The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings
by James Baldwin
edited by Randall Kenan
Dallas Morning News
29 August 2010
Covering the breadth of James Baldwin's literary career, The Cross of Redemption is a potent dose of previously uncollected essays and miscellany.
Baldwin's civil-rights-era essays make the book's nucleus. His morality is drawn from Scripture, but his diction and concepts are genetic – his literary ancestors are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Henry James.
Like Emerson, Baldwin believes the poet is representative man. Baldwin declares that "poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us ... . Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion. In this sense, all artists are divorced from and even necessarily opposed to any system whatever."
Like Douglass, Baldwin believes that once we free ourselves from racial thinking, specifically the myth of white superiority, our political principles will be realized. In "We Can Change the Country," a 1963 speech, Baldwin sounds both ancestral and immediate in his call for civil rights, imploring: "If we don't now move, literally move, sit down, stand, walk, don't go to work, don't pay rent, if we don't now do everything in our power to change this country, this country will turn out to be ... so immobilized by its interior dissension that it can't do anything else ... . A government and a nation are not synonymous. We can change the government, and we will."
From James, Baldwin inherits the aesthetic ideal, "perception at the pitch of passion." This sensibility permeates pieces such as "The Fight: Patterson vs. Liston," the collection's best essay – a sparkling concoction of sports writing, personal essay and cultural criticism; "A Challenge to Bicentennial Candidates," an acerbic op-ed about Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter; and "To Crush a Serpent," a blazing jeremiad deconstructing Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and their false ministries.
In "Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes," Baldwin interrogates American culture's blind liberalism and belligerent conservatism. He explains, indignantly: "The American way of life has failed – to make people happier or to make them better. We do not want to admit this, and we do not admit it." In 2010, with liberal strategies working weakly and conservatism retrenched to its blanched roots, Baldwin's proposition reads like a Russian prophecy fulfilled.
Though it isn't laser-focused like his nonfiction masterworks, Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and The Fire Next Time (1963), Baldwin's Cross burns with rage, smoothly, like a cocktail mixed perfectly, Manhattan or Molotov.
Historically, white Americans have rejected black indignation as incredible. This disbelief, Baldwin argues, stems from an inability to "conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs and an intolerable violation of myself." There are consequences for disbelief and violation: "You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves."
Baldwin's trenchant voice, still contemporary 23 years after his death, reminds us: Our refusal to defend the rights of all citizens diminishes our humanity and degrades our democracy.