By James Baldwin from Creative America, Ridge Press, 1962.

Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state
which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone. That all men are, when
the chips are down, alone, is a banality—a banality because it is very frequently stated,
but very rarely, on the evidence, believed. Most of us are not compelled to linger with
the knowledge of our aloneness, for it is a knowledge that can paralyze all action in this
world. There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be
exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of
the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great
wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness,
blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its
purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

The state of being alone is not meant to bring to mind merely a rustic musing beside
some silver lake. The aloneness of which I speak is much more like the aloneness of
birth or death. It is like the fearless alone that one sees in the eyes of someone who is
suffering, whom we cannot help. Or it is like the aloneness of love, the force and mystery
that so many have extolled and so many have cursed, but which no one has ever
understood or ever really been able to control. I put the matter this way, not out of any
desire to create pity for the artist—God forbid!—but to suggest how nearly, after all, is
his state the state of everyone, and in an attempt to make vivid his endeavor. The state of
birth, suffering, love, and death are extreme states—extreme, universal, and inescapable.
We all know this, but we would rather not know it. The artist is present to correct the
delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge.

It is for this reason that all societies have battled with the incorrigible disturber of the
peace—the artist. I doubt that future societies will get on with him any better. The entire
purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to
make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that
when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will
suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling
and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live
without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is
suggested that they can or that they must, is panic. And we see this panic, I think,
everywhere in the world today, from the streets of New Orleans to the grisly battleground
of Algeria. And a higher level of consciousness among the people is the only hope we
have, now or in the future, of minimizing human damage.

The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society—the politicians,
legislators, educators, and scientists—by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own
laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and
cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can
possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some
things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that
all our action and achievement rest on things unseen. A society must assume that it is
stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable
under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without
taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted,
but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.

I seem to be making extremely grandiloquent claims for a breed of men and women
historically despised while living and acclaimed when safely dead. But, in a way, the
belated honor that all societies tender their artists proven the reality of the point I am
trying to make. I am really trying to make clear the nature of the artist’s responsibility to
his society. The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never cease warring
with it, for its sake and for his own. For the truth, in spite of appearances and all our
hopes, is that everything is always changing and the measure of our maturity as nations
and as men is how well prepared we are to meet these changes, and further, to use them
for our health.

Now, anyone who has ever been compelled to think about it—anyone, for example, who
has ever been in love---knows that the one face that one can never see is one’s own face.
One’s lover—or one’s brother, or one’s enemy—sees the face you wear, and this face can
elicit the most extraordinary reactions. We do the things we do and feel what we feel
essentially because we must---we are responsible for our actions, but we rarely
understand them. It goes without saying, I believe, that if we understood ourselves better,
we would damage ourselves less. But the barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of
oneself is high indeed. There are so many things one would rather not know! We become
social creatures because we cannot live any other way. But in order to become social,
there are a great many other things that we must not become, and we are frightened, all of
us, of these forces within us that perpetually menace our precarious security. Yet the
forces are there: we cannot will them away. All we can do is learn to live with them. And
we cannot leant his unless we are willing to tell the truth about ourselves, and the truth
about us is always at variance with what we wish to be. The human effort is to bring
these two realities into a relationship resembling reconciliation. The human beings whom
we respect the most, after all---and sometimes fear the most—are those who are most
deeply involved in this delicate and strenuous effort, for they have the unshakable
authority that comes only from having looked on and endured and survived the worst.
That nation is healthiest which has the least necessity to distrust or ostracize these
people—whom, as I say, honor, once they are gone, because somewhere in our hearts we
know that we cannot live without them.

The dangers of being an American artist are not greater than those of being an artist
anywhere else in the world, but they are very particular. These dangers are produced by
our history. They rest on the fact that in order to conquer this continent, the particular
aloneness of which I speak—the aloneness in which one discovers that life is tragic, and
therefore unutterably beautiful—could not be permitted. And that this prohibition is
typical of all emergent nations will be proved, I have no doubt, in many ways during the
next fifty years. This continent now is conquered, but our habits and our fears remain.
And, in the same way that to become a social human being one modifies and suppresses
and, ultimately, without great courage, lies to oneself about all one’s interior, uncharted
chaos, so have we, as a nation, modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces
in our history. We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the
truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self.
This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, is unable to
assess either his weaknesses or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes the
one for the other. And this, I think, we do. We are the strongest nation in the Western
world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity
that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and
caste, to create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of
the New World. But the price of this is a long look backward when we came and an
unflinching assessment of the record. For an artist, the record of that journey is most
clearly revealed in the personalities of the people the journey produced. Societies never
know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best,
what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to
make freedom real.


Lester: Witness is a word I've heard you use often to describe yourself. It is not a word I would apply to myself as a writer, and I don't know if any black writers with whom I am contemporary would, or even could, use the word. What are you a witness to?

James Baldwin: Witness to whence I came, where I am. Witness to what I've seen and the possibilities that I think I see. . . . But I can see what you're saying. I don't think I ever resented it, but it exhausted me. I didn't resent it because it was an obligation that was impossible to fulfill. They have made you, produced you - and they have done so precisely so they could claim you. They can treat you very badly sometimes, as has happened to me. Still, they produced you because they need you and, for me, there's no way around that. Now, in order for me to execute what I see as my responsibility, I may have to offend them all, but that also comes with the territory. I don't see how I can repudiate it. 


Lester: We were talking about white writers as witnesses and you alluded to Mailer. How do you see Mailer?

James Baldwin: Well, Mailer is something I've been desperately trying to avoid. (Laughs) All I can say is that - well, one of the hazards of being an American writer, and I'm well placed to know it, is that eventually you have nothing to write about. A funny thing happens on the way to the typewriter. There is a decidedly grave danger of becoming a celebrity, of becoming a star, of becoming a personality. Again, I'm very well placed to know that. It's symptomatic of the society that doesn't have any real respect for the artist. You're either a success or a failure and there's nothing in between. And if you are a success, you run the risk that Norman has run and that I run, too, of becoming a kind of show business personality. Then the legend becomes far more important than the work. It's as though you're living in an echo chamber. You hear only your own voice. And, when you become a celebrity, that voice is magnified by multitudes and you begin to drown in this endless duplication of what looks like yourself. You have to be really very lucky, and very stubborn, not to let that happen to you. It's a difficult trap to avoid. And that's part of Norman's dilemma, I think. A writer is supposed to write. If he appears on television or as a public speaker, so much the better or so much the worse, but the public persona is one thing. On the public platform or on television, I have to sound as if I know what I'm talking about. It's antithetical to the effort you make at the typewriter, where you don't know a damned thing. And you have to know you don't know it. The moment you carry the persona to the typewriter, you are finished.


Lester: Is the celebrity James Baldwin anyone that you know?

James Baldwin: That's a very good question. Not really. Not really. It's almost a garment I wear. But the celebrity never sees himself. I have some idea what I'm doing on that stage; above all, I have some idea what sustains me on that stage. But the celebrity is not exactly Jimmy, though he comes out of Jimmy and Jimmy nourishes that, too. I can see now, with hindsight, that I would've had to become a celebrity in order to survive. A boy like me with all his handicaps, real and fancied, could not have survived in obscurity. I can say that it would have had to happen this way, though I could not see it coming.

James Baldwin: Where was I? Oh, yes! I was here - at least I wasn't on television. Anyway, a language is a frame of reference, isn't it? And I can only be semicoherent about it now because I'm in the process of experimenting. I say a new language. I might say a new morality, which, in my terms, comes to the same thing. And that's on all levels - the level of color, the level of identity, the level of sexual identity, what love means, especially in a consumer society, for example. Everything is in question, according to me. One has to forge a new language to deal with it.


From the 1984 NYT article and interview…