1979: James Baldwin’s Inkwell

Inkwell Owned by James Badwin

Q. How do you see the role of the black American writer in particular?

A. Well, you have to understand that presently you’re going to be obsolete, because America is going to be obsolete. But if one substitutes the word “witness” for “writer” and eliminates all romanticism about literature, some things become clear. First, what has happened to black people in this country, and therefore to the world, is literally unprecedented. There is no historical model for these events. We have been dealing with, controlled by, a vocabulary coming out of an arbitrary invention called Europe, where the frame of reference has always been Europe itself. That frame of reference has shifted. Your identity, my identity, is altered by the failure of that history. The morality of the world in which we were born has failed. For a black cat — woman or man — the price we had to pay to live at all was to deal with a morality which we knew was false.

But what we call literature is after the fact, and it’s difficult to say what a writer, a witness, should do. All I know now is what I’m trying to be a witness to, and at this moment, in the life of a living man, it is not literature but a question of trying to translate what you see. Trying to move it from one place to another. Afterward, it may be literature. While you’re living, dealing with other human beings, people whom you love, all you can do is have passion. The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.

James Baldwin, 1979 New York Times interview (source)

Image: Inkwell owned by Baldwin (source)

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