“Recently, we sat down with author bell hooks to discover how James Baldwin’s life and writings influenced her. This interview lasted about half an hour. So, Bell hooks, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the name, James Baldwin?”

“Incredible daring thinker. Why? Because Baldwin thought against the grain and covered a lot of territories. I think 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 a novelist and essayist. In many ways, a cultural critic before we had the term. For example, his book on film, lots of people need to learn that Baldwin wrote a book on film. So he was doing what we now call a cultural critic, covering a wide range of topics, writing some social theory essays, but looking at culture and how culture shapes people, particularly looking at race and sexuality within the culture.”

“Let’s break apart what you said then, first take the thinker part. 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 that basic essential goodness gets perverted by racism, homophobia, by anything, and how we restore our sense of well-being. You know, when he has that letter to his nephew, he’s saying, 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 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 wonder if I imagined a time I should have been born because my two literary mentor figures in my life were of that period, Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin. And in the opening to the book, ‘Young, Gifted, and Black,’ it’s Baldwin that she first evokes as part of her last statements before her very early death in her 30s is her relationship with him and his challenging her to make those leaps in thought and action. I mean, there were political people. They were very concerned with colonization in Africa. 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 come to grips with racial segregation. So that they were the avant-garde; James Baldwin led that avant-garde thinking that was challenging much of what we take for granted today. You know, we take for granted certain challenges to racism or 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 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 also to let us know what didn’t change, what he felt wasn’t changing enough. So set the scene for us in his early writing and what it was like for him to go up against the ideas so pervasive at the time.”

“Well, when we talk about setting the scene, we have to talk about, first and foremost, an urban scene, that is, New York City, people trying to be hip and cool. Because again, think about those words, we use them with complete disregard, but in those days, those were loaded words, hip, cool. It was almost like saying you were a communist, or I mean, because to say that you were trying to be bohemian, you were trying to be hip and cool, was already placing yourself outside the mainstream. But, 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. The world of the West Village I live in now is so calm and complacent. But, still, that world was 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 genuine subculture. 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? There isn’t any real sense of racial identity in ‘Giovanni’s Room,’ so he’s challenging the idea of what is acceptable for a black writer to write and think about. It’s all there in ‘Giovanni’s Room.’ I am NOT a fan of Baldwin’s fiction. I am a 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 worship is the Baldwin that deals with analyzing the culture we live in, the conversationist, the conversation with Margaret Mead.

“Audre Lorde once said that he was a consummate conversationalist, and I always tell people that learning takes place more than in schools or through reading. People learn through conversation what they’re sharing with others in the day-to-day-ness of life. And so everyone who knew Baldwin talked about how he was constantly talking, engaging, challenging, and forcing you to think. And seeing him as a literary mentor, in a sense, I’ve patterned a lot of my essay writing, my cultural criticism, and criticism around that provocative sense of making 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 total, in the sort of best spirit of what it means to be a queen as a gay man; what if that is to excite an insight? And he knew that he was doing both, that he was inciting people to disagreement, to challenge, and 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 became more well-known?”

“Well, there were a lot of different reactions because, on the one hand, again, he was celebrated by the dissident thinking world that said, ‘Ah, here is an 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 a PhDs, and he didn’t go to universities and study the way the contemporary intellectuals talked about. Because much more than 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 thinking, reflecting person, but not in the university world, not in the sense of being taught and schooled in having a Ph.D., writing a dissertation. But when I say organic, it’s his schooling, teaching, and travels to other cultures. So, for example, I think of his traveling to Europe and writing those profound words that many cultural critics of race use 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 I’m astounded by the incredible cultural diversity whenever I’m in London and other places. There’s never anywhere where you are, or you’re not seeing it, and Baldwin was visionary, that is prophetic, in that he foresaw this is the way the world was going.”

“What was more prevalent for him, his blackness or his homosexuality?”

“Well, he would say neither of those things. It was his humanity. It was the idea that we are always more than our pain; we’re always more than whatever socially constructed identity is posed upon us. And that was his great, I would say, sadness and anguish of spirit, that in many ways, by identifying with causes, whether of race or sexuality, one risks that people would lose sight of your overall humanity. So 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 a person of sexuality.

“What is it to be an African-American person in the world? We want our full humanity and don’t want to focus solely on race. And that’s what he felt Europe offered him – where he could forget race as the predominating factor of his existence. He could go there, and people might want to know what you think of agriculture in such a place. In contrast, here, so often, especially in his day, one was only allowed to speak about race, not to speak about all your other issues that might challenge and excite your imagination. Has that changed? It has changed tremendously and more in the world of what we can teach, speak, and write about than in the world of publishing. Baldwin would be shaking his head sadly, knowing that it’s still difficult for black writers to do nonfiction work, to do nonfiction that is taken seriously, not journalism, because I think that, sure, the world of journalism has opened up so wide. We have black journalists of all different perspectives, conservative, progressive, writing. Yet, when we come to nonfiction books, particularly books that are not memoirs or biography, we’re still struggling to have that space where African-American thinkers can say whatever they want to say and take on the topics they want 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, yet he probably could not have written a book on the love that would have received much attention in his time and his day. Because I think in his day, people would have said, ‘Well, what does this homosexual black man from Harlem have to teach us about love?'”

“How did his thoughts on love impact your three books?”

“Completely and utterly. When he talks about the whole idea, 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 is defined and sentimentality.’ And this is Baldwin at his most queenly and lavish: ‘Sentimentality 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 the 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 love means. He tried to elevate the relationships between gay men past the sexual and to get to that place of the emotions of how people can be humanized in the act of love and be transformed through erotic and romantic connection. And that’s a very different Baldwin from the early Baldwin writing about race. It’s the Baldwin of longing, of yearning for his own space of love and wholeness. And I took all that as something that inspired me to write ‘Salvation: Black People and Love.’ He’s there from the beginning because he was one of the thinkers who 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 will miss out on love? He repeatedly raised that question, calling us to protect our essential humanity, our essential goodness.”

“What was the reaction in the gay community at the time to his writings?”

“Well, I think the reaction was mixed because, on the one hand, Baldwin was celebrated for

I don’t think Baldwin had a massive audience in the gay community because we must remember that Baldwin, like his white male contemporaries, was part of an elite literati. He wasn’t even so much being read by middle-class black people of gay or straight. It was about this particular New York City-based group of thinkers who thought they were the sort of thinkers of our time, the avant-garde thinkers that would give us a new way to think and live. But in fact, they had minimal impact on masses of people. For example, Baldwin’s fiction had a much wider readership than the essays that were, in fact, so provocative and prophetic around race. Those things were primarily read by the elite classes of people thinking about race, sexuality, and gender because he also had a lot to say about gender and challenging the traditional gender roles, you might say. He is one of our first contemporary black male advocates of feminism because he indeed advocated for a shift in black male roles. 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 and profoundly spiritual but constantly aware 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, he wrote a lot about that when he was writing.

Do you know what questions he went in and out of in determining whether to write fiction or essays?

Well, I think, like most of his contemporaries, he was a very market-driven writer because we have to remember that Baldwin, once again, was not like myself or other people today, black cultural critics who were housed in the university getting salaries, was many times trying to make his living as a writer. And that force often led him to cut deals and begin writing things and be incomplete in writing something. So you can contrast him with someone like Truman Capote, where you see that same kind of writing at times very seriously, but at other times writing in the direction of the marketplace.

When did you first remember reading James Baldwin?

I first remember reading James Baldwin when my working-class father would come home from his work as a janitor at the post office, and he would open the glass bookcase that was his unique bookcase. And in that bookcase were the cheap paperback books of James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. And I remember reading that little statement, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, 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 because we remember, I’m in my teens. When I say teens, I mean early teens, 12 and 13.

I’m reading James Baldwin and trying to connect James Baldwin to my stern conservative patriarchal father. They couldn’t have been more different, but he was in the bookcase to be valued and learned about. Did you and your father ever talk about James Baldwin? Not because I used to have to sneak into that bookcase on how to 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 then, as a literary mentor, have you also taken on or looked at his style in influencing you?
One of the best aspects of Baldwin’s essay style mainly was its clarity, and in fact, it’s so funny because you can contrast that with the overwordiness in novels like Tell It on the Mountain. The essays were clear, concise, and crisp, and I have tried to have that readability. Still, that crispness, that you don’t let anything go, you don’t leave anything out, but you make it something people can read. You use language in an enjoyable way so that you can read Baldwin aloud and see how he is putting those words together to enchant us. He puts it together magically when he goes on and on about the idea of suffering and growing up. You have read in an interview that you self-criticized yourself, saying that your sentences are too long. What was Baldwin’s like? Baldwin’s sentences were much shorter, partially because he came out of the world of journalism. You know, part of how I trained myself to shorten my sentences was to begin writing for magazines and newspapers because the long sentences I had been encouraged to use in the academic world had no place in journalism 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’ve got to say it, and you’ve got to figure out a way to say it with meaning and substance, and he was 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. He was enchanted by both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. 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 rethink our perceptions of ourselves. King wrote very little about how black people should feel about themselves; much of his writing was outer-directed, directed at what we should do in relationship to white people.

Baldwin adored Malcolm because Malcolm was so concerned with what we should do about ourselves. And you see Baldwin’s genuine concern for his nieces and nephews, his family, that autobiographical writing or his 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? He had this phrase he used all the time: “Don’t make peace with mediocrity.” And we need to listen to that phrase today because a lot of writing is happening, and a lot of sloppy thinking is reproducing the mediocre. So if he could see today, you mentioned the writing, the publishing world; he would be more relaxed, but what about life in terms of race relations?

I think he would grieve that, 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 about ending racism, and we’re living in a time where people are very cynical about the possibility of ending racism or creating a community. And that Europe, he loved and thought was a haven, had changed so completely that it’s not the sanctuary for the person of color fleeing the United States that it once was because of immigration and work. So that I think the Europe of today would sadden him because the Europe of today has become more like the United States was back then, the world that he was fleeing.

I think he would be in a state of grief if he saw the current state of race relations and the changes in Europe. As for James Baldwin, I teach a whole seminar on him, and one thing that is not talked about enough is his concern for the well-being of black family life. Despite being gay, he was deeply interested in nuclear families, the interaction between fathers, mothers, and children. He tried hard to be a parenting figure for his nieces and nephews and was deeply concerned about the stability of black family life. I think he would be grieved at what has happened to black family life in the United States. Something I didn’t like about him was his addiction to drinking and the loss of sense of himself as someone who had value due to his wounds from his father’s physical beatings and shame around his homosexuality. Alcohol was a force that soothed that pain, and that was something that saddened me.

When I first began to study Baldwin, I realized that he never had the opportunity to drink from that well of healing and self-recovery. He may have made the journey from internalized self-hatred to complete self-love and self-recovery that he inspires many of us to make. Was the community or life of alcohol part of the intellectual group he hung out with? Slowly, I mean, one of the things to think about is Lorraine Hansberry, who died of lung cancer, and in every picture of her, she’s smoking a cigarette. That whole world of the Beats, the literary world of a certain period of our culture, was about drinking, drugs, cigarettes, overeating, excess, and hedonism, and many were victims of it. We’re fortunate that Baldwin lived as long as he did because he was transgressing in life, taking risks, and being that hedonistic consumer of fine wines. Did it impact his writing? It always impacts writers because it makes them sloppy, and some of his fiction could be more varied.

Bell Hooks, thank you very much. Tomorrow our American Writers series continues as we turn our attention to Betty Friedan, 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.