Quotations by Baldwin, James


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.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“An interview with James Baldwin” by Studs Terkel (1961), in Conversations With James Baldwin (1989)

See also this related quotation.
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Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” New York Times Book Review (14 Jan 1962)
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Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“Every Good-Bye Ain’t Gone,” New York Times (19 Dec 1977)
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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.

Baldwin - surrender a dream - wist_info quote

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“Faulkner and Desegregation,” Partisan Review (Fall 1956)
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It is a terrible, an inexorable law, that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” Esquire (Jul 1960)

Full text.

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Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.

Baldwin - expensive to be poor - wist_info quote

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“Fifth Avenue, Uptown: a Letter from Harlem,” Esquire (Jul 1960)
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I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not a means to control others.

Baldwin - God liberation - wist_info

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“In Search of a Majority,” Speech, Kalamazoo College (Feb 1960)
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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.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“Letter from a Region of My Mind,” The New Yorker (17 Nov 1962)

Republished as "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind" in The Fire Next Time (1963)
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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.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“Letter from a Region of My Mind,” The New Yorker (17 Nov 1962)


Republished as "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind" in The Fire Next Time (1963).

Added on 21-Jan-11 | Last updated 21-Jan-11
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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.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“Letter from a Region of My Mind,” The New Yorker (17 Nov 1962)

Republished as "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind" in The Fire Next Time (1963)
Added on 18-Feb-11 | Last updated 15-Dec-15
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The hope of the world lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“Malcolm and Martin,” Esquire (Apr 1972)
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I imagine that the reason that people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they are afraid that if they let go of the hate, they will have to deal with pain.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“Me and My House,” Harper’s (1955)

Reprinted in Notes of a Native Son (1955)

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The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” Esquire (May 1961)

Republished in Nobody Knows My Name (1961)

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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.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” Esquire (May 1961)

Reprinted in Nobody Knows My Name (1961).
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Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.

Baldwin - pure at heart - wist_info

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” Esquire (May 1961)
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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 say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. 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.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“The Negro Child — His Self-Image,” speech (16 Oct 1963)
    (Source)

Speech to educators, first published as "A Talk to Teachers," The Saturday Review (21 Dec 1963). The thesis above is restatated at the end in these words, more frequently quoted: "I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person."
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Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“The Precarious Vogue of Ingmar Bergman,” Esquire (1960)
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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.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“The Precarious Vogue of Ingmar Bergman,” Esquire (Apr 1960)

Republished as "The Northern Protestant" in Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961).

Added on 17-Dec-10 | Last updated 17-Dec-10
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It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
“Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare”
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You cannot fix what you cannot face.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
(Attributed)
Added on 1-Feb-13 | Last updated 1-Feb-13
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Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
No Name in the Street (1972)
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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 (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
No Name in the Street (1972)
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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.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
No Name in the Street (1972)
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Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
Nobody Knows My Name, Introduction (1961)
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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.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
Notes of a Native Son (1955)
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To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
The Fire Next Time, “My Dungeon Shook” (1963)
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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.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
The Price of the Ticket, “No Name in the Street” (1972)
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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.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
In Studs Terkel, “An interview with James Baldwin” (1961)

Published in Conversations with James Baldwin (1989)

Added on 24-Dec-10 | Last updated 24-Dec-10
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It is not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
Interview with Nikki Giovanni (4 Nov 1971), A Dialogue (1973)
Added on 19-Dec-11 | Last updated 19-Dec-11
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You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who 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.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American author [James Arthur Baldwin]
Interview, Life Magazine (24 May 1963)

See also this related quotation.
Added on 17-Mar-16 | Last updated 17-Mar-16
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