Can people of color, or more specifically, people in urban African-American communities, salvage anything from America? Do we now live in two Americas, in diametric opposition, too far away to bridge the enormous economic and political divide, or maybe have we always?
When confronted with images of rioting in Baltimore, and the subsequent militarized police to the rescue, these questions are relevant now more than ever. James Baldwin wrestled with these very questions throughout his oeuvre, but he speaks to it out right in this 1984 interview with the Paris Review, where he discusses his reasons for leaving America. “My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed,” he said.
Baldwin wasn’t paranoid. The FBI opened files on dozens of black writers, like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, which date back to the Hoover-era surveillance.
And his words ring eerily exact over 30 years later, “You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it,” which leads one to question whether or not progress truly is linear, elevating toward something like a Platonic goodness, or if we’re trapped in vast horizontal networks, jumping from one convoluted web to another, where things may look different, but to no avail are indeed the same.
See how Baldwin works through his ambivalent love for America below.
“Essentially, America has not changed that much,” you told the New York Times when Just Above My Head was being published. Have you?
In some ways I’ve changed precisely because America has not. I’ve been forced to change in some ways. I had a certain expectation for my country years ago, which I know I don’t have now.
Yes, before 1968, you said, “I love America.”
Long before then. I still do, though that feeling has changed in the face of it. I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it. There isn’t any other place to go—you don’t pull up your roots and put them down someplace else. At least not in a single lifetime, or, if you do, you’ll be aware of precisely what it means, knowing that your real roots are always elsewhere. If you try to pretend you don’t see the immediate reality that formed you I think you’ll go blind.
Do you think that now blacks and whites can write about each other, honestly and convincingly?
Yes, though I have no overwhelming evidence in hand. But I think of the impact of spokespersons like Toni Morrison and other younger writers. I believe what one has to do as a black American is to take white history, or history as written by whites, and claim it all—including Shakespeare.
You can read the full interview here. And if you haven’t read Baldwin’s books and essays, now’s a good time to do so.