Although James Baldwin (1924-1987) considered himself first and foremost a novelist, he found other genres of writing irresistible, particularly the essay, in which he was able to voice a fierce intellectual and political perspective with an unparalleled eloquence.
And during his lifetime he published no less than twenty major works including Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Giovanni’s Room (1956) and The Fire Next Time (1963), which have become standard texts in the articulation of identity theories.
How fitting, then, that Randall Kenan, a celebrated gay African American writer in his own right, should be enlisted to edit Baldwin’s uncollected writings, since Kenan—like Baldwin—queered, classed and racialized the American literary landscape.
Kenan, a long-time devotee of Baldwin and author of The Fire This Time (2007), an exploratory essay in conversation with Baldwin’s iconic book, explains in his introduction that this compendium of “occasional writings give us a different lens through which to view Baldwin’s artistry. A collection of snapshots. A sketchbook. An omnium-gatherum of those ideas he revisited most often. A GPS map of the geography of his mind’s progress. It brings together an eclectic mix of reviews, essays, and public letters from 1947 to 1985 that charts his incredible passage.”
Indeed, in his nonfiction writings, Baldwin wasn’t known to sugar-coat his arguments and he inhabited his unwavering vision so passionately that his language never failed to strike someone’s sensitive nerve. In the 1959 essay “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes,” for example, he responds to the Hollywood film The Defiant Ones:
[Its] suggestion that Negroes and whites can learn to love each other if they are only chained together long enough runs so madly counter to the facts that it must be dismissed as one of the latest, and sickest, of the liberal fantasies, even if one does not quarrel with the notion that love on such terms is desirable.
Few territories were left unexplored by Baldwin, and his insights on all matters were necessarily loaded with charged language that was meant to provoke, engage, and ultimately, educate. A writer decades ahead of time, his preoccupations now come across as startlingly prescient.
In 1961 he wrote: “[What] really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro “first” will become the first Negro President. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he’ll be president of.”
And commenting that same year on the field of entertainment: “It is a sad fact that I have rarely seen a Negro actor really well used on the American stage or screen, or on television.” This last statement begs the contemporary reader to wonder: Has anything really changed?
Other pieces enlighten readers to what it means to have the blues, to fall back in love with Shakespeare, and to extrapolate on what he so forthrightly identifies as “the white problem,” that is, white America’s inability to recognize that no matter how assimilated Black Americans are, they are still Othered by their skin color and therefore subject to the exclusionary attitudes America has historically reserved for outsiders, foreigners and immigrants.
But true to his conviction to deconstruct and critique all threads of the social fabric, he examines the fear of the Black Power Movement, the popular use of Black English, and the conflicted relationship between the African American and Jewish communities.
Though there are some well-known pieces in the selection, like Baldwin’s much-referenced “Open Letter to My Sister Angela Y. Davis,” Kenan also includes less-disseminated pieces such as book reviews, forewords and afterwords.
A few of them are absolute gems, like what was merely an author’s note included in an anthology that contained one of Baldwin’s fictional stories. In it, Baldwin illustrates the timelessness and continued relevance of his wisdom:
What the times demand, and in an unprecedented fashion, is that one be–not seem–outrageous, independent, anarchical. That one be thoroughly disciplined–as a means of being spontaneous. That one resist at whatever cost the fearful pressures placed on one to lie about one’s own experience. For in the same way that the writer scarcely ever had a more uneasy time, he has never been needed more.
As far as its appeal to a queer audience, though Baldwin was openly gay and explored homosexual themes in his fictions—namely, Another Country (1962) and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968) in addition to the aforementioned Giovanni’s Room—he rarely confronted queerness head-on in the works included in this collection.
There are only tangential suggestions, such as in his review of Stuart Engstrand’s The Sling and the Arrow, in which he states: “The contemporary sexual attitudes constitute a rock against which many of us flounder all our lives long; no one escapes entirely the prevailing psychology of the times.”
Even in Kenan’s introduction, the only passing mention of Baldwin’s sexuality is in reference to Baldwin, a student at The New School in the late 1940s, meeting a young man who had arrived to study Method Acting: “He is not your lover, but he will remain your lifelong friend.” That aspiring actor was Marlon Brando.
It is evident in The Cross of Redemption that James Baldwin lived and wrote as a civil rights activist firstly, but that was an important position to affirm in a time when this country needed such lucid and impassioned thinkers. This doesn’t lessen his importance to his various communities, including the queer one.
In fact, it only inspires others, no matter what their stories, to tell their stories about the world around them. And that seems to be the greatest value in collecting the uncollected writings. Baldwin’s appeal is indeed floating among the pages, in one of letters written in France in 1962: “Write me, quickly, please, the morale is wildly fluctuating, I’m always afraid, and I’m pregnant with some strange monster.”
—— The Cross of Redemption
By James Baldwin
Introduction by Randall Kenan
Hardcover, 9780307378828, 336pp.
August 24, 2010