuality. It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody. Which is more interesting than the question of homosexuality.

But you didn’t mask the sexuality.

No.

And that decision alone must have been enormously risky.

Yeah. The alternative was worse.

What would that have been?

If I hadn’t written that book I would probably have had to stop writing altogether.

It was that serious.

It is that serious. The question of human affection, of integrity, in my case, the question of trying to become a writer, are all linked with the question of sexuality. Sexuality is only a part of it. I don’t know even if it’s the most important part. But it’s indispensable.

Did people advise you not to write the book so candidly?

I didn’t ask anybody. When I turned the book in, I was told I shouldn’t have written it. I was told to bear in mind that I was a young Negro writer with a certain audience, and I wasn’t supposed to alienate that audience. And if I published the book, it would wreck my career. They wouldn’t publish the book, they said, as a favor to me. So I took the book to England and I sold it there before I sold it here.

Do you think your unresolved sexuality motivated you, at the start, to write?

Yeah. Well, everything was unresolved. The sexual thing was only one of the things. It was for a while the most tormenting thing and it could have been the most dangerous.

How so?

Well, because it frightened me so much.

I don’t think straight people realize how frightening it is to finally admit to yourself that this going to be you forever.

It’s very frightening. But the so-called straight person is no safer than I am really. Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility. Loving of children, raising of children. The terrors of homosexuals go through in this society would not be so great if the society itself did not go through so many terrors which it doesn’t want to admit. The discovery of one’s sexual preference doesn’t have to be a trauma. It’s a trauma because it’s such a traumatized society.

Have you got any sense of what cause people to hate homosexuals?

Terror, I suppose. Terror of the flesh. After all, we’re supposed to mortify the flesh, a doctrine which has led to untold horrors. This is very biblical culture; people believe in wages of sin is death, but not the way the moral guardians of this time and place understand it.

Is there a particularly American component of homophobia?

I think Americans are terrified of feeling anything. And homophobia is simply an extreme example of the American terror that’s concerned with growing up. I never met a people more infantile in my life.

You sound like Leslie Fiedler.

I hope not. (Laughter)

Are you as apocalyptic about the prospects for sexual reconciliation as you are about racial reconciliation?

Well, they join. The sexual question and the racial question have always been entwined, you know. If Americans can mature on the level of racism, then they have to mature on the level of sexuality.

I think we would agree there’s a retrenchment going on in race relations. Do you sense that happening also in sex relations?

Yeah. There’s what we would have to call a backlash which, I’m afraid, is just beginning.

I suspect most gay people have fantasies about genocide.

Well, it’s not a fantasy exactly since the society makes its will toward you very, very clear. Especially the police, for example, or truck drivers. I know from my own experience that the macho men — truck drivers, cops, football players — these people are far more complex than they want to realize. That’s why I call them infantile. They have needs which, for them, are literally inexpressible. They don’t dare look into the mirror. And that is why they need faggots. They’ve created faggots in order to act out a sexual fantasy on the body of another man and not take any responsibility for it. Do you see what I mean? I think it’s very important for the male homosexual to recognize that he is a sexual target for other men, and that is why he is despised, and why he is called a faggot. He is called a faggot because other males need him.

Why do you think homophobia falls so often on the right of the political spectrum?

It’s a way of controlling people. Nobody really cares who goes to bed with whom, finally. I mean, the State doesn’t really care, the Church doesn’t really care. They care that you should be frightened of what you do. As long as you feel guilty about it, the State can rule over you. It’s a way of exerting control over the universe, by terrifying people.

Why don’t black ministers need to share in this rhetoric?

Perhaps because they’re more grown-up than most white ministers.

Did you ever hear antigay rhetoric in church?

Not in the church I grew up in. I’m sure that’s still true. Everyone is a child of God, according to us..

Didn’t people ever call you faggot uptown?

Of course. But there’s a difference in the way it’s used. It’s got less venom, at least in my experience. I don’t know of anyone who has ever denied his brother or his sister because they were gay. No doubt it happens. It must happen. But in the generality, a black person has got quite a lot to get through the day without getting entangled in all the American fantasies.

Do black people have the same sense of being gay as white gay people do? I mean, I feel distinct from other white people.

Well, that I think is because you are penalized, as it were, unjustly; you’re placed outside a certain safety to which you think you are born. A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marked because he’s black or she’s black. The sexual question comes after the question of color; it’s simply one more aspect of the danger in which all black people live. I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were suppose to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which acrue to white people in a white society. There’s an element, it has always seemed to me, of bewilderment and complaint. Now that may sound very harsh, but the gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society. It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.

Are you optimistic about the possibility of blacks and gays forging a political coalition? Do you see any special basis for empathy between us?

Yeah. Of course.

What would that be?

Well, the basis would be shared suffering, shared perceptions, shared hopes.

What perceptions do we share?

I suppose one would be the perception that love is where you find it. If you see what I mean.

(Laughter) Or where you lose it, for that matter.

Uhm-hmm.

But are gay people sensitized by the perceptions we share we share with blacks?

Not in my experience, no.

So I guess you’re not very hopeful that about that kind of coalition as something that could make a difference in urban politics.

It’s simply that the whole question has entered my mind another way. I know a great many white people, men and women, straight and gay, whatever, who are unlike the majority of their countrymen. On what basis we could form a collation is still an open question. The idea of basing it on sexual preference strikes me as somewhat dubious, strikes me as being less than a firm foundation. It seems to me that a coalition has to be based on the grounds of human dignity. Anyway, what connects us, speaking about the private life, is mainly unspoken.

I sometimes think gay people look to black people as healing them….

Not only gay people.

… healing their alienation.

That has to be done, first of all, by the person and then you find your company.

When I heard Jesse Jackson speak before a gay audience, I wanted him to say there wasn’t any sin, that I was forgiven.

Is that a question for you still? That question of sin?

I think it must be, on some level, even though I am not a believer.

How peculiar. I didn’t realize you thought of it as sin. Do many gay people feel that?

I don’t know. (Laughter). I guess I’m throwing something at you, which is the idea that gays look to blacks as conferring a kind of acceptance by embracing them in a coalition. I find it unavoidable to think in those terms. When I fantasize about a black mayor or a black president, I think of it being better for gay people.

Well, don’t be romantic about black people. Though I can see what you mean.

Do you think black people have a heightened capacity for tolerance, even acceptance, in its truest sense?

Well, there is a capacity in black people for experience, simply. And that capacity makes other things possible. It dictates the depth of one’s acceptance of other people. The capacity for experience is what burns out fear. Because the homophobia we’re talking about really is a kind of fear. It’s a terror of the flesh. It’s really a terror of being able to be touched.

Do you think about having children?

Not any more. It’s one thing I really regret, maybe the only regret I have. But I couldn’t have managed it then. Now it’s too late.

But you’re not disturbed by the idea of gay men being parents.

Look, men have been sleeping with men for thousands of years — and raising tribes. This is a Western sickness, it really is. It’s an artificial division. Men will be sleeping with each other when the trumpet sounds. It’s only this infantile culture which has made such a big deal of it.

So you think of homosexuality as universal?

Of course. There’s nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me. We’re trapped in language, of course. But homosexual is not a noun. At least in my book.

What part of speech would it be?

Perhaps a verb. You see, I can only talk about my own life. I loved a few people and they loved me. It had nothing to do with these labels. Of course, the world has all kind of words for us. But that’s the world’s problem.

Is it problematic for you, the idea of having sex with other people who are identified as gay?

Well, you see, my life has not been like that at all. The people who were my lovers were never, well, the word gay wouldn’t have meant anything to them.

That means that they moved in a straight world.

They moved in the world.

Do you think of the gay world as being a false refuge?

I think perhaps it imposes a limitation which is unnecessary. It seems to me simply a man is a man, a woman is a woman, and who they go to bed with is nobody’s business but theirs. I suppose what I am really saying is that one’s sexual preference is a private matter. I resent the interference of the State, or the Church, or any institution in my only journey to whatever it is we are journeying toward. But it has been made a public question by the institutions of this country. I can see how the gay world comes about in response to that. And to contradict myself, I suppose, or more precisely, I hope that it is easier for the transgressor to become reconciled with himself or herself than it was for many people in my generation — and it was difficult for me. It is difficult to be despised, in short. And if the so-called gay movement can cause men and women, boys and girls, to come to some kind of terms with themselves more speedily and with less pain, then that’s a very great advance. I’m not sure it can be done on that level. My own point of view, speaking out of black America, when I had to try to answer that stigma, that species of social curse, it seemed a great mistake to answer in the language of the oppressor. As long as I react to “nigger,” as long as I protest my case on evidence of assumptions held by others, I’m simply reinforcing those assumptions. As long as I complain about being oppressed, the oppressor is in consolation of knowing that I know my place, so to speak.

You will always come forward and make the statement that you’re homosexual. You will never hide it, or deny it. And yet you refuse to make a life out of it?

Yeah. That sums it up pretty well.

That strikes me as a balance some of us might want to look to, in a climate where it’s possible.

One has to make that climate for oneself.

Do you have good fantasies about the future?

I have good fantasies and bad fantasies.

What are some of the good ones?

Oh, that I am working toward the new Jerusalem. That’s true, I’m not joking. I won’t live to see it but I do believe in it. I think we’re going to be better than we are.

What do you think gay people will be like then?

No one will have to call themselves gay. Maybe that’s at the bottom of my impatience with the term. It answers a false argument, a false accusation.

Which is what?

Which is that you have no right to be here, that you have to prove your right to be here. I’m saying I have nothing to prove. The world also belongs to me.

What advice would you give a gay man who’s about to come out?

Coming out means to publicly say?

I guess I’m imposing these terms on you.

Yeah, they’re not my terms. But what advice can you possibly give? Best advice I ever got was an old friend mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation.

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