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13 Powerful Quotes From James Baldwin

James Baldwin (1924-1987) will forever be remembered as one of the greatest writers and thinkers in U.S. history, though so much of his work was critical of the very beliefs that America was founded upon. Baldwin was a vocal critic of the nation’s racist practices and institutions, pointing out the pervasiveness of white supremacy in every corner of society. For Baldwin, this was a central tenet of what it meant to be a citizen of not just the country but the world: to be alive to the possibility of change even in the face of hardship.

Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem, where he grew up with a young single mother. His mother married a Baptist minister when Baldwin was three years old, and his complicated relationship with the man would later inspire his first novel, 1953’s dynamic Go Tell It on the Mountain, which also tackles issues of race, rage, religion, and identity. Baldwin was a curious, voracious reader and writer from an early age. Over the years, he grew into a true boundary-pushing intellectual who unapologetically expressed his rage through his writing, shining a light on the continued oppression of Black people, homosexuals — he was one of the first writers to address homosexuality outright — and anyone who didn’t fit into the American mainstream.

After a three-year stint in New York City’s Greenwich Village and some literary success in the U.S., Baldwin’s complicated relationship with his home country drove him to move to Paris to escape America’s systemic racism. Some of his most celebrated works were born from this decision to become, as he called it, a “transatlantic commuter.” These include his novels Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962), and his essay collection Notes of a Native Son (1955).

Baldwin’s ideas were, and continue to be, hugely influential. He inspired other legendary writers — everyone from Maya Angelou to Toni Morrison — and wrote bravely and openly on topics that are still crucial and complex today, despite being criticized for it in his time. His most famous writings tackle issues of race, homosexuality, social justice, and spirituality, laying out the complexities of being a gay Black man in America. His ability to distill nuanced ideas into dynamic prose and poetry has made his work an invaluable part of the American literary canon.

Here, we’ve rounded up 13 inspirational quotes from Baldwin’s books, essays, and interviews over the years, eloquent observations that still ring true today.

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.
— 1963 profile in "LIFE" magazine

Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
— "The Fire Next Time"

You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.
— 1961 interview with Studs Terkel

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.
— "The Fire Next Time"

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.
— "No Name in the Street"

You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.
— Interview with the "Village Voice"

Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.
— "Notes of a Native Son"

Once you realize that you can do something, it would be difficult to live with yourself if you didn’t do it.
— 1984 interview with "The Paris Review"

The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.
— "The Devil Finds Work"

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.
— “A Talk to Teachers” essay in "Saturday Review"

Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.
— “A Talk to Teachers” essay in "Saturday Review"

Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
— "The New York Times" Book Review, 1962

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.
— "Notes of a Native Son"

Photo credit:  BNA Photographic/ Alamy Stock Photo

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About the Author
Joyce Chen
Joyce Chen is a writer, editor, and community builder based in Seattle, Washington.
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