James Baldwin recently we sat down with author bell hooks to find out how she was influenced by Baldwin’s life and writings this interview was about a half hour bell hooks when you hear the name James Baldwin what’s the first thing that pops into your mind incredible daring thinker why because Baldwin thought against the green and he covered a lot of territory I think it many people don’t realize that because they typecast him as either a gay writer or they don’t read the range of his work this is a man who was you know a novelist and essayist in many ways a cultural critic before we had the term for example his book on film lots of people don’t even know that Baldwin wrote a book on film so he was doing really what we now today call a cultural critic covering a wide range of topics writing some social theory essays but really looking at culture and how culture shapes people particularly looking at race and sexuality within culture let’s break apart what you said then first take the thinker part what was the what was his focus as a thinker and what was his strength as a thinker a primary focus for Baldwin as a thinker was what makes us human what makes us able to tap into essential goodness he thought against the notion that we are born to dominate so he was interested in how does that basic essential goodness get perverted by racism by homophobia by anything and how do we how do we restore our sense of well-being you know when he has that letter to his nephew where he’s saying you know you’re born black into a world that expects nothing of you so you have to expect excellence of yourself and that was the quintessential Baldwin that call for excellence that called to push against the boundaries and to be willing to do whatever it took to get where you needed to go what did the period of time that he wrote how did that influence what he wrote and how he wrote I think it was one of the most exciting periods in our nation’s history I often think if I was imagining a time in which I should have been born because my to literary mentor figures in my life were of that period Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin and in you know the opening to the book young gifted and black its Baldwin that she first evokes as part of her her last statements before her very early death in her 30s is her relationship with him and his sort of challenging her to to make those leaps and thought and action I mean here were people that were political they were very concerned with colonisation in Africa that he was so concerned with what was happening in Harlem and with the fate of Harlem all of those things taking place before our culture had really come to grips with racial segregation so that they were really the avant-garde I think of James Baldwin as leading that avant-garde thinking that was challenging a lot of what we take for granted today you know we take for granted certain challenges to racism or to sexuality they’re just a part of what many people feel is the accepted way to live now they were there when they were on the edge Lorraine Hansberry James Baldwin but particularly Baldwin because he did live so much longer than Lorraine Hansberry and he lived to see shifts and changes in a way that few scholars thinkers – and he lived to write about those changes and to also let us know what didn’t change what he felt wasn’t changing enough set the scene for us in his early writing and what it was like for him to go up against the ideas that were so pervasive at the time well when we talk about setting the scene we have to talk about first and foremost a scene of you know that is urban that is New York City that is people trying to be hip and cool because again think about those words we use them with complete nonchalance but in those days those were loaded words hip cool you know it was really almost like saying you were a communist or I mean cuz to say that you were trying to be bohemian you were trying to be hip and cool was to already be placing yourself outside the mainstream you know to live in the village the West Village that I live in now which was the place where Baldwin and others came to be transgressive I mean the world of the West Village I live in now is so calm and complacent but that worl was a world where black people and white people were getting together men were getting together to be sexual with men people were being bisexual a whole world was happening then that was a subculture a true and genuine subculture and Baldwin was a part of that how did his writings reflect that then well we started with Giovanni’s Room we see him dealing in that first book you know what black writer before him had openly taken on the issues of gayness the fact that there isn’t any real sense of racial identity in Giovanni’s room so he’s challenging that whole idea of what is acceptable for a black writer to write and think about it’s all there in Giovanni’s Room now I have to tell you that I am NOT a fan of Baldwin’s fiction I am truly much more fan of essays I love essays of course I am also a writer of essays and fiction is not as crucial to me so the Baldwin that I kind of worship is the Baldwin that is dealing with analyzing the culture we live in the conversation list the conversation with Margaret Mead Audrey Lorde he was a consummate conversationalist and I tell people all the time that learning takes place more than in schools more than through reading people learn through conversation to what they’re sharing with others in the day leanness of life and so everyone who knew Baldwin talked about how he was constantly talking he was constantly engaging you challenging you forcing you to think and I think seeing him as a literary mentor in a sense I’ve patterned a lot of my own essay writing my cultural critic also a critic around that provocative sense of make people think and that’s what he did he made people think did he know he was doing that at the time oh I think he was totally you know in the sort of best spirit of what it means to be a queen as a gay man what if that is to to to it excite an insight and he knew that he was doing both that he was inciting people to disagreement to to challenge and he was very much an agent provocateur and he enjoyed that role he enjoyed throwing the idea in that was going to upset everyone that was going to make everyone feel what are you talking about and that was very much a chosen role for Baldwin what was the reaction of people and readers as his writing started to canal well there were you know a lot of different reactions because on one hand the again he was celebrated by the dissident thinking world that said ah here is a intellectual black man because I think of Baldwin as an organic intellectual what do you mean by that but that is to say he didn’t get PhDs he didn’t go to universities and and study in in in the way that the contemporary intellectuals were talking about because much more than say a Cornel West today Baldwin was truly a public intellectual because he came to be known through his activism for different causes within a public setting and he was a thinking reflecting person but not in the university world not in the the sense of being taught and schooled in having a PhD writing a dissertation but when I say organic is the schooling of himself the teaching of himself his travels to other cultures I mean I think for example of his traveling to Europe and writing you know those profound words that so many cultural critics of race used today the world is white no longer and it will never be white again I mean this was Baldwin cracking open the whole relationship between imperialism work and immigration that would change the nature of Europe I mean I tell people today we see all these movies where England is white but in fact whenever I’m in London and other places I’m astounded by the incredible cultural diversity there’s never anywhere where you are or you’re not seeing it and Baldwin was prescient that is prophetic in that he foresaw this is the way the world was going did his what was more prevalent for him his blackness or his homosexuality well I think what he would say is neither of those things it was his humanity it was the idea that we are always more than our pain were always more than whatever socially constructed identity is posed upon us and that was his great I said would say sadness an anguish of spirit that in many ways by identifying with causes whether of race or sexuality one risk that people would lose sight of your overall humanity that here was a man who was very interested in aesthetics and style and yet often when people saw him they solely saw him as a spokesperson of race or later on as both the person of sexuality and you know one of the later interviews of before his death with Glenn O’Brien he’s actually talking against just that kind of narrow sense of what it is to be an african-american person in the world that we want to have our full humanity that we don’t don’t want to focus solely on race and that’s what he felt Europe offered him the place where he could forget race as the predominating factor of his existence you know that he could go there and people might want to know what do you think of you know agriculture in you know such in such a place where as here so often especially in his day and and one only was allowed to speak about race not to speak about all the other issues of your that might you know challenge and excite your imagination has that changed I think it has changed tremendously and it has changed more in the world of what we can teach speak and write about then in the world of publishing I think Baldwin was would be shaking his said head sadly knowing that it’s still difficult for black writers to do nonfiction work to do nonfiction that is taken seriously that is not journalism because I think that sure we have the world of journalism has opened up so wide I mean we have black journalists of all different perspectives conservative progressive writing when we come to nonfiction books particularly books that are not minhwa or biography we’re struggling still struggling to have that space were african-american thinkers can say whatever they want to say and take on the topics that they wanted to take on you know Baldwin was someone for example who wrote a lot about love he was very interested in the question of love and yet in his time and in his day he probably could not have written a book on love that would have received a great deal of attention because I think in his day people would have said well what is this you know homosexual black man from Harlem have to teach us about love how did his his thoughts on love impact your three books on completely and utterly I mean when he talks about the whole idea of he says that if you can’t suffer you can’t grow up or you know my favorite Baldwin quote that I’m telling people all the time hate he defined and sentimentality and this is Baldwin and his most queenly and lavish sentimentality Baldwin says is the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion it’s the mark of dishonesty the inability to feel and that’s Baldwin saying that if we want to do the work of love we’ve got to get past shallow sentiment we’ve got to be willing to do the hard work and he does it in his writing he does it to illuminate you know what does love really mean he tried to elevate the relationships between gay men past the sexual and to really get to that place of the emotions of how can people be humanized in the act of loving how can be people be transformed through erotic and romantic connection and that’s a very different Baldwin from the early Baldwin writing about race it’s the balding Baldwin of of longing of yearning for his own space of love and wholeness and I took all of that as something that inspired me in writing salvation black people and love he’s there from the very beginning because he was one of the the thinkers who really put that on the table are black people going to allow themselves to be so dehumanized by the impact of racism and other forms of domination that we’re going to miss out on love he raised that question again and again and again calling us to always protect our essential humanity our essential goodness what was the reaction in the gay community at the time to his writings I don’t think Baldwin had a huge audience in the gay community because we have to remember that Baldwin liked his white male contemporaries was really a part of a kind of elite literati he wasn’t even so much being read by you know middle-class black people of gay or straight it was very much about this particular New York City based group of thinkers who thought they were you know the sort of thinkers of our time the avant-garde thinkers that we’re going to sort of give us a new way to think and live but in fact they had very little impact on masses of people for example Baldwin’s fiction had a much wider readership than the essay said were in fact so provocative so so prophetic around race those things were primarily read by the the elite classes of people who were thinking about race and sexuality and gender because he also had a lot to say about gender and and challenging the the sort of standard ginger roles you might say he is one of our first really contemporary black male advocates of feminism because he certainly advocated for a shift in black male roles I mean he advocated a critique of religion which I think black communities in America have yet to live up to that he was both deeply religious deeply spiritual but constantly cognizant of the evils of religion when it’s used in a fascist way to discipline and punish people and to rob them of their self-worth and he really wrote a lot about that when he was writing do you do you know you mentioned that he wrote was writing essays both and the fiction and you preferred the essays were at least that was where you liked you enjoyed it most do you know what kind of questions he went in and out of in making the determination on whether to write fiction or whether to write essays well I think like most of his contemporaries he was a very you know market driven writer because we have to remember that Baldwin once again not like myself or other people today black cultural critics who were housed in the university getting salaries he was many times trying to make his living as a writer and it was that force that often led him you know to cut deals and begin writing things and be incomplete or in in writing something I mean you know I think you can contrast him with someone like Truman Capote where you see that same kind of both writing at times very seriously but at other times writing in the direction of the marketplace when did you when do you first remember reading James Baldwin I first remember reading James Baldwin when my working-class father would come home from his his work as a janitor at the post office and he would open the glass bookcase that was his special bookcase and in that book case were the cheap paperback books of James Baldwin the fire next time and I remember you know you know reading that little statement God gave Noah the rainbow signed no more water the fire next time and that was my reading of Baldwin and I remember that thin newsprint paper that was so compelling to me you know and because we remember I’m I’m in my teens I mean when I say teens I mean early teens 12 and 13 and I’m reading James Baldwin and I’m trying to connect James Baldwin to my Stern conservative patriarchal father they couldn’t have been more different but there he was in the bookcase and therefore to be valued and learned about did you and talk to your father ever about James Baldwin absolutely not because in fact I used to have to sneak into that bookcase on how the two get books and read them because my parents did not feel that they were age-appropriate what is it about the style of James Baldwin first of all what is the style and hen as a literary mentor have you also taken on or looked at his style in terms of influencing you one of the best aspects of Baldwin’s essay style particularly was its clarity and in fact it’s so funny because you can contrast that with the over wordiness and novels like go tell it on the mountain and that the essays were clear they were concise they had a crispness and I think I have definitely tried to have that readability but that that Crispus that you don’t let let anything go you don’t leave anything out but you make it something that can be read by people and you use language in a way that is is enjoyable and so that you can read Baldwin aloud and you can see how he is putting those words together to enchant us I mean when he he that goes on and on about the idea of suffering and growing up and he puts it together in a way that’s magical you have I’ve read in an interview that youth self criticized yourself saying that your sentences are too long what were Bolden’s like Baldwin sentences were much shorter partially because he came out of the world of journalism and you know as in fact part of how I trained myself to shorten my sentences was to begin to write for magazines and newspapers because the kind of long sentences that I had been encouraged to use in the academic world have no place in the world of of journalism and and magazine writing so I think he honed that craft and that skill in that world of being told you’ve got 200 words and you got to say it and you’ve got to figure out a way to say it with with meaning and substance and he was really great at doing that how did he influence the civil rights movement he was constantly there as a force mediating between the conservative factors and the more radical factors I mean he was you know enchanted by you know both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and and and yet he understood the place of militant rethinking because in a sense part of what made Malcolm X different from Martin Luther King is Malcolm X was calling on us to really rethink our perceptions of ourselves King wrote very little about how black people should feel about themselves much of his his writing was outer directed it was directed at what should we do in relationship to white people I think Baldwin was kind of in adoration of Malcolm because Malcolm was so much concerned with what should we do in relation to ourselves and you see Baldwin’s real concern for his his nieces and nephews his family that autobiographical writing or he is concern in a concrete and practical way how can we save the lives of these black children and other poor black children how can we make it possible for them to educate themselves you know he had this phrase he used all the time don’t make peace with mediocrity and I think that we we need to listen to that phrase today because there’s a lot of writing happening there’s a lot of sloppy thinking happening that is you know reproducing the mediocre if he could see today you mentioned the writing the publishing world he wouldn’t be too keen on but what about life in general in terms of race relations I think that he would really just grieve that you know you know in a sense so much of the thinking about race today is less sophisticated than it was then because the real vision that everyone had was of the loved community it was of ending racism and we’re living in a time where people are very cynical about the possibility of ending racism or creating community and that Europe that he loved and that he thought as a haven has changed so completely so that it’s not the sanctuary for the person of color fleeing the United States that it once was because of you know immigration and how and work so that I think he would be son by the Europe of today you know because the Europe of the day today has become more like the United States was back then the world that he was fleeing so I think he would be in a state of grief as you as you go through your life with him as your literary mentor and study him talk about in my presume in your classes absolutely I teach a whole seminar on James Baldwin what is the one thing that is not brought up in the books about him in the histories about him what don’t we know about James Baldwin or what isn’t talked about enough in your opinion I think it’s not talked about enough that he was concerned so much with the well-being of black family life because I think that people have such a tendency the moment they hear that a writer is gay to assume that in fact they’re not interested in families and by that I mean nuclear families families interaction between fathers and sons and mothers and sons and all of these things were tremendous issues for him he tried hard to be a parenting figure for his nieces and nephews and I think that we don’t talk enough about the gay men and women in our culture who in fact are there as those enlightened witnesses that a psychoanalyst Alice Miller talks about that every child should have a kind of guardian angel that is not so much in the primary family structure but that is a sort of outside observer who can come in and help rescue and transform and he was that he was deeply deeply concerned about the stability of the black family in our times and I think he would be deeply grieved at what has happened to black family life in the United States is there any part of him you didn’t like or you don’t like well for me you know the thing that was really sad about Baldwin was the the place of addiction in his life of the drinking and the loss of of that sense of himself as someone who had value and worse because I think we have to remember that his own woundedness at the hands of his father the the physical beatings that he sustained the shame around his homosexuality those things were never healed and alcohol was very much that force that that soothed that pain and so that was something that I felt saddened when I first began to study Baldwin that he never had the opportunity to drink at that well of healing and self recovery so that that we would know that he had made the journey from that internalized self-hatred to full-on self love and self recovery that he inspires so many of us to make was that community or life of alcohol part of the intellectual group that he hung out slowly I mean one of the things that’s think about Lorraine Hansberry she dies of lung cancer in every picture that you see of her she’s smoking a cigarette you know that whole world of the beats of the whole sort of literary world of a certain period of our culture was about drinking drugs cigarette overeating it was about excess and hedonism and many people were victims of it and in fact you know we’re really lucky that Baldwin lived as long as he did because he was definitely out there transgressing in the life taking risk you know being that hedonistic consumer of fine wines and all of that you know did he Tim packed his writing I think it always impacts writers because it makes you sloppy and I think that some of his fiction was simply sloppy bell hooks thank you very much tomorrow our American writers series continues as we turn our attention to Betty Ford an author of The Feminine Mystique learn about feminism and the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and 70s and we’ll broadcast live from Fred Anne’s alma mater Smith College in Northampton Massachusetts that begins at 3:00