James Arthur Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist. His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son, explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, but most notably in mid-20th-century North America.
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Famous James Baldwin Poems
No, I don’t feel death coming.
I feel death going:
having thrown up his hands,
for the moment.
I feel like I know him
better than I did.
Those arms held me,
for a while,
and, when we meet again,
there will be that secret knowledge
when you send the rain
think about it, please,
not get carried away
by the sound of falling water,
the marvelous light
on the falling water.
am beneath that water.
It falls with great force
and the light
me to the light.
I always wonder
what they think the n*ggers are doing
while they, the pink and alabaster pragmatists,
and defining and re-defining and re-aligning
nobly restraining themselves, meanwhile,
from blowing up that earth
which they have already
blasphemed into dung:
the gentle, wide-eyed, cheerful
ladies, and their men,
nostalgic for the noble cause of Vietnam,
nostalgic for noble causes,
aching, nobly, to wade through the blood of savages—
Uncas shall never leave the reservation,
except to purchase whisky at the State Liquor Store.
The Panama Canal shall remain forever locked:
there is a way around every treaty.
We will turn the tides of the restless
the sun will rise, and set
on our hotel balconies as we see fit.
The natives will have nothing to complain about,
indeed, they will begin to be grateful,
will be better off than ever before.
They will learn to defer gratification
and save up for things, like we do.
Oh, yes. They will.
We have only to make an offer
they cannot refuse.
This flag has been planted on the moon:
it will be interesting to see
what steps the moon will take to be revenged
for this quite breathtaking presumption.
mast*rbat* in winding sheets.
They have hacked their children to pieces.
They have never honoured a single treaty
made with anyone, anywhere.
The walls of their cities
are as foul as their children.
No wonder their children come at them with knives.
Mad Charlie man’s son was one of their children,
had got his sh*t together
by the time he left kindergarten,
and, as for Patty, heiress of all the ages,
she had the greatest vacation
of any heiress, anywhere:
Golly-gee, whillikens, Mom, real guns!
and they come with a real big, black funky stud, too:
oh, Ma! he’s making eyes at me!
Oh, noble Duke Wayne,
be careful in them happy hunting grounds.
They say the only good Indian
is a dead Indian,
by what I say is,
you can’t be too careful, you hear?
Oh, towering Ronnie Reagan,
wise and resigned lover of redwoods,
deeply beloved, winning man-child of the yearning Republic
from diaper to football field to Warner Brothers sound-stages,
be thou our grinning, gently phallic, Big Boy of all the ages!
Salt peanuts, salt peanuts,
for dear hearts and gentle people,
and cheerful, shining, simple Uncle Sam!
Nigg*r, read this and run!
Now, if you can’t read,
From Manifest Destiny
(Cortez, and all his men
silent upon a peak in Darien)
to A Decent Interval,
and the chopper rises above Saigon,
abandoning the noble cause
and the people we have made ignoble
and whom we leave there, now, to die,
one moves, With All Deliberate Speed,
to the South China Sea, and beyond,
where millions of new n*ggers
await glad tidings!
No, said the Great Man’s Lady,
I’m against abortion,
I always feel that’s killing somebody.
Well, what about capital punishment?
I think the death penalty helps.
Up to our *ss in n*ggers
on Death Row.
don’t you cry for me!
Well, I guess what the n*ggers
is supposed to be doing
is putting themselves in the path
of that old sweet chariot
and have it swing down and carry us home.
That would help, as they say,
and they got ways
of sort of nudging the chariot.
They still got influence
with Wind and Water,
though they in for some surprises
with Cloud and Fire.
My days are not their days.
My ways are not their ways.
I would not think of them,
one way or the other,
did not they so grotesquely
block the view
between me and my brother.
And, so, I always wonder:
can blindness be desired?
Then, what must the blinded eyes have seen
to wish to see no more!
For, I have seen,
in the eyes regarding me,
or regarding my brother,
have seen, deep in the farthest valley
of the eye, have seen
a flame leap up, then flicker and go out,
have seen a veil come down,
leaving myself, and the other,
alone in that cave
which every soul remembers, and
out of which, desperately afraid,
I turn, turn, stagger, stumble out,
into the healing air,
fall flat on the healing ground,
singing praises, counselling
my heart, my soul, to praise.
What is it that this people
Surely, they cannot be deluded
as to imagine that their crimes
There is nothing in the least original
about the fiery tongs to the eyeballs,
the sex torn from the socket,
the infant ripped from the womb,
the brains dashed out against rock,
nothing original about Judas,
or Peter, or you or me: nothing:
we are liars and cowards all,
or nearly all, or nearly all the time:
for we also ride the lightning,
answer the thunder, penetrate whirlwinds,
curl up on the floor of the sun,
and pick our teeth with thunderbolts.
Then, perhaps they imagine
that their crimes are not crimes?
Perhaps that is why they cannot repent,
why there is no possibility of repentance.
Manifest Destiny is a hymn to madness,
feeding on itself, ending
(when it ends) in madness:
the action is blindness and pain,
pain bringing a torpor so deep
that every act is willed,
is desperately forced,
is willed to be a blow:
the hand becomes a fist,
the prick becomes a club,
the womb a dangerous swamp,
the hope, and fear, of love
is acid in the marrow of the bone.
No, their fire is not quenched,
nor can be: the oil feeding the flames
being the unadmitted terror of the wrath of God.
Yes. But let us put it in another,
less theological way:
though theology has absolutely nothing to do
with what I am trying to say.
But the moment God is mentioned
theology is summoned
to buttress or demolish belief:
an exercise which renders belief irrelevant
and adds to the despair of Fifth Avenue
on any afternoon,
the people moving, homeless, through the city,
praying to find sanctuary before the sky
and the towers come tumbling down,
before the earth opens, as it does in Superman.
They know that no one will appear
to turn back time,
they know it, just as they know
that the earth has opened before
and will open again, just as they know
that their empire is falling, is doomed,
nothing can hold it up, nothing.
We are not talking about belief.
I wonder how they think
the n*ggers made, make it,
how come the n*ggers are still here.
But, then, again, I don’t think they dare
to think of that: no:
I’m fairly certain they don’t think of that at all.
I with the alabaster lady of the house,
Beulah about sixty, built in four-square,
biceps like Mohammed Ali,
she at the stove, fixing biscuits,
scrambling eggs and bacon, fixing coffee,
pouring juice, and the lady of the house,
she say, she don’t know how
she’d get along without Beulah
and Beulah just silently grunts,
I reckon you don’t,
and keeps on keeping on
and the lady of the house say
She’s just like one of the family,
and Beulah turns, gives me a look,
sucks her teeth and rolls her eyes
in the direction of the lady’s back, and
keeps on keeping on.
While they are containing
and entering onto the quicksand of
the Caribbean plunder, and
the South China Sea booty,
the n*ggers are aware that no one has discussed
anything at all with the n*ggers.
Well. N*ggers don’t own nothing,
got no flag, even our names
and you don’t change that
by calling yourself X:
sometimes that just makes it worse,
like obliterating the path that leads back
to whence you came, and
to where you can begin.
And, anyway, none of this changes the reality,
which is, for example, that I do not want my son
to die in Guantanamo,
or anywhere else, for that matter,
serving the Stars and Stripes.
(I’ve seen some stars.
I got some stripes.)
has anyone discussed the Bomb with the n*ggers:
the incoherent feeling is, the less
the nigg*r knows about the Bomb, the better:
the lady of the house
smiles nervously in your direction
as though she had just been overheard
discussing family, or sexual secrets,
and changes the subject to Education,
or Full Employment, or the Welfare rolls,
the smile saying, Don’t be dismayed.
We know how you feel. You can trust us.
Yeah. I would like to believe you.
But we are not talking about belief.
The sons of greed, the heirs of plunder,
are approaching the end of their journey:
it is amazing that they approach without wonder,
as though they have, themselves, become
that scorched and blasphemed earth,
the stricken buffalo, the slaughtered tribes,
the endless, virgin, bloodsoaked plain,
the famine, the silence, the children’s eyes,
murder masquerading as salvation, seducing
every democratic eye,
the mouths of truth and anguish choked with cotton,
rape delirious with the fragrance of magnolia,
the hacking of the fruit of their loins to pieces,
hey! the tar-baby sons and nephews, the high-yaller
and Tom’s black prick hacked off
to rustle in crinoline,
to hang, heaviest of heirlooms,
between the pink and alabaster breasts
of the Great Man’s Lady,
or worked into the sash at the waist
of the high-yaller Creole b*tch, or niece,
a chunk of shining brown-black satin,
staring, staring, like the single eye of God:
creation yearns to re-create a time
when we were able to recognize a crime.
my stricken kinsmen,
the party is over:
there have never been any white people,
anywhere: the trick was accomplished with mirrors—
look: where is your image now?
where your inheritance,
on what rock stands this pride?
I counsel you,
leave History alone.
She is exhausted,
sitting, staring into her dressing-room mirror,
and wondering what rabbit, now,
to pull out of what hat,
and seriously considering retirement,
even though she knows her public
dare not let her go.
She must change.
Yes. History must change.
A slow, syncopated
relentless music begins
suggesting her re-entry,
transformed, virginal as she was,
in the Beginning, untouched,
as the Word was spoken,
before the rape which debased her
to be the wh*re of multitudes, or,
as one might say, before she became the Star,
whose name, above our title,
carries the Show, making History the patsy,
responsible for every flubbed line,
every missed cue, responsible for the life
and death, of all bright illusions
and dark delusions,
Lord, History is weary
of her unspeakable liaison with Time,
for Time and History
have never seen eye to eye:
Time laughs at History
and time and time and time again
Time traps History in a lie.
But we always, somehow, managed
to roar History back onstage
to take another bow,
to justify, to sanctify
the journey until now.
Time warned us to ask for our money back,
and disagreed with History
as concerns colours white and black.
Not only do we come from further back,
but the light of the Sun
marries all colours as one.
I have seen you betray your Saviour
(it is you who call Him Saviour)
so many times, and
I have spoken to Him about you,
behind your back.
Quite a lot has been going on
behind your back, and,
if your phone has not yet been disconnected,
it will soon begin to ring:
informing you, for example, that a whole generation,
in Africa, is about to die,
and a new generation is about to rise,
and will not need your bribes,
or your persuasions, any more:
not your morality. No plundered gold—
Ah! Kinsmen, if I could make you see
the crime is not what you have done to me!
It is you who are blind,
you, bowed down with chains,
you, whose children mock you, and seek another
you, who cannot look man or woman or child in the
whose sleep is blank with terror,
for whom love died long ago,
somewhere between the airport and the safe-deposit
the buying and selling of rising or falling stocks,
you, who miss Zanzibar and Madagascar and Kilimanjaro
and lions and tigers and elephants and zebras
and flying fish and crocodiles and alligators and
and crashing waterfalls and endless rivers,
flowers fresher than Eden, silence sweeter than the
grace of God,
passion at every turning, throbbing in the bush,
thicker, oh, than honey in the hive,
opening, welcoming, aching from toe to bottom
sweet heaven on the line
to last forever, yes,
rejoicing ends, man, a price remains to pay,
your innocence costs too much
and we can’t carry you on our books
or our backs, any longer: baby,
find another Eden, another apple tree,
somewhere, if you can,
and find some other natives, somewhere else,
to listen to you bellow
till you come, just like a man,
but we don’t need you,
are sick of being a fantasy to feed you,
and of being the principal accomplice to your
for, it is your crime, now, the cross to which you
your Alpha and Omega for everything.
Well (others have told you)
your clown’s grown weary, the puppet master
is bored speechless with this monotonous disaster,
and is long gone, does not belong to you,
any more than my woman, or my child,
ever belonged to you.
During this long travail
our ancestors spoke to us, and we listened,
and we tried to make you hear life in our song
but now it matters not at all to me
whether you know what I am talking about—or not:
I know why we are not blinded
by your brightness, are able to see you,
who cannot see us. I know
why we are still here.
Munich, Winter 1973 (for Y.S.) Related Poem Content DetailsGodspeed.
The n*ggers are calculating,
from day to day, life everlasting,
and wish you well:
but decline to imitate the Son of the Morning,
and rule in Hell.
In a strange house,
a strange bed
in a strange town,
a very strange me
is waiting for you.
it is very early in the morning.
The silence is loud.
The baby is walking about
with his foaming bottle,
making strange sounds
and deciding, after all,
to be my friend.
How dull time is!
How empty—and yet,
since I am sitting here,
walking up and down here,
that time’s cruel ability
to make one wait
is time’s reality.
I see your hair
which I call red.
I lie here in this bed.
Someone teased me once,
a friend of ours—
saying that I saw your hair red
because I was not thinking
of the hair on your head.
Someone also told me,
a long time ago:
my father said to me,
It is a terrible thing,
to fall into the hands of the living God.
I know what he was saying.
I could not have seen red
before finding myself
in this strange, this waiting bed.
Nor had my naked eye suggested
that colour was created
by the light falling, now,
in this strange bed,
where no one has ever rested!
The streets, I observe,
It feels like snow.
Starlings circle in the sky,
together, and alone,
into and out of the light.
I will see you tonight.
enough to freeze our tongues
and scald our eyes.
We may never be found again!
Just as the birds above our heads
that, in what lies before them,
the always unknown passage,
wind, water, air,
the failing light
the failing night
the blinding sun
they must get the journey done.
They have wings and voices
are making choices
are using what they have.
They are aware
that, on long journeys,
each bears the other,
in the middle of the terrifying air.
The lady is a tramp
The lady is a sight
the lady devastated
an alley or two
reverberated through the valley
which leads to me, and you
the lady is the apple
of God’s eye:
He’s cool enough about it
but He tends to strut a little
when she passes by
the lady is a wonder
daughter of the thunder
with the voice of ages
singing us through.
If the hope of giving
is to love the living,
the giver risks madness
in the act of giving.
Some such lesson I seemed to see
in the faces that surrounded me.
Needy and blind, unhopeful, unlifted,
what gift would give them the gift to be gifted?
The giver is no less adrift
than those who are clamouring for the gift.
If they cannot claim it, if it is not there,
if their empty fingers beat the empty air
and the giver goes down on his knees in prayer
knows that all of his giving has been for naught
and that nothing was ever what he thought
and turns in his guilty bed to stare
at the starving multitudes standing there
and rises from bed to curse at heaven,
he must yet understand that to whom much is given
much will be taken, and justly so:
I cannot tell how much I owe.