James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni’s Extraordinary Forgotten Conversation About the Language of Love and What It Takes to Be Truly Empowered
“If you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else.”
By Maria Popova
In November of 1971, fifteen months after his remarkable conversation with Margaret Mead about race and identity, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) sat down with another extraordinary woman, the poet Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943), for another conversation of astonishing timeliness today. The event was hosted by the PBS television series SOUL! and took place in London. Baldwin was forty-six and Giovanni only twenty-eight. For hours of absolute presence, intellectual communion, and occasional respectful rebuttal, they explored justice, freedom, morality, and what it means to be an empowered human being. The transcript was eventually published as A Dialogue (public library).
“To be honest today in this tinsel America,” the trailblazing African American journalist Ida Lewis writes in the preface, “one must be willing to put one’s soul on the line” — an observation even truer amid our present global tinsel of ready-made opinions, packaged and flung across at the other side, in a divisive culture where there is always an other side. Lewis saw the dialogue between Baldwin and Giovanni as an effort to “begin to draw upon each other’s strengths rather than wallow in each other’s weaknesses” — an effort all the more urgent today.
Baldwin begins at the beginning — his origin story as a writer, inextricably entwined with his identity as an artist in self-imposed exile. At 24, he had left New York for Paris, where he worked as a writer for almost a decade — an act of rebellion against the dominant cultural mythology, its systemic hijacking of dignity, and its obfuscation of truth:
I moved to Europe in 1948 because I was trying to become a writer and couldn’t find in my surroundings, in my country, a certain stamina, a certain corroboration that I needed. For example, no one ever told me that Alexandre Dumas was a mulatto. No one had told me that Pushkin was black. As far as I knew when I was very, very young there’d never been anything … called a black writer.
In a sentiment that calls to mind that immensely insightful Neil Gaiman line — “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” — Baldwin tells Giovanni:
BALDWIN: You know, I’d be a fool to think that there was someplace I could go where I wouldn’t carry myself with me or that there was some way I could live if I pretended I didn’t have the responsibilities which I do have. So I’m a cat trying to make it in the world because I’m condemned to live in the world.
BALDWIN: Condemned. Condemned. Condemned in the sense that when you’re young, and also when you’re old, you would rather have around you the expected things, to know where everything is. And it’s a little difficult, but it’s very valuable to be forced to move from one place to another and deal with another set of situations and to accept that this is going to be — in fact it is — your life. And to use it means that you, in a sense, become neither white nor black. And you learn a great deal about — you’re forced to learn a great deal about — the history out of which all these words and conceptions and flags and morals come.
With an eye to Giovanni’s generation and future generations of writers, Baldwin observes in a rare spark of optimism:
Something has moved — things move in a very strange, inexpressible way.
(Nearly half a century later, Rebecca Solnit would come to examine this often imperceptible machinery of hope-giving change.)
Baldwin, in yet another gleam of extraordinary prescience, peers at the crux of this shift:
I think that without quite realizing it and no matter what our hang-ups are as of this very moment — the hang-ups of my generation or the hang-ups of your generation, and the terrible situation in which all of us find ourselves — one thing has changed and that is the attitude that black people have toward themselves. Now within that change — I don’t want to be romantic about it — a great deal of confusion and incoherence will go on for a very long time. But that was inevitable. That moment had to come.
Speaking to the most heartbreaking and pernicious way in which all bigotry infiltrates the psyche and shrinks it from the inside, Baldwin adds:
It’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself. You become a collaborator, an accomplice of your own murderers, because you believe the same things they do. They think it’s important to be white and you think it’s important to be white; they think it’s a shame to be black and you think it’s a shame to be black. And you have no corroboration around you of any other sense of life.
He issues an admonition to Giovanni’s generation, which resounds with all the more relevance amid our era of branded social movements:
You have somehow to begin to break out of all of that and try to become yourself. It’s hard for anybody, but it’s very hard if you’re born black in a white society. Hard, because you’ve got to divorce yourself form the standards of that society.
The danger of your generation, if I may say so … is to substitute one romanticism for another. Because these categories — to put it simply but with a certain brutal truth — these categories are commercial categories.
This commodification of lives — lives that matter — goes back a long time:
BALDWIN: It’s very hard to recognize that the standards which have almost killed you are really mercantile standards. They’re based on cotton; they’re based on oil; they’re based on peanuts; they’re based on profits.
GIOVANNI: To this day.
BALDWIN: To this hour.
It’s when you begin to realize all of that, which is not easy, that you begin to break out of the culture which has produced you and discover the culture which really produced you… What really brought you to where you are.
In a sentiment that Junot Díaz would come to echo decades later in his superb exploration of the complexities of race, Giovanni reflects on her experience with the civil rights movement:
I came up in the sixties, which is way after everything else. But we always assumed that we knew white people, that we really sort of understood them. And I found out that if you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else.
Baldwin harmonizes this insight into an admonition of piercing prescience:
Power without some sense of oneself is to me another kind of instability, and black people would then become exactly what white people have become.
This act of understanding — ourselves as well as one another — is invariably messy, which Giovanni captures in the perfect paradoxical observation:
I think one of the nicest things that we created as a generation was just the fact that we could say, Hey, I don’t like white people… It was the beginning, of course, of being able to like them.
Baldwin considers the necessity of learning to translate the messiness of that mutual understanding into a workable language of love:
We got this far by means which no one understands, including you and me. We’re only beginning to apprehend it, and you’re a poet precisely because you are beginning to apprehend it and put it into a form which will be useful for your kid and his kid and for the world. Because we’re not obliged to accept the world’s definitions… We have to make our own definitions and begin to rule the world that way because kids white and black cannot use what they have been given.
It’s a very mysterious endeavor, isn’t it. And the key is love.
A Dialogue is a magnificent read in its totality. (That this time-capsule of genius and prescience has fallen out of print is a tragic testament to the commercialist rift between the profit of culture and the value of culture.) Complement it with Martin Luther King, Jr. on the revolutionary power of love, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s role in society, the revelation that taught him to see, and his advice to aspiring writers, and Giovanni on what amoebae can teach us about love and her wonderful poems celebrating libraries and librarians.
Published April 4, 2016