James Baldwin: How To Cool It

In Esquire's July 1968 issue, published just after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the magazine talked to James Baldwin about the state of race relations in the country. On what would be the author's 93rd birthday, we've republished the interview in full—and his words are incredibly relevant today.
Esquire Editors, James Baldwin
August 2, 2017
Ted Thai / Getty

ESQ: How can we get the black people to cool it?

JAMES BALDWIN: It is not for us to cool it.

ESQ: But aren't you the ones who are getting hurt the most?

JAMES BALDWIN: No, we are only the ones who are dying fastest.

Can we still cool it?

That depends on a great many factors. It's a very serious question in my mind whether or not the people of this country, the bulk of population of this country, have enough sense of what is really happening to their black co-citizens to understand why they're in the streets. I know of this moment they maybe don't know it, and this is proved by the reaction to the civil disorders.It came as no revelation to me or to any other black cat that white racism is at the bottom of the civil disorders. It came as a great shock apparently to a great many other people, including the President of the United States. And now you ask me if we can cool it. I think the President goofed by not telling the nation what the civil-disorders report was all about. And I accuse him and the entire administration, in fact, of being largely responsible for this tremendous waste and damage. It was up to him and the Vice-President to interpret that report and tell the American people what it meant and what the American people should now begin to think of it. Now!It is already, very very late even to begin to think of it. What causes the eruptions, the riots, the revolts- whatever you want to call them- is the despair of being in a static position, absolutely static, of watching your father, your brother, your uncle, or your cousin- no matter how old the black cat is or how young- who has no future. And when the summer comes, both fathers and sons are in the streets- they can't stay in the houses. I was born in those houses and I know. And it's not their fault.

From a very short-range approach, what should the federal government do, right now, to cool it off?

What do you mean by the federal government? The federal government has come to be, in the eyes of all Negroes anyway, a myth. When you say the federal government, you're referring to Washington, and that means you're referring to a great many people. You're referring to Senator Eastland and many people in Washington who out of apathy, ignorance or fear have no intention of making a move at all. You're talking about the people who have the power, who intend to keep the power. And all they can think of are things like swimming pools, you know, in the summertime, and sort of made up jobs to simply protect peace and the public property. But they show no sign whatsoever of understanding what the root of the problem really is, what the dangers really are. They have made no attempt, whatever, any of them, as far as I know, really to explain to the American people that the black cat in the streets wants to protect his house, his wife and children. And if he is going to be able to do this he has to be given his autonomy, his own schools, a revision of the police force in a very radical way. It means, in short, that if the American Negro, the American black man, is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don't give it up, it will be taken from them.

You say that existing jobs are just make-work jobs. What kind of job program should be adopted?

It's very difficult to answer that question since the American Republic has created a surplus population. You know it's created not only people who are unemployable but who no longer wish to be employed in this system. A job program involves, first of all, I would think, a real attack on all American industries and on all American labor unions. For example, you're sitting in Hollywood. And there are not any Negroes, as far as I know, in any of the Hollywood craft unions: there is no Negro grip, no Negro crew member, no Negro works in Hollywood on that level or in any higher level either. There are some famous Negroes who work out here for a structure which keeps Negroes out of a union. Now it's not an Act of God that there aren't any Negroes in the unions. It's not something that is handed down from some mountain; it's a deliberate act on the part of the American people. They don't want the unions broken, because they are afraid of the Negro as a source of competition in the economic market. Of course what they've made him is something much worse than that. You can't talk about job programs unless you're willing to talk about what is really holding the structure together. Eastman Kodak, General Motors, General Electric- all the people who really have the power in this country. It's up to them to open up their factories, their unions, to let us begin to work.

They would have to begin, say, on-the-job training programs for those..

Yes, and by the way, I know a whole lot of Negroes on the streets, baby, that are much brighter that a lot of cats dictating the policies of Pan American. You know what this country really means when it says on-the-job training programs is not what they are teaching Negroes skills, though there's that, too; what they're afraid of is that when the Negro comes into the factory, into the union, when he comes, in fact, into the American institution, he will change these institutions because no Negro in this country really lives by American middle-class standards. That's why they pick up half-dozen Negroes here and there, and polish them up, polish them off, and put them in some ass-hole college someplace, and expect those cats to be able to go back to the streets and cool the other cats. They can't. The price in this country to survive at all still is to become a white man. More and more people are refusing to become a white man. That's the bottom of what they mean by on-the-job training. They mean they want to fit you in. And furthermore, let's tell it like it is. The American white man does not really want to have autonomous Negro male anywhere near him.

In on-the-job training programs, the white American structure wants a worker who is trained, who shows up regularly at eight-thirty in the morning and works till five in the afternoon.

Yeah, well I know an awful lot of cats that did that for a long, long time. We haven't got to be trained to do that. We don't even have to be given an incentive to do that.

Would you say, then, that many black people have been able to go nowhere, so they've lost any feeling that it's worth working regularly?

That is part of what we're talking about. Though it goes deeper than that, I think. It's not only that. What is happening in this country among the young, and not only the black young, is an overwhelming suspicion that it's not worth it. You know if you watched your father's life like I watched my father's life, as a kid much younger than I watches his father's life; his father does work from eight to five every day and ends up with nothing. He can't protect anything. He has nothing. As he goes to the grave, having worked his fingers to the bone for years and years and years, he still has nothing and the kid doesn't either. But what's worse than that is that one has begun to conclude from the fact that maybe in this Republic- judging now on the evidence of its own performance- maybe there isn't anything. It's easy to see on the other hand what happens to the white people who make it. And that's not a very attractive spectacle either. I mean I'm questioning the values on which this country thinks of itself as being based.

What you are calling for, then, is a radical change in thinking by government and industry.

Yes.

And given the inertia plus..

Fear.

…and fear and whatever else there may be, any such changes seem…

…seem improbable.

Certainly they will come slow. A union will not throw open its doors and bring on several hundred people from the black community right away. Now my questions is

You've answered your question.

"Sweeper jobs," then, just won't work?

No. I'll tell you what you will do. You will do what did last summer and summer before that. You'll pour some money into the ghetto and it will end up in the hands of various adventurers. In the first place, thirteen dollars and some change is not meant to do anything. And a couple of cats will make it, and the rest of it will be where they were.

But can you buy time with this kind of program; enough time for the longer term changes?

You could if you meant it. What's at issue is whether or not you meant it. Black people in this country conclude that you mean to destroy us.

But if industry and government seriously planned job-training programs, and the unions opened up?

Look, the labor movement in this country has always been based precisely on the division of black and white labor. That is no Act of God either. Labor unions along with the bosses created the Negro as a kind of threat to the white worker. There's never been any real kind of threat to the white worker. There's never been any coalition between black and white. It's been prevented by the government and the industries and the unions.

What would be the first steps a union could take to demonstrate that it seriously wants to correct such inequities? What should the leadership do?

Educate their own rank and file. Declare themselves. And penalize any member of the union who is against it.

What can industry do on a short-range basis?

I'm not sure that you should be asking me these questions at all. But I'll do my best to answer them. What can industry do? Well you know, the same as the labor unions. The labor unions won't have Negroes in the unions above a certain level. And they can never rise out of that local, or what they might be able to do of they weren't trapped in that local at a certain level. Industry is going to hire me to build a city or fly a plane. It is unable to look on me as just another worker. There are exceptions to this rule, obviously, to be found everywhere. But this is the way it works and the exceptions, in fact, prove the rule.

Do you think it would help if industry were to get involved as co-sponsors of low-income housing?

No I think we've had more far more, more than enough of low-income housing which simply becomes high-rise slums.

Well what if they were not high-rise slums?

I don't want any more projects built in Harlem, for example. I want someone to attack the real-estate lobby because that's the only way to destroy the ghetto.

But what about building low income housing out in the suburbs where factories are beginning to move?

Well, that depends on the will of the American people, doesn't it? That's why they are in the suburbs—to get away from me.

What about certain plans of industry to set up factories or businesses which would be owned by ghetto people? Would you see this as a positive step?

What would be produced in those factories?

Piecework, small items subcontracted by larger manufacturers.

It's a perfectly valid idea except that in order to do that you have to eliminate the ghetto. Look, it is literally true that from a physical point of view these houses are unlivable. No one's going to build a factory in Harlem, unless you intend, you know, really to liberate Harlem.

Well, New York State, for example, plans to build a State office building in Harlem.

In Harlem. I know exactly where they're going to build it, too. And at the risk of sounding paranoiac, I think I know why. It's going to be where the Black Nationalist Bookstore is now, and one of the reasons for it, I am convinced, is simply because the Black Nationalist Bookstore is a very dangerous focal ground- 125th Street and Seventh Avenue. You know, it's what in Africa would be a palaver tree. It's where Negroes get together and talk. It's where all the discontent doesn't begin, exactly, but where it always focuses.

Wouldn't you think it would be a very foolish idea, because you can always pick some other place to meet and talk?

Yes, but the American white man has proved, if nothing else, he is absolutely, endlessly, foolish when it comes to this problem.

Let's talk about the average citizen, the white man who lives on Eighty-ninth Street and Riverside Drive, what should he be doing?

It depends on what he feels. It he feels he wants to save his country, he should be talking to his neighbors and talking to his children, He shouldn't, by the way, be talking to me.

What should he be telling his neighbors?

That if I go under in this country—I, the black man—he goes, too.

Is there any action he can take? Pressure on the local government?

Pressure on his landlord, pressure on the local government, pressure wherever he cane exert pressure. Pressure, above all, on the real estate lobby. Pressure on the educational system. Make them change textbooks so that his children and my children will be taught something of the truth about our history. It is run now for the profit motive, and nothing else.

What about the white suburbanite who fled the city, while making sure the blacks stayed there? What does he have to do now?

If he wants to save his city, perhaps he should consider moving back. They're his cities, too. Or just ask himself why he left. I know why he left. He's got a certain amount of money and certain future, a car, two cars, you know, scrubbed children, a scrubbed wife, and he wants to preserve all that. And he doesn't understand that in his attempt to preserve it he's going to destroy it.

What about the poverty program, does that offer any remedy?

Are you joking? There has not been a war on poverty in this country yet. Not in my lifetime. The war on poverty is a dirty joke.

How would you improve it?

By beginning it.

In what fashion?

Look, there's no way in the world to do it without attacking the power of some people. It cannot be done unless you do that. The power of the steel companies, for example, which can both make and break a town. And they've done it, they're doing it. Everybody knows it. You can't have a war on poverty unless you are willing to attack those people and limit their profits.

Is it a matter of limiting the profits of industries only, or is it also a matter of limiting the power of the politicians?

But the politicians are not working for the people; they're working for exactly the people I say we have to attack. That is what has happened to politics in this country. That is why the political machinery now is so vast, and so complex no one seems to be able to control it. It's completely unresponsive to the needs of the American community, completely unresponsive. I'm not talking only as a black man, I mean to the whole needs of the American people.

 

Read the full interview here. 

August 2, 2017