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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

James Baldwin: Sentences like no one else

One of the most striking passages in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin, edited by Randall Kenan, appears in the 1961 essay “From Nationalism, Colonialism, and the United States: One Minute to Twelve: A Forum:”
Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day—thirty years if I'm lucky—I can be President too. It never entered this boy's mind, I suppose—it has not entered the country's mind yet—that perhaps I wouldn't want to be.... [W]hat 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 will be president of?
What would Baldwin make of Obama’s America? This passage is vintage Baldwin, turning a question around to gain a new and provocative perspective. He did much the same trick in his famous riposte to a British television interviewer: “When you were starting out as a writer, you were black, impoverished, homosexual, you must have said to yourself, ‘Gee, how disadvantaged could I get?’” “No,” Baldwin snapped back, “I thought I hit the jackpot. It was so outrageous you could not go any further. I had to find out a way to use it.” (see 0:32 of YouTube video)

In his review of the new collection in The Los Angeles Times Lynell George expands on how momentous Baldwin's attitude was for American culture:
We hit the jackpot—all of us—anyone interested in engaging in candid albeit stakes-changing debate, anyone who had an investment in equity, humanity and its future. We gained tremendously from the variegated prism through which he viewed and translated the world.

From the late 1940s until his death in 1987, Baldwin walked into the very center of the maelstrom—whether it was the rhetorical theater of debate or the very front line of violence of the Jim Crow South—but he wasn't simply everywhere at once: He was deeply invested in each and every outcome.

The pieces in the new collection bring to mind F. W. Dupee’s review of The Fire Next Time in The New York Review of Books in 1963:
As a writer of polemical essays on the Negro question James Baldwin has no equals. He probably has, in fact, no real competitors. The literary role he has taken on so deliberately and played with so agile an intelligence is one that no white writer could possibly imitate and that few Negroes, I imagine, would wish to embrace in toto.
Dupee then quotes a passage from The Fire Next Time:
Girls, only slightly older than I was, who sang in the choir or taught Sunday school, the children of holy parents, underwent, before my eyes, their incredible metamorphosis, of which the most bewildering aspect was not their budding breasts or their rounding behinds but something deeper and more subtle, in their eyes, their heat, their odor, and the inflection of their voices.
About this passage Dupee remarks: “Nobody else in democratic America writes sentences like this anymore. It suggests the ideal prose of an ideal literary community, some aristocratic France of one’s dreams.”

In “Universal Blues,” her review of the new collection for Columbia Journalism Review, Kimberly Chou tries to locate the source of Baldwin’s incantatory prose:
A preacher’s son, Baldwin grew up in Harlem as a teenage evangelist, entering the pulpit at fourteen and abandoning it three years later. In his nonfiction above all, one can see that the skill for oratory stayed with him—transferred to the page for a wider audience. His language could sometimes be baroque. Yet his message always cut straight through, even when his opinions were hard to swallow. The reader feels compelled to keep reading, no matter how raw or unapologetic the subject material.
Lynell George takes the measure of the breadth of Baldwin's achievement:
... what this volume underscores is Baldwin's immense cross-disciplinary range—as a reader, thinker, lecturer and pundit. Though race was a theme that was never out of arm's reach, his preoccupation with societal ethics and humanity was tantamount. And though, as Kenan points out in his evocative introduction, Baldwin first and foremost considered himself a novelist, it was the essays—particularly "The Fire Next Time" and "Notes of a Native Son" that cemented his fate, which [Kenan points out in the introduction] "transformed Baldwin into something more than a writer for the American public and world at large—if the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the civil rights movement's Moses, James Baldwin had become its Jeremiah, despite his protestations of speaking for no one but himself."
Like many other writers, Baldwin felt the need to declare his independence from his literary forebears. The new book includes his savage review of Richard Wright’s Native Son, comparing it to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Wright had introduced Baldwin to the New York literati and their relationship never recovered.

In an interview with NPR, editor Kenan describes what he believes to be one of the reasons for Baldwin’s enduring appeal: “He lifts the veil,” Kenan says. “White people felt that they had an insight into black America that they didn't have before.”

Related LOA works: James Baldwin: Collected Essays; James Baldwin: Early Novels & Stories

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