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‘It Is Not For Us To Cool It:’ What James Baldwin’s Work Reveals About This Moment

People walk by a mural of late American novelist and activist James Baldwin (C) in Toronto, Canada.
People walk by a mural of late American novelist and activist James Baldwin (C) in Toronto, Canada.

Esquire spoke to writer James Baldwin in 1968, in the wake of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

Here’s some of what he said.

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.

When the interviewer pressed him on what the federal government could do to help, here’s how he responded.

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.

It’s one of many interviews the writer and public intellectual gave throughout his life. But many are turning to his work to understand our contemporary moment, as the country once again struggles with how to address pervasive racism.

We reflect on Baldwin’s legacy and hear from you about the impact of his work.

Copyright 2021 WAMU 88.5. To see more, visit WAMU 88.5.

Haili Blassingame