James Baldwin was a writer of unsparing conviction. His essays published during the 1950s and 60s, as America confronted its cruel legacy of racial inequality, manifested like small forces of nature. There was an unmistakable clarity in his work—and not just in his authorial voice, but in his moral obligation to truth telling. As Randall Kenan regarded in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, Baldwin was "such a powerful writer, against such powerful odds."
Here, before his death in December 1987, Baldwin spoke with Mavis Nicholson about Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, living abroad, and the price of being black in the western world. Ferguson and New York City in 2014 are not completely different from, say, Birmingham and Montgomery in 1965: sites of racial discord where state-sanctioned violence against communities of color is a fact of life. Then and now, Baldwin's statements hold weight. Below, a selection of excerpts from the interview.
"Terror was not because I was black; it was because I was despised."
"Black people need witnesses in this hostile world, which thinks everything is white."
"We're not talking about racial prejudices, we're talking about the structure of power."
"White people live with the nightmare of the nigger they invented. They have to have the nigger to justify the crime. They don't see the person."
"Love... it is the only human possibility."
"I have never been in despair about the world. I am enraged by it. I can't afford despair. You can't tell the children there's no hope."
"There has been a breakdown, a betrayal of the social contract in western life. People are grabbing for things, and holding on to what they think they can get, and stepping all over their neighbors because they are panic stricken."
"We have yet to understand: that if I am starving, you are in danger."
"What we call the political vocabulary of this age cannot serve the needs of this age. We will have to find a way to get beyond our crippling habits."