Uncomfortable in their own skin

“How do people come to know themselves? One way is by reading fiction. The profound act of empathy demanded by a novel, forcing the reader to suspend disbelief and embody a stranger’s skin, prompts reflection and self-questioning. But most people don’t read novels.” – Nathaniel Rich, “James Baldwin & the Fear of a Nation”

Breathe deep the gathering gloom

“A novel insistently demands the presence and passion of human beings, who cannot ever be labeled. Without this passion we may all smother to death, locked in those airless, labeled cells, which isolate us from each other and separate us from ourselves.” – James Baldwin, “Preservation of Innocence”

The crux of the matter

“Race was—is—the fundamental American issue, underlying not only all matters of public policy (economic inequality, criminal justice, housing, education) but the very psyche of the nation.” – Nathaniel Rich, “James Baldwin & the Fear of a Nation”

It’s called racism

“Police killings of unarmed black children, indifference to providing clean drinking water to a majority-black city, or efforts to curtail the voting rights of minority citizens are not freak incidents but outbreaks of a chronic national disease.” – Nathaniel Rich, “James Baldwin & the Fear of a Nation”

The fire this time

“Well I know this, and anyone who’s ever tried to live knows this, that what you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessity, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me. Now here in this country we’ve got something called a nigger. It doesn’t, in such terms, I beg you to remark, exist in any other country in the world. We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I’ve always known—I had to know by the time I was seventeen years old—that what you were describing was not me, and what you were afraid of was not me. It had to be something else. You had invented it, so it had to be something you were afraid of, and you invested me with it. Now, if that’s so, no matter what you’ve done to me, I can say to you this, and I mean it, I know you can’t do any more and I’ve got nothing to lose. And I know and have always known—and really always, that is part of the agony—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? I am not the victim here. I know one thing from another. I know I was born, I’m going to suffer, and I’m going to die. The only way you get through life is to know the worst things about it. I know that a person is more important than anything else, anything else. I learned this because I’ve had to learn it. But you still think, I gather, that the nigger is necessary. Well, he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I’m going to give you your problem back. You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.” – James Baldwin, Take This Hammer

What do you look like when you’re not looking?

“Anyone who has ever been compelled to think about it—anyone, for example, who has ever been in love—knows that the one face that one can never see is one’s own face. One’s lover—or one’s brother, or one’s enemy—sees the face you wear, and this face can elicit the most extraordinary reactions. We do the things we do and feel what we feel essentially because we must—we are responsible for our actions, but we rarely understand them. It goes without saying, I believe, that if we understood ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less. But the barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed. There are so many things one would rather not know! We become social creatures because we cannot live any other way. But in order to become social, there are a great many other things that we must not become, and we are frightened, all of us, of these forces within us that perpetually menace our precarious security. Yet the forces are there: we cannot will them away. All we can do is learn to live with them. And we cannot learn this unless we are willing to tell the truth about ourselves, and the truth about us is always at variance with what we wish to be. The human effort is to bring these two realities into a relationship resembling reconciliation. The human beings whom we respect the most, after all—and sometimes fear the most—are those who are most deeply involved in this delicate and strenuous effort, for they have the unshakable authority that comes only from having looked on and endured and survived the worst.” – James Baldwin, “The Creative Process”