A Friday with Baldwin's Words
James Baldwin (August 2, 1924 - December 2, 1987) was a quintessential American writer and social critic who consistently wrote and spoke about his experience as a black man in America. His speeches, novels, essays, and plays revealed the truth about racism in America and the struggle of black Americans. Racial tensions, social concerns, black identity, homosexuality, interracial relationships, poverty, truth, and the America he insisted on constructively criticizing, were deeply explored. There's beauty in all of that. Baldwin left America and lived abroad in Europe for part of his life (bouncing back and forth over the years) which gave him perspective about America. "Once you find yourself in another civilization, you're forced to examine your own." His travels brought him closer to America's social issues. He was active in the civil rights movement, an advocate for human equality, and though often criticized, continued to remain an important figure throughout the '60s and '70s.
I met Baldwin while taking an African American history class in undergrad at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. When I say I "met" him, I don't mean literally, but rather in a profound way through his writing. There was a connection. He didn't sugarcoat anything, and didn't hesitate to display his anger, hope, sadness, happiness, and all that encompassed who he was and what he felt. He ignited my study of race history, taught me how to think complexly, and continues to push me to always stand firm in the truth, regardless. He helped me hear and find my voice. The quotes and excerpts below are some of my favorites, and under each one, I've included my interpretation. Enjoy!
It comes as a great shock, around the age of five or six or seven, to discover the flag which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you. - "The American Dream and the American Negro", 1965
~ This is the quote I always reference when discussing Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem and why I support him. Kneeling to bring attention to police brutality, systemic oppression, and social injustices comes with acknowledging the truth about America, just as Baldwin says here.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
~ This is simply what I wish more people chose to understand.
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 member 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. - No Name in the Street, 1972
~ Plainly put, this is America in 2018. People want to say they're in favor of justice, but you have to ask yourself what justice truly is. Capitol Hill is plagued with ignorance and hate, fueled by a large majority of America. These words still ring true.
Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war, love is a growing up. - "In Search of a Majority", 1960
~ I have this quote tattooed on my body. I love it that much. When Baldwin is talking about love here, he doesn't mean sentimental love. Rather, he is discussing how black people in America had to learn to love themselves in a country that doesn't love them.
To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality. We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly. These images are designed not to trouble but to reassure. They also weaken our ability to deal with the world as it is, ourselves as we are. - "Sidney Poitier”, from Look Magazine, 1968
~ Americans in the age of Trump are undergoing a serious period of self-reflection. A reality TV star was elected as President, even though he continuously showed what a racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and misogynistic person he is. Everyday, people watch injustices happening at their fingertips, but don't speak up about them. Why does that happen so often? The same thing Baldwin said in '68 is obviously applicable in 2018.
“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.” '- from No Name in the Street, 1972
~ You know when you see videos and images of people yelling racist slurs, or telling women what to do with their bodies, or yelling about how we should put "America First"? Yea, what about when it's their son, or their daughter, or their grandchild? They don't seem to be so vocal then, huh?
Anyone who has struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor. - "Fifth Avenue, Uptown", 1960
~ Yes, yes, and YES. The word "poor" is still multi-faceted. When you're poor, you are automatically introduced to classism, whether you want to realize it or not. When you're poor, you can't afford good food, which results in higher medical bills in a country that doesn't favor affordable healthcare in 2018. When you're poor, you can't pay your bills, which then affects your credit, which results in your inability to qualify for certain benefits. This then cascades into not being able to afford a home or rent, and finding yourself getting evicted, but also criticized by people who say "well you should've just paid your rent." When you're poor, you can't fix your car that won't run, which means you may not get to work on time if you're depending on someone else for transportation. Yet in all of this, the poor person is the victim and not the person who benefits from the poor person being poor. See what he means about expensive, now?
Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. - “A Talk for Teachers”, 1963
~ When you're able to bring facts to the table to defend justice and stand firmly in your beliefs with no fear, you become a threat. I can attest to that. I always speak directly and never shy away from an opportunity to say why wrong is wrong, and right is right. People don't like that very much, but someone has to do it. We can't continue to just share things on social media but refuse to look someone in the eye and tell them why they're wrong, based on facts!
“I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.” - "A Report from Occupied Territory", 1966
~ This is America. *cue Childish Gambino*
This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect. - "A Report from Occupied Territory", 1966
~ This makes me think of people who say "if you just listened to the cops, you wouldn't get hurt." No. That's not how it works. When power is taken out of context and the law is against you, it your duty as a citizen of this democracy, to speak against it. That's what patriotism [also] is.
People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them. - "Stranger in the Village", 1953
~ It's easy to look at events in history without discussing what caused the events and what the consequences were. When people teach the Civil War in most high schools, for example, they just discuss the events without much context. They don't discuss the fact that the reason it started is because the South wanted to keep their slaves. They don't talk about how racism and white supremacy drove the desire to continue slavery. Instead, in 2018, people want to fly the Confederate flag and say it's "southern heritage", when really it became a flag that represented white supremacy during the Reconstruction Era and was used to ignite fear. The truth is trapped and refuses to be acknowledged.
I don’t know if labor unions and their bosses hate me, but I know im not in their unions. I don’t know if the real estate lobbyists have anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobbyists keep me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks that they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my women, my sisters, my children, on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen. - Dick Cavett Show, 1968
~ When Baldwin says "my wife, my women, my sister, my children", he doesn't mean his, literally. Rather those of all black men and women. But this is why I always tell people to think about both sides and ask the questions that aren't obvious. Ahhhh, I love this!
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, 1955
~ Basically me. Thank you, Baldwin!