Monday, January 3, 2011

James Baldwin's Testimony

James Baldwin's testimony before the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on a bill to establish a National Negro History and Culture Commission; March 18, 1969, New York City.

… Congressman [William] Hathaway of Maine.

Mr. Hathaway.

Mr. Baldwin, I take it that you would agree that perhaps we should expand the scope of the bill to cover not only the history of the culture but also the contemporary heroes.

Mr. Baldwin.

Yes, but you must understand that, speaking as black Americans, my heroes have always been [seen] from the point of view of White Americans as bad niggers. Cassius Clay is one of my heroes but not one of yours.

I, on the other hand am not suggesting that this commission should establish a hall of fame for great Negroes at all. What I am trying to suggest is that you recognize the role that my heroes – as distinguished from yours – have played in American life and the reasons why all my heroes came to such bloody ends.

From my point of view, Muhammad Ali Clay, without discussing his affiliations or what I might think of him, has been hanged by the public as a bad nigger. He is going to be an example to every other Negro man. Those are my heroes. Those are not the heroes of the American public. You will find yourself up against that fact before many days have passed.

Do you see what I mean? As long as my heroes are not yours, then the bitterness in the ghetto increases hour by hour and grows more and more dangerous and does not only blow up the ghetto but blows up the cities.

When I came back from New York a few weeks ago, I came back during the garbage strike, when all of New York looked just like Harlem.

Mr. Scheuer.

It looked just like the South Bronx, the district I represent, and I was happy to see the rest of the city have what the residents of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant put up with 365 days of the year. It was a salutary experience.

Mr. Baldwin.

When you unleash a plague, it covers the entire city and nation. What has been happening to me all these years is now beginning to happen to all of you, and this was inevitable. What we are involved with here is an attempt to have ourselves, and we need each other for that.

My history, though, contains the truth about America, it is going to be hard to teach it.

Mr. Hathaway.

Perhaps we should tell more of the truth about our heroes, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who are built up in the history books almost as myths. We know that they had frailties. We know they made a lot of mistakes. Those mistakes are never built up, so that the white man has the impression immediately that his heroes are almost gods.

Mr Baldwin.

I don't think any kid believes any of those legends about George Washington and his cherry tree - “I cannot tell a lie” and all that nonsense.

Mr. Hathaway.

I think at certain stages they do. After a while they get to believe its not true.

Mr. Baldwin. I never did.

This is fine. I think it does a disservice to a child to tell him things which are not true. Children cannot really be fooled. For example, and I will be very brief, you remember that several years ago the Birmingham church school was bombed and there were four girls killed there. They were not killed by some madman, but by a mad society, which is not only located in Birmingham. At that time some of us threw together an ad hoc committee to prevent celebrations on Christmas Day. We had lost the right as a Christian nation to celebrate the birth of Christ. I discovered during this that Santa Claus is not needed by children, but by grown-ups. People say we couldn't do that because the children would be so upset. The fact is that it wasn't true; what they really meant was that they would be upset.

We give them those legends and they try to survive them, but no kid has ever believed anything written about George Washington. Anyway, even if they did, by the time they are seventeen they have got to revise their whole estimate of reality around the fact of human beings, not legends.

I think the sooner one learns the truth, the better. Do I make myself clear?

Mr. Hathaway. I am just wondering whether I agree with you. Perhaps we just need a more realistic appraisal of what our heroes should be.

Mr. Baldwin. Anyway, leaving aside the hypothetical matters, the black kid in the ghetto doesn't believe in those heroes for a moment. You begin the process of the breakdown of communication virtually from the cradle.

I really didn't believe at the time I was seven the Pledge of Allegiance, and no black boy I knew did, either. For very good reasons too. I didn't believe it, in effect, because the country didn't believe it. I didn't believe it because you didn't believe it. If you had believed it, I would have been in a different place. My father would have been a very different man. You didn't believe it, so I didn't. You can't fool a kid. You still don't believe it, and so they don't, and they won't believe it until you do. You have to prove that you do.

Mr. Hathaway. By action?

Mr. Baldwin. Yes, let me get a job, allow me the right to protect my women, my house, my children. That is all the Negro wants: his autonomy. Nobody hates you. The time is gone for that. I simply want to live my life.

I suggest, too, that the kids all up and down this country in the streets of all our cities are coming to ruin and are going on the needle. They are coming to nothing. This is a waste no country can afford.

I am the flesh of your flesh and bone of your bones; I have been here as long as you have been here – longer - I paid for it as much as you have. It is my country, too. Do recognize that that is the whole question. My history and culture has to be taught. It is yours.

Mr Hathaway. Do you think that there is some hope that if the culture is brought back to white America that the black American has a better chance?

Mr Baldwin. Yes. This would involve a change in your institutions. It is not just a matter of passing a bill. The Christian church in this country is a very popular institution. But this has always been a racist institution, and we take that as immoral.

Once I become a part of a church, that institution is a different institution. It is not a matter of letting me into it; it has to change. This is true for all American institutions – including schools and the textbook industry.

You are to accept the fact that I am a darker brother, and the key word there is “brother”. Whereas you from Europe came here voluntarily, I was kidnapped, and my history was destroyed here. For your purposes, this has to be faced. I am not trying to be bitter or anything. This is the way it is.

Mr. Scheuer. I would like to emphasize that we are in entire accord with you in that we want the institutions to change. We want the textbook industry to change; we want the teaching industry to change. We want the radio and television and press industry to change, and we hope that this commission could start to do the hard intellectual work and play the leadership role to induce change.

The commission, if it is anything, will be a change effort. We would like to have your views on how it can be best achieved to perfect the design of this commission so that it will open up doors.

Mr. Baldwin. I am not gifted in this area. Let me offer a suggestion. You do whatever you like with it. We are talking about mass media. One is up against this: There is a very successful movie going around which I saw a few days ago in Hollywood. It is called Guess Who's Coming To Dinner. This movie is about an interracial marriage, I suppose. Sidney Poitier plays a very beautiful and modest role. That is all he ever plays. This is the mass media for you.

Now, if one is going to deal with the mass media, you have to be aware that you are reaching two publics: the white people in this country and abroad; I talked to some people in London who adored it and think it true. But, of course, when I watch it, some cat in the ghetto is watching it; it may do great things for your morale, but it does terrible things to him. He recognizes that the movie is a cop-out. Mr. Poitier is not an ordinary citizen. It obviously would be a different movie if he were able to play a real man.

I am not overstating my case; the movie does say that in order for me to marry this particular white chick, I have to be what he is in the movie. Well, that is not so of any white person, he can marry whomever he wants to marry. I am trying to say that the structure of the mass media is such that I think you ought to be aware that there would be tremendous resistance.

You will hear what I have heard for years: “It is great and powerful, but it is not for our readers.” Or – It is a risky picture and we can't do it.” The mass media is mainly a form of escape. And someone said many, many years ago that no white person is going to make his escape personality black, especially in this country. I don't think we should be deluded about that.

Mr. Scheuer. Here exactly is that kind of challenge that we hope the commission will face squarely.

Mr. Baldwin. We are terribly penalized in this country, every single one of us, famous and obscure. It is like being what America still considers one of your niggers. This commission has begun to break down that terrifying heritage,which, after all, destroys the white child too.

Mr. Scheuer. That was the point I was trying to make with Mr. Innis before you came. The 90-percent white majority has as much or more of an interest in this purification process, because they are deprived by not knowing of Negro history and culture.

Mr. Baldwin. They are frightened. I don't hate white people; I don't have to. I am not afraid of you. You face a Southern deputy, and he does hate you- because he is scared to death of you. He is the one who is in trouble, and that is the man you have to liberate.

Mr. Scheuer. We can't thank you enough for coming to see us. You certainly deserve the door prize for having come the longest distance. We are grateful, and we benefited greatly by your views.

Mr. Baldwin. I am in complete accord with this bill and in teaching black history in the schools. Some of the things I have heard I have disagreed with, and some I have agreed with. I think primarily the problem is one of getting black history in the schools. If it is wanted by blacks and whites, I think this would solve some of the problems, if cooperation is wanted.

This is needed to curb the things that are going on and some terrible things that will continue to go on. I think a lot of hysteria has been created primarily by whites, who basically have not understood blacks, who have not treated them as human beings.

Everyone has basic emotions of hate, fear, and love, and I think the whites in this country have used the machinery of propaganda very skillfully. You find blacks who want to know something about their history and you find whites who don't understand or who are fearful. They will publicize this sort of thing as a hate gathering and a hate meeting, when actually it could possibly be a historical meeting that whites and blacks could learn from.


  1. Tags: Cassius,Muhammad, Ali , Clay, bad nigger, heroes, South Bronx, Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, ghetto, plague, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, myth, gods, Birmingham, bombs, Christian, Christmas, Christ, Santa Claus, Pledge of Allegiance, Negro, kidnapped, textbooks,Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, mass media, deputy, scared, terrifying, black history, heritage, propaganda.

  2. James Baldwin: Cross of Redemption; Uncollected Writings; Randall Kenan editor. Pantheon Books, 2010

  3. hi john, thank you for sharing your book interests.
    I choose to read books on child development and psychology,and illustrated children's literature.

    In the 60s, I was a brand new kindergarten teacher. I illustrated a book to read to the children in my kindergarten class because there were so few stories illustrating children of color in those days. I was inspired after a child asked me to read a picture book of George Washington to him. He was curious about the little black child ( like himself ) sitting on the front porch of General Washington's house. I felt sad .
    Except for Ezra Jack Keats, I did not see beautiful choices in the library for young black children that would reflect experiences of daily life with peaceful loving families,like "the Snowy Day" and "Peter's Chair" I am glad to read the dialog in this book that sparked thoughtful changes to take place . Thank you. Gail