We Hold The Trump // James Baldwin

A public address delivered by James Baldwin (1924-1987) to U.C. Berkeley students on January 15th, 1979. Portions of this transcript have been edited for concision and clarity.




I’m going to improvise, like a writer, on some assumptions. And though I feel a little uneasy in saying this, nevertheless what a writer is obliged to recognise is that he is involved in a language which he has to change. For example, for a black writer, especially in this country, to be born into the English language is to realise that the assumptions of the language, the assumptions on which the language operates, are his enemy. When Othello kills Desdemona, he says, “I threw away a pearl richer than all my tribe.”  I was very young when I read that, and I wondered about it: “richer” than my tribe? I had to think about being “as black as sin”, “as black as night”, “black-hearted”. And in order to deal with that, at a certain time in my life, when I was not in this country but in France, where I could not speak to anybody, because I spoke no French, and where nobody wanted to speak to me, I dropped into a silence in which I heard for the first time the beat of the language of the people who had produced me. I was not able to do that here. I did it far away. 


I want to try to shift a certain assumption. I want to suggest that instead of speaking about the “Civil Rights Movement” – which is an American phrase that upon examination means nothing at all – let us pretend that I stand before you as a witness. And let us pretend that everyone who hears the sound of my voice is in the same condition. I am a witness to, and a survivor of, the latest slave rebellion. I put it that way because Malcolm X and I met many years ago. Malcolm was doing a debate with a very young sit-in student, and Malcolm was a black Muslim, so the radio station called me in to moderate this discussion, which I did. I was not needed, I must tell you. For Malcolm was one of the most beautiful, one of the most gentle men I met in all my life. He asked the boy a question, which I now present to you. If you are a citizen, why do you have to fight for your civil rights? If you’re fighting for your civil rights, that means you’re not a citizen. In fact, the legality of this country has never had anything to do with its former slaves. We are still governed by the slave codes. What is called the “Civil Rights Movement” was really insurrection. It was co-opted. 


Now that the late, great J. Edgar Hoover is in his grave, god bless him, a fraction of what I knew, and what many other people knew, during all those years, can be more or less discussed. So one can say that the latest slave rebellion was brutally put down. We all know what happened to Medgar. That it was not some lunatic who happened to be wandering around Mississippi with a gun, the one lunatic in Mississippi at that moment, who happened to have a gun, and by some odd coincidence shot Medgar Evers in the car-port of his home, in the sight and hearing of his wife and his children. Medgar was thirty-seven.


We all know what happened to Malcolm. We all know what happened to Martin. We know what happened to Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. And so many more. That is the result of a slave rebelllion. And since we are the survivors of it, since we have our children to raise, to save, a brutal thing must be said. That the intentions of this melancholy country as concerns black people – and anyone who doubts me can ask any Indian – have always been genocidal. They needed us for labour, and for sport. Now they can’t get rid of us. We cannot be exiled, and we cannot be accommodated. But something’s got to give. The machinery in this country operates, day in and day out, hour by hour, until this hour, to keep a “nigger” in his place. 


When I was young, among other things, I used to run an elevator. Murderously, but I ran it. I am not needed to run the elevator no more. A whole lot of things we used to do, we are needed for no more. On the other hand, we’re here. In every city in this nation now, black father is standing in the street, watching black son. They’re watching each other. And yet neither one of them got no place to go. That is not their fault. It has nothing to do with their value, their merit, their capabilities. There may be nothing worse under heaven, there may be no greater crime, than to attack a man’s integrity. To attempt to destroy that man. But despite the American constitution, in spite of all the born-again Christians, I know that my father was not a mule, and not a thing. And that my sister was not born to be the plaything of idle white sherriffs. What am I saying? I am saying that we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. I am saying that our presence in this country terrifies every white man walking. I want to suggest, and it’s a very important suggestion, that this is not now, never has been, and never will be a white country. 


There is not a white person in this country who can prove he’s white. The people who settled this country came from many places. In France, they were French. In England, they were English. In Italy, they were Italian. In Greece, they were Greek. In Russia, they were Russian. And it is worth noting, by the way, that this phenomenon called “Europe” has never agreed about anything at all, except us. The only thing that ever unites them – the “Common Market”, for example – is about us. And they can’t even get that together. They’re squabbling over what’s left of their colonies. They’ve lost their clowns, as Ray Charles might put it. And this means that we have to consider, first of all, that “white” is a state of mind. I’m not talking about white people: in so far as you think of yourself as white, you’re irrelevant. We can no longer afford that particular romance. And we are all, in any case, here


The only people in this country who have any notion of who they are, the only people, are the black people in this country. And I will tell you why. When the Italian got here – or the Greek, or whoever – there was a moment in his life when he had to start to speak English. When he became a guy named Joe. And that meant he couldn’t speak to his father, because his father couldn’t speak English. That was a rupture, a profound rupture. The son became a guy named Joe, and never found out anything else about himself. But we black people in this country come out of a history which was never written down. In spite of the danger in which we stand, and all that we know is happening around us every day, we forged ourselves out of this fire. And if we could do that, and we have done that, we can deal with what now lies before us. 


I know I ain’t got no jobs to give nobody, I know that. I know I ain’t got no money. I know that many things must be done. And I know that I can’t do them. But I also know that I haven’t got to do them alone. We have never been alone. That’s our mystery. Every white person in this country – I don’t care what he says, or she says – knows one thing. They may not know what they want. But they know they would not like to be black here. And if they know that, they know everything they need to know. And whatever else they say is a lie. When Americans talk about progress, they mean “how fast can I become white?”. And that is a trick-bag, because they know perfectly well I can never become white. I’ve drunk my share of dry martinis. I’ve proven myself civilised in every way I can. But there is an irreducible difficulty. Something doesn’t work...


The black people in this country stand in a very strange place. So do the white people in this country, and almost for the very same reason, though we approach it from different points of view. I suggest you think about it. That what the CIA, for example, or the president of the United States, for example, don’t know about the world which surrounds them is the price they pay for not knowing me. If you couldn’t deal with my father, how are you going to deal with the people on the streets of Tehran? There is a reason that noone wants our children, until this day, educated. When we attempt, ourselves, to do it, we find ourselves up against the vast machinery of the system of education in this country, which is, among other things, a billion-dollar industry. And the billion-dollar industry is more important than the life of a child. The machinery is vast, ruthless, cunning, and thinks of nothing, in fact, but itself – which means us, because we are a threat to the machinery. 


We have lived through, as I have suggested, a slave rebellion. We cannot pick up guns, because they got the guns. We cannot hit those streets again, because they’re waiting for us. We have to do something else. Before the slave rebellion, there was something which I now call “non-cooperation.” How to execute this in detail is something each one of us has to figure out. But we could begin with the schools. Take our children out of those schools. Take them off those buses. Everybody knows, who thinks about it, that you can’t change a school without changing a neighbourhood. And you can’t change a neighbourhood without changing a city. And there ain’t nobody prepared to change the city because they want the city to be white. (How can you expect a people who cannot educate their own to educate anybody else?) So this would be contested. Nevertheless, we got to start somewhere. I only use that as an example: I’m not a tactician. But I want you to think about it. Because I know what can happen if you do think about it. 


There’s one more thing. This country, and indeed the West, has been living on a war economy since 1939. It is useful to bear in mind that we would be at war now if we could afford to be. Ain’t no place left to go to war. All the colonies are no longer where they were. Now it’s a matter of getting the resources of a country out of European hands and into African hands. And we are involved in that, the black people of this country. We hold the trump. When you try to slaughter a people, and leave them with nothing to lose, you’ve created somebodies with nothing to lose. And if I’ve got nothing to lose, what are you going to do to me? We have one thing to lose. And that’s our children. We have never done that yet. And there’s no reason for us to do it now. We hold the trump. So, patience. Shuffle the cards. 

James Baldwin // January 1979