The Piercing Words of James Baldwin

August 2nd marks the birthday of American novelist, playwright and social critic James Baldwin, whose thoughts on racism, American society and the human condition are still profoundly relevant today.
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Gap-Toothed Grinners: American writer and Civil Rights activist James Baldwin (1924 - 1987) at the Whitehall Hotel, Bloomsbury Square, London.   (Photo by Jenkins/Getty Images)

James Baldwin (1924 - 1987) at the Whitehall Hotel, Bloomsbury Square, London. 

Born on August 2, 1924 in Harlem, New York, James Baldwin was always drawn to words. Despite growing up in poverty with a critical religious stepfather and the pressure to support his eight younger siblings, Baldwin continued to cultivate his love of books and writing. 

Baldwin struggled with feelings of isolation caused by strained relations with his stepfather, the barrage of racism he faced every day as a black man, and the realization in his teens that he was gay. He left the United States in his 20s and moved to Paris, and it was there that he thrived as a writer and social critic.The distance allowed him to be able to see himself outside the lens of the African-American experience and come to terms with his sexuality.

Baldwin would go on to produce his famous works like Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Notes of a Native Son (1955). A year later he would publish his second novel, Giovanni's Room (1956), which proved quite controversial for its explicit homoeroticism.

Seen as one of the most influential African-American writers of the 20th century, Baldwin's thoughts on humanity, race, being gay in black America and being an artist still resonates in a timeless way. 

Here are just some of his powerful words:

- "All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up."

- "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."

- "It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive."

- "Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go."

- "To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time." 

- "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."

- "Everybody's journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality."

- "The power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world's definitions."

- "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."

- "People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead."

- "Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent."

- "To be a Negro in this country is really . . .never to be looked at. What white people see when they look at you is not visible. What they do see when they do look at you is what they have invested you with. What they have invested you with is all the agony, and pain, and the danger, and the passion, and the torment — you know, sin, death, and hell — of which everyone in this country is terrified."

- "In a way, the American Negro is the key figure in this country; and if you don’t face him, you will never face anything."

READ ARTICLE: "James Baldwin’s America in His Own Words: 'I Am Not Your Negro'"