13 James Baldwin quotes that are still painfully true today

Wisdom on race, social justice, self-belief and more from the prophetic author

A black and white photograph of James Baldwin on a bright blue background, surrounded by the quote,
Photograph: Getty | Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

Hailed as a gifted pupil at an early age, Baldwin discovered a particular passion for writing during his teens and at 13, he wrote his first article, Harlem – Then and Now, for a school magazine. He went on to be one of the most significant writers of American literature, famous for novels including Giovanni's Room (1965) and If Beale Street Could Talk (1974).

He was also a leading voice in the Civil Rights Movement, known for his insightful work that gave voice to the African American experience and sought to educate white Americans on what it meant to be Black.

In the decades following his death in 1987, the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter and ongoing discourse on race, social inequality and sexuality show that there is still a long way to go on the march to equality – and Baldwin's words are often to be found at the centre of these conversations.

Read on for some of his most prescient, and often still painfully true, musings on literature, race, self-belief, prejudice and more.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”

- Baldwin speaking to LIFE magazine in 1963

“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.”

- A Letter to My Nephew

“The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”

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

No Name in the Street

“There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.”

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

- Baldwin, speaking in a 1961 radio interview 

“Everybody’s journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality.”

“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.”

No Name on the Street

“Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.”

“The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.”

“Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.”

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more