James Baldwin Couldn’t be More Relevant

In times that seem to only get more and more troubling, I have been reading James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name. His thoughts around the issues humanity was struggling with in the 1960s are still poignantly (scarily) relevant now. I thought I’d share some of the passages that stood out to me in the hopes that you will get something out of them too and to bring greater awareness to the fact that the fight for freedom, justice and compassion towards all the beings that inhabit this earth is ceaseless until liberation is achieved for all. And that, in truth, we are never too far from our past.


“Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world.”

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“And yet, it became clear as the debate wore on, that there was something which all black men held in common, something which cut across opposing points of view, and placed in the same context their widely dissimilar experience. What they held in common was their precarious, their unutterably painful relation to the white world. What they held in common was the necessity to remake the world in their own image, to impose this image on the world, and no longer be controlled by the vision of the world, and of themselves, held by other people. What, in sum, black men held in common was their ache to come into the world as men. And this ache united people who might otherwise have been divided as to what a man should be.”

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“Too great a sense of identity makes a man feel he can do no wrong. And too little does the same.”

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“The world has never lacked for horrifying examples; but I do not believe that these examples are meant to be used as justification for our own crimes.”

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“The emptier our hearts become, the greater will be our crimes.”

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“Unless one takes refuge in the theory—however disguised—that Negroes are, somehow, different from white people, I do not see how one can escape the conclusion that the Negro’s status in this country is not only a cruel injustice but a grave national liability.”

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“Negroes know how little most white people are prepared to implement their words with deeds, how little, when the chips are down, they are prepared to risk. And this long history of moral evasion has had an unhealthy effect on the total life of the country, and has eroded whatever respect Negroes may once have felt for white people.”

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“…for the future is like heaven—everyone exalts it but no one wants to go there now.”

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“This illusion owes everything to the Great American illusion that our state is a state to be envied by other people: we are powerful, and we are rich. But our power makes us uncomfortable and we handle it very ineptly. The principal effect of our material well-being has been to set the children’s teeth on edge. If we ourselves were not so fond of this illusion, we might understand ourselves and other peoples better than we do, and be enabled to help them understand us. I am very often tempted to believe that this illusion is all that is left of the great dream that was to have become America; whether this is so or not, this illusion certainly prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be.”

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“We do not trust educated people and rarely, alas, produce them, for we do not trust the independence of mind which alone makes a genuine education possible.”

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“It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that the violent distractions of puberty, occurring in such a cage, annually take their toll, sending female children into the maternity wards and male children into the streets. It is not to be wondered at that a boy, one day, decides that if all this studying is going to prepare him only to be a porter or an elevator boy—or his teacher—well, then, the hell with it. And there they go, with an overcrowding bitterness which they will dissemble all their lives, an unceasing effort which completes their ruin. They become the menial or the criminal or the shiftless, the Negroes whom segregation has produced and whom the South uses to prove that segregation is right.”

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“Human freedom is a complex, difficult—and private— thing. If we can liken life, for a moment, to a furnace, then freedom is the fire which burns away illusion. And honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of human freedom with which we began. The recovery of this standard demands of everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements must begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person. If we are not capable of this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations.”

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“I conceive of my own life as a journey towards something I do not understand, which in the going towards, makes me better. I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not a means to control others. 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.”

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“The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

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1 Comment

  1. Ana V. Martins July 31, 2017 at 9:17 pm

    I watched ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ and it produced such an impression on me!… I really do want to read the book (such a prodigious man!). Thanks for sharing this, Elizabeth.

    Reply

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