James Baldwin on Masks
“Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
– James Baldwin
Baldwin is often remembered as a political radical. He definitely was, but like Cornel West, Baldwin’s social and political views were informed by the idea that love transforms us. The above quote is from Baldwin’s 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, which he wrote for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin writes a deeply personal, defiant, but thoughtful manifesto about the struggle against racism in the United States. The country had not lived up to its potential, Baldwin said. He urged whites and blacks to stand up and fight racism and help America become what it must be. Martin Luther King, Jr echoed this sentiment that same year, calling for America to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” King and Baldwin had known each other since 1957.
James Baldwin is angry. He is bitter. What self-respecting person wouldn’t be after being harassed all one’s life simply because of one’s skin color? Through it all, Baldwin remains rooted in the reality and possibility of love. The excerpt–“Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within”–is part of a longer quote in which Baldwin explains what he means by “love.”
I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
Love is not a feeling but a power that transforms us and those with whom we interact. Love is a quest. Love is daring. Love is growth. A quest to become what we must become, the courage to take on that quest, and the openness to let that change happen. In this 20-minute interview with Baldwin on British TV, he says that “most people try to avoid love, because love involves the terrors of life.” People instead hide behind masks. We fear we cannot live without the masks we hide behind, but inside, we know that we are not free to live within masks.
Contrast Baldwin’s idea about masks with Oscar Wilde’s idea.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
— Oscar Wilde
Wilde expresses how we are more comfortable behind masks. We never know whether Wilde was being sardonic for its own sake or truly believed what he was saying. What truth do we only speak behind masks? Are masks necessary to be ourselves? Or is Wilde presenting a paradox that we all live? Both Wilde and Baldwin were homosexual and no question this colored their thoughts and feelings about masks and truth. Perhaps they expressed different views because they were of different races and classes. Regardless, it seems difficult to prefer Wilde’s idea that masks create truthfulness over Baldwin’s idea that love takes off the masks that limit us.
To hide behind masks and to cling to them is always a possibility. But as Baldwin said, love is the only human possibility.
Brief biography of Baldwin by The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute
How Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time still lights the way towards equality
James Baldwin on being Black, Impoverished, and Homosexual (23 second video)