James Baldwin On Art, Life and Justice

“You don’t realize that you’re intelligent until it gets you into trouble.” — James Baldwin

At some point along life’s way I read Giovanni’s Room, a novel by James Baldwin, of whom I knew very little other than he fled the U.S. for France at some point, like many artists and intellectuals. Any semi-conscious American knows that Blacks and Native Americans have gotten a raw deal at the hands of our “American way of life.”

I think part of the early Sixties folk music scene, primarily white, had at its core an awareness that said “something is wrong with this picture.” The more injustice we saw the more unsettling.

Bob Dylan captured some of this angst in his songs, such as “Blowing in the Wind” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

Baldwin was a novelist, playwright and activist whom Wikipedia describes in this manner. “Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only African Americans, but also gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance.”

Earlier this year I saw I Am Not Your Negro and shared a number of pointed observations from Baldwin’s pointed pen. (See James Baldwin’s Challenging Critique of Race Relations in America.) As I reflect on these things I am interested in knowing where things truly stand today.

Here are a few paragraph-length quotes from Baldwin.

“You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.”
from “An interview with James Baldwin” (1961)

All over Harlem, Negro boys and girls are growing into stunted maturity, trying desperately to find a place to stand; and the wonder is not that so many are ruined but that so many survive.
— The Harlem Ghetto, Commentary

Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! — and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.
— No Name in the Street, 1972

“When the Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles, or the Irish, or 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.”
On the Dick Cavett Show (1968)

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive.

“Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people. An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else can tell, what it is like to be alive.”
“Doom and glory of knowing who you are” by Jane Howard, in LIFE magazine, Vol. 54, №21 (24 May 1963), p. 89

James Baldwin wrote these observations half a century past. Some before and some after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In what ways have things improved and in what ways not?

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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