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Interview by James Baldwin with Quincy Troupe
SOURCE: "The Last Interview," in James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe, Simon and Schuster, 1989, pp. 186-212.
In the following interview, Baldwin discusses his relationships, his writing, other writers, and America.
[Baldwin]: It all comes back now.
[Troupe]: When did you first meet Miles?
Oh, a long time ago, on West Seventy-seventh Street at his house.
What were the circumstances?
I'm trying to remember, I was living on West End Avenue then, early sixties. What was I doing at his home? I hadn't met him, but I admired him very much. But I think I met him before that. Yes, I remember. I first met him in the Village, when he was playing at the Café Bohemia. Then I met him at Club Beverly, on Seventy-fifty Street. But that was a long time ago, too, But, I'm trying to remember what I was doing at Miles's house. I don't remember. Anyway, it was a Sunday afternoon and Miles had invited me, he was having a kind of brunch. So there I was, there in Miles's presence. It was, at first, overwhelming, because I'm really shy. I remember there being a whole lot of people. Miles was at the other end of the room. At first he was upstairs, invisible. Then he was downstairs talking to someone he knew as Moonbeam. Still, he was visible, but barely. Finally he was standing in the room, visible, and so I went over to him. Miles looked like a little boy at the time, he looked about ten. So there I was trying to figure out what to say. Finally I told him how much I like and admired him. I told him I like his music very much and he said something like, "Are you sure?" He kind of smiled. Then he talked with me. Then we sort of knew each other. So the ice had been broken, so that ah, you know, how it is with friends, though I don't know if he thinks of me as a friend. I don't know what other people see. But I could see that there was something in Miles and me which was very much alike. I can see much of myself in Miles. And yet, I don't know what it is, can't explain it, but I think it has something to do with extreme vulnerability.
Extreme vulnerability? In what sense?
First of all, you know, with what we look like, being black, which means that in special ways we've been maltreated. See, we evolve a kind of mask, kind of persona, you know, to protect us from, ah, all these people who are carnivorous and they think you're helpless. Miles does it one way, I do it another.
How do you do it?
I keep people away by seeming not to be afraid of them, by moving fast.
And how does he do it?
In his language, by saying "bitch." Miles said when he saw me signing an autograph, "Why don't you tell the motherfuckers to get lost? What the fuck makes you think I think you can read?" I never saw him very often, but there was always a kind of shorthand between us, that nothing would ever change between us. Like Miles has come to visit me, here in St. Paul on a number of occasions when he's over here in France, playing. And you know Miles doesn't visit people. And even when he visits, he never says much, he doesn't say anything. Not all the time, however; it depends on how the spirit moves him.
So he just shows.
He just shows up here, knocks at the door. Sometimes he calls, but he may just show.
When was the last time?
A couple of summers ago.
He called and said, "I'm coming."
No. I think what happened, he was staying in Nice, so his French manager called and asked me to come and have dinner and cocktails. It was a nice night. And afterwards, he came back here.
He came out here?
Yeah. We sat around and talked about nothing.
You think he came because he feels safe with you.
Yeah. We talked about nothing and everything and we would have a little sip and we would talk about whatever. But I do the same with some people I know.
Why do you think he feels this way with you, since he's afraid of writers?
I don't think Miles thinks of me as a writer. He knows I'm a writer, but he doesn't look at me that way. He doesn't look at me that way at all. I think he thinks of me as a brother, you know? In many ways I have the same difficulty as he has, in terms of the private and public life. In terms of the legend. It's difficult to be a legend. It's hard for me to recognize me. You spend a lot of time trying to avoid it. A lot of the time I've been through so many of the same experiences Miles has gone through. It's really something, to be a legend, unbearable. I could see it had happened to Miles. Again, it's unbearable, the way the world treats you is unbearable, and especially if you're black.
What is that?
It's unbearable because time is passing and you are not your legend, but you're trapped in it. Nobody will let you out of it. Except other people who know what it is. But very few people have experienced it, know about it, and I think that can drive you mad; I know it can. It had a terrible effect on him and it had a terrible effect on me. And you don't see it coming.
You don't see it coming? Explain why?
No way to see it.
How do you realize it?
You have to be lucky. You have to have friends. I think at bottom you have to be serious. No one can point it out to you; you have to see it yourself. That's the only way you can act on it. And when it arrives it's a great shock.
To find out?
It's a great shock to realize that you've been so divorced. So divorced from who you think you are—from who you really are. Who you think you are, you're not at all. The only thing is that Miles has got his horn and I've got my typewriter. We are both angry men.
I want to ask you what you were trapped in and how did you come to see it. I mean, did you come through friends?
I know what you're saying but it's hard to answer, it's hard.
I know it's hard.
I don't know how to answer that.
But you saw yourself trapped?
I saw myself trapped. I think it happened to Miles, too.
What did you think you were, before you knew?
Ah, that's even more interesting. I don't know who I thought I was. I was a witness, I thought. I was a very despairing witness, though too. What I was actually doing was trying to avoid a certain estrangement, perhaps, an estrangement between myself and my generation. It was virtually complete, the estrangement was, in terms of what I might have thought and expected—my theories. About what I might have hoped—I'm talking now in terms of one's function as an artist. And the country itself being black and trying to deal with that.
Why do you think it occurred. That estrangement between you generation and the country?
Well, because I was right. That's a strange way to put it.
That's not strange, at least not to me.
I was right. I was right about what was happening in the country. What was about to happen to all of us really, one way or the other. And the choices people would have to make. And watching people make them and denying them at the same time. I began to feel more and more homeless in terms of the whole relationship between France and me and America, and me has always been a little painful, you know. Because my family's in America I will always go back. It couldn't have been a question in my mind unless it absolutely really came to that. But in the meantime you keep the door open and the price of keeping the door open was to actually be, in a sense, victimized by my own legend. You know, I was trying to tell the truth and it takes a long time to realize that you can't—that there's no point in going to the mat, so to speak, no point in going to Texas again. There's no point in saying this again. It's been said, and it's been said, and it's been said. It's been heard and not heard. You are a broken motor.
A broken motor?
Yes. You're a running motor and you're repeating, you're repeating, you're repeating, and it causes a breakdown, lessening of will power. And sooner or later your will gives out, it has to. You're lucky if it is a physical matter. Most times it's spiritual. See, all this involves hiding from something else—not dealing with how lonely you are. And of course, at the very bottom it involves the terror of every artist confronted with what he or she has to do, you know, the next work. And everybody, in one way or another, and to some extent, tries to avoid it. And you avoid it more when you get older than you do when you're younger; still there's something terrifying about doing the work. Something like that. But it happened to Miles sooner than it happened to me. I think for me it was lucky that it was physical, because it could have been mental.
It could have been mental?
Yes. It could have been mental debilitation instead of my present physical one. I prefer the physical to the mental. Does that make sense?
It makes good sense, it makes fantastic sense. Now let me ask you something else. Now with Miles, you both were born close to each other?
Just about. I think I'm a year older. I was born in '24.
He was born in '26. So then, probably both of you, black men, geniuses, born close together, probably see the world very similar—you through your typewriter and him through his horn. Both vulnerable. So when you met you were brothers because you expected to meet each other or were you looking for each other?
Yes. We were looking for each other. Neither he nor I would have said it that way but we were; we knew that the moment we saw each other.
You were hoping?
Oh yes. That's why I was watching him before he watched me, you know.
But he knew you.
He knew about me. Yes.
He knew you when he saw you.
There's no question about that at all. We knew each other at once.
Yes it is, discovering someone very much like yourself. It was wonderful.
And that's a wonderful connection. Because he's also estranged somewhat from his musical generation.
He has to be, at least it makes sense to me that he would be, because he's always trying to be on the cutting edge of his art. That's certainly true for me.
In the windows of your eyes, you and Miles remind me of each other. It's a certain distinctive juju.
Shit. I love that.
It's a certain distinctive juju that in Miles you recognize and you see a face that you have not seen before. And when I look at you and since I've always looked at you, I've always felt that. A certain juju, witch doctor, priest, high priest look of timelessness or representative of a certain tribe, point of view, mysticism, magic.
That would cover my father certainly. He was not really my father, because I was born out of wedlock, but that's the difference, my father. He did give me something. Don't you see, he taught me how to fight. He taught me how to fight. But it would be better to say he taught me what to fight for. I was only fighting for safety, or for money at first. Then I fought to make you look to me. Because I was not born to be what someone said I was. I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself, and myself only.
So when you were younger, you didn't have the pen as a weapon, as a defense, a shield. How did you fight then?
Any way I could.
What would you do?
It's hard to remember. The pulpit was part of it, but that came later.
Before the pulpit.
It was the streets.
How did you fight? Any way you could?
Well, if you wanted to beat me up, okay. And, say, you were bigger than I was, you could do it, you could beat me, but you gonna have to do it every day.
Every day? Because you would fight to the death.
You'd have to beat me up every single day. So then the question becomes which one of us would get tired first. And I knew it wouldn't be me.
You would always fight.
Oh, yes, indeed. So then the other persons would have to begin to think, and to be bugged by this kid he had to beat up every day. And some days perhaps he just didn't feel like doing it. But he would have to, yeah, because he said he was going to do it. So then come beat me up. But of course something happened to him, something has to happen to him—because someone beating someone else up is not so easy either. Because I would be standing in the schoolyard with a lead pipe as a deterrent. So, you know, eventually, it was just too dangerous. People began to leave me alone. Some of the big boys who were my friends got together and decided that they had to protect me, you know? So after that I was really protected. Because it was funny to them after a while. But that's what happened. That was the beginning of it and then later on it was cops, you know. It became just a nightmare. Especially cops. I knew that they knew that I was seven or eight or nine and they were just having fun with me. They wanted me to beg. And I couldn't beg, so I got my ass kicked. But I learned a lot, a lot about them. I learned there were very few who were humane; they just wanted you to say what they wanted you to say. They wanted to be confirmed in something by you. By your face, by your terror of them.
What about the pulpit, the idea of the pulpit? Would you talk about it as an idea?
That's a very complex idea really. I joined the Church, but my joining it was very complex, though I meant it, the purely religious part that is, the spiritual part. In a way that was very important to me, that whole time in the pulpit, because it gave me a kind of distance that was kind of respected; that was a reason I was in the pulpit, to put distance between people and myself. I began to see my people, so to speak, both ethnically and otherwise. And in the time that I was in the pulpit I learned a lot about my father. And later on, I thought, perhaps, I'd moved into the pulpit in order to arrest him. Because I thought that he had to be arrested, had to be stopped. He was having a terrible effect on everybody in the family. I could go as far as to say I thought he was crazy. But I knew with myself and the pulpit I cut a lot of his power. He couldn't fight me in that arena. He fought me, but he couldn't fight me in that arena. And I say during that time that it taught me a lot about him and myself and about the people who were in the congregation, whom I couldn't lie to. And that was why I left the pulpit.
Is that where you started to learn about the truth? I mean you knew about the truth when you were talking about when you knew you weren't going to give in.
So then in the pulpit you learned another truth. And in the writing you take it …
I knew that was where I had to go. That I was not going to become another fat preacher, you know? I was not going to, ah, lie to my congregation. I was not allowed to do that. I couldn't believe in what I had anymore. I didn't believe in the Christian Church anymore, not the way I had; I no longer believed in its spirituality, its healing powers.
Oh? Was it the Christian Church that disturbed you?
The way people treated each other. In the Church and outside, but especially in the Church.
How did they treat each other?
Well, they were so self-righteous. They didn't come with real deep love, for example. The people in the Church were very cruel about many things.
How old were you when you were involved in the Church?
Okay. I want you now to talk about two extraordinary women that your brother David told me about. Jeanne Fauré, who used to own the house you live in now, and Tintine. I want you, at first, if you can, to talk to me about how you came to this house. And how you came to receive the medal of honor.
Oh, that's a long story.
I know. But can you talk about it, if you can, how she came to accept you, why she accepted you, and what it was that you saw in each other?
I came here to St. Paul in 1970. It was Malcolm X's and Martin Luther King's death really. After Martin's death I sort of wandered and indeed didn't know where to go. I was in Turkey for a while, then I ended up here. I didn't want to leave; I had to. I ended up across the street from this house in a hotel. I came in the wintertime, nineteen years ago. Anyway, I and a friend of mine came down to St. Paul from Paris. We didn't have anything because it was terribly expensive at the hotel and so we settled here because at the time it also served as a roominghouse. Later I got sick, you know, and much of my family came over to see me. I rented almost all of the house. So I thought why not buy it. It was forty-three, forty-six thousand and I had been very ill so I didn't know how much longer I had to live. So I bought it. But Madame Fauré had offered to sell it to me.
This was earlier?
Yes. When I first came, nineteen-some odd years ago.
What was wrong with you, can you remember what was the illness?
Nobody knew. Nobody knew. But anyway, I needed some money to buy the house. That occupied me for a while that occupied me considerably. But I was just busy working. And I got to know Jeanne Fauré, who was a very strange lady, solitary, very strange.
How would you describe her strangeness?
In her solitude. She was a kind of legend, she was very old, you know, quite. And anyway, she and I had very little in common, it seemed to me, except I liked her very much. She was a refugee from Algeria, raised in Algeria, I believe, and then the French had to leave. And she was very bitter about that. That meant we had very little in common politically. And very little in common in what I could see in any other way. And yet there was something else beneath that made her my friend. She decided to sell the house to me; she refused to sell it to anybody else.
She decided to sell the house to you? Why do you think she picked you? Do you know to this day?
Was it spiritual?
I wasn't the best candidate; in fact, I was the worst. Something in her, I don't know. We also had a very stormy relationship.
Politically speaking we did. In many other ways we did, too. She knew something I didn't know. She knew about Europe, she knew about civilization, she knew about responsibility. A million things that I as an American would not know, that were alien to me. And I was very slow to learn these things. In fact, it was a very expensive lesson, one that I haven't learned entirely just yet. But she was a valuable kind of guide and a kind of protection. And Tintine Roux was the old lady that ran La Colombe D'Or, which is a world-famous restaurant and inn. She became my guardian. I never lived in a small town before, which is not so easy, and she protected me. I could come in and have lunch at her restaurant. And I didn't realize it at first, that she had picked herself to be my protector.
What do you think she saw in you?
I don't know.
What do you think?
I knew Tintine liked me. Still she must have thought I was crazy, you know, at least a little strange, in any event. But both these women liked me. It was as thought they recognized where I came from. That I was a peasant, and I am. But I've only found this out over time.
Why do you say that?
I'm a peasant because of where I really come from, you know. My background, my father, my mother, the line. Something of the peasant must be in all of my family. And that's where Madame Fauré and Tintine come from, too. And the color of my skin didn't add into it at all. Both these women were watching something else besides my color. And they protected me and loved me. They're both dead now and I miss them both terribly. Because with Jeanne I truly learned a lot from her, from her European optic in regard to others; but she also had an optic that came from Algeria. What I liked about it was that she was willing to be my guide; willing and unwilling: in fact, she was a hard guide. But mostly she was willing. And so it seemed like she was my guide to something else.
To a way of life, to a potential civilization she had seen only from a height.
Didn't they know about your fame?
No, not really. They'd heard of me. But beyond that, nothing.
You were comfortable with that.
Yes. Because my fame did not get in the way because by the time they knew it didn't make any difference. It was just one more aspect of this crazy kid. That's the best way to put it. They were my guides, and they were very good guides.
David told me a story about an incident that happened when her brother died, and Madame Fauré picked you to be at the head of the funeral procession.
He told you that? Well, she was the last of kin and she made me lead her brother Louis's funeral procession. Yes she did. She put her arm in mine and I had to lead. I had to. It was an incredible scene. I had to lead the funeral procession with her or she with me. It was fascinating.
I think it's a great image. Tell me about it. How did you feel?
I was in a state of shock. I didn't know what to do. And of course the people of St. Paul were shocked, too. This was in either 1974 or '75. But I was in a state of shock. I didn't quite know what to think; in fact, the town was in a state of shock.
What was the reason?
Well, they knew who I was by then, of course, but they couldn't understand why I was representing the family. When we were at the cemetery everybody had to say goodbye to me, too. Because I was standing there with her at the head of the family, under the gates of the cemetery. Because what it meant, symbolically speaking, is that I was the next in line, when she died. That's what it meant.
Do you think that could have happened in America?
I can't imagine where. I really cannot imagine where.
So in a sense that was a comforting, human experience. A remarkable spiritual connection, bond.
A very great thing, very great. At least for me. I want to write about it one day. Yes, sometime I'll have to talk about it.
When you received the Legion of Honor of France? Who did you take with you to the ceremony?
David came over. Jeanne Fauré was there and my housekeeper Valerie was there too.
Why did you pick them?
Because they had seen me through so much and I'd promised to take Jeanne and Valerie to Paris one day. Jeanne had been to Paris but she hadn't been there for a long time. I thought that would be nice for her to go. So I took them and because I owed it to them, but especially to Jeanne Fauré. Because she'd seen me through.
And how did she feel?
She was very proud. She didn't say anything to me; she never said much to me about it. But I could see it—how proud she was—in her face, in her eyes.
What year was this?
Last year, 1986.
Was that right before she died?
Yes. She died in the winter of 1987.
What month was that?
I received the award in June, and she died in January 1987.
And how did you feel with her being there?
I was very pleased. It was very nice. It was something that gave her a great pleasure and that meant a lot to me.
I thought that was a great story when he told me. I said I was definitely going to ask you about that. Because I thought that was fundamentally fantastic and so fundamentally, in a sense, spiritually right; but it's something which you don't expect to happen.
No, you don't, not at all.
Who gave you the award?
The president, the president of France, François Mitterrand. The ceremony was at the Élysée in Paris.
What other people received the award that year?
Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein and me. It was a very nice ceremony, very nice.
Okay. Let's change the subject and talk about some writers. What is your opinion of Amiri Baraka?
I remember the first time I met Amiri Baraka, who was then Le Roi Jones. I was doing The Amen Corner and he was a student at Howard University. I liked him right away. He was a pop-eyed little boy, a poet. He showed me a couple of his poems. I liked them very much. And then he came to New York a couple of years later. He came to New York when I came back to New York from Paris. And by this time I knew the business. I'd been through the fucking business by that time. I was a survivor. And I remember telling him that his agent wanted him to become the young James Baldwin. But I told him, "You're not the young James Baldwin. There's only one James Baldwin and you are Le Roi Jones and there's only one Le Roi Jones. Don't let them run this game on us, you know? You're Le Roi Jones, I'm James Baldwin. And we're going to need each other." That's all I said. He didn't believe it then but time took care of that.
He believes it now?
Yes, he knows it now.
What person has hurt you the most recently?
Because he is a great poet and it seemed to be beneath him, his anger and his contempt for me, which were both real and not real. He ignored me for so long and then he called me a cocksucker, you know what I mean? It's boring. But I always did say he was a great poet, a great writer. But that does not mean I can put up with being insulted by him every time I see him, which I won't.
What do you think about Toni Morrison?
Toni's my ally and it's really probably too complex to get into. She's a black woman writer, which in the public domain makes it more difficult to talk about.
Have you read Beloved?
Not yet. She sent it to me but I haven't read it yet.
What do you think are her gifts?
Her gift is in allegory. Tar Baby is an allegory. In fact all her novels are. But they're hard to talk about in public. That's where you get in trouble because her books and allegory are not always what it seems to be about. I was too occupied with my recent illness to deal with Beloved. But in general she's taken a myth, or she takes what seems to be a myth, and turns it into something else. I don't know how to put this—Beloved could be about the story of truth. She's taken a whole lot of things and turned them upside down. Some of them—you recognize the truth in it. I think that Toni's very painful to read.
Because it's always or most times a horrifying allegory; but you recognize that it works. But you don't really want to march through it. Sometimes people have a lot against Toni, but she's got the most believing story of everybody—this rather elegant matron, whose intentions really are serious and, according to some people, lethal.
I remember you saying that Alex Haley's Roots had another title. What was it called first?
It was called Before the Anger. But let me change the subject and just say this. It's very important for white Americans to believe their version of the black experience. That's why they have white and black commentators telling all those lies about us. You see, it's very important for the nigger to suffer. Therefore, they, white people, can feel guilty. Therefore, they can do something about it in their own good time. Let me again explain further. Once, after I published Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room, my publisher, Knopf, told me I was a "Negro writer" and that I "reached a certain audience." So, they told me, "you cannot afford to alienate that audience. This new book will ruin your career because you're not writing about the same things and in the same manner as you were before and we won't publish this book as a favor to you."
As a favor to you?
So I told them fuck you. My editor, whose name I won't mention here, is dead now, poor man. Later on, Bennett Cerf and I tangled too, but that was about a Christmas boycott of books we were planning.
So what did they say after you told them "fuck you"?
I told them I needed a boat ticket. So I took a boat to England with my book and I sold it in England before I sold it in America. You see whites want black writers to mostly deliver something as if it were an official version of the black experience. But the vocabulary won't hold it, simply. No true account really of black life can be held, can be contained in the American vocabulary. As it is, the only way that you can deal with it is by doing great violence to the assumptions on which the vocabulary is based. But they won't let you do that. And when you go along, you find yourself very quickly painted into a corner; you've written yourself into a corner. Because you can't compromise as a writer. By the time I left America in 1948 I had written myself into a corner as I perceived it. The book reviews and the short essays had led me to a place where I was on a collision course totally with the truth; it was the way I was operating. It was only a matter of time before I'd simply be destroyed by it. And no amount of manipulation of vocabulary or part would have spared me. It's like I think that Al Murray and Ralph Ellison are totally trapped. It's sad, because they're both trapped in the same way, and they're both very gifted writers. Ralph certainly, and Al, I thought. But you can't do anything with America unless you are willing to dissect it. You certainly cannot hope to fit yourself into it; nothing fits into it, not your past, not your present. The Invisible Man is fine as far as it goes until you ask yourself who's invisible to whom? You know, what is this dichotomy supposed to do? Are we invisible before each other? And invisible why, and by what system can one hope to be invisible? I don't know how anything in American life is worthy of this sacrifice. And further, I don't see anything in American life—for myself—to aspire to. Nothing at all. It's all so very false. So shallow, so plastic, so morally and ethically corrupt.
We were talking once about the claustrophobia among writers. You said you prefer actors and painters to writers.
Yes. Well, first of all when I was coming up there weren't any writers that I knew. Langston Hughes was far away. The first writer I met was Richard Wright and he was much older than me. And the people I knew were people like Beauford Delaney and the women who hung out with him; it was a whole world that was not literary. That came later; then it wasn't literary. It came later in Paris, with Sartre and others. But there was something else. And in Paris it had nothing whatsoever to do with race for one thing. It was another kind of freedom there altogether. It had nothing to do with literature. But we can't talk about that. But when I looked back on it years and years later, looked back at myself on the American literary scene, I could see that what almost happened to me was an attempt to make myself fit in, so to speak, to wash clean for the American literary academy.
You mean they wanted you scrubbed and squeaky clean?
Exactly. You have to be scrubbed and squeaky clean and then there's nothing left of you. Let me tell you a story. When Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award in 1953 for Invisible Man, I was up for it the next near, in 1954, for Go Tell It on the Mountain. But at the time I was far from scrubbed. I didn't win. Then, years later, someone who was on the jury told me that since Ralph won it the year before they couldn't give it to a Negro two years in a row. Now, isn't that something?
A judge told you that? Can you tell us his name?
No, I wouldn't want to do that.
Okay. Do you have any comments on Norman Mailer?
Well the answer to that question is very short and very simple. Not simple, but short. Norman decided not to be a writer. He decided to be a celebrity instead and that's what he is now. Now let me tell you a story about Norman. Out of my father's first marriage there is a sister and a couple of sons, you know, a few sons. My sister had a brother who lives in California. He's a senior citizen now. But he lived with Norman Mailer when Norman was writing The White Negro. He was taking the pages out of Norman's typewriter, changing his clothes—they wore the same clothes, exchanged cars, and his car was better than Norman's at the time. He was like the second husband in a way. They lived together. They lived close together. Norman doesn't know I know this. No one knows this. This story took place in the forties, the early forties, in California. I've kept quiet about this all these years that Norman was living with one of my step-brothers when he wrote the book. No one knows it, though. You're the first one, outside of the family, that I have mentioned it to. His name is Osby Mitchell. Osby did something in show business, hung out with Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin, that crowd.
Okay. That's something. Now, what do you think of the great praise you have received in France for Just Above My Head, that it has gotten in translation. How does that make you feel?
As you know the French call the book Harlem Quartet. I don't know how to answer that, Quincy, because it was written here almost ten years ago. It was the hardest book I'd ever written until then.
I had to face my own legends, too.
It had something to do about my brothers, my relationship to my brothers. And that implied relationship to my whole life really. The key to one's life is always in a lot of unexpected places. I tried to deal with what I was most afraid of. That's why the vehicle of the book is music. Because music was and is my salvation. And when the book was done, I was glad it was over. It got the usual stormy reception in America, but by that time I was used to it. In any case, by that time I was in a different kind of trouble altogether. The reception of Harlem Quartet here in France didn't mean as much as it might have meant if I had gotten the praise earlier. I never thought I'd see the book again. But its translation came about after my book on the Atlanta murders was published here in France. It was hard to get the Atlanta book published in America for complex and political reasons.
Can you talk about them?
I don't quite know what they are. It's difficult for me to talk about a book that involves a possible lawsuit. It's just another example of American business, the ways in which Americans, the American publishers, attempt to control and to demolish the American writer, regardless of color, but especially a black one. I had to fight that, so I brought the book here. And it was published by Stock. And it did better than anyone thought it would do in France. So Stock already had a contract for Just Above My Head (Harlem Quartet). And so they published it. Stock had gone through all kinds of publishing problems—it had gone through a breakup and a reorganization. The Atlanta book won a couple of awards, and a German writer and I won the Human Rights Award of France two years ago, in 1985. But the German writer, poor man, had to leave Germany. Anyway, behind all of this came this book Just Above My Head, or Harlem Quartet. And I think that the French for the first time really looked at my writing; the Atlanta book was something of a shock to them.
Because it demolishes, so to speak, the American myth of integration, you know, by using Atlanta, which is supposed to be the model of integration in the Deep South and exposes it for what it is; shit, you know? So the French reader goes through all of that in terms of those twenty-eight dead black children. And so it was a shock, you know. And it sort of set up, I don't know what, exactly, but it did set up expectations, or fears, whatever for the novel. It may have set up an audience for the novel. And so Just Above My Head turns out to be somewhat of a revelation for the French. So you know, I'm considered somewhat of an intellectual in Paris. I mean in France. For a black writer, you know? Essentially as an essayist. But the novel was a great revelation; it gave me another kind of reputation altogether. Because now, instead of an essayist, what they saw in me was a novelist. I'm much better known as an essayist in France and elsewhere, too, than I am as a novelist. Before, the translation of my novels in France have been so bad. But this was a good translation, a marvelous translation, which makes a tremendous difference. And the subject, my handing of the subject, they liked. So it's simply a matter of something happening at the right time, and that can never be foreseen, you know.
What's the award Harlem Quartet is up for now?
The best foreign novel published in France, the Prix Femina. We will know about that in a week.
Let me ask you about the difficulty the American press and critics might have had in getting into your fiction.
Well, probably the American legend of black life. It's one thing to be aware of a Miles Davis and quite another thing to know where he comes from and what sustains him. Hollywood should be sued for libel, it's true. So that the book, my book, and others come as a direct opposition of the myth by Americans of black life and black music. It's not like what they, the press and critics, say it is, not at all. But the books prove them wrong, so they ignore the books. You see what I mean? Like I very much liked the film 'Round Midnight, which is a very important film. It fills in something that is important in our lives, a gap that was once there, that one might have thought about but didn't know about.
Why do you say it's important?
Well, first of all the personality of Dexter Gordon, he gives at least a reading of what happens to the musician. The black musician inside the music industry in Paris, you know? The ruin that they met which they brought with them and which wasn't brought about by Paris.
You mean the black musicians brought the ruin with them?
Yes, that's precisely what I mean. And 'Round Midnight makes that point in some ways very clearly.
Can you talk about the neglect of the black painter Beauford Delaney?
That's hard to do because people are still lying about Beauford. Let's talk about that over supper.
Okay. You said something to me once about how people shouldn't be jealous of someone's success. Do you recall that?
Well, what I was really trying to say was that people don't know what it is sometimes to be very successful. Don't know what it is. What I meant to say was that you can't be jealous of somebody else's success because you have no idea what it means, you know? It looks like success to you, but you're not the one that's paying for it.
And there's a price?
Of course there's a price, are you kidding? It's definitely not easy. It's rough. But for most great black writers in general, "they"—meaning white and black Americans—won't read us until they have nothing else to read.
Why do you think that is?
Well, because of the entire way of American life, the marrow of the American bone. Now today it's a fait accompli. There's nothing to be done about it. The whole American optic in terms of reality is based on the necessity of keeping black people out of it. We are nonexistent. Except according to their terms, and their terms are unacceptable.
Let me ask you this, since you said that. How do you look at the American society as it was during Dr. King's time and now? Any changes? Do you think it is worse, or what?
Certainly, in my opinion, it's worse. I'm not sure it's the society, I don't know what it is now.
What do you think that Ronald Reagan represents to white America?
Ronald Reagan represents the justification of their history, their sense of innocence. He means the justification of Birth of a Nation. The justification, in short, of being white.
How do you think white Americans feel now that they're in this economic crisis?
They're not thinking about it.
They're not thinking about it. Americans don't think of such things. They try and get out of it. They hope it'll go away. And luckily they began to realize that maybe Reagan has to go, too. But they hope it all goes away. Because it's like a bad dream for them.
Won't they do anything to help it go away?
No. Because they don't know how. They don't know how they got into it or, worse, won't recognize how. I don't know. They don't know how they got into the chaos of their cities, for example. But they did it. Now how and why did they do it? They did it because they wanted their children to be safe, to be raised safely. So they set up their communities so that they wouldn't have to go to school with black children, whom they fear, and that dictates the structure of their cities, the chaos of their cities and the danger in which they live.
"They" being white.
"They" being white and their believing that they're white. But they did it; niggers didn't do it. They did it. Inch by inch, stone by stone, decree by decree. Now their kids are deeply lost and they can't even blame it now on the nigger, you know what I mean?
That's what happened, I don't care who says what. I watched it happen, I know because I watched it happen. And all this, because they want to be white. And why do they want to be white? Because it's the only way to justify the slaughter of the Indians and enslaving the blacks—they're trapped. And nothing, nothing will spring the trap, nothing. Now they're really trapped because the world is present. And the world is not white and America is not the symbol of civilization. Neither is England. Neither is France. Something else is happening which will engulf them by and by. You, Quincy, will be here, but I'll be gone. It's the only hope the world has, that the notion of the supremacy of Western hegemony and civilization be contained.
Do you have any feelings about yuppies?
I saw them coming. I knew them. They can't, I'm afraid, be taught anything.
You don't think they can be taught anything?
No. Because you can't be taught anything if you think you know everything already, that something else—greed, materialism, and consuming—is more important to your life. You know, I taught the yuppies before they were called yuppies. And then what happened to them, really? Perfectly sound young men came out of college, went to work for Nixon, and were hardened criminals on Wall Street before you knew it. Now, is it true or not?
And here I've only mentioned Nixon. But it's true for Reagan, too. So that's that. It's the fiber of the nation, unfortunately.
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