James Baldwin’s Guide to Survival

I first heard of James Baldwin at a Civil War lecture by historian David Blight, who told the audience (only partially joking) that anyone who hasn’t read James Baldwin should have their citizenship revoked.[1] Blight described a James Baldwin interview that encapsulated why I’m a devoted reader and why I care so deeply about studying history. Baldwin also explained why an understanding of history is crucial to the struggle for civil rights.

Baldwin, whom Blight described as a young African American writer of fiction, a great non-fiction writer, and the voice of the Civil Rights movement, was well known for not pulling punches in interviews. In this 1962 conversation with Studs Terkel, Baldwin is “firing away,” saying that Americans have no sense of history and no sense of tragedy. Terkel stopped him to ask what he meant by a sense of history.

“Well, you read something that you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoevsky,” Baldwin said. “This is a great liberation for the suffering, struggling person who always thinks he is alone.” [2]

To Baldwin, having a sense of the past “means knowing you’re not alone,” Blight explained. “That whatever is happening to you has probably happened before. That can be sobering. It can be devastating.”[3]

Terkel went on to ask what Baldwin meant when he said that Americans have no sense of tragedy. Baldwin said:

People think that a sense of tragedy is a kind of embroidery, something irrelevant that you can take or leave. But in fact, it’s a necessity. That’s what the blues and the spirituals is all about, it is the ability to look on things as they are and to survive your losses, or even not survive them. To know that your losses are coming. To know they are coming is the only possible insurance you have that you will survive them. [4]

Blight explained what Baldwin was getting at:

It’s knowing enough history… it’s exploring human experience enough to know that loss is always a part of that experience. Always. And the only way you can ever be prepared for them is to study it. And I think we can apply what he said there to the individual level, to the collective, the social, and the national.[5]

To study African-American history, which is inseparable from American history, is not simply a matter of acknowledging the past. Baldwin explained that understanding this history is essential to the identity and self-respect of a significant portion of the American population. It can be validating and comforting, but at its heart it is a matter of survival.

Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a powerful non-fiction work—the sort that you wish were fiction, since it speaks about things that should not be true. At age 14, Baldwin had a religious crisis. He looked around himself and saw the “whores, pimps, racketeers,” he writes, “now I realized that we had been produced by the same circumstances.”[6] He saw the deep hopelessness born of knowing that one’s best efforts would never defeat one’s skin color.

“Negroes in this country…are really taught to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world,” Baldwin says, “This world is white and they are black.”[7]

It is precisely this self-hatred that can be fought by an accurate understanding of history. This was the fight that many emerging institutions in the black museum movement undertook in the 1960s.[8] These museums often formed in major cities characterized by postindustrial transformation, economic hardship, and racial tension. They filled the gap left by mainstream institutions, where a black visitor may not feel welcome or see themselves in the art and history displayed on the walls.

The new museums sought to communicate a message of identity and self-worth to African Americans. In the process, they brought new life to the museum field with exhibitions addressing contemporary issues and innovative community outreach programs. The black museum movement also worked to reform a public history narrative that ignored or intentionally falsified injustices to and contributions by African Americans.

The power of the white world, Baldwin writes, deliberately hides “the truth about the black man, as a historical entity and as a human being…so every attempt is made to cut that black man down—not only was made yesterday, but is made today.”[9] Bringing that history into the light helps. “To accept one’s past…is not the same thing as drowning in it,” Baldwin says, “it is learning how to use it.”[10]

Part of the tragedy of The Fire Next Time is its relevance today. Baldwin urges the honest acceptance of history and the need for change in American society and politics. This change is not only necessary for black Americans, but for the survival and uplift of the country.

Of the black man, Baldwin writes, “He is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or dark as his.[11]



[1] Blight, David. “The Civil War in American Memory.” Podcast. 2015. https://mainehumanities.org/blog/podcast-david-blight-the-civil-war-in-american-memory/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Vintage International. 1992, 16.

[7] Baldwin, 25.

[8] Burns, Andrea. From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

[9] Baldwin, 69.

[10] Baldwin, 81.

[11] Baldwin, 94.

15 thoughts on “James Baldwin’s Guide to Survival

  1. Loved this post! I was moved by Baldwin’s book, but couldn’t really put a finger on why it was so powerful, and you really cleared it up for me. History and context is so important when talking about Civil Rights and how they shape one’s experience in this world. The piece about being liberated from being alone in your struggle is interesting because I can see how it can be a freeing experience, but also perhaps not comforting in a concrete way.

    1. This was the first time reading Baldwin for me and I was also struck by how powerfully he writes. I think you bring up an important point that is exemplified in Baldwin’s work but also in the work of the museums in the black museum movement – that of self worth. It reminds me of the slogan by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “this place matters.” Rather, I was thinking that it has been shown through these works and movements that “these stories matter.” Even after individuals, and entire communities were told over and over that they did not.

    2. Emily–that line between “freeing” and “comforting” is interesting. There were so many moments that I had reading Baldwin where I felt this profound truth in what he was saying, even though I myself could never have put it into words (or even explain why it feels true).

      1. Baldwin is a writer who had the ability to write and touch so many people no matter what their race or experiences, he found a way to connect people through the written word and leave them is a better understanding of the “other” in their life.

  2. Some really great background information on Baldwin in this post that really increased my understanding and appreciation for the book. The black museum movement was also knew to me and was very enlightening. The line that particularly struck with me was “that whatever is happening to you has probably happened before” because this fact can be very sobering and reassuring.

    1. I agree with Sarah, bringing in another explanation about Baldwin and his viewpoints gave me a greater understanding of the subject matter. Baldwin’s writing is so moving and having another assessment of it really helps gain a greater appreciation and understanding.

  3. I really enjoyed your post and how you discussed the importance of museums and their ability to stop self-hatred through education. Like you mentioned in the conclusion of your post, these issues are still relevant today and museums, in order for themselves to remain relevant, must work to end racism, inequality, and self-hatred.

    1. I thought Kate did a great job of reinforcing the need for museums that focus on the black experience and tying together both of the readings. Baldwin discusses the importance of having a sense of history and tragedy, and the black museum movement began to deal with this in their institutions. I think it’s incredibly important for black communities to see themselves and their histories represented in museums in ways that reflect their own experiences.

  4. That quote about what having a sense of history means is so powerful. I think that such a sense of history is what really causes us to want to have museums in the first place. It powers the urge to collect and the desire to learn stories. Being able to connect with the past through personal experience is essential to forming empathy. Empathy is essential to forming a better community, on the local, national, and global levels. Baldwin mentions Dostoevsky a few times, which is interesting to me. He clearly had a connection with someone who in most respects would seem to have nothing in common with him. This sort of connection most likely helped him grow as a creator and to have a more commanding social presence.

  5. First off, I loved your post Kate (as always). I found Baldwin’s book very engaging, if tragic. I try very hard to keep my personal religious beliefs out of my professional work, but for the purposes of discussing Baldwin’s work, I think it is acceptable. I am a deeply spiritual person and, being a white protestant, I have never told that God hates me. Having society/religious authorities teaching you that you are a descendant of Ham, and therefore, inherently inferior to the descendants of Noah’s other sons must be soul crushing. Baldwin reveals, painfully at times, how at every turn, African Americans have been taught to hate themselves, and it is unforgivable.

  6. I really enjoyed your connecting Baldwin to its relevance today. Since as Baldwin says history is important to understand, and that message rings true in 2016. Additionally I loved your bringing in his conversation with Studs Terkel. I learned about Terkel in an Oral History class, and he has a way to really bring out great conversation in his narrators. Baldwin’s book can be hard to unpack but I thought you did a great job really exploring an aspect of it and then connecting that to the black museum movement.

  7. You did a great job linking the books this week. It’s still a problem we’re struggling with today, too. African-American history is neglected or downplayed both in public schools and in many museums. Without that sense of history, it’s easy for self-loathing and internalized racism to take hold. Society as a whole has a lot of catching up to do, even all these years after Baldwin.

  8. Great post, Kate. You called attention to the hugely important role that museums can play in education, helping to give visitors a “sense of history.” It seems that those museums founded during the black museum movement of the 1960’s especially can provide a community space where a group that has been historically (and presently) mistreated can see themselves accurately represented.

  9. Absolutely fantastic post Kate. The thing you wrote of that struck me the most, and indeed stuck out most in my reading of Baldwin, was the idea that a sense of tragedy is necessary for understanding. For it is to know there is survival and strength amidst oppression and suffering, and this there is, as Baldwin described it, beauty. It is a beauty that, as we have indicated above, we cannot always put our finger on, and can be difficult to face, but it is undeniably there. It is key to identity, key to a story that African-Americans–and many other groups–came to take ownership. For that reason, your connection to the black museum movement was also so very key, as a grassroots source that created this sense of ownership and agency for themselves. It truly did, as you say, bring new life into the field by “reforming the public history narrative,” making it something of social relevancy, perspective, and ultimately change. It is working within this nexus, to explore all stories, that the work of museums matters most.

  10. Excellent post Kate! I find when I am reading Baldwin is so much emotion pouring out from his words that one can not help being filled with them too. You make an interesting point about museum education and self-hatred. It is clear the situations Baldwin writes about are still sadly happening today and museums have to bring out this history that is missing from textbooks. There must be a change in how the general look public looks at history from a series of dates in a one point-of-view book to understanding and relating the issues, social and personal, to help society and ourselves.

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