Quotes from James Baldwin

from James Baldwin: Collected Essays. Selected by Toni Morrison. New York: The Library of America, 1998.

“I love American more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” “Autobiographical Notes”

“Yet if the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past, American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocent, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be.” “Stranger in the Village.”

“It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. The world is no longer white, and it will never be white again.” “Stranger in the Village.”

“The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world, and becomes one’s key to the experience of others. One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion. This energy is all that one finds in the rubble of vanished civilizations, and the only hope for ours.” “Nobody Knows My Name.”

“We do not trust educated people and rarely, alas, produce them, for we do not trust the independence of mind which alone makes a genuine education possible.” “Nobody Knows My Name”

“It is hard enough, God knows, under the best of circumstances, to get an education in this country. White children are graduated yearly who can neither read, write, nor think, and who are in a state of the most abysmal ignorance concerning the world around them. But at least they are white. They are under the illusion—which, since they are so badly educated, sometimes has a fatal tenacity—that they can do whatever they want to do. Perhaps that is exactly what they are doing, in which case we had best all go down in prayer.” “Nobody Knows My Name.”

“There is never a time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.” “Nobody Knows My Name.”

“The importance of a writer is continuous; I think it’s socially debatable and usually socially not terribly rewarding, but that’s not the point; his importance, I think, is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe. It is a function, let’s face it, it’s a special function. There is no democracy on this level. It’s a very difficult thing to do, it’s a very special thing to do….But their importance is, and the importance of writers in this country now is this, that their country is yet to be discovered in any real sense.” “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel” 229

“[T]he thing that most white people imagine they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence. It was this commodity precisely which I had to get rid of at once, literally, on pain of death. I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order against which dream, unfailingly and unconsciously, they tested and very often lost their lives.” “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy’ in Nobody Knows My Name 270

“To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.” “My Dungeon Shook” in The Fire Next Time 294

“Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality—the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about destruction. It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so—and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths—change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not—safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears. And by destruction I mean precisely the abdication by Americans of any effort really to be free.” “Down at the Cross” in The Fire Next Time 339

“[A] vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of the mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. And I submit, then, that the racial tensions that menace Americans today have little to do with real antipathy—on the contrary, indeed–and are involved only symbolically with color. Those tensions are rooted in the very same depths as those form which love springs, or murder. The white man’s unadmitted—and apparently, to him, unspeakable—private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power…. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now—in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life—expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power—and no one holds power forever.” “Down at the Cross,” The Fire Next Time, 341-2

“And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.” “Down at the Cross,” The Fire Next Time, 342

“If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne.” “Down at the Cross,” The Fire Next Time, 343

“Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in act, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.” “Take Me to the Water,” No Name in the Street 357

“I was old enough to recognize how deep and strangling were my fears, how manifold and mighty my limits: but no one can demand more of life than that life do him the honor to demand that he learn to live with his fears, and learn to live, every day, both within his limits, and beyond them.” “Take Me To the Water, No Name in the Street, 384

“If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have needed to invent and could never have become so dependent on what they still call ‘the Negro problem.’ This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them; and this not from anything blacks may or may not be doing but because of the role a guilty and constricted white imagination has assigned to the blacks…. People pay for what they do, and, still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply: by the lives they lead. The crucial thing, here, is that the sum of these individual abdications menaces life all over the world” “Take Me To the Water, No Name in the Street, 386

“That men have an enormous need to debase other men—and only because they are men—is a truth which history forbids us to labor.” “Take Me To the Water, No Name in the Street, 392

“The powerless, by definition, can never be ‘racists,’ for they can never make the world pay for what they feel or fear except by the suicidal endeavor which makes them fanatics or revolutionaries, or both; whereas, those in power can be urbane and charming and invite you to those homes which they know you will never own. The powerless must do their own dirty work. The powerful have it done for them.” “To Be Baptized,” No Name in the Street, 409-410

“The truth which frees black people will also free white people, but this is a truth which white people find very difficult to swallow.” “To Be Baptized,” No Name in the Street, 432

“Bobby Seale insists that one of the things that most afflict white people is their disastrous concept of God; they have never accepted the dark gods, and their fear of the dark gods, who live in them at least as surely as the white God does, causes them to distrust life. It causes them, profoundly, to be fascinated by, and more than a little frightened of the lies led by black people: it is this tension which makes them problematical.” “To Be Baptized,” No Name in the Street, 437

“It is a pity that we won’t, probably, ever have the time to attempt to define once more the relationship of the odd and disreputable artist to the odd and disreputable revolutionary; for the revolutionary, however odd, is rarely disreputable in the same way that an artist can be. These two seem doomed to stand forever at an odd and rather uncomfortable angle to each other, and they both stand at a sharp and not always comfortable angle to the people they both, in their different fashions, hope to serve. But I think that it is just as well to remember that the people are one mystery and that the person is another….Ultimately, the artist and the revolutionary function as they function, and pay whatever dues they must pay behind it because they are both possessed by a vision, and they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it. Otherwise, they could never endure, much less embrace, the lives they are compelled to lead. And I think we need each other, and have much to learn from each other, and more than ever, now.” “To Be Baptized,” No Name in the Street, 460

“The very fact that the odds are so great, and the journey, barely begun, so dangerous means that there is no time to waste, and it invests every action with an impersonal urgency.” “To Be Baptized,” No Name in the Street, 462

“[T]he church and the theater are carried within us and it is we who create them, out of our need and out of an impulse more mysterious than our desire.” “Chapter One,” The Devil Finds Work, 501

“A story is impelled by the necessity to reveal: the aim of the story is revelation, which means that a story can have nothing—at least not deliberately—to hide. This also means that a story resolves nothing. The resolution of a story must occur in us, with what we make of the questions with which the story leaves us. A plot, on the other hand, must come to a resolution, prove a point: a plot must answer all of the questions which it pretends to pose.” Chapter Two, The Devil Finds Work, 510

“I think it was T.S. Eliot who observed that the people cannot bear very much reality. This may be true enough, as far as it goes, so much depending on what the word ‘people’ brings to mind: I think that we bear a little more reality than we might wish. In any case, in order for a person to bear his life, he needs a valid re-creation of that life, which is why, as Ray Charles might put it, blacks choose to sing the blues.” Chapter Two, The Devil Finds Work, 524

On his time in the church: “It was very important for me not to pretend to have surmounted the pain and terror of that time of my life, very important not to pretend that it left no mark on me. It marked me forever. In some measure I encountered the abyss of my own soul, the labyrinth of my destiny: these could never be escaped, to challenge these imponderables being, precisely, the heavy, tattered glory of the gift of God.   To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know that my soul trembles, I know that yours does, too: and, if I can respect this, both of us can live…. For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop, and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some junkies, the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror. It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself. The devil has no need of any dogma—though he can use them all—nor does he need any historical justification, history being so largely his invention.” Chapter Three, The Devil Finds Work, 571

“The people I had been raised among had orgasms all the time, and still chopped each other up with razors on Saturday nights.” “The New Lost Generation,” 663

“The barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of one’s self is high indeed. There are so many things one would rather not know!” The Creative Process

“The dangers of being an American artist are not greater than those of being an artist anywhere else in the world, but they are very particular. These dangers are produced by our history. They rest on the fact that in order to conquer this continent, the particular aloneness of which I speak—the aloneness in which one discovers that life is tragic, and, therefore, unutterably beautiful—could not be permitted.” The Creative Process, in Creative America 1962

“We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, is unable to assess either his weaknesses or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes one for the other. And this, I think, we do. We are the strongest nation in the western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity which no other nation has of moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, and create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World. But the price for this is a long look backward whence we came and an unflinching assessment of the record. For an artist, the record of that journey is most clearly revealed in the personalities of the people the journey produced. Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation, make freedom real.” The Creative Process, in Creative America 1962, 672

“Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society….The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions…To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.” A Talk to Teacher, 679

“A great writer operates as an unimpeachable witness to one’s own experience; and one of the reasons that great writers are so rare (and their careers, in the main, so stormy) is that almost no one wishes to have his experience corroborated. I suppose that one of the reasons for this is that one’s actual experience cannot but assault one’s self-image, one’s aspirations, and one’s safety. We all attempt to live on the surface, where we assume we will be less lonely, whereas experience is of the depths and is dictated by what we really fear and hate and love as distinguished from what we think we ought to fear and hate and love.” “This Nettle, Danger…” 687

“[T]he evil is, in some sense, ours, and we help to feed it by failing so often in our private lives to deal with our private truth—our own experience.” 687

“I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.” “Nothing Personal” 700

“I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt. Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I know you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, too, for the very same reason: As long as my children face the future they face, and come to the ruin that they come to, your children are very greatly in danger, too. They are endangered above all by the moral apathy that pretends it isn’t happening. This does something terrible to us.” “Words of a Native Son,” 707

“One of the things the white world does not know, but I think I know, is that black people are just like everybody else.” “American Dream and American Negro.” NYT Magazine, 3/7/65

“It seemed to me—I would say, sipping coffee and trying to be calm—that the principle of what had to be done was extremely simple; but before anything could be done, the principle had to be grasped. The principle on which one had to operate was that the government which can force me to pay my taxes and force me to fight in its defense anywhere in the world does not have the authority to say that it cannot protect my right to vote or my right to earn a living or my right to live anywhere I choose.” “Report from Occupied Territory,” 733

“It is true that two wrongs don’t make a right, as we love to point out to the people we have wronged. But one wrong doesn’t make a right, either.” “Negros are Anti-Semitic Because…”

“Yes. I, too, have said that I would exchange all the blues to save one starving child. I was wrong, not only because the exchange is not in my power, but because this singing of the Lord’s song in so strange a land has saved more children than anyone will ever know, and the beginning is not yet in sight.” NYT Book Review, 10/16/77, “Last of the Great Masters.”

“It may be impossible for anyone to tell the truth about his past. You drag your past with you everywhere, or it drags you.” “Every Good-bye Ain’t Gone” 773

Every good-bye ain’t gone: human history reverberates with violent upheaval, uprooting, arrival, and departure, hello and good-bye. Yet, I am not certain that anyone ever leaves home. When ‘home’ drops below the horizon, it rises in one’s breast and acquires the overwhelming power of menaced love.” “Every Good-bye Ain’t Gone” 778

“To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy. Indeed, without confronting the history that has either given white people an identity or divested them of it, it is hardly possible for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all.” Dark Days, 788

“It is an extraordinary achievement to be trapped in the dungeon of color and to dare shake down its walls and to step out of it, leaving the jailhouse keeper in the rubble.” Dark Days, 795

“At this hour of the world’s history, famine must be considered a man-made phenomenon and one looks at who is starving.”” The House of Bondage, 806

“The object of one’s hatred is never, alas, conveniently outside but is seated in one’s lap, stirring in one’s bowels and dictating the beating of one’s heart.” “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” 824

Other great quotes from a Paris Review interview

“It’s a terrible way to make a living. I find writing gets harder as time goes on. I’m speaking of the working process, which demands a certain amount of energy and courage (though I dislike using the word), and a certain amount of recklessness.”

“Every form is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass.”

On first drafts: “They are overwritten. Most of the rewrite, then, is cleaning. Don’t describe it, show it. That’s what I try to teach all young writers—take it out! Don’t describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple.”

“You learn how little you know. It becomes much more difficult because the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.”

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.”

3 thoughts on “Quotes from James Baldwin

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