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New Baldwin writings show timelessness


James Baldwin’s passionate hope for a better America, a United States that he can believe in and that believes in a brilliant black person, comes through in each piece of this disparate collection “The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings.”

Editor Randall Kenan, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, calls the compendium “a collection of snapshots.” And the writings are haphazard. But these are snapshots in the best sense: glimpses deep inside a life lived daringly and fervently, if not always with politic attention to Baldwin’s colleagues and compatriots.

Kenan offers Baldwin as a “probable impossibility.” What made him an “impossibility” ranges from his birth to a single mother in the Jim Crow South and his childhood in a poor fundamentalist preacher’s family in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood to his escape in 1948 to Europe, where both his homosexuality and his persistence as an intellectual were more viable.

Baldwin was born in 1924 and by 1953, with help and some intervention from novelist Richard Wright, had published “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” which established him as an important storyteller. His 1955 essay collection, “Notes of a Native Son,”  announced his voice as a clarion on race and humanity in America. And his 1963 history of the Nation of Islam, “The Fire Next Time,” cemented Baldwin’s leadership in black intellectual politics. He died in 1987, and the theater criticism, essays on culture or blues music and even some Congressional testimony in this volume span most of his adult life.

Baldwin argues that his view of American society and race was more than “probable.” Anger was inevitable in a society whose majority benefited from subjugating one group of people. And facing that there have been political and personal, as well as economic, benefits for the largely white upper classes in denigrating black people is the only way to move beyond racism, Baldwin writes.

In an essay “Nationalism, Colonialism and the United States,” he even doubts the significance of having a black president before all of society addresses its responsibility. And he pulls no punches: The hook for the piece, written in 1961, is Bobby Kennedy’s proposition that Baldwin could look forward to being president 30 years hence.

The theme may be clearest in a 1963 speech titled, “We Can Change the Country”: “And if my place, as it turns out, is not my place, then you are not what you said you were, and where’s your place? There has never been in this country a Negro problem. I have never been upset by the fact that I have a broad nose, big lips and kinky hair. You got upset. And now you must ask yourself why. I, for example, do not bring down property values when I move in. You bring them down when you move out.”

Associated Press