American Writer, Novelist, Essayist, Playwright, Poet, Activist and Social Critic
James Baldwin, fully James Arthur Baldwin
American Writer, Novelist, Essayist, Playwright, Poet, Activist and Social Critic
Every writer in the English language, I should imagine, has at some point hated Shakespeare, has turned away from that monstrous achievement with a kind of sick envy. In my most anti-English days I condemned him as a chauvinist (?this England? indeed!) and because I felt it so bitterly anomalous that a black man should be forced to deal with the English language at all ? should be forced to assault the English language in order to be able to speak ? I condemned him as one of the authors and architects of my oppression.
I still remember my shock when I finally heard these lines from the murder scene in Julius Caesar. The assassins are washing their hands in Caesar?s blood. Cassius says: Stoop then, and wash. ? How many ages hence Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn and accents yet unknown!
My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way. If the language was not my own, it might be the fault of the language; but it might also be my fault. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.
My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past. Under this light, this revelation, both myself and my past began slowly to open, perhaps the way a flower opens at morning, but more probably the way an atrophied muscle begins to function, or frozen fingers to thaw.
The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love ? by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him. It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it ? no time can be easy if one is living through it. I think it is simply that he walked his streets and saw them, and tried not to lie about what he saw: his public streets and his private streets, which are always so mysteriously and inexorably connected; but he trusted that connection. And, though I, and many of us, have bitterly bewailed (and will again) the lot of an American writer ? to be part of a people who have ears to hear and hear not, who have eyes to see and see not ? I am sure that Shakespeare did the same. Only, he saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them. That is why he is called a poet. And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, un-nameable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man, and to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him, the people ? all people! ? who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to find him there.
What I began to see ? especially since, as I say, I was living and speaking in French ? is that it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience.
What I suddenly heard, for the first time, was manifold. It was the voice of lonely, dedicated, deluded Cassius, whose life had never been real for me before ? I suddenly seemed to know what this moment meant to him. But beneath and beyond that voice I also heard a note yet more rigorous and impersonal ? and contemporary: that ?lofty scene,? in all its blood and necessary folly, its blind and necessary pain, was thrown into a perspective which has never left my mind. Just so, indeed, is the heedless State overthrown by men, who, in order to overthrow it, have had to achieve a desperate single-mindedness. And this single-mindedness, which we think of (why?) as ennobling, also operates, and much more surely, to distort and diminish a man ? to distort and diminish us all, even, or perhaps especially, those whose needs and whose energy made the overthrow of the State inevitable, necessary, and just? Once one has begun to suspect this much about the world ? once one has begun to suspect, that is, that one is not, and never will be, innocent, for the reason that no one is ? some of the self-protective veils between oneself and reality begin to fall away.
Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasn?t got to have an enormous military machine in order to be un-free when it?s simpler to be asleep, when it?s simpler to be apathetic, when it?s simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important.
The importance of a writer is continuous? His importance, I think, is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe.
There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don?t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it ? and almost all of us have one way or another ? this collision between one?s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.
We have some idea about reality which is not quite true. Without having anything whatever against Cadillacs, refrigerators or all the paraphernalia of American life, I yet suspect that there is something much more important and much more real which produces the Cadillac, refrigerator, atom bomb, and what produces it, after all, is something which we don?t seem to want to look at, and that is the person.
I am not interested really in talking to you as an artist. It seems to me that the artist?s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this globe to get to become human beings. It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write. And I never would come before you in the position of a complainant for doing something that I must do? The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don?t. Statesmen don?t. Priests don?t. Union leaders don?t. Only poets.
I really don?t like words like ?artist? or ?integrity? or ?courage? or ?nobility.? I have a kind of distrust of all those words because I don?t really know what they mean, any more than I really know what such words as ?democracy? or ?peace? or ?peace-loving? or ?warlike? or ?integration? mean. And yet one is compelled to recognize that all these imprecise words are attempts made by us all to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words. Whether I like it or not, for example, and no matter what I call myself, I suppose the only word for me, when the chips are down, is that I am an artist. There is such a thing. There is such a thing as integrity. Some people are noble. There is such a thing as courage. The terrible thing is that the reality behind these words depends ultimately on what the human being (meaning every single one of us) believes to be real. The terrible thing is that the reality behind all these words depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.
Most people live in almost total darkness? people, millions of people whom you will never see, who don?t know you, never will know you, people who may try to kill you in the morning, live in a darkness which ? if you have that funny terrible thing which every artist can recognize and no artist can define ? you are responsible to those people to lighten, and it does not matter what happens to you. You are being used in the way a crab is useful, the way sand certainly has some function. It is impersonal. This force which you didn?t ask for, and this destiny which you must accept, is also your responsibility. And if you survive it, if you don?t cheat, if you don?t lie, it is not only, you know, your glory, your achievement, it is almost our only hope ? because only an artist can tell, and only artists have told since we have heard of man, what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it. What it is like to die, or to have somebody die; what it is like to be glad. Hymns don?t do this, churches really cannot do it. The trouble is that although the artist can do it, the price that he has to pay himself and that you, the audience, must also pay, is a willingness to give up everything, to realize that although you spent twenty-seven years acquiring this house, this furniture, this position, although you spent forty years raising this child, these children, nothing, none of it belongs to you. You can only have it by letting it go. You can only take if you are prepared to give, and giving is not an investment. It is not a day at the bargain counter. It is a total risk of everything, of you and who you think you are, who you think you?d like to be, where you think you?d like to go ? everything, and this forever, forever.
The crime of which you discover slowly you are guilty is not so much that you are aware, which is bad enough, but that other people see that you are and cannot bear to watch it, because it testifies to the fact that they are not. You?re bearing witness helplessly to something which everybody knows and nobody wants to face.
This is a time when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make. Conrad told us a long time ago..: ?Woe to that man who does not put his trust in life.? Henry James said, ?Live, live all you can. It?s a mistake not to.? And Shakespeare said ? and this is what I take to be the truth about everybody?s life all of the time ? ?Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.? Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion. In this sense, all artists are divorced from and even necessarily opposed to any system whatever.
Well, one survives that, no matter how? You survive this and in some terrible way, which I suppose no one can ever describe, you are compelled, you are corralled, you are bullwhipped into dealing with whatever it is that hurt you. And what is crucial here is that if it hurt you, that is not what?s important. Everybody?s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive. This is all you have to do it with. You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people?s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less. Then, you make ? oh, fifteen years later, several thousand drinks later, two or three divorces, God knows how many broken friendships and an exile of one kind or another ? some kind of breakthrough, which is your first articulation of who you are: that is to say, your first articulation of who you suspect we all are.
When I was very young (and I am sure this is true of everybody here), I assumed that no one had ever been born who was only five feet six inches tall, or been born poor, or been born ugly, or masturbated, or done all those things which were my private property when I was fifteen. No one had ever suffered the way I suffered. Then you discover, and I discovered this through Dostoevsky, that it is common. Everybody did it. Not only did everybody do it, everybody?s doing it. And all the time. It?s a fantastic and terrifying liberation. The reason it is terrifying is because it makes you once and for all responsible to no one but yourself. Not to God the Father, not to Satan, not to anybody. Just you. If you think it?s right, then you?ve got to do it. If you think it?s wrong, then you mustn?t do it. And not only do we all know how difficult it is, given what we are, to tell the difference between right and wrong, but the whole nature of life is so terrible that somebody?s right is always somebody else?s wrong. And these are the terrible choices one has always got to make.
A country is only as good? only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become? I don?t believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands. We made the world we?re living in and we have to make it over.
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
She was disquietingly fluid?fluid without, however, being able to flow. I felt a hardness and a constriction in her, a grave mistrust, created already by too many men like me ever to be conquered now.
The American ideal, after all, is that everyone should be as much alike as possible.
The future is... black.
The poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity, but until the people themselves apprehend it, nothing can happen... Perhaps it can't be done without the poet, but it certainly can't be done without the people. The poet and the people get on generally very badly, and yet they need each other. The poet knows it sooner than the people do. The people usually know it after the poet is dead; but that's all right. The point is to get your work done, and your work is to change the world.
The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.