James Baldwin’s The Cross Of Redemption

The Cross of RedemptionThere are many ways to begin talking about James Baldwin. He was a man of many talents, many friendships and many causes, whose life, begun in Harlem and obscurity, put him at the very forefront of 20th century America’s most difficult social and political conversations. He was both black and gay, a minority within a minority, and all his life he carried with him a sense of isolation, the consequence of any true struggle for identity. Posterity remembers him foremost as a polemicist and prose stylist of immense talent, the (step-)son of a preacher who took the biblical language he inherited and put its fiery cadences to his own uses, but I wish to talk about the personal price Baldwin paid for his activism. The Cross of Redemption was first published in 2010, nearly a quarter-century after Baldwin’s death, and so, like all such postmortems, it has the inevitable quality of an estate sale. Essays, book reviews, interviews, a single short story, a transcript from a college q&a session and another transcript from an appearance before a House Select Subcommittee concerning “Negro History and Culture” were packaged together with little regard for quality or theme. Of course, even the worst of James Baldwin is still immensely enriching, but this book would serve as a poor introduction to his talents as a writer and only a serviceable introduction to his politics, which is all the worse because the two are so inextricable. Here he is in the Subcommittee meeting making a very political point in a very artistic way:

You cannot educate a child if you first destroy his morale. That is why they leave school. You cannot educate him if he sees what is happening to his fathers, if he sees Ph.D.’s toting garbage. If he sees in fact on the one hand no past and really no present and certainly no future, then you have what the American public likes to think of, in the younger generation, as the nigger we invent and the nigger they invent. What has happened is that you destroy the child from the cradle.

And if somehow the message is still lost, he punctuates these remarks by invoking that most feared of black agitators, Malcolm X: “One of the reasons you got Malcolm X was because when he was quite young and wanted to become a lawyer, his teacher advised him to do something that a colored person could do, like become a carpenter.” Moreover, in the black experience in America Baldwin sees a microcosm for the country’s woes abroad, again and again drawing a parallel between black Americans and the peoples of third world country’s under America’s influence:

I suggest that what the rulers of this country don’t know about the world which surrounds them is the price they pay for not knowing me. If they couldn’t deal with my father, how are they going to deal with the people in the streets of Tehran? I could have told them, if they had asked.

But there appears to me a terrible contradiction in the role of social activist and the role of artist, and my reading of Baldwin’s character leads me to believe he adopted the former role reluctantly. The intensely private Baldwin, the idolizer of Henry James and decrier of Richard Wright’s Native Son as a mere “protest novel,” found himself in an age, and faced with a predicament, that his temperament was ill-suited for (“The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite, /That ever I was born to set it right!”). In one of my favorite of this collection’s essays, “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” he describes a dawning apprehension of the motivations of Cassius and Brutus, the Romans who conspire to murder Caesar:

Just so, indeed, is the heedless State overthrown by men, who, in order to overthrow it, have had to achieve a desperate single-mindedness. And this single-mindedness, which we think of (why?) as ennobling, also operates, and much more surely, to distort and diminish a man – to distort and diminish us all, even, or perhaps especially those whose needs and energy made the overthrow of the State inevitable, necessary and just.

In a very real sense, it was no less than the overthrow of the state that Baldwin sought, as did Malcolm, as did King. I cannot say – and will not speculate – whether or not Baldwin viewed his fellow civil rights advocates as having been diminished by the immense burdens of their cause, but it seems at least that he had himself in mind. Pope’s self-description as one who “stoop’d to Truth, and moralized his song” seems apt enough a description of Baldwin, who perhaps, had he been born later, or elsewhere, or of a different skin pigmentation, might have been quite content to restrict himself to the realm of fiction. We should all be immensely glad he did not.