Renegade author and social critic James Baldwin was born to an impoverished religious family in Harlem in 1924, but his observations about the American experience feel more relevant than ever. Yesterday would have been Baldwin’s 93rd birthday; the continued resonance of his writing is both impressive and haunting. Baldwin’s legacy of novels, essays, plays and notes reveal how unchanged many parts of the American experience remain for those considered “other,” particularly in terms of race, class, sexual orientation and gender.
Below are six quotes from Baldwin, a queer Black American, that are as important to consider today as they were at the time of their publication.
“The American idea of masculinity: There are few things under heaven more difficult to understand or, when I was younger, to forgive. … The American idea of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American idea of masculinity. Idea may not be the precise word, for the idea of one’s sexuality can only with great violence be divorced or distanced from the idea of the self. Yet something resembling this rupture has certainly occurred (and is occurring) in American life, and violence has been the American daily bread since we have heard of America. This violence, furthermore, is not merely literal and actual but appears to be admired and lusted after, and the key to the American imagination.
“All countries or groups make of their trials a legend or, as in the case of Europe, a dubious romance called ‘history.’ But no other country has ever made so successful and glamorous a romance out of genocide and slavery; therefore, perhaps the word I am searching for is not idea but ideal…
“This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden — as an unpatriotic act — that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.” —From “Here Be the Dragons, or Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood” (1985)
“We are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other… we are a part of each other.” —From “Here Be The Dragons, or Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood” (1985)
On Internalized Homophobia
“These men, so far from being or resembling faggots, looked and sounded like the vigilantes who banded together on weekends to beat faggots up. (And I was around long enough, suffered enough and learned enough to be forced to realize that this was very often true. I might not have learned this if I had been a white boy; but sometimes a white man will tell a black boy anything, everything, weeping briny tears. He knows that the black boy can never betray him, for no one will believe his testimony.)” —From “Here Be the Dragons, or Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood” (1985)
On Labels and Complicit Police Violence
“For what this really means is that all of the American categories of male and female, straight or not, black or white, were shattered, thank heaven, very early in my life. Not without anguish, certainly; but once you have discerned the meaning of a label, it may seem to define you for others, but it does not have the power to define you to yourself.
“This prepared me for my life downtown, where I quickly discovered that my existence was the punchline of a dirty joke.
“The condition that is now called gay was then called queer. The operative word was faggot and, later, pussy, but those epithets really had nothing to do with the question of sexual preference: You were being told simply that you had no balls. I certainly had no desire to harm anyone, nor did I understand how anyone could look at me and suppose me physically capable of causing any harm. But boys and men chased me, saying I was a danger to their sisters. I was thrown out of cafeterias and rooming houses because I was ‘bad’ for the neighborhood.
“The cops watched all this with a smile, never making the faintest motion to protect me or to disperse my attackers; in fact, I was even more afraid of the cops than I was of the populace.” —From “Here Be the Dragons, or Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood” (1985)
On Alienation and Radicalism
“The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” —From “The Fire Next Time” (1963)
On Hate Speech
“What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you.” —From “Take This Hammer” (1963)