James Baldwin On Art, Life and Justice

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

Ed Newman
3 min readOct 17, 2019


Photo by iam Se7en on Unsplash

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



Ed Newman

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