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40 Powerful James Baldwin Quotes on Love, Freedom, and Equality

Reader's Digest logo Reader's Digest 8/13/2021 Emma Taubenfeld
James Baldwin wearing a suit and tie © rd.com, Getty Images

Even long after his death in 1987, people still look to James Baldwin for guidance. As the grandson of a slave and a gay Black man in America, he used his upbringing to inspire individuals through his words in novels, essays, and plays. (You may know If Beale Street Could Talk, Notes of a Native Son, and Giovanni’s Room.) Baldwin spent his life facing discrimination for his race, sexuality, and poor upbringing, yet still actively used his voice to inspire millions to fight for change. His legacy lives on through his words about life, freedom, equality, love, and the concept of race. Baldwin shared many words of wisdom—more than can fit in a single post. So while these James Baldwin quotes only scratch the surface, they showcase how much of a legend he really is. For even more inspiring words, check out these incredible Black poets (other than Maya Angelou—although we love her) that will teach you about the realities of being Black in America.

1. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”—The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are, Life Magazine, May 24, 1963.

2. “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle; love is a war; love is a growing up.” Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son

3. “Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.” —If Beale Street Could Talk

4. “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” —Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son

Don't miss these other books by Black authors that will stay with you long after you read them.

5. “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” —Notes of a Native Son

6. “You write in order to change the world ... if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

7. “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” "As Much Truth as One Can Bear," published Jan. 14, 1962 in The New York Times

8. “The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.” —Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son

9. “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” —Giovanni’s Room

In addition to these James Baldwin quotes, these uplifting quotes will inspire you to keep going.

10. “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.” —Conversations with James Baldwin

11. “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” —"A Talk to Teachers”

12. “Be careful what you set your heart upon—for it will surely be yours.”

13. “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” —The Fire Next Time

14. “It is very nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.”

James Baldwin posing for the camera © rd.com, Getty Images

15. “People can cry much easier than they can change.” — from a New York Times interview with Robert Coles, printed July 31, 1977

Check out these other quotes about change that will inspire you to make a difference.

16. “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” —No Name in the Street

17. “Books taught me that things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me to everyone who is alive and who had ever been alive.”

18. “It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.” —Collected Essays: Notes of a Native Son / Nobody Knows My Name / The Fire Next Time / No Name in the Street / The Devil Finds Work / Other Essays

19. “The purpose of education…is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions.”

20. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” “Stranger in the Village”

21. “And love will simply have no choice but to go into battle with space and time, and furthermore, to win.”

22. “If you’re treated a certain way you become a certain kind of person. If certain things are described to you as being real, they’re real for you whether they’re real or not.”

23. “The moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”

Don't miss these life-changing quotes you definitely won't forget.

24. “I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also so much more than that. So are we all.” —Notes of a Native Son

25. “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the making of bread.” —The Fire Next Time

26. “Anyone who has struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” —Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son

James Baldwin wearing a suit and tie © rd.com, Getty Images

27. “I often wonder what I’d do if there weren’t any books in the world.” —Giovanni’s Room

28. “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

29. “Perhaps he is a fool and a coward but almost everybody is one or the other and most people are both.” —Giovanni’s Room

30. “For he was one of those poets who escaped the terrors of writing by writing all the time.” —Another Country

31. “What a great difference there is,’ she said, ‘between dreaming of something and dealing with it!” —Another Country

32. “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” —The Fire Next Time

Read up on these kindness quotes that will encourage you to spread the love.

33. “One must say yes to life and embrace it wherever it is found—and it is found in terrible places; nevertheless, there it is.”

34. “I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.” —The Fire Next Time

35. “To defend oneself against a fear is simply to insure that one will, one day, be conquered by it; fears must be faced.” —The Fire Next Time

36. “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be” —Nobody Knows My Name

James Baldwin wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera © rd.com, Getty Images

37. “The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.”

38. “People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.” —No Name on the Street

39. “In order to have a conversation with someone you must reveal yourself.”

40. “Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.” —If Beale Street Could Talk

Now that you've been inspired by these James Baldwin quotes, check out these quotes from books that are as honest as they are thought-provoking.

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