I am a white American male of northern European descent. Not terribly handsome, not particularly fit. Reasonably intelligent, unless I’m fooling myself. It’s certainly possible. I was raised in a predominantly Catholic community outside Boston by a single mother, as well as grandparents, babysitters, neighbors, the parents of classmates, etc. We weren’t quite in the middle-class — I didn’t realize that until college, where I was also shamed out of my accent (who knew I had an accent?) — but I was afforded all the opportunities for which I was qualified and have never, to my knowledge, been unfairly excluded.
This is a piece of criticism so I’m not supposed to write about myself. But writing about James Baldwin is impossible if you’re not writing about yourself. One cannot understand his work from a dispassionate remove. Baldwin wrote about his life in ways that wholly transcended the mere individual. It is a quality that places him squarely in that great American lineage with Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, and Ginsberg, among others.
It is also impossible to write about Baldwin if you are not writing about race. That is a more intimidating prospect. I’ll happily tell you about my life — more candidly than I probably ought to do — but race is something else. Race is not the same as writing about myself, but it is certainly a part of me; it is what my own self-construction indirectly makes of others; it is how history and society manipulate the boundaries of the self. I’m white because you are non-white. Race is an accusation, first and foremost.
All the platitudes and truisms we use to talk about race in America are dispersions. They take the implicit accusation and scatter it, transform it, protecting us from the ugliness of our history. They stop us from examining race squarely. In his review of Warren Miller’s The Cool World, Baldwin writes:
I think there is something suspicious about the way we cling to the concept of race, on both sides of the obsolescent racial fence . . . Both camps have managed to evade the really hideous complexity of our situation on the social and political level.
Over the course of my life the public discourse on race has seemed to move from lip-service and implication, to bitter and mute acceptance, to self-righteous denial today. It has moved from evasion to greater evasion, as if by looking back we would turn to pillars of salt.
In 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois famously said, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” He was almost right. From Atlanta in 1906 to Birmingham in 1963 and Los Angeles in 1992, the American century was measured in increments of racial violence: lynchings, riots, police brutality, assassinations, and mass incarceration. Through a century of near-constant change — in which the motorcar, the telephone, and the internet literally re-ordered our whole society — racism stubbornly persisted.
Du Bois does not go far enough, though. In a Congressional hearing on the value of teaching black history in public schools (the same argument is taking place today in certain states), James Baldwin sharpened the terms. The adjustment is typically incisive, and typically arresting: the problem of America, he told Congress, is “the nigger we invent.”
It’s jarring. Especially now. It is also a brilliant turn of phrase. The image of a color-line implies a separateness and objectivity that reality elides. American society is complex, but it is whole. Racism is a living, totalizing idea. It shapes the seemingly independent self-construction of every person, across the whole of society, and is perpetuated by our actions, judgments, assumptions, and speech. In revising Du Bois’ static image to one of invention, Baldwin recognizes that racism is actively reconceived by each generation according to its historical topography.
The marriage of race, morality, and economics that produced and protected slavery, and gave birth to centuries of conflict, trauma, and violence, was a Faustian bargain: every brick and board of American prosperity is only possible because of this system, but our conception of human worth has been critically, perhaps irredeemably, corrupted. I’m not sure whether Baldwin read Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, but he certainly grasped the objectification and negation that Fanon proposes therein. In “Anti-Semitism and Black Power,” Baldwin writes:
Well then: the nature of the enemy is history; the nature of the enemy is power; and what every black man, boy, woman, girl, is struggling to achieve is some sense of himself or herself which this history and this power have done everything conceivable to destroy. But let us try to be clear. Black power is not a mystical concept or a poetic concept, for example; it is simply a political necessity. It has nothing to do with bad guys or good guys, and it really has nothing to do with color. Black arts has nothing to do with color, either. It is an attempt to create a black self-image which the white Republic could never allow. It is an attempt to tell the truth about black people to black people because the American Republic has told us nothing but lies.
But the Republic has told itself nothing but lies. If one accepts my basic assumption, which is that all men are brothers — simply because all men share the same condition, however difficult the details of their lives may be — then it is perfectly possible, it seems to me, that in re-creating ourselves, in saving ourselves, we can re-create and save many others: whosoever will. I certainly think that this possibility ought to be kept very vividly in the forefront of our consciousness. The value of a human being is never indicated by the color of his skin; the value of a human being is all that I hold sacred; and I know that I do not become better by making another worse. One need not read the New Testament to discover that. One need only to read history and look at the world — one need only, in fact, look into one’s mirror.
This is a perfect example of black existentialism, the struggle with history and self-identification that black Americans face. It captures in compelling but comprehensible language the complexity of thinkers such as Fanon and, later, Paul Gilroy. We also see here the master stylist and preacher’s son flexing his rhetorical muscle. This is by no means Baldwin’s finest analysis of racism, but it has such power. It is unflinchingly honest.
The Cross of Redemption — the volume I set out to review here — is a book of odds and ends: recorded lectures and testimony, public propaganda, letters, reviews, literary favors, and one rather moving short story. They lack the polish and patience of Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time, Baldwin’s three best-known volumes, as well as his two well-regarded novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room. Much of the work in The Cross of Redemption is ephemera, particularly the introductions and letters, but it is not a book suited only to completists.
Baldwin’s early reviews and essays earned him the admiration of some of the top editors in New York. He was not particularly impressed: “It took perhaps one or two cocktail parties to recognize . . . the people with whom one was dealing, so far from being giants, appeared to be in the literary professions principally because they hated literature.” Yet Baldwin possessed a sympathetic imagination and, as author Mary McCarthy noted, “what is called taste — quick, Olympian recognitions that were free from prejudice.” Both qualities are on display in his review of Gorky’s Best Short Stories:
[Gorky’s] failure was that he did not speak as a criminal but spoke for them; and operated, consciously or not, not as an artist and a prophet but as a reporter and a judge.
He continues, this flaw “can be found the key to the even more dismal failure of the present-day realistic novelists” who never even succeed, as Gorky did, in relaying “the unpredictable and the occasional and amazing splendor of the human being.” Compare this analysis to his consideration of race. There is a thread of broad identification and sympathy that binds Baldwin’s social essays to his literary work.
This largesse allows Baldwin to rage and compassion in equal measure, drawing readers close to the flame, helping him understand (as perhaps only an author can) the internal conflicts of others. This is not to say that he never passed a hard judgment when it was right to do. In his conflicted essay / open letter to the imprisoned radical Angela Davis, Baldwin presciently writes:
One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses.
Note the echo of chains twice in the first sentence and twice in the last, the grisly transformation of “black flesh” to “corpses,” the Foucault-esq connection of surveillance with security. When Baldwin wrote this, the prison population in America was only a fraction of the size that it is now: black Americans are imprisoned today at more than five times the rate of non-Hispanic white Americans; more than a third of black men in America will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetime. Elsewhere, Baldwin addresses economic justice with all the righteous indignation of an occupation:
We know that a man is not a thing and is not to be placed at the mercy of things. We know that air and water belong to all mankind and not merely to industrialists. We know that a baby does not come into the world merely to be the instrument of someone else’s profit. We know that democracy does not mean the coercion of all into a deadly — and, finally, wicked — mediocrity but the liberty for all to aspire to the best that is in him, or that has ever been. We know that we, the blacks, and not only we, the blacks, have been, and are, the victims of a system whose only fuel is greed, whose only god is profit.
Baldwin’s style is a blend of pulpit cadences and dialectical reasoning. They reveal his idiosyncratic upbringing: talented storefront preacher as a young man, darling of the progressive Manhattan smart set, expatriate to Paris. His repetitions generate tension and a sense of rhetorical momentum while the digressions suspend that culmination, complicating expectations, and finally arresting the reader with, most often, a stark and startling revelation. His best writing seamlessly transitions between an evocative, almost casual, sometimes Biblical lyricism, and the careful terms of a deeply-felt moral philosophy.
The pieces collected in The Cross of Redemption only show Baldwin’s mature style in fits and starts. Mostly it reveals the frustration and impatience that troubled the author late in his career. But this volume is not a starting point. If you have not read James Baldwin already, I urge you to procure a copy of Notes of a Native Son and Go Tell it on the Mountain. They are canonical American texts. Stop what you’re doing. Read them, right now.
“The time has come, it seems to me,” Baldwin writes, “to recognize that the framework in which we operate weighs on us too heavily to be borne and is about to kill us.” Tonight there is a debate on television between four white men, wealthy and resentful, running for President, using carefully selected code words to incite fear, to curse certain programs and ideas with the voodoo of racial anxiety.
I’ve watched friends and loved ones evade race my whole life, and been horrified to find them settled into popular neo-liberal / Calvinist delusions that propel the iniquity and injustice of this society. Until we redeem the concept of human worth, divorce human value from its measure of silver — stop trying to be better by making others worse — until we transcend history, it’s hard to imagine that things will improve. Still, the hour is late, the cross is heavy. The time has come, it seems to me, to decide whether race will be the problem of the Twenty First Century.