Few writers have articulated the role of The Other as passionately or eloquently as James Baldwin. A gay black man born impoverished in pre-Civil Rights-era Harlem, Baldwin wrote church sermons before moving on to the secular world of fiction. This background gave him many angles from which to analyze and attack his outsider status. The essays compiled in The Cross of Redemption show that while Baldwin was committed to pulling back the curtain on the forces he felt were manipulating America’s problems, he was also very serious about closing the gap between those in power and the disenfranchised. This new collection shows that he was willing to take on black, white, rich, or poor to see that happen.
Even as Martin Luther King Jr. eventually shifted his focus from racism to the questions of economy and class, Baldwin too – as can clearly be seen in these previously uncollected writings – thought in bigger economic terms, framing “the Negro problem” as merely a symptom of the American attraction to empty consumerism and violence.
This collection, which includes book reviews, speeches, essays, forewords, and letters, often approaches the issue through an artist’s lens. In the first essay, “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes,” Baldwin posits that the acquisition of art or artistic experiences has become more sought after than the information or experience itself. One can only imagine how horrified Baldwin would have been by 21st-century reality TV and the things people will do for a taste of – or even the appearance of – money. “The people who run the mass media and those who consume it are really in the same boat,” wrote Baldwin.“They must continue to produce things they do not really admire, still less love, in order to continue buying things they do not really want, still less need.”
Randall Kenan, who edited the collection, is clearly a Baldwin fan – he wrote a biography about Baldwin in 1993 and, like Baldwin, he is also a black, gay male – but Kenan is not shy about pointing out how harsh Baldwin’s tone could sometimes be. Nowhere was this more pronounced, Kenan mentions in the introduction, than in his excessively critical review of Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” which Baldwin proclaimed to be as stereotypical as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Wright, who had introduced Baldwin to New York’s literary elite, was very hurt and the review ruined their professional relationship.
Kenan does a relatively good job of selecting material that highlights Baldwin’s extremely nuanced opinions. To the casual reader, he might simply sound angry. Between the lines, however, it’s evident that the anger is born of love. Baldwin saw himself as holding up a mirror to America to provoke change.
Kenan also draws attention to Baldwin’s urbane use of language. Baldwin clearly enjoyed manipulating the heights and depths of the English language to prove a point. In “Why I Stopped Hating William Shakespeare,” Baldwin wrote, “I was resenting, of course, the assault on my simplicity ... but I feared him, too ... because in his hands, the English language became the mightiest of instruments. No one would ever write that way again.”
Baldwin did not write like Shakespeare, but he wields his words with a similar power. They can caress like a hug, as they do in “The Fight: Patterson and Liston.” He writes with great affection toward boxer Sonny Liston, who was often vilified in the media as a thug and a discredit to blacks. It’s as if he wanted the article to be a salve to the fighter’s reputation.
Or his words can bludgeon a subject, as in his review of “The Sure Hand of God” by Erskine Caldwell. Baldwin excoriated the book, writing that it “is almost impossible to review, largely, I suspect, because it is almost impossible to take seriously.” He continued, “Unless we hear from [Caldwell] again in accents more individual, we can leave his bones for that literary historian of another day who may perhaps define and isolate that virus in our organism which has thus far proved so deadly to the growth of our literature in general and our writers in particular.”
One of the most compelling pieces in “The Cross of Redemption” is one in which Baldwin recalls a 1960s conversation with Robert F. Kennedy (“From Nationalism, Colonialism, and the United States: One Minute to Twelve: A Forum”). Kennedy told Baldwin that one day a black man could be president. Baldwin seemed offended by the possibility that an African-American would even want to become president of a country that he saw in moral free fall.
“[W]hat really exercises my mind,” he wrote, “is just what kind of country he’ll be President of.”
Stacie Williams is an intern in the Monitor’s library.