Gone but not forgotten, the author of Giovanni’s Room and The Fire Next Time still has plenty to teach us in 2020.
As the world reckons with racial justice, many readers will find that messages from the Civil Rights Movement still ring true today. Chief among those resonant voices is author James Baldwin. And because Baldwin’s wisdom continues to make an impact today, more than 30 years after his death, Bustle has compiled a list of 15 relevant-as-ever James Baldwin quotes.
Born on Aug. 2, 1924, James Baldwin began his publishing career at the tender age of 13, when his first essay, "Harlem — Then and Now," appeared in his junior high school’s magazine. Abused by his father, a Baptist minister, Baldwin grew up poor and turned to libraries for shelter, books for comfort. As a young, gay, Black man, frustrated with the United States’ backward views on sexuality and race, 24-year-old Baldwin emigrated to Europe, where he remained for the rest of his life. He died of stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence on Dec. 1, 1987, at the age of 63.
Here are 15 timely James Baldwin quotes to help you remember the author and guide you through these turbulent times.
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“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.” — from The Fire Next Time
"[I]t’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." — from a New York Times interview with Robert Coles, printed July 31, 1977
"[T]he world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky." — from Sonny’s Blues
"We know that a man is not a thing and is not to be placed at the mercy of things. We know that air and water belong to all mankind and not merely to industrialists. We know that a baby does not come into the world merely to be the instrument of someone else’s profit. We know that democracy does not mean the coercion of all into a deadly — and, finally, wicked — mediocrity but the liberty for all to aspire to the best that is in him, or that has ever been." — from "An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis," published November 19, 1970 in The New York Times Review of Books
"Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." — from "Fifth Avenue, Uptown," published July 1960 in Esquire
"People don’t have any mercy. They tear you limb from limb, in the name of love. Then, when you’re dead, when they’ve killed you by what they made you go through, they say you didn’t have any character. They weep big, bitter tears — not for you. For themselves, because they’ve lost their toy." — from Another Country
"Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced." — from "As Much Truth as One Can Bear," published Jan. 14, 1962 in The New York Times
"[P]eople 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." — from a New York Times interview with Robert Coles, printed July 31, 1977
"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." — from Giovanni’s Room
"One way of gauging a nation’s health, or of discerning what it really considers to be its interests — or to what extent it can be considered as a nation as distinguished from a coalition of special interests — is to examine those people it elects to represent or protect it." — from "An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis," published November 19, 1970 in The New York Times Review of Books
"Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law." — from The Fire Next Time
"It’s astounding the first time you realize that a stranger has a body — the realization that he has a body makes him a stranger. It means that you have a body, too. You will live with this forever, and it will spell out the language of your life." — from If Beale Street Could Talk
"The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it." — from a 1957 letter to Sol Stein
"[W]hite Americans… are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence. This… is heard nowhere more plainly than in those stammering, terrified dialogues… Do not blame me. I was not there…. I have nothing against you, nothing! What have you got against me? What do you want? But, on the same day, in another gathering, and in the most private chamber of his heart, always, the white American remains proud of that history for which he does not wish to pay, and from which, materially, he has profited so much." — from "The White Man’s Guilt," published August 1965 in Ebony
"The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, … while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything." — from No Name in the Street
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