Author James Baldwin sitting with arms resting on knees and a cigarette in his hand.

6 James Baldwin Quotes on Race and Justice that Still Resonate

James Baldwin’s eloquent expressions and rich depictions of Black characters illustrated the Black consciousness movement during the late 20th century. His work serves as a gateway for all people—Black and otherwise—to understand race, sexuality, and the relentless pursuit of justice. Here are some quotes from his work. 


• Read one of the pieces referenced below in full and explore the meaning of the quote with a friend or colleague.

• Consider: What form of art do you use to express yourself, if any? How can you use that space to critique the world you live in?

• Watch “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a recently released movie adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel that “fictionalizes” Baldwin’s literal and metaphorical concerns about American prisons (Time).

The Fire Next Time, 1963

In this popular essay, Baldwin detailed his evangelical childhood and his views on the treatment and condition of Black people in America.

“Long before the Negro child perceives this difference, and even longer before he understands it, he has begun to react to it, he has begun to be controlled by it. Every effort made by the child’s elders to prepare him for a fate from which they cannot protect him causes him secretly, in terror, to begin to await, without knowing that he is doing so, his mysterious and inexorable punishment.”

No Name in the Street, 1972

Baldwin critiques how the criminal legal system unfairly targets Black people.

“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 … and listens to their testimony.”

This is the book that also contains this oft-quoted line. Consider how its context changes when you know it’s rooted in systemic injustice in mass incarceration:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

The Creative Process, 1962

James Baldwin included a self-reflective piece for his anthology “The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction.” In his essay “The Creative Process,” Baldwin outlines his view of the role of the artist in an inherently unjust world.

“But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

The Devil Finds Work, 1976

Baldwin also was a critic of contemporary media during his lifetime. He wrote this essay on the racial depictions in American films. In it, he names the power that stories and narratives have on our understanding of the world.

“I think it was T.S. Eliot who observed that the people cannot bear very much reality. This may be true enough, as far as it goes, so much depending on what the word ‘people’ brings to mind: I think that we bear a little more reality than we might wish. In any case, in order for a person to bear his life, he needs a valid re-creation of that life, which is why, as Ray Charles might put it, blacks choose to sing the blues.”

Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, 1961

This compilation offers revised versions of his previous work and a reflection on the role of Blackness in both the U.S. and Europe.

“In America, the color of my skin had stood between myself and me; in Europe, that barrier was down. Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch. It turned out that the question of who I was was not solved because I removed myself from the social forces which menaced me-anyway, these forces had become interior, and I had dragged them across the ocean with me. The question of who I was had at last become a personal question, and the answer was to be found in me.”

Go Tell It On the Mountain, 1953

Jame Baldwin also wrote fiction, the most prominent of which is “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” a semi-autobiographical novel. Through the story of its main character, teenager John Grimes, Baldwin fictionalized his own history of sexuality, race, and religion.

“John stared at Elisha all during the lesson, admiring the timbre of Elisha’s voice, much deeper and manlier than his own, admiring the leanness, and grace, and strength, and darkness of Elisha in his Sunday suit, wondering if he would ever be holy as Elisha was holy.”

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Nicole Cardoza

Nicole is an entrepreneur, author, investor, speaker and magician passionate about reclaiming our right to be well.

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