"And as a matter of fact, I was right. That's part of the dilemma of being an american negro. That one is a little bit colored, and a little bit white. And not only in physical terms, but in the head and in the heart. And there are days when you wonder ... what your role is in this country, and what your future is in it."
via Clay Cane
You probably saw this on I Love The 80s Strikes Black, but there's a nice NY Times interview from everyone's favorite year, 1984, between Baldwin and Julius Lester (who at 68 years of age -- how old is that in negro years? -- has a blog!). Here's a nice snippet:
I'm still waiting for the white writer to write a novel about a lynching from the point of view of the lyncher.
Yes, I quite agree with you. I said before that America's effort to avoid the presence of black people constricts American literature. It creates a trap white writers find themselves in.
We were talking about white writers as witnesses and you alluded to Mailer. How do you see Mailer?
Well, Mailer is something I've been desperately trying to avoid. (Laughs) All I can say is that - well, one of the hazards of being an American writer, and I'm well placed to know it, is that eventually you have nothing to write about. A funny thing happens on the way to the typewriter. There is a decidedly grave danger of becoming a celebrity, of becoming a star, of becoming a personality. Again, I'm very well placed to know that. It's symptomatic of the society that doesn't have any real respect for the artist. You're either a success or a failure and there's nothing in between. And if you are a success, you run the risk that Norman has run and that I run, too, of becoming a kind of show business personality. Then the legend becomes far more important than the work. It's as though you're living in an echo chamber. You hear only your own voice. And, when you become a celebrity, that voice is magnified by multitudes and you begin to drown in this endless duplication of what looks like yourself. You have to be really very lucky, and very stubborn, not to let that happen to you. It's a difficult trap to avoid. And that's part of Norman's dilemma, I think. A writer is supposed to write. If he appears on television or as a public speaker, so much the better or so much the worse, but the public persona is one thing. On the public platform or on television, I have to sound as if I know what I'm talking about. It's antithetical to the effort you make at the typewriter, where you don't know a damned thing. And you have to know you don't know it. The moment you carry the persona to the typewriter, you are finished. Does that answer your question?
No, but it's an eloquent evasion.
Is it? But I don't want to talk about Norman! Why should I talk about Norman? I'm very fond of him and have great respect for his gifts. Well, perhaps he's a perfect example of what it means to be a white writer in this century, a white American writer in this country. It affords too many opportunities to avoid reality. . . . And I know much more about Norman than I'm willing to say in print. After all, I care about him.
I respect that, but I'd like to pursue it from another angle.
I'll have another drink, then.
As Paris would say, that's hot.
James Baldwin: Reflections of a Maverick [NY Times]