James Baldwin, On Language, Race, and the Black Writer

University of California, Berkeley, 15 January, 1979.


I am going to improvise, like a writer, on some assumptions. And though I feel a little uneasy in doing this and saying this, nevertheless, what a writer is obliged at some point to realize is that he's involved with a language which he has to change. For example, for a black writer, especially in this country, to be born into the English language is to realize that the assumptions of the language the assumptions of which the language operates are his enemy. When Othello kills Desdemona, for example, he says “I threw away a pearl richer than all my tribe”. I was very young when I read that and I wondered about that. Richer than my tribe? I really had to think about being as black as sin, as black as night, black-hearted, and in order – this is another story which I won’t go into – in order to, to deal with that really, to deal with that, at a certain time in my life when I was not in this country but in France where I could not speak to anybody because I spoke no French - but nobody wanted to speak to me – I dropped into a silence in which I heard for the first time really heard and began to be able to try to deal with the beat of the language of the people who had produced me. I might have been able to do that here but [there] in the event I was not able to do it here. I did it far away. And when I was able to hear that music, because when I was young there were no black writers as models and white writers could not be models either. I did not agree at all with the moral predicament of Huckleberry Finn concerning Nigger Jim. It was not after all a question about whether I should be sold back into slavery.

I want to try to shift a certain assumption. I want to suggest that instead of, as we have now for far too long according to me, instead of speaking about the civil rights movement, which is an American phrase which I'm going to go into in a moment, which upon examination means nothing at all. Let us pretend that I stand before you as a witness and let us pretend that everyone under the sound of my voice is in the same condition. I'm a witness to and a survivor of the latest slave rebellion. I put it that way because Malcolm X and I met many years ago when Malcolm was doing a debate with a very young sit-in student and Malcolm's a black Muslim and the radio station called me to moderate this discussion which I did. I was not needed I must tell you. Malcolm was one of the most beautiful and one of the most gentle men I met in all my life. He asked the boy a question which I now present to you: if you are a citizen, why'd you have to fight for your civil rights? if you’re fighting for your civil rights that means you're not a citizen. And in fact, the legality of this country, and I won't further investigate the word legality, has never had anything to do with its former slaves. We are still governed by the slave codes. Now when I say a slave rebellion, I mean that what is called the civil rights movement was really insurrection. It was co-opted, now the late J Edgar Hoover is in his grave, God bless him. A lot of what I knew and many other people knew during those years, and only a fraction of what we knew during all those years can now be more or less discussed, so one can say that the latest slave rebellion was brutally put down. We all know what happened to Medgar and it was not some lunatic who happened to be wandering around Mississippi with a gun. The one lunatic in Mississippi at that moment happened to have a gun somewhere and by some odd coincidence, unbelievable, shot Medgar Evers in the carport of his home in the sight and hearing of his wife and his children and Medgar was 37. The lunatic was carried into the front door visibly of a nursing home and out the back door and that was that. We all know what happened to Malcolm. We all know what happened to Martin. We know what happened to Fred Hampton and Mark Clark and so many more. Honey don't tell me, the list is long. That is the result of a slave rebellion.

Now, I'm saying that since we are the survivors of it, since we have our children to raise, to save, I'm saying that to say a very brutal thing must be said, must be said. The intentions of this melancholic country as concerns black people - and anyone who doubts me can ask any Indian - have always been genocidal. They needed us for labor and for sport, now they can't get rid of us. We cannot be exiled and we cannot be accommodated, now something's got to give. The machinery of this country operates day in and day out, hour by hour, until this hour, to keep a nigger in his place. When I was young, among other things, I used to run an elevator, murderously, but I ran it. I am not needed to run the elevator no more. A whole lot of things we used to do we ain’t needed for no more. On the other hand, we're here. It is true that this is gonna be a difficult summer. In every city in this nation now, black father is standing in the street watching black son, they're watching each other, and [ain’t neither] one of them got no place to go. That is not their fault. Has nothing to do with their value, their merit, their capabilities. There may be nothing worse under heaven, may be no greater crime, than to attack a man's integrity. To attempt to destroy that man. Well I know, in spite of the American Constitution, in spite of all the born-again Christians, I know that my father was not a mule and not a thing and that my sister was not born to be the plaything of idle white sheriffs.

What am I saying? I'm saying we find ourselves between a [rock-like] and a hard place. I am saying something else. I am saying that our presence in this country terrifies every white man walking. And I’m gonna go back and clarify that a minute. I want to suggest, and it's a very important suggestion, first of all, this is not now, never has been, and now never will be a white country. There is not a white person in this country, from our president to all his friends, who can prove he’s white. It is absolutely true. But people who settled this country came from many places. And where they were before they came here was France, England. In France they were French. In England they were English. In Italy they were Italian. In Greece they were Greek. In Russia they were Russian. It is worth noting by the way that this phenomenon called Europe has never agreed about anything at all except us. Didn't get along until this hour. Only thing that ever unites them, the Common Market for example, is about us and they can't get that together [just] squabbling over what's left of their colonies. In short they lost their clowns, Ray Charles might put it, and this means that we have to consider first of all that white, Malcolm said, state of mind. Cuz I don’t want to be misunderstood as saying I'm not talking about white people. Insofar as you think you're white, you're irrelevant. We can no longer afford that particular romance. We are all, in any case, here. I want to point out a paradox. The only people in this country who have any notion of who they are, the only people in this country who have any notion of who they are, are the black people in this country. And I will tell you why. When the Italian got here or the Greek or whoever, there was a moment in his life when he had to start to speak English. When he became a guy named Joe. And that many couldn't speak to his father because his father couldn’t speak English. That meant a rupture, a profound rupture, so the son did become a guy named Joe and never found out anything else about himself. We come out of a history, black people in this country come out of a history, which was never written down. The connection between father and son, between mother and daughter, until this hour and in spite of the danger which we stand - and all I know is happening all around us every day - we forged ourselves out of this fire. And if we could do that, and we have done that, we can deal with what now lies before us. I know I ain't got no jobs to give nobody. I know that I know. I ain't got no money. I can't [corrupt] you. I know many things must be done and I know that I can't do them but I also know I haven’t got to do them alone. We have never been alone. That’s [the] mystery. Every white person in this country, I do not care what he says or she says, knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, what I want, but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, they know everything they need to know. And whatever else they say is a lie. Bear in mind children I mean that. The American idea of progress: when the Americans talk about progress they mean how fast I become white. And it’s a trick bag because I know perfectly well I can never become white. I've drunk my share of dry martinis. I have proven myself civilized in every way I can, but there is [an irreducible] difficulty. Something doesn't work. Well I decided I decided I might as well act like a nigger.

Now, the black people of this country stand in a very strange place. Some of the white people in this country stand in a very strange place, and almost with the very same reason, though we approach it from different points of view. I pretend, I suggest, you think about it. That what the CIA, for example, I use the word [advisedly], for example, or the President of United States, for example, all ambassador's except one, don't know about the world which surrounds them. Is the price they pay for not knowing me. If you couldn't deal with my father, how you gonna deal with the people in the streets of Tehran? I could have told you if anyone had asked. And the fall of the Shah did not in the least astonish me nor did it make me sad, but this means [that] the black people of this nation represent for the Western powers, and for the Western powers for the moment, bearing in mind what we must do to save our children, for the moment, let us substitute the word conspiracy. There was a reason, there's a reason that no one wants our children until this day educated. When we attempt ourselves to do it, we find ourselves up against the vast machinery of the system of education in this country which is, among other things, a billion-dollar industry. And the billion-dollar industry is more important than the life of the child. Now I want to suggest, and I want everyone to think about it, I know the machinery is vast, ruthless, cunning, and thinks of nothing in fact but itself, which means us, because we are a threat to the machinery. We have lived through, as I suggested, a slave rebellion. We cannot pick up guns because they got the guns. No, we cannot hit those streets again because they’re waiting for us. We have to do something else. Before each slave rebellion, it was something which I now call non-cooperation. How to execute this in detail is something each one of us have to figure out, but we could begin with the schools, and take our children out of those schools. Take them off those buses. Everybody knows, who thinks about it, that you can't change the school without changing the neighborhood and you can't change the neighborhood without changing the city. Ain't nobody prepared to change the city because they want the city to be white. All the American cities are going to crumble when the white people moved out to get away from the niggers. Every crisis in every city is caused by that. How can you expect the people who cannot educate their own children to educate anybody else? This will be, well, contested, nevertheless, one's got to start somewhere. [Now] I'll use that as an example, there are other things I have in mind, but I'm not really a tactician, I'm a disturber of the peace. I want you to think about it. Because I know what could happen if you do think about it.

One more thing: it is useful to bear in mind that this country, and indeed the West, has been living on a war economy since 1939. It is useful to bear in mind that we would be at war now if we could afford to be. Ain’t no place left to go to war. All the colonies, though they still belong to Europe, are no longer where they were. Now it's a matter of getting the resources of the country out of European hands and African hands. And we are involved in that, the black people of this country are involved in that. If we, this country, could afford to raise an army and afford to go to war it would do so. This country cannot raise an army [is that anywhere] in the world which you can trust. So, we hold the trump. When you try to slaughter a people and leave them with nothing to lose, you [created] somebody with nothing to lose, and if I got nothing to lose, what are you gonna do to me? We have one thing to lose: that’s our children. And we've never done that yet. After all, we haven't done that yet and there's no reason for us to do it now. We hold the trump, I said, right? Patience and shuffle the cards. Thanks.


Video: James Baldwin Speech, C-Span. Hosted by the University of California, Berkeley.

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