Q. In your contemporary novels you portray harsh confrontation between black and white. In Tar Baby a character says, "White folks and black folks should not sit down and eat together or do any of those personal things in life." It seems hopeless if we can't bridge the abysses you see between sexes, classes, races.
A. I feel personally sorrowful about black-white relations a lot of the time because black people have always been used as a buffer in this country between powers to prevent class war, to prevent other kinds of real conflagrations.
If there were no black people here in this country, it would have been Balkanized. The immigrants would have torn each other's throats out, as they have done everywhere else. But in becoming an American, from Europe, what one has in common with that other immigrant is contempt for me -- it's nothing else but color. Wherever they were from, they would stand together. They could all say, "I am not that." So in that sense, becoming an American is based on an attitude: an exclusion of me.
It wasn't negative to them -- it was unifying. When they got off the boat, the second word they learned was "nigger." Ask them -- I grew up with them. I remember in the fifth grade a smart little boy who had just arrived and didn't speak any English. He sat next to me. I read well, and I taught him to read just by doing it. I remember the moment he found out that I was black -- a nigger. It took him six months; he was told. And that's the moment when he belonged, that was his entrance. Every immigrant knew he would not come as the very bottom. He had to come above at least one group -- and that was us.
Q. When you think about what the Jews did as leaders in the civil rights movement, in the forefront of trying to break the barriers, how do you account for the abrasiveness between blacks and Jews now?
A. For a long time I was convinced that the conflict between Jewish people and black people in this country was a media event. But everywhere I went in the world where there were black people, somebody said, What about the blacks and Asians? What do you think about the blacks and the Mexicans? Or, in New York at one time, blacks and Puerto Ricans? The only common denominator is blacks.
I thought, Something is disguised, what is it? What I find is a lot of black people who believe that Jews in this country, by and large, have become white. They behave like white people rather than Jewish people.
Q. Hasn't the rift been brought about partly by the anti-Semitic rhetoric of black Muslims like Louis Farrakhan?
A. Farrakhan is one person, one black person. Why is it that no black person seems to be rabid about Meir Kahane? Farrakhan is rejected by a lot of black people who wouldn't go near that man. It's not an equal standard -- one black person is all black people.
Q. But sometimes whites feel that all white people are being similarly equated, when in fact attitudes among whites range from the Ku Klux Klan right over to the saints.
A. Black people have always known that. We've had to distinguish among you because our lives depended on it. I'm always annoyed about why black people have to bear the brunt of everybody else's contempt. If we are not totally understanding and smiling, suddenly we're demons.