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20 James Baldwin Quotes: A Step Closer To Being Human

by Martha Simmonds

James Baldwin was an activist and one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. He was born in Harlem, New York, in 1924 and discovered his passion for writing during his adolescent years. Take a look at these 20 inspiring James Baldwin quotes from some of his most acclaimed work.

Growing up black and gay in 20th century America, James became more aware of the cruelty people were facing at the time. After observing the injustices African-Americans went through because of segregation and racism, he started writing about what he saw.

Although James wanted to be the voice of African-Americans during the civil rights movement, most of all, he wished to be recognized as a writer outside of his race. That’s why he moved to France when he was 24 and never came back to America. Additionally, he spent a portion of his life in Turkey and Switzerland. He lived out his later years traveling around Europe and died in France in 1987.

James Baldwin left us with a stunning collection of poems, essays, plays, and novels. He is one of the most significant writers of the 20th century, and he’s still a great influence on many artists.

20 James Baldwin Quotes on Being Human

Breathtaking James Baldwin quotes — If Beale Street Could Talk

#1. “It’s a miracle to realize that somebody loves you.”

#2. “I was in his hands, he called me by the thunder at my ear. I was in his hands: I was being changed; all that I could do was cling to him. I did not realize, until I realized it, that I was also kissing him, that everything was breaking and changing and turning in me and moving toward him.”

#3. “We don’t know enough about ourselves. I think it’s better to know that you don’t know, that way you can grow with the mystery as the mystery grows in you. But, these days, of course, everybody knows everything, that’s why so many people are so lost.”

#4. “But I know about suffering; if that helps. I know that it ends. I ain’t going to tell you no lies like it always ends for the better. Sometimes it ends for the worse. You can suffer so bad that you can be driven to a place where you can’t ever suffer again: and that’s worse.”

#5. “If you look helpless, people react to you in one way and if you look strong, or just come on strong, people react to you in another way, and, since you don’t see what they see, this can be very painful.”

Poetic James Baldwin Quotes — Go Tell It on the Mountain

#6. “His mind was like the sea itself: troubled, and too deep for the bravest man’s descent, throwing up now and again, for the naked eye to wonder at, treasure and debris, long forgotten on the bottom — bones and jewels, fantastic shells, jelly that had once been flesh, pearls that had once been eyes. And he was at the mercy of this sea, hanging there with darkness all around him.”

#7. “She, who had descended with such joy and pain, had begun her upward climb—upward, with her baby, on the steep, steep side of the mountain.”

#8. “And he knew again that she was not saying everything she meant; in a kind of secret language, she was telling him today something that he must remember and understand tomorrow. He watched her face, his heart swollen with love for her and with an anguish, not yet his own, that he did not understand and that frightened him.”

#9. “Their singing caused him to believe in the presence of the Lord; indeed, it was no longer a question of belief, because they made that presence real.”

James Baldwin Quotes on Being Human — Giovanni’s Room

#10. “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”

#11. “Confusion is a luxury which only the very, very young can possibly afford and you are not that young anymore.”

#12. “If you cannot love me, I will die. Before you came I wanted to die, I have told you many times. It is cruel to have made me want to live only to make my death more bloody.”

#13. “People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget.”

#14. “Perhaps he is a fool or a coward but almost everybody is one or the other and most people are both.”

#15. “Then I wanted to beg him to forgive me. But this would have been too great a confession; any yielding at that moment would have locked me forever in that room with him. And in a way, this was exactly what I wanted.”

James Baldwin Quotes on Race — I Am Not Your Negro

#16. “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it is necessary to have a ‘nig**r’ in the first place because I’m not a nig**r. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nig**r, it means you need it.”

#17. “You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

#18. “Well, I may or may not be bitter, but if I were I would have good reasons for it: chief among them that American blindness, or cowardice, which allows us to pretend that life presents no reasons for being bitter.”

#19. “The question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance, which is the price we pay for segregation. That’s what segregation means. You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall, because you don’t want to know.”

#20. “It is not a racial problem. It is a problem of whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it.”

Final Thoughts

If you’re curious about the racial dynamics of the 20th century USA, James Baldwin’s books are a must-read. In addition to being informative, they offer beautiful wordplay and stunning descriptions. Hopefully, these 20 James Baldwin quotes have piqued your interest in this prolific writer and made you want to give one of these incredible books a try.

Image source: James Baldwin photo from en.wikipedia.org

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