Born in 1924, James Baldwin was an American essayist, novelist, playwright and social critic. He became an important voice through writing passionately about racial discrimination, spirituality and humanity.
Baldwin’s writings approach social issues and the psychological pressure affecting African Americans and individuals with different sexual orientations, a then-taboo subject. Baldwin explores another controversial subject – interracial relationships — in his novel Another Country.
Baldwin was born to a young single mother and never knew the identity of his biological father. When James was three years old, his mother married a Baptist minister named David Baldwin. The author discovered his passion for reading at an early age, but at first he followed his stepfather’s footsteps and served as a youth minister.
However, when he was in high school he got the chance to work on the school’s magazine where he published numerous poems and short stories. Things appeared to go in the right direction for the young author, but his family struggled with poverty more and more so he had to put his plans for college on hold and dedicate his time working all sorts of jobs to support his younger siblings.
Due to constant rejection from employers, Baldwin nearly lost all hope on becoming a black artist. That was until he met Beauford Delaney – a renowned painter that later became his mentor.
As a victim of racism, Baldwin became an active participant in the civil rights struggle. The assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., pushed the author into using a more strident tone in his later work called No Name in the Street.
Some of Baldwin’s best work includes The Fire Next Time, The Devil Finds Work, Nobody Knows my Name and Remember this House – which is an unfinished manuscript that forms the basis of the documentary film I Am Not Your Negro.
An advocate for equity and acceptance, Baldwin died in December 1987.
Here are 30 James Baldwin quotes to bring you closer to humanity:
Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.
I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.
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.
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.
If you’re treated a certain way you become a certain kind of person. If certain things are described to you as being real they’re real for you whether they’re real or not.
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.
Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law.
The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.
Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.
Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.
Nakedness has no color: this can come as news only to those who have never covered, or been covered by, another naked human being.
Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
People can cry much easier than they can change.
Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.
Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle. Love is a war. Love is growing up.
People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, any more than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say ‘Yes’ to life.
A liberal: someone who thinks he knows more about your experience than you do.
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations.
You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.
To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.
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.
Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?
It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.
The purpose of education…is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions.
To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the making of bread.
There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.
Everybody’s journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality.
Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.
Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.