May 3, 2009

P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening
Studs Terkel

Genius – Studs Terkel’s gifts as an interviewer were apparent to his readers; but it’s not until you read some of the interview transcripts that you begin to understand the level of technical skill Studs possessed to move a conversation forward, deeper. Much of the pure artistry of Studs’ interviews went unnoticed because he eliminated his portion of the conversation from his many published oral histories, graciously stepping off-stage to allow the person being interviewed to speak in pure poetic monologue. It was easy to miss the artistry even with a close listening to the old radio interviews because, often, Studs would employ only a few words to push the interview forward. “And white snow,” Studs interjects softly while James Baldwin is speaking in 1961 about a winter spent in Switzerland, which leads Baldwin to say, “And white snow, and white mountains, and white faces who really thought I was – I had been sent by the devil. It was very strange.” Or when Studs offers a single word, “Invisible –” which leads Baldwin to say, “You’re invisible. What they do see in you when they look at you is what they have invested you with. And what they have invested you with is all the agony, and the pain, and the danger, and the passion, and the torment, you know, sin, death, and hell, of which everyone in this country is terrified.” Reading Terkel and Baldwin is like listening to a great jazz duo play off one another, telling their story of America. Sometimes provocative, as when Baldwin observes, “And it’s one thing for Faulkner to deal with the Negro in his imagination where he can control him, and quite another one for him to deal with him in life, where he can’t control him.” Impatient, with Baldwin noting, “When people talk about time, therefore, you know, I really can’t help but be absolutely, not only impatient, but bewildered. Why should I wait any longer? And in any case, even if I were willing to – which I’m not – how?” And perceptive:

Baldwin: “You know, I’m not mad at this country anymore. I’m very worried about it. And I’m not worried about the Negroes in the country even so much as I’m worried about the country. The country doesn’t know what it’s done to Negroes. But the country has no notion whatever – and this is disastrous – about what it’s done to itself. They have yet to assess the price they paid, North and South, for keeping the Negro in his place. And, from my point of view, it shows in every single level of our lives, from the most public –”

Terkel: “Could you expand on this a little, Jim, on what the country has done to itself?”

Baldwin: “Well, one of the reasons, for example, I think that our youth is so badly educated – and it is inconceivably badly educated – is because education demands a certain daring, a certain independence of mind. You have to teach young people to think, and in order to teach young people to think, you have to teach them to think about everything. There mustn’t be something they cannot think about. If there’s one thing they can’t think about, then very shortly they can’t think about anything, you know.”


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