A Conversation with James Baldwin & Nikki Giovanni


In November of 1971, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) sat down with another extraordinary woman, the poet Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943), for a conversation of astonishing timeliness today.  For hours of absolute presence, intellectual communion, and occasional respectful rebuttal, they explored justice, freedom, morality, and what it means to be an empowered human being. The transcript was eventually published as A Dialogue (public library).

I was truly blown away by this rare footage of two literary & intellectual giants!

“To be honest today in this tinsel America,” the trailblazing African American journalist Ida Lewis writes in the preface of A Dialogue , “one must be willing to put one’s soul on the line” — an observation even truer amid our present global tinsel of ready-made opinions, packaged and flung across at the other side, in a divisive culture where there is always an other side. Lewis saw the dialogue between Baldwin and Giovanni as an effort to “begin to draw upon each other’s strengths rather than wallow in each other’s weaknesses” — an effort all the more urgent today.

The last time I read or saw dialogue between a man & a woman on this level, in this way was when Bell Hooks & Cornel West delivered “Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life” which had a huge impact on me.

Throughout this conversation, many piercing, prescient observations were made by both which are  as relevant today as back then. One of the gems that stood out for me was when Baldwin spoke of the most heartbreaking and pernicious way in which all bigotry infiltrates the psyche and shrinks it from the inside:

It’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself. You become a collaborator, an accomplice of your own murderers, because you believe the same things they do. They think it’s important to be white and you think it’s important to be white; they think it’s a shame to be black and you think it’s a shame to be black. And you have no corroboration around you of any other sense of life.Power without some sense of oneself is to me another kind of instability, and black people would then become exactly what white people have become.

Towards the end, a vital exchange of ideas concerning love & responsibility captivated me & so wished that this could have been expanded upon. It’s a tragedy that rare footage like this is not more widely known, but in some ways through the medium of Hip Hop culture, Baldwin & Giovanni’s groundbreaking ideas are being spread far & wide by the likes of Ursula Rucker, Nas, Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, Talib Kweli & Saul Williams.

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