This excerpt is part of the Twentieth-Century Masters Tribute to James Baldwin, sponsored by PEN American Center and Lincoln Center, with The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and The New Yorker. Excerpts from the event appear in PEN America 2: Home & Away.


Making James Baldwin

What does this mean … Countee Cullen taught you in junior high … in Harlem … with that great history of renaissance but only Langston remained … what does it mean when you know you really don’t want to deliver packages or be some sort of clerk in a back room somewhere way downtown … what does it mean when you know what nobody has told you YOU WERE BEFORE HIM WHOM YOU CALL FATHER who didn’t so much dislike you as simply not understand why you were a witness that he wasn’t first and you had all this to deal with while thinking maybe I’m not good looking and maybe I’m not ordinary … would this make you a James Baldwin so when you are looking around and you realize you’re angry because it just ain’t right that people who look like you people who are small and black and lonely but bright and funny and sweet can’t find a way in this world and every time you do something you think is pretty wonderful that man WHOM YOU CALL FATHER is trying to grind you down to his size which isn’t so much small as afraid of what’s out there and somehow you keep trying to please the un-pleasable so you kiddie preach in church because at least everybody says amen and you think: have I found a place but you know you can’t find a place when people still look at what your heart desires and what your arms need as the worse sin worser than lynching black men and women worser than denying prescription drugs to old people worser than withholding vaccinations from poor children worser than anything because even bad off niggers want to find something worser than their pitiful lives and they are trying to use you and your talent and your hopes and dreams to make themselves more whole … would that make you a James Baldwin and then it occurs to you If You Are A Deer In Headlights move and avoid being steam rolled move and don’t take the hit move and find another place to be … move downtown and meet people who accept you not judge you move to Europe and fall in love move with your love to Switzerland and write your books and determine never to deny what your heart knows is true never turn your back on what your mind knows is right never refuse to hear the cry of the anguished or the laughter in the blues do it all because one time you go around is the only time to do it so be a stand up guy who stands up first for yourself then all the people who need an arm to lean on or a heart to hear a voice to raise for the righteousness of it and maybe that would make you a James Baldwin.