James Baldwin Talks About Racism in America & Civil Rights Activism on The Dick Cavett Show (1969)

There are many rea­sons, some quite lit­er­al, that it can be painful to talk about racism in the U.S. For one thing, it often seems that writ­ers like W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, or James Bald­win, have already con­front­ed ques­tions of racial vio­lence with­out hedg­ing or equiv­o­ca­tion. Yet each time racist vio­lence hap­pens, there seems to be a deco­rous need in pol­i­tics and media to pre­tend to be sur­prised by what’s right in front of us, to pre­tend to have dis­cov­ered the place for the first time, and yet to already have a sup­ply of ready­made plat­i­tudes and denun­ci­a­tions at hand.

For exam­ple, just recent­ly, a for­mer white U.S. Pres­i­dent just dis­missed an impor­tant civ­il rights leader at the funer­al of anoth­er civ­il rights leader, while the oppres­sive con­di­tions both lead­ers fought against are ampli­fied to mil­i­tary grade in cities around the coun­try. Sports fans demand that elite Black ath­letes shut up and enter­tain them. The fans will be the ones to say what ges­tures are accept­able, like stand­ing for the nation­al anthem at a tele­vised for-prof­it sport­ing event that has more to do with gam­bling than patri­o­tism.

Maybe stand­ing and kneel­ing are both spec­ta­cles, but they do not car­ry equal weight. When New Orleans Saints quar­ter­back Drew Brees refused to sup­port his team­mates’ mild protest against mur­der, he tried to make it right by post­ing on social media a stock pho­to of a black hand and a white hand clasped togeth­er. In his N+1 essay “Such Things Have Done Harm,” a wor­thy appli­ca­tion of Baldwin’s furi­ous log­ic to the present, Blair McClen­don writes:

The spec­ta­cle of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is irre­sistible. There may be a war in the streets, but from time to time there is a Christ­mas truce and we are to take those as visions of a bet­ter, calmer future. Here is the com­ing peace with­out all the gris­ly details that pre­vent us from get­ting there…. Hold­ing up a pic­ture of black and white peo­ple togeth­er inti­mate­ly, in cama­raderie, or even just mutu­al recog­ni­tion and respect, as proof of some­thing “pos­si­ble” implies an oth­er­wise bru­tal vision of the world “as it is”… We should be will­ing to demand more than fel­low feel­ing.

The fore­clo­sure of con­flict, the bypass­ing of real­i­ty with sen­ti­men­tal fan­tasies of har­mo­ny, lies at the heart of the excep­tion­al­ism argu­ment that seems to make so many peo­ple irra­tional­ly angry with Black ath­letes. You are high­ly paid, suc­cess­ful enter­tain­ers, and we con­sid­er that a sign of progress, there­fore we judge this protest ille­git­i­mate. For Bald­win, as Ellen Gutoskey writes at Men­tal Floss, this stan­dard mea­sure­ment of progress “is only progress as defined by white peo­ple of priv­i­lege.”

When Dick Cavett voiced the ques­tion to Bald­win in 1969—citing those who point to the suc­cess of “the ris­ing num­ber of Black Amer­i­cans in sports, pol­i­tics, and entertainment”—Baldwin explained the real prob­lem: No one has asked for this opin­ion, and cer­tain­ly not at that time, as Gutoskey points out, “with the vio­lence of 1968—Mar­tin Luther King Jr.’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s assas­si­na­tions, a riotous Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, count­less civ­il rights protests, and so on—still very fresh in the pub­lic con­scious­ness.” Bald­win puts is plain­ly:

Inso­far as the Amer­i­can pub­lic wants to think there has been progress, they over­look one very sim­ple thing: I don’t want to be giv­en any­thing by you. I just want you to leave me alone so I can do it myself. And it also over­looks anoth­er very impor­tant thing: Per­haps I don’t think that this repub­lic is the sum­mit of human civ­i­liza­tion. Per­haps I don’t want to become like Ronald Rea­gan or like the pres­i­dent of Gen­er­al Motors. Per­haps I have anoth­er sense of life… Per­haps I don’t want what you think I want.

Repeat­ed­ly, the hal­lowed demo­c­ra­t­ic notion of self-deter­mi­na­tion has been denied Black Americans—perhaps the sin­gle most endur­ing thread that runs through the country’s his­to­ry. The denial of agency is com­pli­cat­ed, how­ev­er, by the neces­si­ty of assign­ing blame to peo­ple deemed not ful­ly human: “I have noth­ing to say about the idea that peo­ple who are the descen­dants of prop­er­ty are bound to respect the prop­er­ty rights of Guc­ci or CVS beyond the desire to point out its obscen­i­ty,” Blair McClen­don writes. “What was called vio­lence and chaos in any oth­er cir­cum­stance would be read as some­thing much sim­pler: self-defense.”

Again and again, those who resist the most bru­tal conditions—including out­right mur­der in the streets, in qui­et homes at night, in cars, at play­grounds, by agents of the state—are called vil­lains and insur­rec­tion­ists. Cavett asks Bald­win to explain rad­i­cal lead­ers like H. Rap Brown and Stoke­ly Carmichael, “who fright­en us the most” (mak­ing the word “us” do a lot of work here). Bald­win responds, “[When] any white man in the world says ‘Give me lib­er­ty, or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a Black man says exact­ly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a crim­i­nal and treat­ed like one….”

I doubt the irony of quot­ing Patrick Hen­ry (also known for say­ing “If this be trea­son, make the most of it!”) was in any way lost on Bald­win. As one recent biog­ra­ph­er puts it, Hen­ry was the first Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion­ary “to call for inde­pen­dence, for rev­o­lu­tion against Britain, for a bill of rights, and for as much free­dom as pos­si­ble from government—American as well as British.” Patrick Hen­ry was also a slave­own­er, some­thing he con­sid­ered, in his own words, a “lam­en­ta­ble evil.”

Hen­ry wrote, “I will not, I can­not jus­ti­fy [own­ing slaves],” but he was “not con­flict­ed enough to actu­al­ly set any­one free,” writes Michael Schaub at NPR. Dec­la­ra­tions of high moral prin­ci­ples, while one open­ly com­mits, or ignores, what one admits is “evil,” still fea­ture promi­nent­ly in offi­cial sto­ries of the moment. Bald­win, writes McClen­don, “knew what a sto­ry was, he knew what a film was, he knew what a rev­o­lu­tion was and he may have known for­give­ness, too.”

Bald­win did not know will­ful for­get­ting, how­ev­er, except to call it out when he saw it used as a weapon. Raoul Peck­’s excel­lent, apt­ly-titled film I Am Not Your Negro begins with the Cavett inter­view, then unrav­els a “rad­i­cal, up-to-the-minute exam­i­na­tion of race in Amer­i­ca,” writes YouTube Movies, who offers the film free to screen online, “using Bald­win’s orig­i­nal words and a flood of rich archival mate­r­i­al” to recon­struct his last unfin­ished book, Remem­ber This House.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Famous James Bald­win-William F. Buck­ley Debate in Full, With Restored Audio (1965)

Why James Baldwin’s Writ­ing Stays Pow­er­ful: An Art­ful­ly Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Author of Notes of a Native Son

W.E.B. Du Bois Dev­as­tates Apol­o­gists for Con­fed­er­ate Mon­u­ments and Robert E. Lee (1931)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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