UPDATED: 6:45 a.m. ET, Aug. 2, 2021 —
Monday marks what would have been the 97th birthday of renowned Harlem writer James Baldwin.
Among the many great Black writers in canons of Black literature, Baldwin etched his mark in history with his candid and brilliant words on Black America and systemic oppression.
In 2015, millennials are being confronted with the horrors of racism that some may have assumed were a part of the past. History has seen streets of America go aflame in our textbooks, watched archived footage of Black outrage in the Los Angeles riots and heard stories from our some of our elder relatives about segregation. But now it is undeniable that some of these same horrific injustices are indeed a part of our realities, too.
Baldwin pushed to challenge not only the U.S. but also the world about the pertinence of equality and the greatness of Black people. His sentiments and beliefs of the mid-20th century can still be applied to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the racial climate of America.
In celebration of Baldwin’s birthday, we have curated five of his most insightful interviews that give a crash course on his genius.
Who is the Nigger? (1963)
“I’ve always known that I’m not a nigger. But if I am not the nigger and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger?”
James Baldwin and America’s “Racial Problem” (1969)
“Let’s speak plainly. We know, everybody knows no matter what the professions of mine happy country may be — that we are not bobbing people out of existence in the name of freedom. If freedom is what we were concerned about, then long, long ago we would’ve done something about Johannesburg, South Africa. If we were concerned with freedom, boys and girls not as I stand here would be perishing in the streets of Harlem. We are concerned with power, nothing more than that.”
James Baldwin Interview with Kenneth Clark (1963)
“It is very clear to the dullest mind that our country may now prepare to betray us for safety, for the illusion of safety. So that means that once again our fate, it always was, in our hands. The lives of our children are in our hands. The terrible battle is to deal with the institutions, still of one of which is racist. How to rest our autonomy under the jaws of this and save our children is a task that it’ll take us into the 21st century.”
James Baldwin Debates William F. Buckley (1963)
“It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that 1/9th of its population is beneath them and until that moment comes, when we the American people are able to accept the fact that I, for example, my ancestors are both white and black. That on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity, for which we need each other. And that I am not a ward of America, I’m not an object of missionary charity, I’m one of the people who built the country. Until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream because the people who are denied participation in it because their very presence will wreck it.”
James Baldwin – The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity (1963)
“I want to suggest two propositions. The first one is, that the poets by which I mean all artists are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t, statesman don’t, priests don’t, union leaders don’t. Only the poets.”