James Baldwin on the White Man’s Necessity for a Nigger

Hi,

I’m a bit embarrassed that I have not dedicated a space on this blog to talk about one of my favorite intellectuals: James Baldwin.

In 1965, Baldwin visited Cambridge University for a historic debate against the leading Conservative “intellectual”, William F. Buckley. The debate took place at the debating hall of Cambridge Union surrounded by hundreds students and members of the press. Now, by 1965 Baldwin had already set a respectable reputation for himself as a writer, speaker, activist, and public intellectual in the United States. But in Cambridge Union, Baldwin gave a speech so powerful, that you could hear a pin drop among the hundreds of persons that were in attendance. Don’t believe me? See it for yourself.

I want to bring attention to something that Baldwin said in 1963 that blew me away. I hope it has the same effect on you.

There’s a scene toward the end of “Take This Hammer” — a 1963 documentary by San Francisco’s KQED station, featuring James Baldwin, that sets out to investigate “the real situation of Negroes in [San Francisco], as opposed to the image San Francisco would like to present”. You can watch the entire program in this archive.

Baldwin said:

I know this and everyone who’s ever tried to live knows this. What you say about anybody else reveals you … I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me. Now here in this country there something called a nigger. We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I’ve always know since that time that I was 17 years old that what you are describing was not me and what you were afraid of was not me. It has to be something else … I’ve always know that I’m not a nigger. But if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? … You still think, I gather that the nigger is necessary. Well, he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I’m going to give you your problem back: You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.

On June 24th of the same year, Dr. Kenneth Clark interviews Baldwin shortly after Baldwin’s now famous May 24, 1963 meeting with United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy regarding the state of Civil Rights in the United States. Clark asked Baldwin whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the Negro in America.

Baldwin’s response shook me:

I’m both glad and sorry you asked me that question, but I’ll do my best to answer it. I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist; I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive; but the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives, it is entirely up to the American people whether of not they are going to face and deal with and embrace the stranger whom they aligned so long. What white people have to do, is to try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. Why?

That’s the question have got to ask yourself — the white population has got to ask itself — north and south, because it’s one country for a Negro. There’s no difference between the north and south. There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you, but the fact of the castration is the American fact. If I’m not a nigger here and you, the white people invented him, they you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.

You’re welcome 🙂

Thanks for reading,

Notes:

I Am Not Your Negro – Written by James Baldwin and Directed by Raoul Peck.

Full interview between James Baldwin and Kenneth Clark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ua2Rb7vVsMY

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