Happy Birthday, James Baldwin

jamesbaldwinToday is the anniversary of the birth of James Baldwin, one of my favorite writers.
His technique is masterful, and it matches the depth of his insight—a rare combination in an author, I think. I’ll be forever indebted to Baldwin for helping me better understand what it means to be a white person like me in America. He did this by writing and speaking about how he felt and experienced life as a black man in America. Here’s one way he described why he became a writer:
I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro writer. I wanted to find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.

As he hoped, I’ve felt connected to him in my own imperfect ways, as have many others. Although the fact that many of his writings still carry such relevance is discouraging.
Baldwin’s words at times illuminate, at times transcend racial distinctions. I especially love the way he tucks the most profound insights into one liners stashed inside essays on unrelated topics. I especially appreciate Baldwin’s combination of moral admonition and personal humility; a rare combination indeed, and I think virtually impossible to fake. For this reason, even though he departed from Christianity early in his life, I believe he was deeply religious in a broader sense, despite not affiliating with any particular creed.
I grabbed my copy of his “Collected Essays” from the Library of America series for a quick morning devotional and selected a few highlighted quotes at random to share with people who haven’t had the time or inclination to read the words of one of the greatest writers America has ever produced.
*On grief:
I was not so much afraid to see [this German prisoner] as I was afraid of what might have happened to him—in him—the way one feels when about to see a loved one who has encountered great misfortune. One does not know what is left of the person” (416).
*On funerals:
Every man in the chapel hoped that when his hour came he, too, would be eulogized, which is to say forgiven, and that all of his lapses, greeds, errors, and strayings from the truth would be invested with coherence and looked upon with charity. This was perhaps the last thing human beings could give each other and it was what they demanded, after all, of the Lord” (78).
*On the supposed good relations between some American slaves and their owners:
The slave knows, however his master may be deluded on this point, that he is called a slave because his manhood has been, or can be, or will be taken from him…and this stony fact is not altered by whatever devotion some masters and some slaves may have arrived at in relation to each other” (391).
*On acquisitiveness, desserts, and rage:
In America, though, life seems to move faster than anywhere else on the globe and each generation is promised more than it will get: which creates, in each generation, a furious, bewildered rage, the rage of people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet” (52).
*On hatred, written about an incident when he threw a mug of water at a racist waitress as a young man:
I could not get over two facts, both equally difficult for the imagination to grasp, and one was that I could have been murdered. But the other was that I had been ready to commit murder. I saw nothing very dearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred that I carried in my own heart…I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain” (72, 75).
*On acceptance versus fighting:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now” (84).
*On pride:
No one is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart: for his purity, by definition, is unassailable” (277).


If you’re interested in reading more Baldwin, I suggest the essay Notes of a Native Son, or The Fire Next Time. Also take a look at the documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro.
[All references are from James Baldwin, Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1988)]


  1. it's a series of tubes says:

    I’m not familiar with his work, but based on these brief excerpts you present here, I’m heading to the library ASAP. Thank you for sharing.

  2. You’re welcome, tubes. I’ve still not read much of his fiction aside from a few short stories. His essays are masterpieces. The art of long form needs to be preserved.

  3. Jeremy Manning says:

    I love the youtube video of James Baldwin in a debate with William F. Buckley. The man was more than just a writer. He is one of my favorite speakers of all time.

  4. Dr_Doctorstein says:

    As a huge Baldwin fan myself, I love this. I especially appreciate your observation that “even though he departed from Christianity early in his life, I believe he was deeply religious in a broader sense.” I assign Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” in my Bible as Lit course as an example of “secular” literature suffused with biblical themes and imagery. (It’s also a wonderful story in its own right.) Baldwin might have left the Bible early on, but it never completely left him.

  5. Just out of the blue!

    Loved it, thx

  6. Wonderful–thanks for this.

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