James Baldwin to Tennessee Williams: "Just Leave Me Alone To Be Human"
Interview with Tennessee Williams
Conducted by James Grissom
I go to Jimmy [Baldwin] as I suppose I might wish to go the waters of Lourdes: He may heal me. He can certainly alter my way of thinking. He is the epitome of clarity. We were out once and someone--always an alleged friend--commented on Jimmy's bulging eyes and my peculiar pinkness of face. We smiled and later recounted that with all that we had seen and all that we knew, anger and resignation had left us bug-eyed and flushed with the rosacea of rage.
Listen, he told me once, you made the nigger and you made the white man. These categories were created to define and cement an order--an order that is entirely beneficial to you. So when you--meaning all white men and good liberals and hand-wringing clerics--come to visit with what you call the Negro, the nigger, the poor, the disadvantaged--remember that you are visiting proud people who are possessed of the talents and the desires you also possess, but we do not have opportunities; we do not have jobs; we do not have food; we do not have the security that might allow us to ponder our choices. We are in a race to survive and to protect our sisters and brothers and parents and friends, while you are wondering if your college major is the right fit or if the color of your living room sets off the sofa in the right way.
Before you can get off the backs of the black man--the lamentable Negro--you need to alter your minds. Jimmy told me this all the time, when I would call with remorse and checks and offers to appear at some function. Do not, Jimmy yelled at me once, make me into your clean, little, performing nigger, every comma a dagger thrust deep into my side. He always told me he loved me and knew that I meant well, but that was insufficient--aspirin on the syphilis of the soul that was racism.
We need--and you know this, young as you are, rotten as it is--to keep the blacks beneath us, a shaky stool on which we stand to feel superior. No matter what strikes us, we can always say, Well, I'm not black, and Jimmy would tell me and others that this was the subtext of every commission and grant and banquet and telethon to improve ghettos or black minds and lazy black backs. What needs to be improved are white, racist minds, and acquiescent black minds that just want a clean kitchen to work in and a white man who isn't on his daughter or his back.
The pathetic person is the racist, the poor white man, who is chained to a belief that he is superior, that he is white. He is a human! He is my brother, black and bug-eyed as I am. He is my brother, too, you know, pink and queer as I am.
The renovation needs to begin in the soul, the brain--I'm not sure where I might begin. To which Jimmy would smile, hug me, and say, Just keep looking. The problem and the solution rest with you, began with you, will end, in every sense of the word, with you. Just leave me alone to be human.
P.S. I would have one call with James Baldwin--in 1984, from Amherst, Massachusetts. I will write of that soon.
© 2019 James Grissom