“Baldwin’s Nigger” — transcription of James Baldwin in London, 1968

(19 minutes of James Baldwin speaking at the West Indian Student Centre, London, UK, in a film by Horace Ové)

“I’ll tell you a story, if I may. Many years ago when I first came to London, I was in the British Museum, naturally, and one of the West Indians who worked there struck up a conversation with me, and wanted to know where I was from. And I told him I was from Harlem. And that answer didn’t satisfy him. And I didn’t understand what he meant. ‘I was born in Harlem, I was born in Harlem hospital,’ I said. ‘I was born in New York.’

The full 43 minute documentary.

None of these answers satisfied him and he said, ‘where was your mother born?’ And I said, ‘she was born in Maryland.’ And I could see, though I didn’t understand it, he was growing more and more disgusted with me. He was more and more impatient.

‘Where was your father born?’

“My father was born in New Orleans.”

‘Yes,” he said, ‘but man, where were you born?!?’

And I began to get it, and I said, ‘well, my mother was born in Maryland, my father was born in New Orleans, and I was born in New York,’ and he said, ‘but before that, where were you born?’

And I had to say, ‘I don’t know.’

I could see that he did not believe me. I tried to explain, you know, he said, ‘don’t you care enough to find out?’ And I tried to explain that if I were originally from Dakar or from wherever I was from in Africa, I couldn’t find out where it was, because my entry into America is a Bill of Sale.

And that stops you from going any further.

At some point in our history, I became Baldwin’s Nigger. That’s how I got my name. That really cannot be considered my fault. It can’t be considered the fault of the cat at the British Museum, either, that he doesn’t know that I can’t find that out.

I tell you that story to dramatize the nature of the distance created deliberately. Because when I became Baldwin’s Nigger (it’s also very important to point out) I was handcuffed to another man from another tribe whose language I did not speak. We did not know each other. And we could not speak to each other because if we could have spoken to each other, we might have been able to figure out what was happening to us, and if we could figure out what was happening to us, we might have been able to prevent it.

We would have had, in short, a kind of solidarity, which is a kind of identity, which might have allowed us, which might have made the history of slavery very different. The history of slavery in the North American continent, I mean.

Well, that didn’t happen, and here we are.

One of the most terrible things, or one of the most difficult things, because it’s something which one has and wants to resist — and also to use, is that in fact whether we like it or not, I am an American. I’m not Lyndon Johnson. I’m not saying that as “I’m an American!” I don’t mean that, no. Alas, I mean something very different. But I do mean that I was formed in a certain crucible.

My school really was the streets of New York City. My frame of reference was George Washington and John Wayne. I was a child with eyes on the world, who uses what he sees. He has nothing else to use. And you are formed by what you see — the choices you have to make, and the way you discover about what it means to be black in New York. I don’t know how you discover what it means to be black in London, but I know what it means — how you discover that in New York, and then throughout the entire country. And I know as how you grow older, you watch, in the richest city in the world, and the most famous, the richest freeist nation in the world. In the Western world. I know how you watch, as you grow older, literally, this is not a figure of speech; the corpses of your brothers and your sisters pile up around you. And not for anything they have done. They were too young to have done anything. In any case, too helpless. But what one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face, like you had a right to be here, when you do that, without knowing this is the result of it — you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western World.

If one fine day I discover that I have been lied to, all the years of my life, and my mother and my father were being lied to… If I discover that in fact, though I was bred and bought and sold like a mule, though I never really was a mule; if I discover that I was never really happy, picking all that cotton, and digging in all those mines, to make other people rich. And if I discover that those songs the darkies sang and sing were not just the ‘innocent expressions of a primitive people,’ but extremely subtle and difficult, dangerous and tragic expressions of what it felt like to be in chains.

Then by one’s presence simply, and by the attempt to walk from there to there: you’ve begun to frighten the white world. They have always known that you were not a mule. They have always known that no one wishes to be a slave. They have always known that the bales of cotton in the textile mills and entire metropolises built on black labor — that the black was not doing it out of love. He was doing it under the whip. The threat of the gun and the even more desperate and subtle threat of the bible.

Now, then. What one is watching, according to me, in the streets of southeast Asia, what must be considered as a final act of the white-christian-European industrial drama. Speaking as an American, and reading the news, and looking at the pictures, the streets of Saigon resemble nothing so much to me as the streets of Detroit. And in both cities, precisely the same war is being waged. That war: may it spread to engulf the globe.

And lets speak plainly: we know, everybody knows, no matter what the professions of a happy country may be, that we are not bombing people out of existence in the name of freedom. If it were freedom we were concerned about, then long, long ago we would have done something about Johanessburg, South Africa. If we were concerned with freedom, boys & girls, not as I stand here, would be perishing in the streets of Harlem. We are concerned with power, nothing more than that. And most unlucky for the Western world, it’s consolidated its power on the backs of people who are now going to die rather than be used any longer. In short, the economic arrangement of the Western world proved to be too expensive for most of the world. And the Western world will change this arrangements? Or these arrangements will be changed for them. This is what is beneath all the rhetoric, and all those rather shameful speeches coming from my President.

This imposes on us, then, a great and considerable burden. I, for example, do have (in principle at least) choice. Of becoming a good American. I can make a living; at least I could… I’m well-enough known to be an ornament. Ah, in short, I could ally myself on the side of what I most seriously consider to be a criminal nation. But if I can’t do that, then I have to examine all the reason I can’t, and find it in myself to precisely the terms of my connection with other people.

- CUT / SPLICE -

One has tried, I tried for a long time, in my own person, in things I wrote, in things I said. I don’t mean that I was alone but I’m using myself as an example: to convey to my countrymen, White and Black, the nature of our danger and where we were going to go if we could not resolve the situation in our cities and in our streets, in our houses, if brother could not deal with brother because in American continent, they talk about the color problem, but the truth is, that no White American is sure he is White. And every American Negro, visibly is no longer an African. I mean know what happened. I mean: know who had the whip. So it was not my grandmother who raped anybody.

Well, if the day comes, when you realize (and you don’t want to realize it) that you cannot make yourself heard, that the people who — you are addressing a plea, for them and for you, the plea is a very simple one: it’s saying look at it. Forget all the mountains of nonsense that have been written, and everything that’s been said. Forget the Negro problem. Don’t write any voting acts. We had that: it’s called 15th Amendment [Inaudible] this civil rights of the 1964! What you had to look at is what is happening in this country and what is really happening is that brother has murdered brother knowing it was his brother. White men have lynched Negroes knowing them to be their sons! White women have had Negroes burned knowing them to be their lovers. It is not a racial problem, it’s a problem of whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it and then begin to change it.

That great western house I come from is one house and I’m one of the children of that house, simply, I’m the most despised child of that house. And it because the American people are unable to face the fact that I — the fact I’m flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone, created by them. My blood, my father’s blood is in that soil. They can’t face that! And that is why the street of Detroit went up in flames! And that is why the city of the Saigon was under martial law. I know that in 400 years in that house, they do not know who I am, and I cannot marry their daughters or go to their churches. I would have to be a much more stupid man that I am to believe they know anything at all about those people in the Asian jungles. According to me, they liberated me, before they got around to Asia, and it was liberation difficult to bear. Many didn’t survive it.

- CUT / SPLICE -

It seems to me though that the great is difficulty that we face — it’s very simple to excavate our actual history and I’m part of the history which occurred in the Caribbean. And you were part of the history which occurred in Harlem. One’s got to find the terms. One’s gotta accept that and find that how to use that. And one’s got to decide (I think) that the actual and the moral basis on which the world we know now rests, are obsolete. It must be changed. And as far they are obsolete, they are wicked. And as far they are obsolete, they are oppressive.

It is simply not conceivable that for another 500 years or 200 years, or 100 years, that blacks in South Africa (for example) should live and die in the mines, being treated like animals to make other people rich. That is simply not — the civilization which is doing this, by doing this, dooms itself. It is not possible to agree with it nor it is possible to compromise with it.

Freedom is not, freedom is a much overused word and it may not be as real as slavery, which is a very concrete thing, but freedom is what one’s after. And as it cannot, I suppose, be given, then it obviously must be taken. They are many ways to take it but before we can discover this, we have to discover how to reunite ourselves, in terms of which we can speak to each other, the terms in which in fact (to put it bluntly) we can plot against the master.

And unless, anyone misunderstand me, I’m not really talking about color and I’m not talking about race. I don’t really believe in race. I don’t really believe in color. But I do know what I see. I do know that in the very same way that the American Negro situation: man, it’s everybody in the country, and now what is visible!

What happened in Detroit is the, is “perfectly logical” and the lesson is plain. What happened says ‘if I can’t live in this city, you can’t live with this city, either.’ When a city goes under martial law, everybody in the city is under martial law. If I can’t walk out and buy a loaf of bread, safely, neither can the housewife that’s why he’s on the range, learning how to use a pistol, in the land of the free and the home of the brave. They are confusing themselves with the Indians. No, they’re back on the wagon train. But we all know who was in the streets of America. We know to whom we are referring when we talk about crime in the streets. We know the son of the president of Pan-Am is not in the streets. Only one person in the streets, that’s me! And they’re plotting to shoot me in the name of freedom, dignified by law, and I’m supposed to agree. I’m supposed to agree.

No, no, no sir. I won’t be dishonoring no more. At last, the party’s over. The question is what shall we do? Everyone knows that the question is in everybody’s lap. From Washington to London, to Bonn. Everybody knows it. They are trying to figure out what to do. We should figure out what to do. Thank you.”

(20191207 - transcription by MDM. I began this transcription in March of 2017, after realizing there wasn’t a text version available online. I finished it this morning, after considering how few current public intellectuals there are of Baldwin’s force and character — or Buckley’s, Sontag’s or Hitchens’.)

Photographer, Writer, Non-Profiteer.

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