11 James Baldwin Quotes On Race That Resonate Now More Than Ever

"No label, no slogan, no party, no skin color, and no religion is more important than the human being.”
Baldwin in his element: speaking truth.
Baldwin in his element: speaking truth.
RALPH GATTI via Getty Images

On Friday, Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” will be released in theaters. The film, narrated in part by Samuel L. Jackson, is comprised entirely of the writings and recordings of James Baldwin, the great author and Civil Rights activist.

Baldwin had an uncanny way with words, an uncanny way of deconstructing language and, in essence, what he once described as the “performance” of American life. Few people have been able to distill the experience of being black in America like Baldwin, who so famously said,

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

In a time when the future of America feels more uncertain than ever, Baldwin’s powerful insights from the past are more vital than ever. Below are 11 must-see clips of the great writer and thinker talking about race in America ― everything from the concept of the “nigger” to the prospect of an American black president. Though decades have passed since he spoke them, the words still strike a chord today:

On being called a " n****r"
"Who is the n****r?" It's a question Baldwin powerfully and succinctly answers in this interview from the 1963 documentary "Take This Hammer."

He explains: "What you say about anybody else reveals you."
On how systemic racism works
In this clip from a 1968 episode of “The Dick Cavett Show,” Baldwin deftly explains the realities of racism in America: "I don't know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only include what they feel from the state of their institutions."
On a black president
In a 1965 debate with William F. Buckley at Cambridge University, Baldwin shares his vision on the prospect of a black president as suggested by Robert Kennedy (40 years before the election of Barack Obama).

"From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the Presidency," Baldwin says.

"We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President."
On the "Negro Problem"
Here, speaking to Dr. Kenneth Clark in 1963, Baldwin describes the experience of meeting a 16-year-old black boy who declared: "'I've got no country. I've got no flag.'"

"I couldn't say, 'you do.' I don't have any evidence to prove that he does."
On unlearning the lies of racism
In this clip from a 1969 talk in London, Baldwin dismantles the ways in which black people have been taught to hate themselves, and what happens when they refuse:

"What one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, without knowing that this is the result of it, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world."
On waiting for "progress"
From the 1989 documentary "The Price of a Ticket," Baldwin challenges the idea that racial progress needs to "take time."
On the future of the black American
In another clip from his 1963 interview with scholar Dr. Kenneth Clar, Baldwin speaks whether he is pessimistic or optimistic about race in America.

"The future of the Negro in this country," he says, "Is precisely as bright or dark as the future of the country."
On what's truly important
From a 1963 clip in "The Price of a Ticket," Baldwin breaks down the concept of equality to its most simple and profound form:

“From my point of view, no label, no slogan, no party, no skin color, and indeed no religion is more important than the human being.”
On American history
During his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley, Baldwin breaks down what it's like to be taught all your life that Africans and black people are savages, inferior, and were "saved" by the white man. "Of course, I believed it. I didn't have much choice. Those were the only books there were."
On the concept of non-violence
In 1963, Baldwin breaks down the conundrum of non-violence in a civilization "that has always glorified violence, unless a Negro has a gun."
On the truth of equality
It doesn't get any clearer than this clip from 1989's "The Price of a Ticket:"

"It is not a romantic matter. It is the unutterable truth: all men are brothers. That's the bottom line."

Before You Go

Liu Xiaobo

Civil Rights Leaders

Popular in the Community


What's Hot