When I play reverse time travel and imagine historical figures turning up today (what would Ben Franklin say about the iPad? Or Jane Austen about Jersey Shore?, etc.), James Baldwin’s name comes to mind. The essayist and novelist spent four decades picking at the scab of American race relations. He could be incendiary, but at his best he was sly, writing with a sharply ironic sensibility that gave him one of the most distinctive voices of the early postwar years. In part because he warned that the country’s inability to solve its racial problems could bring about its downfall—“Carthage” was the specter he invoked—he was tagged, and seemed happy to be tagged, the American Jeremiah.
All of which makes you wonder: what would the preacher turned secular prophet, the implacable critic of America’s treatment of blacks, think of the fact that America has elected a black president? A timely answer can be found in The Cross of Redemption, a new anthology of his previously uncollected essays and public letters. In a 1961 speech, he told his audience that Bobby Kennedy had made him “the soul-stirring promise that one day—thirty years, if I’m lucky—I can be president too.” Baldwin seemed amused that RFK hadn’t considered that he might not want to be president. “And in any case, 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.”
From other writers, this might seem like a dodge. From Baldwin, it is characteristic. His essays hit hardest when he seeks the origins of America’s racial crisis not in the head-on collision of black and white, but in certain corners of the national psyche that we don’t like to inspect too closely. At a time when serious people claim we live in a “post-racial” society, the reappearance of Baldwin’s writing—insistent, accusatory, outraged—feels like a terrible family secret coming to light in an Ibsen play, or Banquo’s ghost showing up to spoil the party. He’s been dead for 23 years, and a black man is president, but Jimmy Baldwin is still angry.
That anger didn’t come only from America’s vexed history of race relations. “I’m not any longer interested in the crime,” he said in a 1963 speech that’s reprinted here. “I’m talking about denying what one does. This is a much more sinister matter.” Baldwin draws us again and again to face up to the vile parts of ourselves and our histories. This reckoning, he believed, was essential to the country’s salvation. America’s failure “to accept the reality of pain, of anguish, of ambiguity, of death has turned us into a very peculiar and sometimes monstrous people,” he wrote. Lest we think we’ve outgrown our blindness, consider the Shirley Sherrod episode. Here is only the latest example of our desire to focus on the superficial and not the root issues: we let media spectacle distract us from the remarkable story of a woman who withstood some of the worst depredations of racism—her father was killed by a white man who was exonerated by an all-white jury—but found a way to reconcile with whites.
For Baldwin, America’s see-no-evil ways place an extra burden on its artists. Becoming a great novelist, he wrote in one of these essays, means “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.” This suits the writer who brought so much of his own life to his writing—and not just to his essays. No single work of his fiction surpasses Native Son, the novel by his friend and mentor Richard Wright that Baldwin made his name by savaging. But in spite of their shortcomings, Baldwin’s novels let us watch a significant writer work out in fiction the same problems he sets for himself in his essays. Go Tell It on the Mountain, his debut bil-dungs-roman, captures the world of Harlem churches, and the extreme pressures placed on young black people in both North and South. Giovanni’s Room, a very different book about a gay American in Paris, describes a life half in and half out of the closet in the middle of the 20th century.
As you watch Baldwin wield the very different tools of fiction and nonfiction, you can’t help but wonder: Where are those folks today? Where are the significant artists who occupy anything like the place Baldwin held in the national conversation in the 1960s? To be clear, I don’t mean issue advocacy, as when Leo DiCaprio dons a wet suit or pets a monkey or whatever. I mean making and sustaining arguments, carving out a role as a public intellectual—something that Baldwin thought sounded boring, and that he disingenuously denied being. It’s hard to come up with many people who can stand confidently in both fields; Bono’s op-eds for The New York Times do not belong in the same conversation as “Notes of a Native Son”—which is, line for line, probably Baldwin’s strongest and most enduring work. That’s strange, because artists today seem to have the advantage over Baldwin, Mailer, and other artist-critics of the 20th century. You no longer need an invitation from Partisan Review or Commentary or The New Leader to hang a shingle as a social critic, as they did. In theory, the Web should make this dual discipline easier—unless it turns out to make it worse.
To be fair, it’s not easy to do what Baldwin did—not even for Baldwin. In fact, this volume unwittingly shows just how brutal the struggle could be. The editor, Randall Kenan, has included plenty of second-shelf work. His very early reviews may thrill the completist, but they read like juvenilia. Too much of the late work is overheated. There’s hyperbole (“Every bombed village is my hometown,” he wrote of Vietnam), bluster (“It is not a question of whether they are going to give me any freedom. I am going to take my freedom. That problem is resolved”), and plain old head-scratchers (the 1980 speech in which he declared America “the most illiterate nation in the world.” Oh?). The book ends up reinforcing the glum conventional wisdom that Baldwin did his best work early, then lost his touch.
On at least one occasion, he seemed to recognize as much. In a profile of Sidney Poitier reprinted here, he reminisced about the actor’s early work. He wrote that he missed it much as he missed the young Marlon Brando. “But then I miss the young Jimmy Baldwin, too.”