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James Baldwin - Quotes

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.
Baldwin, James. No Name in the Street. 1972.

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.
Baldwin, James. No Name in the Street. 1972.

Well, 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. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.
Baldwin, James. No Name in the Street. 1972.

The prison is overcrowded, the calendars full, the judges busy, the lawyers ambitious, and the cops zealous. What does it matter if someone gets trapped here for a year or two, gets ruined here, goes mad here, commits murder or suicide here? It's too bad, but that's the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. I do not claim that everyone in prison here is innocent, but I do claim that the law, as it operates, is guilty, and that the prisoners, therefore, are all unjustly imprisoned. Is it conceivable, after all, that any middle-class white boy -- or, indeed, almost any white boy -- would have been arrested on so grave a charge as murder, with such flimsy substantiation, and forced to spend, as of this writing, three years in prison?What force, precisely, is operating when a prisoner is advised, requested, ordered, intimidated, or forced, to confess to a crime he has not committed, and promised a lighter sentence for so perjuring and debasing himself? Does the law exist for the purpose of furthering the ambitions of those who have sworn to uphold the law, or is it seriously to be considered as a moral, unifying force, the health and strength of a nation?
Baldwin, James. No Name in the Street. 1972.

One must say Yes to life, and embrace it wherever it is found - and it is found in terrible places...
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. 1963.

Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. 1963.

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.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. 1963.

Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. 1963.

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.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. 1963.

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.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. 1963.

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.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. 1963.

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.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. 1963.

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.
Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket. 1985.

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.
Baldwin, James. The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy in Esquire. 1961.

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.
Baldwin, James. The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy in Esquire. 1961.

Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.
Baldwin, James. The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy in Esquire. 1961.

The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.
Baldwin, James. The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy in Esquire. 1961.

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.
Baldwin, James. An Interview With James Baldwin. 1961.

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.
Baldwin, James. An Interview With James Baldwin. 1961.

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.
Baldwin, James. An Interview With James Baldwin. 1961.

Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.
Baldwin, James. Fifth Avenue, Uptown. in Esquire 1960.

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.
Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket. 1985.

I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not a means to control others.
Baldwin, James. Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. 1961.

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.
Baldwin, James. Baldwin, James. Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. 1961.

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1961.

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, James. Baldwin, James. Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. 1961.

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1961.

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.
Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket. 1985.

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.
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. 1955.

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.
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. 1955.

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.
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. 1955.

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.
Baldwin, James. Autobiographical Notes. 1952.