'The Cross of Redemption': James Baldwin's indictment of racism and hopes for reconciliation
Book review: "The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings" is an anthology of writings and speeches of James Baldwin from the late 1950s through the 1980s.
Special to The Seattle Times
'The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings'
by James Baldwin
Pantheon, 304 pp., $26.95
In the interest of fair disclosure, I have to admit that the late novelist and essayist James Baldwin is one of my literary heroes, so it is with a twinge of apprehension that I give a thumbs-up to "The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings," an anthology edited by Randall Kenan that offers a searing introduction to readers unfamiliar with his work and a welcome reminder to his fans of his sorcery with the English language.
The apprehension stems from the discomfort of having to convince others they should admire and identify with this writer as much as I do. But it's also rooted in the sad fact that while "The Cross of Redemption" is a nice companion to his more comprehensive 1985 nonfiction collection "The Price of the Ticket," the selections don't reveal aspects of Baldwin's talent and thinking that aren't already well-established. Still, it's impossible not to marvel at the writing of the man who gave us 1963's disturbing and beautiful manifesto on race, "The Fire Next Time."
Baldwin, an African-American New Yorker who lived in semi-exile in the South of France and died in 1987, talks about race relations in America with a candor that is deliberately unsettling. But he also discusses racial prejudice and its nasty impacts in a refreshingly holistic way. Like the preacher's son that he was, he both indicts and offers a pathway to redemption to the reader.
In the writings and speeches collected here, which span the late 1950s through the 1980s, Baldwin is concerned with the idea of being "American" as well. He offers nuanced ideas about what that expression means, insisting that most of us hold onto rosy myths about our democratic ideals even as we deny minority groups, such as the black population from which he came, rights and privileges.
You get the sense of a man who feels he ought to hate his country but just can't bring himself to abandon its promise. His patriotism is a kind of tough-love, unromantic and unsparing.
"The air of this time and place is so heavy with rhetoric, so thick with soothing lies, that one must really do great violence to language, one must somehow disrupt the comforting beat, in order to be heard," he writes about the role of writers in society in 1962's "As Much Truth as One Can Bear." Those words ring true even today. There are many passages in this collection that feel oddly current even though they were written decades ago.
Even at his most acerbic and skeptical, Baldwin clings to the ideas of hope and reconciliation in America. He wants people to actually live by the dictum "all men are created equal," not just toss such expressions around like so much rhetorical confetti.
Baldwin makes clear that change in the streets begins with a transformation in the soul. In one of many attempts at reframing issues through paradox, he argues that "black freedom will make white freedom possible" in a 1985 open letter to then-South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. He challenges all of us, black, white and everyone in between, to understand each other by first doing something far more revolutionary: "There is nothing you can do for Negroes," he says in 1963's "The Artist's Struggle for Integrity." "It must be done for you. One is not attempting to save twenty-two million people. One is attempting to save an entire country ... The price for that is to understand oneself."
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.
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