Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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James Baldwin on the Nature of Oppression

I just transcribed some quotes from James Baldwin, all from the book Conversations with James Baldwin (which I kept checked out of my college library for almost my entire freshman year because it had such a huge influence on me, and now I own my own copy of it) for my queerchoice mailing list, in the context of a discussion about why people in a homophobic society would ever want to choose to be queer in the first place. The quotes are worth sharing with as large an audience as possible, because they illustrate a way of thinking about oppression which hardly anybody in our society seems to recognize - so since I've already transcribed them once I'm going to copy and paste them here too.
"People always tell me how many Negroes bought Cadillacs last year. This terrifies me. I always wonder: Do you think this is what the country is for? Do you really think this is why I came here, this is why I suffered, this is what I would die for? A lousy Cadillac?" (p. 18)

"Bessie Smith was much freer - onerous and terrible as this may sound - much freer than the people who murdered her or let her die. Big Bill Broonzy, too - a much freer man than the success-ridden people running around on Madison Avenue today."
(p. 19)

"The great victims in this country of the institution called segregation, which is not solely a southern custom but has been for a hundred years a national way of life - the great victims are the white people, and the white man's children. Lorraine Hansberry said this afternoon when we were talking about the problem of being a Negro male in this society - Lorraine said that she wasn't too concerned really about Negro manhood since they had managed to endure and to even transcend fantastic things, but she was very worried about a civilization which could produce those 5 policemen standing on a Negro woman's neck in Birmingham or wherever it was, and I am too. I'm terrified at the moral apathy - the death of the heart which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves so long, that they really don't think I'm human. I base this on their conduct and not on what they say, and this means that they have become in themselves moral monsters. It's a terrible indictment - I mean every word I say."
(p. 41)

"It's incredible to me that - and I'm not trying to oversimplify anything - in this country where, after all, one is for the most part better off materially than anywhere else in the world: it is incredible that one should know so many people who are in a state of the most absolute insecurity about themselves. They literally can't get through a morning without going to see the psychiatrist. I find it very difficult to take this seriously.
Other people who have really terrifying and unimaginable troubles, from the American point of view, don't dream of going anywhere near a psychiatrist, and wouldn't do it even if they were mad enough to dream of it. This seems a very great, well, not illness, exactly, but fear. Frenchmen and Frenchwomen I knew spent much less time in this dreadful and internal warfare, tearing themselves and each other to pieces, than Americans do.
Why this is so is probably a question for someone else, but it is so, and I think it says something serious about the real aim and the real standards of our society. People don't live by the standards they say they live by, and the gap between their profession and the actuality is what creates this despair, and this uncertainty, which is very, very dangerous."
(p. 22)
Tags: books
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