by James Baldwin, edited by Randall Kenan, 2010
As I’m nearing the end of the Baldwin catalog, I’ve reached the posthumously published works. The Cross of Redemption is a collection of Baldwin’s published writings that were previously uncollected in any one book. These include various essays, speeches, letters, forewords and afterwords to other books, book reviews, and even a piece of short fiction. While there are some real gems to be found here, the problem with a collection like this is that it treats Baldwin’s work as a cohesive whole. His previous collections of essays were curated, and they were meant to tell a story together. That’s not the case here. There’s no thread that ties all of these together, other than the fact that Baldwin wrote them and the editor has decided that each piece of his writing is of equal importance and must be read. It’s not for the casual Baldwin reader or someone looking for an introduction to his works. I’d only recommend it for those who are trying to read everything he’s written or who are embarking on some sort of research project. That said, I did enjoy encountering some of Baldwin’s typical knock-out writing in this volume.
Baldwin’s most covered topic is that of race, and that’s present right away in this book. One of the first pieces is a speech given at a forum hosted by the Liberation Committee for Africa on nationalism, colonialism, and U.S. foreign policy. In it, Baldwin disparages Robert Kennedy’s pronouncement that, one day, someone like him could be president. He says that it has never entered Kennedy’s or the country’s mind that perhaps he wouldn’t want to be. Of course, Baldwin isn’t talking solely about himself, but about the idea that saying a future black president is possible could placate those who were suffering the effects of racism and discrimination in the moment. Besides, what troubles Baldwin isn’t whether or not there could be a black president, but “what kind of country he’ll be President of.” Once again, Baldwin’s words are prophetic, as we not only met that dubious prediction, but it failed to reverse the effects of hundreds of years of oppression, as Kennedy seemed to believe it word. Later in the speech, Baldwin asserts that “The tragedy of this country now is that most of the people who say they care about it do not care. What they care about is their safety and their profits. What they care about is not rocking the boat. What they care about is the continuation of white supremacy, so that white liberals who are with you in principle will move out when you move in.” That statement is just as applicable today as it was sixty years ago.
In “The White Problem,” Baldwin tackles the teaching of history, opinions about which have recently reared their ugly heads with the absurd attacks on critical race theory. Baldwin asserts that many crimes were committed in order to make America the country that it is, and the worst of this is the denial that they even happened. He says that a group of people existed on this land when the colonists reached the shores, and they were promptly eliminated: “I’m talking about the Indians, in case you don’t know what I’m talking about. Well, people have done that for centuries, but I’m willing to bet anything you like that not many American children being taught American history have any real sense of what that collision was like, or what we really did, how we really achieved the extermination of the Indians, or what that meant.” The essay “On Language, Race, and the Black Writer” further condemns this modified history that is being taught in effort to occlude the genocidal intentions of the settlers who arrived on these shores. “There is a reason no one wants our children educated,” he says. “When we attempt to do it ourselves, we find ourselves up against a vast machinery of racism that infects the country’s entire system of education…we are a threat to the machinery.” As more and more books and curricula come under fire for revealing a bloodier and more accurate version of American history, Baldwin’s words only increase in their importance.
With an open letter to Angela Davis, who was awaiting trial at the time, a profile on Sidney Poitier and the way he is portrayed in film, a transcript of a discussion he had with students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he was professor, and that one piece of short fiction that harkens back to the characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Cross of Redemption is a worthy attempt to preserve all of Baldwin’s writings so they may be read for generations to come. Unfortunately, I can’t say that reading this book was actually all that enjoyable. Not every book needs to be “fun to read” in order to be worthwhile, but I found this one slow going because the emotional tones of the pieces were ultimately unbalanced. It is sort of like a heap of Baldwin’s texts—useful, perhaps, if you’re doing a project on Baldwin (as will be apparent in I Am Not Your Negro), but not exactly engaging to read. Still, if, like me, you’re trying to get through Baldwin’s entire catalog, this has some great pieces you can’t miss. If you’re new to Baldwin, though, I recommend picking up one of the essay collections that was published in his lifetime. That’s where you’ll really feel all the fire he has to offer.