The Late James Baldwin: "John Brown was a man of conscience"
Reminiscences of an interview by Frank Shatz
The 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid and execution was observed by a series of events across our country. A memorable re-enactment of his burial took place in Lake Placid, where his gravesite serves as a place of pilgrimage. One individual to whom the life and death of John Brown had remained an ever- present reminder of the unfinished national agenda was James Baldwin, one of America’s foremost black writers.
Sitting across the table from him at the Hotel La Colombe de’Or, in St-Paul-de-Vence, on the French Riviera, where he had a home, I saw a slender, intense man who seemed to live up to his reputation as a fierce, outspoken and eloquent black writer. He was courteous, humorous and kind one moment, and the next he was carried away by the firmness and heat of his own arguments. His words did place, like bricks on bricks, a heavy burden of guilt on the shoulders of any white man to whom he happened to talk.
Baldwin chose his words deliberately. “I am a re-writer,” he said. “My sentences consist, usually, of eight words, and each must have meaning and weight.” He continued: “You asked me about John Brown. Now here was a white man who needed to cleanse his soul of guilt. To do so, he made an attack on the bastion of the federal government. He did it in an attempt to liberate not merely the black slaves but the whole country from a disastrous way of life. It was, on his part, an act of love, and it failed. Acts of this kind always do fail. What is left is the impact made on the conscience of a few people which travels down in time. So what John Brown did wasn’t futile. But even today, the institutions against which he stood up haven’t changed that much. As long as the institutions don’t change, there is no point in talking about progress.”
My interview with Baldwin took place in the late 1970s. He was living in self-exile in the south of France. “I didn’t walk out or away from my country,” he said. “I keep in touch, but need perspective. I am doing what responsible writers, white and black, had done through the ages… attacking the injustices of society and all the things which are wrong with it. I am an American. I was born there. I love the country. I love the people. Otherwise I wouldn’t be in such pain. In my writings I try to be as honest as I can be.”
Talking about John Brown, he said: “I learned the true story about him well past my school age. In the school textbooks of my youth he was described as a mad fanatic. But of course, today we know better.” Warming up to the subject, he continued: “In my mind John Brown was a man of conscience. He deeply believed that men are not born to become slaves. He wasn’t romantic as some people try to label him. When someone plans to take over government property with a handful of men, as John Brown did, and is ready to die the next morning, he is not a romantic. He was one of the really great American patriots who believed that he had to do what has to be done without regards to the consequences. To make it, real. It is what belief is all about, isn’t it?”
The transcript of the entire tape, containing almost an hour’s worth of my conversation with Baldwin, was published in Transition magazine, an international journal, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the W. E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard. The original tape is now part of the Swem Library’s Special Collection at the College of William & Mary. A copy of the tape is on loan at the Lake Placid Public Library.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.