James Baldwin

November 28, 2006


James Arthur Baldwin
American writer, noted for his novels on sexual and personal identity, and sharp essays on civil-rights struggle in the United States
Born in Harlem, New York City, son of a domestic worker and brought up in great poverty
Never knew his own father, his stepfather was cruel and a storefront preacher who died in a mental hospital
First short story was featured in the church newspaper at the age of 12
At age 14 , Baldwin became a preacher at the small Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem
Left home at 17 for Greenwhich Village to write
Most important source of literary support came from Richard Wright until Baldwin criticized his novel “Native Son” (from which Baldwin got the title for his novel “Notes of a Native Son”) in his article “Everybody’s Protest Novel”

“I knew Richard and I loved him. I was not attacking him; I was trying to clarify something for myself.”

Claimed to have traveled so much because it allowed him to clearly focus on American civilization
Died of cancer at the age of 63

“What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only ways societies change.”

Everybody’s Protest Novel 1949

Essay attacking the kind of fiction, specifically Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son, that had been written about the ordeal of the American Negroes


“Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. /Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – like its multitudinous, hard-boiled descendants – is a catalogue of violence.”

“But that battered word, truth, having made its appearance here, confronts one immediately with a series of riddles and has, moreover, since so many gospels are preached, the unfortunate tendency to make one belligerent. Let us say, then, that truth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted. This is the prime concern, the frame of reference; it is not to be confused with a devotion to Humanity which is too easily equated with a devotion to a Cause; and Causes, as we know, are notoriously blood-thirsty.”

“It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, the journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.”

“The virtuous rage of Mrs. Stowe is motivated by nothing so temporal as a concern for the relationship of men to one another – or, even, as she would have claimed, by a concern for their relationship to God – but merely by a panic of being hurled into the flames, of being caught in traffic with the devil. She embraced this merciless doctrine with all her heart, bargaining shamelessly before the throne of grace: God and salvation becoming her personal property, purchased with the coin of her virtue. Here, black equates with evil and white with grace; if, being mindful of the necessity of good works, she could not cast out the blacks – a wretched, huddled mass, apparently, claiming, like an obsession, her inner eye – she could not embrace them either without purifying them of sin.”

“Our passion for categorization, life neatly fitted into pegs, has led to an unforeseen paradoxical distress; confusion, a breakdown of meaning. Those categories which were meant to define and control the world for us have boomeranged us into chaos; in which limbo we whirl, clutching the straws of our definitions.”

“The aim has now become to reduce all Americans to the compulsive, bloodless dimensions of a guy named Joe.”

“It is the peculiar triumph of society – and its loss – that it is able to convince those people to whom it has given inferior status of the reality of this decree…”

“The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.”

Giovanni’s Room  1956

Baldwin explores the connection between race and sexuality 


“I had asked her to marry me before she went away to Spain; and she laughed and I laughed but that, somehow, all the same, made it more serious for me, and I persisted; and then she said she would have to go away and think about it. And the very last night she was here, the very last time I saw her, as she was packing her bag, I told her that I had loved her once and I made myself believe it. But I wonder if I had. I was thinking, no doubt, of our nights in bed, of the peculiar innocence and confidence, which will never come again, which had made those nights so delightful, so unrelated to past, present, or anything to come, so unrelated, finally, to my life since it was not necessary for me to take any but the most mechanical responsibility for them. And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no one to watch, no penalties attached – it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom. I suppose this was why I asked her to marry me: to give myself something to be moored to. Perhaps this was why, in Spain, she decided that she wanted to marry me. But people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.” 

“Then, for the first time in my life, I was really aware of another person’s body, of another person’s smell. We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find.”

“And my father’s face changed. It became terribly old and at the same time absolutely, helplessly young. I remember being absolutely astonished, at the still, cold center of the storm which was occurring in me, to realize that my father had been suffering, was suffering still.
‘Don’t cry,’ he said, ‘don’t cry.’ He stroked my forehead with that absurd handkerchief as though it possessed some healing charm. ‘There’s nothing to cry abount. Everything’s going to be all right.’ He was almost weeping himself. ‘There’s nothing wrong, is there? I haven’t done anything wrong, have I?’ And all the time he was stroking my face with that handkerchief, smothering me.”

“For I am – or I was – one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all – a real decision makes on humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named – but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not.”

“‘I don’t believe in this nonsense about time. Time is just common, it’s like water for a fish. Everybody’s in this water, nobody gets out of it, or if he does the same thing happens to him that happens to the fish, he dies. And you know what happens in this water, time? The big fish eat the little fish. That’s all. The big fish eat the little fish and the ocean doesn’t care.’
‘Oh, please,’ I said. ‘I don’t believe that. Time’s not water and we’re not fish and you can choose to be eaten and also not to eat – not to eat,’ I added quickly, turning a little red before his delighted and sardonic smile, ‘the little fish, of course.’

‘Anyway,’ he said mildly, ‘I don’t see what you can do with little fish except eat them. What else are they good for?’
‘In my country,’ I said, feeling a subtle ware within me as I said it, ‘the little fish seem to have gotten together and are nibbling at the body of the whale.’
‘That will not make them whales,’ said Giovanni. ‘The only result of all that nibbling will be that there will no longer be any grandeur anywhere, not even at the bottom of the sea.'”

“Now the cabdriver asked us where we wanted to go, for we had arrived at the choked boulevards and impassable sidestreets of Les Halles. Leeks, onions, cabbages, oranges, apples, potatoes, cauliflowers, stood gleaming in mounds all over, on the sidewalks, in the streets, before great metal sheds. The sheds were blocks long and within the sheds were piled more fruit, more vegetables, in some sheds, fish, in some sheds, cheese, in some whole animals, lately slaughtered. It scarcely seemed possible that all of this could ever be eaten. But in a few hours it would all be gone and trucks would be arriving from all corners of France – and making their way, to the great profit of a beehive of middlemen, across the city of Paris – to feed the roaring multitude. Who were roaring now, at once wounding and charming the ear, before and behind, and on either side of our taxi – our taxi driver, and Giovanni, too, roared back. The multitude of Paris seems to be dressed in blue every day but Sunday, when, for the most part, they put on an unbelievably festive black. Here they were now, in blue, disputing, every inch, our passage, with their wagons, handtrucks, camions, their bursting baskets carried at an angle steeply self-confident on the back. A red-faced woman, burdened with fruit, shouted – to Giovanni, the driver, to the world – a particularly vivid cochonnerie, to which the driver and Giovanni, at once, at the top of their lungs, responded, though the fruit lady had already passed beyond our sight and perhaps no longer even remembered her precisely obscene conjectures.”

“Giovanni stared. ‘Mas tu es fou,’ he said mildly. ‘There is certainly no point in going home now, to face an ugly concierge and then go to sleep in that room all by yourself and then wake up later, with a terrible stomach and a sour mouth, wanting to commit suicide. Come with me; we will rise at a civilized hour and have a gentle aperitif somewhere and then a little dinner. It will be much more cheerful like that,’ he said with a smile, ‘you will see.’
‘But I must get my clothes,’ I said.
He took my arm. ‘
Bien sur. But you do not have to get them now.’ I held back. He stopped. ‘Come. I am sure that I am much prettier than your wallpaper – or your concierge. I will smile at you when you wake up. They will not.'”

“But they made me tense – with their ribaldries, their good-nature, their fellowship, the life written on their hands and in their faces and in their eyes.”

“I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea. Time flowed past indifferently above us; hours and days had no meaning. In the beginning, our life together held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped and slid, lsoing balance, dignity, and pride. Giovanni’s face, which I had memorized so many mornings, noons, and nights, hardened before my eyes, began to give in secret places, began to crack.”

“Giovanni liked to believe that he was hard-headed and that I was not and that he was teaching me the stony facts of life. It was very important for him to feel this: it was because he knew, unwillingly, at the very bottom of his heart, that I, helplessly, at the very bottom of mine, resisted him with all my strength.”

“And what distinguished the men was that they seemed incapable of age; they smelled of soap, which seemed indeed to be their preservative against the dangers and exigencies of any more intimate odor; the boy he had been shone, somehow, unsoiled, untouched, unchanged, through the eyes of the man of sixty, booking passage, with his smiling wife, to Rome. His wife might have been his mother, forcing more oatmeal down his throat, and Rome might have been the movie she had promised to allow him to see. Yet I also suspected that what I was seeing was but a part of the truth and perhaps not even the most important part; beneath these faces, these clothes, accents, rudenesses, was power and sorrow, both unadmitted, unrealized, the power of inventors, the sorrow of the disconnected.”

“And this was perhaps the first time in my life that death occurred to me as a reality. I thought of the people before me hwo had looked down at the river and gone to sleep beneath it. I wondered about them. I wondered how they had done it – it, the physical act. I had thought of suicide when I was much younger, as, possibly, we all have, but then it would have been for revenge, it would have been my way of informing the world how awfully it had made me suffer. But the silence of the evening, as I wandered home, had nothing to do with that storm, that far-off boy. I simply wondered about the dead because their days had ended and I did not know how I would get through mine.”

“He smiled, ‘Why, you will go home and then you will find that home is not home anymore. Then you will really be in trouble. As long as you stay here, you can always think: One day I will go home.’ He played with my thumb and grinned.”

“‘I don’t see what’s so hard about being a woman. At least, not as long as she’s got a man.’
‘That’s just it,’ said she. ‘Hasn’t it ever struck you that that’s a sort of humiliating necessity?’
‘Oh, please,’ I said. ‘It never seemed to humiliate any of the women I knew.'”

“I began to realize it in Spain – that I wasn’t free, that I couldn’t be free until I was attached – no, committed – to someone.'”

“I may have been the only man in Paris who knew that he had not meant to do it, who could read why he had done it beneath the details printed in the newspapers.”

“I move at last from the mirror and begin to cover that nakedness which I must hold sacred, though it be never so vile, which must be scoured perpetually with the salt of my life.”


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