Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

James Baldwin, fully James Arthur Baldwin

American Writer, Novelist, Essayist, Playwright, Poet, Activist and Social Critic

"Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be."

"People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them."

"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. "

"The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models."

"The future is like heaven--everyone exalts it, but no one wants to go there now."

"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."

"Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them."

"Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for purity, by definition, is unassailable."

"The hope of the world lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself."

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

"Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch."

"Rage can only with difficulty, and never entirely, be brought under the domination of the intelligence, and therefore is not susceptible to any arguments whosoever."

"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."

"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

"Inability to love is the central problem, because that inability masks a certain terror - terror of being touched. And if you can't be touched, you can't be changed. And if you can't be changed, you can't be alive."

"A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. "

"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. "

"The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose. "

"No people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it. "

"There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now. "

"You write in order to change the world ... if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it."

"When one begins to live by habit and by quotation, one has begun to stop livin"

"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. "

"It is very nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind."

"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, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death--ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life."

"Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word "love" here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace - not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth."

"All racists are irresponsible. "

"A devotion to humanity... is too easily equated with a devotion to a Cause, and Causes, as we know, are notoriously bloodthirsty... Freedom is not something anybody can be given, freedom is something people take. "

"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."

"Experience, which destroys innocence, also leads one back to it. "

"Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law. "

"It is a terrible, inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one's own; in the face of the victim one sees oneself."

"Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have. "

"It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant - birth, struggle, and death are constant - and so is love, though we may not always think so - and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths - change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not - safety, for example, or money or power. One clings then to chimeras, but which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope - the entire possibility - of freedom disappears. "

"Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. "

"We have all had the experience of finding that our reactions and perhaps even our deeds have denied beliefs we thought were ours."

"To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. "

"We should never victimize as we do, children whose only crime is color."

"I remember once a few years ago, in the British Museum a black Jamaican was washing the floors or something and asked me where I was from, and I said I was born in New York. He said, ?Yes, but where are you from?? I did not know what he meant. ?Where did you come from before that?? he explained. I said, ?My mother was born in Maryland.? ?Where was your father born?? he asked. ?My father was born in New Orleans.? He said, ?Yes, but where are you from?? Then I began to get it; very dimly, because now I was lost. And he said, ?Where are you from in Africa?? I said, ?Well, I don?t know,? and he was furious with me. He said, and walked away, ?You mean you did not care enough to find out?" Now, how in the world am I going to explain to him that there is virtually no way for me to have found out where I came from in Africa? So it is a kind of tug of war. The black American is looked down on by other dark people as being an object abjectly used. They envy him on the one hand, but on the other hand they also would like to look down on him as having struck a despicable bargain."

"It is a curious way to find your identity, labeling yourself by labeling all the things that you?re not."

"When I first hit Paris, for example, I had dealt with cynical East and North Africans. They did not see me, and it may be argued that I did not see them either. But they did see that I smoked Lucky Strikes and Pall Malls and that I had American sports shirts. They did not see that I did not have a penny; that did not make any difference. I came, I represented the richest nation in the world and there was no way whatever for them to suspect that I considered myself to be far worse off then they? The reason I was in Paris was that I considered my sports shirts, for example, and my cigarettes, had been a little to expensive and cost me a little more than I could afford. They did not know that."

"We are talking about the models that the human race chooses to work from, in effect. It is difficult to imagine anyone choosing Hitler as an ancestor, for example? It runs very close to the terms in which one elects to live and the reasons for that election. It reveals that depth of whatever dreams you have, and everyone lives by his dreams, really."

"You?ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble? I?m tired of being told by people who just got out of the various white colleges and got a dashiki and let their hair grow, I am terribly tired of these middle-class darkies telling me what it means to be black. But I understand why they have to do it!"

"You are always the receptacle of what has gone before you, whether or not you know it and whether or not you can reach it."

"A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance."

"A big, sandy-haired man held his daughter on his shoulders, showing her the Statue of Liberty. I would never know what this statue meant to others, she had always been an ugly joke for me. And the American flag was flying from the top of the ship, above my head. I had seen the French flag drive the French into the most unspeakable frenzies, I had seen the flag which was nominally mine used to dignify the vilest purposes: now I would never, as long as I lived, know what other saw when they saw a flag."

"A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other."

"A mob cannot afford to doubt: that the Jews killed Christ or that niggers want to rape their sisters or that anyone who fails to make it in the land of the free and the home of the brave deserves to be wretched. But these ideas do not come from the mob. They come from the state, which creates and manipulates the mob. The idea of a black persons as property, for example, does not come from the mob. It is not a spontaneous idea. It does not come from the people, who knew better, who thought nothing of intermarriage until they were penalized for it: this idea comes from the architects of the American State. These architects decided that the concept of Property was more important?more real?than the possibilities of the human being."

"A platitude is simply a truth repeated till people get tired of hearing it."

"A person does not lightly elect to oppose his society. One would much rather be at home among one's compatriots than be mocked and detested by them. And there is a level on which the mockery of people, even their hatred, is moving, because it is so blind: It is terrible to watch people cling to their captivity and insist on their own destruction."