During his time here, James Baldwin was very vocal about how he viewed the country in which he was born and the expanding world. Now, many years after his death, his commentary continues to shake us, filling us with emotion and deep thinking. It is a shame, frankly, that his work is still relevant considering the topics he felt convicted to probe. Why, for example, must racial inequality still be just as relevant and important as it was during his time, in the 1960s? I love reading his work because of its candor, his unfiltered way of thrilling me to the bone, but I am frustrated that he is still speaking such volumes from the grave. Should we not be healed and matured from treating humans as ‘other’? Should we not have been delivered from prejudice by now? Unfortunately, we’re not. With our very new president-elect, it has been made crystal clear the direction intended for America. It is painful to witness the pace in which our planet spins considering the phrase that history repeats itself. In light of the current political climate, I picked up The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings recently and, as always, Baldwin rose from the dead while wringing me by the neck.
“Baldwin’s existence (and vast success) was a revolution to the very system that attempted to destroy those who look like him.”
The Cross of Redemption is filled with writing pieces of Baldwin’s that have been published throughout the literary world. Like, for example, “The Price May Be Too High” in The New York Times and “On Language, Race, and the Black Writer” in Los Angeles Times. The collection is paced like Baldwin’s voice: slow, soothing and filled with deep knowing. If you are familiar with his work, you will know that James Baldwin writes as, I suppose, he thinks. His style is unashamed of run on sentences and reads as if he is chatting over a cup of coffee. Like, for example, in “As Much Truth As One Can Bear”, he writes, “To be an American writer today means mounting an unending attack on all that Americans believe themselves to hold sacred. It means fighting an astute and agile guerrilla warfare with that American complacency which so inadequately masks the American panic. One must be willing — indeed, one must be anxious — to locate, precisely, that American morality of which we boast. And one must be willing to ask oneself what the Indian thinks of this morality, what the Cuban or the Chinese thinks of it, what the Negro thinks of it. Our record must be read. And, finally, 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.”
It might, for some, feel condescending because he’s sure about his thoughts and does not apologize for them. For me, though, James Baldwin comes off as an ancient soul who learned how to live comfortably in a body that was perceived as foreign. There is little harm that can be done to someone who knows themselves and he navigated within that space with admirable confidence. These observations, however, of James Baldwin are not new. Critics, young and old, have offered their opinion on the legend, majority with the assurance that he was one of a kind.
He doesn’t only write about race and politics, though. In “Letters from a Journey”, for example, he was detailed in a trip he made to Africa for the first time. He journaled during his time there, logging each day as an intimate experience for both himself and his reader. In “The Death of a Prophet”, a fictional story and the last piece of the collection, he wrote about a young man who was losing his religious father to an illness. In its short pages, the narrative is that of love and mystery, fright and coming-of-age.
Since the start of his career, Baldwin frequently explored race, politics, religion and gender, a style that reflected the times in which he lived. If searching to better understand the black American human experience, The Cross of Redemption is a relevant and valid place to start. Baldwin is the true definition of ‘other’ because he was an educated gay black man. Baldwin’s existence (and vast success) was a revolution to the very system that attempted to destroy those who look like him. ♦