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James Baldwin and African American Literature

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James Baldwin, the author of “Giovanni’s Room” and “The Fire Next Time,” was one of the giants of African American literature. But he was also a noted political activist. Today, we hear a classic speech from Baldwin recorded back in 1963, one month after the historic March on Washington and just days after the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing that claimed the lives of six young Black children. Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. Welcome back to Democracy Now! The Exception to the Rulers and our special on African American literature. James Baldwin, the author of Giovanni’s Room and The Fire Next Time, was one of the giants of African American literature, but he was also a noted political activist. Today we hear a classic speech from Baldwin, recorded back in 1963, one month after the historic March on Washington and just days after the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing that claimed the lives of four young Black children.

JAMES BALDWIN: I have to say some very reckless things tonight, and so I want to make it absolutely clear that I am talking for myself. I might be at other platforms on other occasions more or less representing this or that organization or this or that committee, but tonight I am talking to you as Jimmy Baldwin, who was born in Harlem 39 years ago, who has a certain responsibility to the people that produced him — that is, all of you. And I’m speaking to you, if I may say so, not as an organizer and not as a Negro leader and not as a public figure, not as any of those things, but as one of the poets that you produced.

We have to talk about economics tonight. And in some detail, we must talk about morals. And I think, in some detail, we must talk about something even more difficult to put one’s finger on, which at the moment we will call “morale.” And the assumption on which I am speaking is this: that whether or not we like it, we have reached a point, Black and white in this country, where all of the previous systems of communication, negotiation, accommodation, have become unusable.

To discuss the economics first, a few days ago, it was suggested by some of us, as forcefully as we knew how, that in order for the country to be unable to ignore and to forget the slaughter of six children in an American city, and in order to join the issue and bring the battle to where the battle really is — that is to say, to strike at the economic structure — that no one, Black or white, should buy any presents for Christmas. I think that we should spell this out perhaps a little more precisely. I mean, and now I’m speaking for myself, that in this Christian nation, Christmas is mainly, as indeed are most churches, a commercial endeavor, having nothing whatever to do with the birth or the death of Christ, that if one begins to serve notice, ultimately on the banks, that we, the citizens of this country, do not consider that we have the right to celebrate Christmas this year, and that, furthermore, we will use every weapon in our power to force this on the attention of the American republic, which, unluckily, I have to say, has its conscience mainly in its pocketbook, I believe that we will begin to see some notion of our potential power.

Let me put it this way. Before this country established, when the country was being established — and this is apart from what one’s textbooks say and in contradistinction to the television myths about the building, the discovery of America — the people who came to America, as it turns out, were neither heroes, saints nor pilgrims. They were simply people who couldn’t make it where they were, and that is why they came. They came here to make, as we like to say, a better life for themselves and their children. And as it turned out, and as it always does indeed turn out, what they meant by a better life for themselves and their children was the opportunity to make more money and oppress somebody else — which is what they did.

The Indians have vanished, except for those we have under protective custody. And in order to build a country, it was necessary to find a source of cheap labor, and therefore, 400 years later, I represent the only man who never wanted to come here. But if I had not come, under double coercion of the Bible and the gun, I very much doubt that we would have all those railroads, and cotton would never have become king, and, in short, the American economy would be, at best, a very different matter. Now, if we had the economic weight to line the track and dam the rivers and hoe the cotton and also raise the children, we can now use that weight for the first time for ourselves and for the liberation of this country.

It is not true that there is nothing Negroes can do to help themselves, A. And, B, it is not true that we, this nation, must be perpetually blackmailed by our government. The government represents us. And finally, C, neither is it true, as so many of the Negro’s friends would have us believe, that the only terms on which we can move to freedom are the terms of Harry Ashmore or Harry Golden. We, the people, are responsible for our own freedom. We are not begging for it. It is up to us to take it.

I think it is time to begin to deal with the power structure. We’re not dealing with white people. It’s not a matter of what white people think about you or what — even what they think about themselves. What one has to do is examine and overhaul the system, the system which creates this and perpetuates it.

It is a very important parenthesis, I think, that I probably ought to make. One’s got to point out, I think, that in this country, since the McCarthy era — and this is one of the reasons for our absolutely spectacular impotence — anyone who mentioned the word “economics” was promptly given a ticket to Moscow. I think it is beneath me to say that I am not a communist. I think it’s beneath the nation, and very dangerous for the nation, to raise this peculiar red herring the moment one begins to deal with things as they are.

We can get through this. We can win. We can turn the country into something which makes it a little less difficult to become a man. It is very hard to be Black and grow up in this country. A man who is a friend of mine said it’s a very dangerous pursuit for a Black man. But I beg you to observe that it has also become a very dangerous pursuit for a white man. That is one of the reasons for Birmingham. It is not possible that all those people in that city really believed, or really believe, that they have the right to slaughter children. They don’t believe that. They’re afraid to speak. One of the reasons they’re afraid to speak is that the standards by which we live — Black and white, North and South — in this country are unlivable standards. It is not important to be safe. It is not important to get a car. It is not important to make it. It is important to become a man. And this is what we have forgotten. And that is one of the reasons that the caliber of our political representatives has become one of the mockeries of the 20th century.

There is, my friends, really, a point at which one has to say, “I will not choose between the lesser of two evils.” There is no such thing as a lesser of two evils. If the political machines in Washington and elsewhere in the nation cannot throw up better material that Mr. Goldwater, Mr. Nixon, Mr. Kennedy, and so on down an extremely dreary line, then perhaps we, the people, whom these dreary people are supposed to represent, ought to find a way of being represented.

Now, the nation which admires the doctrine of nonviolence has never, in my experience, and never, as far as I know, in its history, which began, if you remember, in Europe, admired nonviolence before. One of the myths of the English is they would never be slaves. One of the reasons Gary Cooper was such — and Humphrey Bogart were such powerful movie stars is they always had a gun. It’s only when a Black man says that he might go out and find himself a gun that the country becomes Christian for the first and only time.

Now, speaking for myself and trying as best I can to discharge what I take to be my responsibility to everyone in the streets, including me, I don’t want to see any more blood, nobody’s blood. My god! You know, if we could end the nightmare tomorrow morning at 9:00, I could die, you know, in peace. But, in fact, the nightmare will not be ending tomorrow morning at 9:00. And the nation, which has admired these boys and girls and men and women, overlooks the fact that a boy who was, let us say, 17 in 1955 has now spent eight years in the streets, is probably under a doctor’s care for being beaten half to death by the power structure, ladies and gentlemen, not simply by some idle policeman. Policemen know who they’re working for. And if by this time the boy and his wife and his children are very nearly at the end of their rope and are about to crack, this is why it is so important now to try to be precise about what it is that we must do.

It is impossible, all my liberal friends and critics, to the contrary — it is absolutely impossible for any Negro in this country to be fitted into the structure as it now exists. That is not a possibility. One must be willing to take upon oneself the responsibility of examining and changing the structure so that it becomes more human for everybody.

What the Negro’s friends pretend — and I’m sorry, baby, but with friends like that, you don’t need no enemies, you know? What the Negro’s friends pretend is that all the Negro wants is just another Cadillac. He wants to get to be just like Eisenhower. Well, I, speaking for myself, would rather cut my throat than suppose that my forefathers bled and suffered and died in this country in order to become yet another blank mediocrity.

It is time to let the nation know that the death of my child — I as a Black man — and the spiritual death of your child — you as a white man — cannot be met by sending down a commission to find out what happened. We know what happened. What we have to do is prevent it from happening again.

I want to say two more things, then I will leave you. One of them is, it’s very important to recognize that the economy in which we are so proud has very shaky foundations. It is very important to recognize that, in any case, the economy as it now exists cannot, does not and cannot supply full employment, that there are more white people at work numerically than Negroes, and that the future does not look bright. And in my view, though I’m willing to be corrected, I think it is better to spotlight this condition now than wait and have it collapse and precipitate chaos. We can guide the avalanche, or we can try. We haven’t got to surrender to it.

And the last thing I want to say to you, to suggest to you, is that we in this country, Black and white, do have in our hands at this moment an enormous and expensive opportunity. If we can think through our situation, if we can face it, we can do something which has not been done in the history of the world before. The terms of our revolution, the American revolution, the terms are these: Not that I drive you out or that you drive me out, but that we come together and embrace and learn to live together. That is the only way that we can have achieved the American revolution. Now, if we can face this, it involves facing a great many things. It demands that white people face the fact that I, for example, or any Black person they will ever meet or have ever met — I’m not an exotic rarity. I am not a stranger. I’m none of those things. On the contrary, for all you know, for all you know, I might be your uncle, your brother, your cousin.

AMY GOODMAN: Renowned author James Baldwin, speaking in 1963. You’re listening to Democracy Now! We’ll be back in 60 seconds.

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