By Liz Kaufman
James Baldwin was one of America’s greatest thinkers and writers on the subject of race. What would he have thought about present-day protests against police brutality and for racial equity? We can glean much about his thoughts from his rich legacy of writing and recorded interviews. Here are some quotes from James Baldwin, most from over half a century ago, that are particularly resonant today:
–From “The Fire Next Time,” 1963: “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were Black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”
–Chair of Princeton’s Department of African American Studies and author of “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” Eddie Glaude quoting Baldwin in 1980: “What we are dealing with really is that for Black people in this country there is no legal code at all. We’re still governed, if that is the word I want, by the slave code.”
–Dick Cavett interview, 1969: “If any white man in the world says give me liberty or give me death, the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing – word for word – he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him”.
–Dick Cavett interview, 1969: “(The police) are a very real menace to every black cat alive in this country. And no matter how many people say, ‘You’re being paranoid when you talk about police brutality’ – I know what I’m talking about. I survived those streets and those precinct basements and I know. And I’ll tell you this – I know what it was like when I was really helpless, how many beatings I got. And I know what happens now because I’m not really helpless. But I know, too, that if he (police) don’t know that this is Jimmy Baldwin and not just some other nigger he’s gonna blow my head off just like he blows off everybody else’s head. It could happen to my mother in the morning, to my sister, to my brother… For me this has always been a violent country – it has never been a democracy.”
–From “Florida Forum” on WCKT-Miami in 1963, answering the question on whether the racial conflict in Alabama and Mississippi could happen in Florida: “The situation in Alabama and Mississippi which is spectacular and surprises the country is nationwide. Not only could it happen in Florida, it could happen in New York or Chicago, Detroit or anywhere there’s a significant Negro population. Because until today, all the Negroes in this country in one way or another, in different fashions, North and South, are kept in what is, in effect, prison. In the North, one lives in ghettos and in the South, the situation is so intolerable as to become sinister not only for Mississippi or Alabama or Florida but for the whole future of this country.”
–Nearing the end of his life in the mid-1980s, Baldwin’s patience had run out. The anger he had channeled into his writing could no longer be quelled. He expressed his outrage and frustration in these words from an interview in the documentary film James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket: “What is it you want me to reconcile myself to? . . . You always told me it takes time. It has taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time, my nieces’ and my nephews’ time. How much time do you want for your ‘progress’?”