Skip navigation

Tag Archives: James Baldwin

“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 is 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. That the scapegoat pays for the sins of others is well known, but this is only legend, and a revealing one at that. In fact, however the scapegoat may be made to suffer, his suffering cannot purify the sinner; it merely incriminates him the more, and it seals his damnation. The scapegoat, eventually, is released, to death: his murderer continues to live. The suffering of the scapegoat has resulted in seas of blood, and yet not one sinner has been saved, or changed, by this despairing ritual. Sin has merely been added to sin, and guilt piled upon guilt. In the private chambers of the soul, the guilty party is identified, and the accusing finger, there, is not legend, but consequence, not fantasy, but the truth. 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.”

– James Baldwin, No Name in the Street

“Faulkner hoped that American blacks would have the generosity to ‘go slow’ – would allow white people the time to save themselves, as though they had not had more than enough time already.

“…He wants the old order, which came into existence through unchecked greed and wanton murder, to redeem itself without further bloodshed – without, that is, any further menacing itself – and without coercion. This, old orders never do, less because they would not than because they cannot. They cannot because they have always existed in relation to a force which they have had to subdue. This subjugation is the key to their identity and the triumph and justification of their history, which is now indivisible from oneself, has been full of errors and excesses; but this is not the same thing as seeing that, for millions of people, this history – oneself – has been nothing but an intolerable yoke, a stinking prison, a shrieking grave. It is not so easy to see that, for millions of people, life itself depends on the speediest possible demolition of this history, even if this means the leveling, or the destruction of its heirs. And whatever this history may have given to the subjugated is of absolutely no value, since they have never been free to reject it; they will never even be able to assess it until they are free to take from it what they need, and to add to history the monumental fact of their presence.”

– James Baldwin, No Name in the Street

“Time passes and passes. It passes backward and it passes forward and it carries you along, and no one in the whole wide world knows more about time than this:it is carrying you through an element you do not understand into an element you will not remember. Yet, something remembers – it can even be said that something avenges.”

– James Baldwin, No Name in the Street

“The moral of the story (and the hope of the world) lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself.”

– James Baldwin, No Name in the Street

“I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human that no school on earth – and, indeed, no church – can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath appearances, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind the words.”

– James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

“…a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”

– James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

“The vision people hold of the world to come is but a reflection, with predictable wishful distortions, of the world in which they live.”

– James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

“The word ‘safety’ brings us to the real meaning of the world ‘religious’ as we use it.”

– James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

“No one is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart: for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.”

– James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

“It proved itself, like most real problems, to be insoluble. He died, as it were, with the teeth of this problem still buried in his throat.”

– James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

“It is not my impression that people wish to become worse; they really wish to become better but very often do not know how.”

– James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

“The future is like heaven – everyone exalts it but no one wants to go there now.”

– James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

“The question of nationality no longer necessarily involves the question of allegiance. Allegiance, after all, has to work two ways; and one can grow weary of an allegiance which is not reciprocal.”

– James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

“A ghetto can be improved in one way only: out of existence.”

– James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

“The question of who I was was not solved because I had removed myself from the social forces which menaced me – anyway, these forces had become interior, and I had dragged them across the ocean with me… I could not escape the knowledge that if I was still in need of havens, my journey had been for nothing. Haves are high-priced. The price exacted of teh haven-dweller is that he contrive to delude himself into believing that he has found a haven.”

– James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

– James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

“What one’s imagination makes of other people is dictated, of course, by the laws of one’s own personality and it is one of the ironies of black-white relations that, by means of what the white man imagines the black man to be, the black man is enabled to know who the white man is.”

– James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

“The great impulse of the courtroom seemed to be to put these people where they could not be seen – and not because they were offended at the crimes, unless, indeed, they were offended that the crimes were so petty, but because they did not wish to know that their society could be counted on to produce, probably in greater and greater numbers, a whole body of people for whom crim ewas the only possible career. Any society inevitably produces its criminals, but a society at once rigid and unstable can do nothing whatever to alleviate the poverty of its lowest members, cannot present to eh hypothetical young man at the crucial moment that so-well-advertised right path.

“…as had been predicted, the case against us was dismissed. The story… finally told, caused great merriment in the courtroom. …I was chilled by their merriment, even though it was meant to warm me. It could only remind me of the alughter I had often heard at home. This laughter is the laughter of those who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from all the wretched, for whom the pain of the living is not real. I had heard it so often in my native land that I had resolved to find a place where I would never it any more. In som edeep black, stony, and liberating way, my life, in my own eyes, began during that first year in Paris, when it was borne in on me that this laughter is universal and never can be stilled.”

– James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

“I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.”

– James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

“…as long as the water is troubled, it cannot become stagnant.”

– James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son