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

Michael David Murphy
10 min readDec 7, 2019

(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.’

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.

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