American Experience
Three Perspectives Three Perspectives

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Select a Clip:Introduction: Dr. Kenneth ClarkMartin Luther KingMalcolm XJames Baldwin

James Baldwin (7:10): part 1 | 2 | 3


Dr. Kenneth Clark: Through a strange set of circumstances, we managed to record this conversation with James Baldwin immediately after both of us attended that now-famous meeting between a group of Mr. Baldwin's friends and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. I believe much of the emotion of that historic occasion spilled over into our conversation. In an attempt to ease the tension, I started by asking him to dig back and tell us something about his childhood and his growing up.

James Baldwin: My mind is someplace else, really. But to think back on it -- I was born in Harlem, Harlem Hospital, and we grew up -- first house I remember was on Park Avenue -- which is not the American Park Avenue, or maybe it is the American Park Avenue --

Clark: Uptown Park Avenue?

Baldwin: Uptown Park Avenue, where the railroad tracks are. We used to play on the roof and in the -- I can't call it an alley -- but near the river -- it was a kind of dump, garbage dump. Those were the first scenes I remember. I remember my father had trouble keeping us alive -- there were nine of us. I was the oldest so I took care of the kids and dealt with Daddy. I understand him much better now. Part of his problem was he couldn't feed his kids, but I was a kid and I didn't know that. He was very religious, very rigid. He kept us together, I must say, and when I look back on it -- that was over 40 years ago that I was born -- when I think back on my growing up and walk that same block today, because it's still there, and think of the kids on that block now, I'm aware that something terrible has happened which is very hard to describe.

I am, in all but technical legal fact, a Southerner. My father was born in the South -- no, my mother was born in the South, and if they had waited two more seconds I might have been born in the South. But that means I was raised by families whose roots were essentially rural --

Clark: Southern rural...

Baldwin: Southern rural, and whose relation to the church was very direct, because it was the only means they had of expressing their pain and their despair. But 20 years later the moral authority which was present in the Negro Northern community when I was growing up has vanished, and people talk about progress, and I look at Harlem which I really know -- I know it like I know my hand -- and it is much worse there today than it was when I was growing up.

Clark: Would you say this is true of the schools too?

Baldwin: It is much worse in the schools.

Clark: What school did you go to?

Baldwin: I went to P.S. 24 and I went to P.S. 139. Frederick Douglass...

Clark: We are fellow alumni. I went to 139.

Baldwin: I didn't like a lot of my teachers, but I had a couple of teachers who were very nice to me -- one was a Negro teacher. You ask me these questions and I'm trying to answer you. I remember coming home from school -- you can guess how young I must have been -- and my mother asked me if my teacher was colored or white, and I said she was a little bit colored and a little bit white. But she was about your color. As a matter of fact I was right.

That's part of the dilemma of being an American Negro; that one is a little bit colored and a little bit white, and not only in physical terms but in the head and in the heart, and there are days -- this is one of them -- when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How, precisely, are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel, white majority, that you are here? And to be here means that you can't be anywhere else.

I'm terrified at the moral apathy -- the death of the heart which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long, that they really don't think I'm human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say, and this means that they have become, in themselves, moral monsters. It's a terrible indictment -- I mean every word I say.

Clark: Well, we are confronted with the racial confrontation in America today. I think the pictures of dogs in the hands of human beings attacking other human beings --

Baldwin: In a free country -- in the middle of the 20th century.

Clark: In a free country. This Birmingham, clearly not restricted to Birmingham, as you so eloquently pointed out. What do you think can be done to change -- to use your term -- the moral fiber of America?

Baldwin: I think that one has got to find some way of putting the present administration of this country on the spot. One has got to force, somehow, from Washington, a moral commitment, not to the Negro people, but to the life of this country.

It doesn't matter any longer, and I'm speaking for myself, for Jimmy Baldwin, and I think I'm speaking for a great many Negroes too. It doesn't matter any longer what you do to me; you can put me in jail, you can kill me. By the time I was 17, you'd done everything that you could do to me. The problem now is, how are you going to save yourselves?