james baldwin Quotes

James Baldwin Quotes

Birth Date: 1924-08-02 (Saturday, August 2nd, 1924)
Date of Death: 1987-12-01 (Tuesday, December 1st, 1987)

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Quotes

    • All over Harlem, Negro boys and girls are growing into stunted maturity, trying desperately to find a place to stand; and the wonder is not that so many are ruined but that so many survive.
    • I began plotting novels at about the time I learned to read. The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it with the restrained observation that I certainly would not consider living it again.
    • Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent - which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next - one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.
    • When one begins looking for influences one finds them by the score. I haven't thought much about my own, not enough anyway; I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech - and something of Dickens' love for bravura - have something to do with me today; but I wouldn't stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for.)
    • One writes out of one thing only - one's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.
    • I don't like people who like me because I'm a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one's own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done. I want to be an honest man and a good writer.
    • Confronted with the impossibility of remaining faithful to one's beliefs, and the equal impossibility of becoming free of them, one can be driven to the most inhuman excesses.
    • I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
    • Words like 'freedom,' 'justice,' 'democracy' are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.
    • Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free - he has set himself free - for higher dreams, for greater privileges.
    • I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I do not expect that to be my only subject, but only because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else.
    • I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not a means to control others.
    • All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.
    • Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.
    • Art has to be a kind of confession. I don't mean a true confession in the sense of that dreary magazine. The effort it seems to me, is: if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too - the terms with which they are connected to other people.
    • You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.
    • Most of us, no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what is going to happen to him from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it's true of everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace.
    • At the rate things are going here, all of Africa will be free before we can get a lousy cup of coffee.
    • The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.
    • Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.
    • The roles that we construct are constructed because we feel that they will help us to survive and also, of course, because they fulfill something in our personalities; and one does not, therefore, cease playing a role simply because one has begun to understand it. All roles are dangerous. The world tends to trap you in the role you play and it is always extremely hard to maintain a watchful, mocking distance between oneself as one appears to be and oneself as one actually is.
    • Money, it turned out, was exactly like sex. You thought of nothing else if you didn't have it and thought of other things if you did.
    • The primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid: the state of being alone.
    • 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.
    • Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty - necessarily, since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels.
    • If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.
    • I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be 'accepted' by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don't wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this - which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never - the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.
    • Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.
    • It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it. And I am not being frivolous here, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become.
    • It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
    • Now, leaving aside all the physical factors one can quote - leaving aside the rape or murder, leaving aside the bloody catalogue of oppression which we are too familiar with any way - what the system does to the subjugated is to destroy his sense of reality. It destroys his father's authority over him. His father can no longer tell him anything because his past has disappeared.
    • 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. People who have been wronged will attempt to right the wrong; they would not be people if they didn't. They can rarely afford to be scrupulous about the means they will use. They will use such means as come to hand. Neither, in the main, will they distinguish one oppressor from another, nor see through to the root principle of their oppression.
    • Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.
    • If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected - those, precisely, who need the law's protection most! - and listens to their testimony.
    • 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.
    • It's no credit to this enormously rich country that there are more oppressive, less decent governments elsewhere. We claim superiority of our institutions. We ought to live up to our own standards, not use misery elsewhere as an endless source of self-gratification and justification. Of course, people tell me all the time in the West that they are trying, they are trying hard. Some have tears in their eyes and let me know how awful they feel about the way our poor live, our blacks, or those in dozens of other countries. People can cry much easier than they can change, a rule of psychology people like me picked up as kids on the street.
    • The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child's language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.
    • I knew Richard [Wright] and I loved him. [...] I was not attacking him; I was trying to clarify something for myself.
    • I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is.
    • You don't realize that you're intelligent until it gets you into trouble.
    • The celebrity never sees himself. I have some idea what I'm doing on that stage; above all, I have some idea what sustains me on that stage. But the celebrity is not exactly Jimmy, though he comes out of Jimmy and Jimmy nourishes that, too. I can see now, with hindsight, that I would've had to become a celebrity in order to survive. A boy like me with all his handicaps, real and fancied, could not have survived in obscurity. I can say that it would have had to happen this way, though I could not see it coming.
    • When the South has trouble with its Negroes - when the Negroes refuse to remain in their 'place' - it blames 'outside agitators' and 'Northern interference.' When the nation has trouble with the Northern Negro, it blames the Kremlin.
    • Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the battle field.
    • In Boston, when they shit on you, they hand you a towel - so that you can can wipe their ass.
    • Life is more important than art, that's what makes art important.
    • Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is battle, love is a war; love is growing up.
    • Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.
    • People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.
    • Rage cannot be hidden, it can only be dissembled. This dissembling deludes the thoughtless, and strengthens rage and adds, to rage, contempt.
    • We have all had the experience of finding that our reactions and perhaps even our deeds have denied beliefs we thought were ours.
    • When the book comes out it may hurt you -- but in order for me to do it, it had to hurt me first. I can only tell you about yourself as much as I can face about myself.
    • james baldwin

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