James Baldwin’s Interview with Robert Penn Warren

In his interview with Robert Penn Warren on April 27, 1964, James Baldwin discusses the state of the racial divide in the United States. Throughout his dialogue, Baldwin consolidates core ideas to advocate for the recognition of the intricacies of Black beauty—a recognition he says is impossible within the construct of the United States as it was and is. James Baldwin’s interview with Robert Penn Warren reveals central themes of his work, which, when compared chronologically, unearth his revolution toward a more radical revolutionism. 

Baldwin obviously relies on the comparison between the state of the racial divides in the North and the South in his discussions of the United States. In the interview, which occurred in 1964, Baldwin says “It seems to me that the South is ruled, very largely so, by an oligarchy which rules for its own benefit, and not only oppresses Negroes and murders them, but really imprisons and victimizes the bulk of the white population” (Baldwin). This point is reminiscent of points that he had made previously in his essay “Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South” (1961), in which he examined the racial divide in Southern cities and reflected on their severity as a Black man in the North. However, in the interview, he goes further than observation to propose that “the difference between the North and the South were really when the chips were down that they had different techniques of castrating you then than they had in the North, but the fact of the castration remained exactly the same, and that was the intention in both places” (Baldwin). He equalizes the North and the South as he had not in “Nobody Knows my Name”, and the connection causes the complete emasculation and destruction of the Black man in the United States. A year after the interview, in the year 1965, Baldwin explicitly depicts this universal and grotesque castration in his short story titled “Going to Meet the Man.” The comparison between the North and the South is obviously a topic that Baldwin deems necessary to pay attention to, but the comparison between those attentions he pays exposes Baldwin’s growing radicalism. 

Baldwin’s points in the interview regarding the struggle with Black masculine identity are also reminiscent of his fiction and nonfiction work. In the interview, Baldwin explains, “It was very hard for me to accept Western European values because they didn’t accept me… any Negro born in this country spends a great deal of time trying to be accepted, trying to find a way to operate within the culture and to – not to be made to suffer so much by it but nothing you do works. No matter how many showers you take, no matter what you do, these Western values simply absolutely resist and reject you” (Baldwin). While this echoes the Bildungsroman struggles of John in his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), it almost repeats points that he had made in his essay “The Fire Next Time”: “Every Negro boy—in my situation during those years, at least—who reaches this point realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing”, a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way” (“The Fire Next Time”). The exploration of the implications of approaching Black masculine identity grounds Baldwin’s work. However, the specificity that comes in his later essay and interview are more founded explanations of the struggle he had only danced around in his earlier fiction. 

While the themes discussed in this blog post so far reveal concepts that are universal, though increasingly developed, in Baldwin’s work, the revolutionism in the interview and his later essays is nowhere to be found in Baldwin’s earliest fiction and nonfiction work. In the interview he explains to Robert Penn Warren, “…is impossible to be separate but equal. If one is equal, why should he be separate? And it’s that- it’s the history of that doctrine which created almost all the Negro’s despair and also the country’s despair. So, I think that the instinct to destroy the doctrine is quite sound” (Baldwin). Violent vocabulary like “destroy” is quite contrary to Baldwin’s earlier points, such as that in “Notes of a Native Son” from 1955, in which he professes his love for the United States which is “more than any country in this world” (“Notes of a Native Son”). Just as violent, though, are later thoughts in his essays. From “To Be Baptized” (1972): “A person does not lightly elect to oppose his society. One would much rather be at home among one’s compatriots than be mocked and detested by them. And there is a level on which the mockery of the people, even in their hatred, is moving because it is so blind: it is terrible to watch people cling to their captivity and insist on their own destruction. I think black people have always felt this about America, and Americans, and have always seen, spinning above the thoughtless American head, the shape of the wrath to come” (To Be Baptized”).

James Baldwin’s interview with Robert Penn Warren highlights central themes to Baldwin’s ideology, but upon examination also holds the map to see how Baldwin had grown as a man, scholar, and revolutionary. One can only imagine the impact he would have in the era of Black Lives Matter. 

Personal Reflection: If Beale Street Could Talk

I first encountered If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin in the summer of 2020, during the peak of the pandemic. Those few months felt incredibly intimidating, often cold, and suddenly unsafe. In this novel, I found solace in exquisite writing about a potent romance. Its undeniable beauty served as a promising comfort. This first read forgot analysis at home, sat a chair on the beach, and kissed distraction on the cheek.

In my current read of If Beale Street Could Talk, I have instead tried to stay aware of my reactions in order to source them. A newfound appreciation for Baldwin’s maneuvers in character development and narrative structure has replaced distraction and imagination. In the novel, Baldwin seems to be using Tish’s femininity to empathetically and meticulously analyze Fonny’s masculinity and the implications of racism in the United States.

I initially interpreted Tish’s reflections on Fonny’s situation to be nothing more than an encapsulation of what it means to truly know and love someone. As soon as the narrative introduces Fonny, Tish articulates, “You see: I know him. He’s very proud, and he worries a lot, and, when I think about it, I know – he doesn’t – that that’s the biggest reason he’s in jail” (Baldwin 7). Now, I think that my original admiration for these descriptions was a subtle awareness of the intricacies of Baldwin’s character placement and development. In presenting Fonny through Tish’s gaze, Baldwin allows space for Fonny’s pride to be deconstructed. If the narrative were to come from Fonny, the pride that Tish sees would cloud any awareness of how he ended up in jail or the effects of his situation. Femininity enables an intimate analysis of masculinity.

When I first read the novel, Tish’s nightmares and daily stresses broke my heart and made me want to protect her. However, Tish’s femininity also reveals the external, familial, and emotional ramifications of racism in the United States. Due to conflict and tension between Fonny and a white male police offer, Fonny is wrongfully imprisoned for the rape of a woman that he did not commit. Many novels and essays deem tracking this type of experience enough, and it usually is. I see now that Baldwin’s choice to place the narrative voice in Tish was a way to hold hands with that narrative but to walk in a new direction. “We’re counting on you – Fonny’s counting on you – Fonny’s counting on you, to bring that baby here, safe and well. I held the white bar more firmly. My freezing body shook” (Baldwin 158). Tish’s struggles, notably feminine in her ever-present pregnancy, extract the analysis of racism in the United States from strictly Fonny’s experience and expose the cracks that spread with the jolt of police brutality, wrongful imprisonment, and torture within the prison.

Finally, Baldwin marks Tish’s femininity as Fonny’s solution and salvation. “Every day, when he sees my face, he knows, again, that I love him – and God knows I do, more and more, deeper and deeper, with every hour. But it isn’t only that. It means that others love him, too, love him so much that they have set me free to be there. He is not alone; we are not alone” (Baldwin 223). Baldwin uses Tish’s femininity as a tool to develop and escape Fonny’s masculinity, but her femininity also provides the potential for Fonny to develop and escape, too.

Baldwin, James. If Beale Street Could Talk. Dial Press, 1974.

James Baldwin and Black Masculinity

James Baldwin’s relationship with his stepfather informs his work, and his life, by complicating his experience, comprehension, and analysis of Black masculinity. 

 James Baldwin was raised in Harlem with his mother and his stepfather, David Baldwin. James was the eldest son out of nine children. In his biographical article about Baldwin titled “The Enemy Within”, Hilton Als situates Baldwin tightly around his stepfather, marking David’s existence as essential to understanding James. As he moves through James Baldwin’s development as a writer and as a man, he continuously nods back to David Baldwin. “By 1948, he was no longer the ugliest boy his father had ever seen but a promising young writer who was considered very smart by the older editors he worked for” (Als). Even in marking Baldwin’s success, Baldwin biography roots James in David Baldwin. 

Baldwin reaffirms Als’ negative characterization of David most notably in Notes of a Native Son, which begins with David’s death. Upon reflection, he writes, “I do not remember, in all those years, that one of his children was ever glad to see him come home” (Notes of a Native Son 65). He expresses both resentment for and unfamiliarity with his stepfather. However, as James grew as a writer and man, he began to see the roots of David’s bitterness as having “had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black— with his blackness and his beauty, and with the fact that he knew that he was black but did not know that he was beautiful. He claimed to be proud of his blackness, but it had also been the cause of much humiliation and it had fixed bleak boundaries to his life” (Notes of a Native Son 64). James acknowledges that David’s struggles were due to his identity as a Black man. Being his paternal figure, this inevitably confused and frustrated James’ own conceptualization of Black masculinity.  

Baldwin explores this confusion and frustration through Black male characters in his fiction. Go Tell It on the Mountain is directly reflective of James and David. In the novel, the father character, Gabriel, is identical to David Baldwin. Gabriel was a preacher, as was David. Further, the novel circulates around Gabriel’s intense, familial, and religious bitterness. Baldwin writes that his stepfather “hat[ed] and fear[ed] every living soul including his children who had betrayed him, too, by reaching towards the world which had despised him” (“Notes of a Native Son” 66). In a similar tone, Gabriel tells John that “white people were never to be trusted, and that they told nothing but lies-he, John- would find out as soon as got a little older, how evil white people could be” (Go Tell It on the Mountain 34). David Baldwin, and his bruised Black masculinity, informs Baldwin’s work in fiction. 

In his essay titled “Nobody Knows My Name”, James reflects on a trip to the South. He writes about the potency of Southern racism against the Black men: “How many times has the Southern day come up to find that black man, sexless, hanging from a tree!” (“Nobody Knows My Name” 204). More directly, he recounts his own experience while in Atlanta, specifically with an old Black man who directed him onto his first-ever segregated bus. This man enchanted James. “His eyes seemed to say that what I was feeling he had been feeling, at much higher pressure, all his life. But my eyes would never see the hell his eyes had seen. And this hell was, simply, that he had never in his life owned anything, not his wife, not his house, not his child, which could not, at any instant, be taken from him by the power of white people…And for the rest of the time that I was in the South I watched the eyes of old black men” (“Nobody Knows My Name” 204-205). In this essay, Baldwin observes the Black man’s struggle with his own masculinity, describing his hell as having not ever been able to own anything. This struggle fascinates and saddens Baldwin. A physical reflection of both James and David, this older Black man served as a reminder for James of the realities of Black masculinity throughout recent generations— a consistent struggle with identity. As is evident in his work, his fascination resided here. 

Eroticism and Familial Love in Beloved

Throughout Beloved, there is a distinct, though underlying, tension between eroticism and love. The relationships between characters, most notably between Beloved, Sethe, and Denver, reside on this tension—a residence that feels displaced. Consistently, eroticism overrides feminine and familial love and, further, complicates the experiences and relationships of the women in the novel. This distorted lack of boundary is reminiscent of a lack of solid identity, as the women are entirely, dangerously, and desperately dependent on each other for pleasure, connection, and control.


Denver’s desire for Beloved’s presence and attention is tightly interwoven throughout the storyline. She is dependent on her presence. When she fears that Beloved has disappeared, she falls into an erratic panic (122-123). Denver expresses that she feels more in control in the house with Beloved there (104). However, the dependence surpasses sisterly affection when Denver seems desperate for even Beloved’s physicality. She is consistently craving Beloved’s gaze, loving the feeling of being looked at by her. Even when Beloved is asleep, Denver is enamored by her: “Denver will turn toward her then, and if Beloved faces her, she will inhale deeply the sweet air from her mouth. If not, she will lean up and over her, every once in a while, to catch a sniff” (121). Breath and proximity fuel the eroticism in this scene, an intimacy that is pretending to be sisterly love. Denver has little expressed identity besides only this. 


Beloved’s love for Sethe is also distorted by erotic desire. Beloved is obsessed with Sethe. Her gaze is constantly on her, and she flourishes when she is near her. But, further, she demands the entirety of her attention. When Beloved returns to the noises of Sethe and Paul D having sex under the stairs, she leaves the house in fury, insinuating specifically sexual jealousy. (100-101) The scene in the Clearing only confirms the sexual undertone of the relationship. “Beloved watched the work her thumbs were doing and must have loved what she saw because she leaned over and kissed the tenderness under Sethe’s chin” (98). Even Sethe reacts to the inappropriateness of this gesture. The next line encompasses the distorted eroticism between the three of them: “They stayed that way for a while because neither Denver nor Sethe knew how not to: how to stop and not love the look or feel of the lips that kept on kissing” (98). These women need each other, desperately, as family, but their love had to retreat into eroticism. Even her name, “Beloved”, reveals her utter dependency on Sethe for mere existence.

Generational trauma is at the root of the distorted relationships between Sethe, Denver, and Beloved. The mother-daughter love between Sethe and Beloved was obliterated by the murder. Erotic connection seems like the only connection available when love is taken away. Further, Denver’s perverted obsession with Beloved can be linked to the murder, too: “So Denver took her mother’s milk right along with the blood of her sister” (152). The murder, a direct result of generational trauma that stemmed from slavery, destroyed the capacity for any of the women to be able to operate under normal terms of identity and relationship. They have been spun into something new. Morrison, in the lapse between eroticism and love in familial feminine relationships, exposes the implications that generational trauma stemming from slavery has on women—a collapse of boundaries and a distance from identity. 

Updated: Reading List


Original Description:

I am primarily interested in exploring the work of James Baldwin. I am not quite sure which aspect of his work I would like to focus on. If I focus on his fiction, I am interested in applying queer theory. In his essays, I am intrigued by the applicability of his discussions of masculinity and race to modern discussions of the same topics. Because I am unsure, I want to begin by broadening my focus as much as possible.

First, I wanted to center myself on some far-reaching keywords. I used a list from NYU’s “Keywords for African American Studies” and settled on “diaspora” “race” and “gender”. In my experience so far, these keywords all serve as central themes in Baldwin’s work.

Next, I consulted with Professor Nadia Alahmed from the Africana Studies department. In Spring of 2020, I took Professor Alahmed’s course “James Baldwin Studies Renaissance: Reflections of a Radical”. In her studies of Baldwin, she focuses heavily on Baldwin as a political figure. She is especially interested in his stance on specific topics such as Israel. It makes sense, then, that she grounds herself in his essays, interviews, and debates. She recommended that I revisit the entirety of “The Fire Next Time”. She also suggested that I read a secondary source by Douglas Field titled “James Baldwin’s Life on the Left”. This source is a biographical analysis of Baldwin’s development as a scholar and increasing radicalism as a political figure.

The other two sources that I included on my reading list are pieces that I have come across in my own research. “James Baldwin’s Vision of Otherness and Community” by Emmanuel Nelson looks at Baldwin’s fiction and non-fiction to decipher his statements on identity. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” is an essay by Langston Hughes. This essay calls on the negotiation of identity necessary for the Black artist. Hughes, here, asserts that the Black artist cannot, and so should not attempt to, escape being Black. Sources such as these would help me better understand Baldwin’s work surrounding race and identity, for himself as a Black artist and for the characters he creates.

The journal that I have selected to survey is The James Baldwin Review (JBR). This year the journal published its seventh volume and includes various essays on both his fiction and nonfiction.


While my approach has, in some ways, broadened since my original reading list, my intention remains elementally the same. I still am focusing on the work of James Baldwin. With my initial reading list, I focused only on secondary sources- essays that both build on Baldwin’s work and critique it. In the past few weeks, I’ve been instead focusing on grasping as much of Baldwin’s primary work as I can to see what I notice. I’ve revisited sections of his major essays, and have begun to explore his fiction; primarily, Giovanni’s Room. Those essays and novels have been added to this updated list. While “Nobody Knows My Name” consists of many potent pieces, upon re-reading I am most interested in “Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter From the South”, in which Baldwin explores the implications of race, sexuality, and identity when a Black man raised in the North visits the South. From “No Name in the Street”, I am focusing closely on “To Be Baptized”. In this piece, Baldwin includes a reflection on an old friend, another Black man, who was wrongfully imprisoned. This piece is a raw and devastating discussion on what it means to be a Black man in the United States. “Notes of a Native Son” marks many of Baldwin’s early essays, and will perhaps serve as a baseline to mark his development as a scholar, writer, and political figure. “The Fire Next Time” is a call for the end of the “racial nightmare” in the United States and for the recognition of the intricacies of Black beauty. Regarding the novels, I am most interested in Baldwin’s explorations of love and desire. I intend to meet with Professor Seiler soon per Professor Kersh’s recommendation.


Primary Sources:

Baldwin, James. If Beale Street Could Talk. Dial Press, 1974.

Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. Vintage Books, 1956.

Baldwin, James. “Nobody Knows My Name.” James Baldwin: Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison, The Library of America, 1998, pp. 237-269.

Baldwin, James. “No Name in the Street.” James Baldwin: Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison, The Library of America, 1998, p. 349.

Baldwin, James. “Notes of a Native Son.” James Baldwin: Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison, The Library of America, 1998, pp. 5-117

Baldwin, James. “The Fire Next Time.” James Baldwin: Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison, The Library of America, 1998, pp. 291-296.

Secondary Sources:

Field, Douglas. “James Baldwin’s Life on The Left: A Portrait of The Artist as a Young New York Intellectual.” ELH, vol. 78, no. 4, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011, pp. 833–62, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41337556.

Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The Langston Hughes Review, vol. 4, no. 1, Langston Hughes Society, Penn State University Press, 1985, pp. 1–4, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26432664.

Nelson, Emmanuel S. “James Baldwin’s Vision of Otherness and Community.” MELUS, vol. 10, no. 2, Oxford University Press, Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS), 1983, pp. 27–31, https://doi.org/10.2307/467307.

1 academic journal:

James Baldwin Review (JBR):


1-3 far reaching keywords

  1. diaspora
  2. race
  3. gender/sexuality

Baldwin on Black Male Identity in the United States

According to “Keywords for African American Studies”, two essential keywords within African American Studies are, unsurprisingly, “diaspora” and “race”. These keywords are at the foundation of the binary between Black male identity and the United States. Alluding to the diaspora and focusing on race, in this excerpt from “The Fire Next Time”, James Baldwin affirms this binary but shows that it collapses when the young Black man realizes that he must fall into a minimized identity—what he calls “a gimmick”— to survive.

Even though the diaspora is not explicitly discussed in this passage, Baldwin alludes to it by creating distance between himself and the United States. He refers to the United States as “this republic” and “this country”. He strays from any possession or affiliation. In contrast, he speaks on race without hesitance. He writes “I was icily determined…to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me”. An understanding of these keywords lays the groundwork for the binary between Black male identity and the United States.

By using progressive diction to enforce logic, Baldwin proclaims the universality of his explanation to all Black men in the United States. For example, he writes “I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was, and limit me that way, and polish me off that way. And yet, of course, at the same time, I was being spat on and defined and described and limited” (Baldwin). The use of “and yet, of course” in this sentence enforces an assumption of understanding and universality. His logic progresses through this transition, leaving no room for confusion.

Further, Baldwin’s use of em dashes maneuver time and emphasize the development of this conflict throughout (his, and) Black male life. In all three instances that he pauses mid-sentence, he references the past. He writes, “I was icily determined—more determined, really, than I then knew—never to make my peace with the ghetto”. These transfers to the past show that the conflict between his identity and the United States was already budding. These repetitive reflections reinforce that the binary was always there.

In the end, these elements apply a gravity to his collapse of the binary, when he states: “Every Negro boy—in my situation during those years, at least—who reaches this point realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing”, a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way.” Here, the binary collapses because, to survive, the Black male has to shape his identity in a way that the United States will accept. The conflict between Black male identity and the United States still exists, but the first must give into the other. Through these elements, Baldwin applies unavoidability and universality to this claim.

The Inevitable Awareness of Death

Michael Field’s “She gathered me rue and roses” from Underneath the Bough uses repetitive binaries and intentional syntax to exhibit the central and unavoidable awareness of death when love is present (37).

The verb “mingled” immediately draws a binary between “roses” and “rue” in the first line of the poem, revealing that they were apart before “she” brought them together. Roses generally symbolize love, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines “rue” as “sorrow” and “distress” (OED). “She” not only serves as the beginning of the poem but is also syntactically associated with a “complet[ed] bliss”. “She”, then, presents as the beloved of the speaker. Further, “sweet” and “bitter” replace “roses” and “rue” as synonyms in the last sentence of each stanza and therefore take on the initial binary, building on their already opposing definitions. Between these two binaries, there is a consistent distinction between a concept affiliated with nature or love and a concept associated with sorrow. The way that both binaries begin apart and then come together alludes to the larger opposition between life and death, which the poem proposes feels very separate until you love someone. When love is present, death and sorrow feel both intimate and imminent.

The almost identical syntax in the first and last lines of the stanzas point to the central and inevitable awareness of death. The only differences between the first lines are “she” and “life”. Both, the poem says, “mingle you rue and roses”, or bring together love and death. The near but unsuccessful identicality of these lines presents the awareness of death on both a personal and universal level. “She” caused this alignment for the speaker, but “life”, the piece proposes, will do it for you, too.  The last two lines of each stanza are also near-identical: the first reads “the bitter that lived with the sweet” and the second, “the bitter will smell of the sweet”. Both lines reinforce the intimacy between the binaries of love and death. Further, the use of both past and future tense in virtually the same line emphasizes the relativity of that intimacy.

This moment directly relates to the whole of the text because it clings to the Pagan aestheticism throughout “Underneath the Bough” that treats “death as the dark twin of desire” (Thain, Vadillo 113). Especially throughout Book 2, death is just as pertinent of a subject as love. Throughout Underneath the Bough and “She gathered me rue and roses”, love and an awareness of death come in unison.