American Lives: James Baldwin, 'Lifting The Veil'

James Baldwin i i

hide captionJames Baldwin, an American novelist, essayist, playwright and poet, grew up in New York City but moved to France in 1948.

AP
James Baldwin

James Baldwin, an American novelist, essayist, playwright and poet, grew up in New York City but moved to France in 1948.

AP

The writer James Baldwin once made a scathing comment about his fellow Americans: "It is astonishing that in a country so devoted to the individual, so many people should be afraid to speak."

As an openly gay, African-American writer living through the battle for civil rights, Baldwin had reason to be afraid — and yet, he wasn't. A television interviewer once asked Baldwin to describe the challenges he faced starting his career as "a black, impoverished homosexual," to which Baldwin laughed and replied: "I thought I'd hit the jackpot."

Several of Baldwin's essays, speeches and articles are collected in a new book called The Cross of Redemption. Randall Kenan, who edited the collection, talks to NPR's Steve Inskeep about Baldwin's complicated identity — and how his work challenged black and white readers alike.

The Cross of Redemption
The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings
By James Baldwin
Hardcover, 336 pages
Pantheon
List price: $26.95
Read An Excerpt

'His Charisma, His Rhetoric'

Baldwin wasn't afraid to speak out, but that didn't stop critics from trying to silence him. Kenan says Baldwin was "mysteriously" removed from the list of speakers for the March on Washington in August 1963.

His sexuality often came up when he dealt with conservative religious organizations, Kenan says. And when he tried to help the Black Panther Party in the 1970s, his sexual orientation was "thrown up at him in very hurtful ways."

Baldwin was quite open about his sexual orientation, and Kenan says there was something almost "magical" about Baldwin's frankness on the issue. At a time when major publishers wouldn't consider taking on a book about homosexuality, Baldwin wrote his second novel, Giovanni's Room, about a love affair between two white men.

"Right out of the box, Baldwin was going to blaze his own path," Kenan says. "And he got away with it. It's hard to imagine how he did — part of it was his charisma, his rhetoric ... A lot of people would have had the door slammed in their face."

Underneath The Veil

The collection includes a dramatic profile of the boxer Sonny Liston on the night of his historic 1962 showdown with Floyd Patterson. Though publicly Liston was known for being a criminal connected to the mob, Baldwin found him to be a "gentle teddy bear."

Kenan believes Baldwin's own background allowed him to see through the spin to get to know the man himself. He found Liston to be a "very complicated, very dedicated, and very spiritual" person.

Baldwin wrote that Liston reminded him of "big black men I have known who acquired the reputation of being tough in order to conceal the fact that they weren't hard."

For Kenan, the quote sums up the way Baldwin was so well-equipped to explore the complexity of black identity in America.

"There is a dichotomy between the way the world views a person and the way your folk see you," he says. "I think that what we see in this piece is underneath that veil."

'An Insight Into Black America'

"You give me this advantage," Baldwin once wrote to his white audience. "Whereas you never had to look at me — because you've sealed me away along with sin and hell and death — my life was in your hands and I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me."

Kenan says that as members of the minority, African-Americans are observers of the majority culture — through television, newspapers and pop culture, blacks "are privy to so much about white folks' lives" — but not vice versa.

Kenan points to Baldwin's 1963 New Yorker profile of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. "The Fire Next Time" turned into a "long peroration, a sermon about race," Kenan says. "And it became a huge rallying point for black folk and white folk."

During a tense time in America when blacks and whites didn't have opportunities to communicate, Kenan says Baldwin's writing gave them something to talk about. His descriptions of growing up poor and black and discriminated against helped open a window through which the majority could begin to truly see the minority.

"He lifts the veil," Kenan says. "White people felt that they had an insight into black America that they didn't have before."

Excerpt: 'The Cross Of Redemption'

The Cross Of Redemption
The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings
By James Baldwin
Hardcover, 336 pages
Pantheon
List price: $26.95

Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare

Every writer in the English language, I should imagine, has at some point hated Shakespeare, has turned away from that monstrous achievement with a kind of sick envy. In my most anti-English days I condemned him as a chauvinist ("this England" indeed!) and because I felt it so bitterly anomalous that a black man should be forced to deal with the English language at all — should be forced to assault the English language in order to be able to speak — I condemned him as one of the authors and architects of my oppression.

Again, in the way that some Jews bitterly and mistakenly resent Shylock, I was dubious about Othello (what did he see in Desdemona?) and bitter about Caliban. His great vast gallery of people, whose reality was as contradictory as it was unanswerable, unspeakably oppressed me. I was resenting, of course, the assault on my simplicity; and, in another way, I was a victim of that loveless education which causes so many schoolboys to detest Shakespeare. But I feared him, too, feared him because, in his hands, the English language became the mightiest of instruments. No one would ever write that way again. No one would ever be able to match, much less surpass, him.

Well, I was young and missed the point entirely, was unable to go behind the words and, as it were, the diction, to what the poet was saying. I still remember my shock when I finally heard these lines from the murder scene in Julius Caesar. The assassins are washing their hands in Caesar's blood. Cassius says:

Stoop then, and wash. — How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

What I suddenly heard, for the first time, was manifold. It was the voice of lonely, dedicated, deluded Cassius, whose life had never been real for me before — I suddenly seemed to know what this moment meant to him. But beneath and beyond that voice I also heard a note yet more rigorous and impersonal — and contemporary: that "lofty scene," in all its blood and necessary folly, its blind and necessary pain, was thrown into a perspective which has never left my mind. Just so, indeed, is the heedless State over¬thrown 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 whose energy made the overthrow of the State inevitable, necessary, and just.

And the terrible thing about this play, for me — it is not necessarily my favorite play, whatever that means, but it is the play which I first, so to speak, discovered — is the tension it relentlessly sustains between individual ambition, self- conscious, deluded, idealistic, or corrupt, and the blind, mindless passion which drives the individual no less than it drives the mob. "I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet...I am not Cinna the conspirator" — that cry rings in my ears. And the mob's response: "Tear him for his bad verses!" And yet — though one howled with Cinna and felt his terrible rise, at the hands of his countrymen, to death, it was impossible to hate the mob. Or, worse than impossible, useless; for here we were, at once howl¬ing and being torn to pieces, the only receptacles of evil and the only receptacles of nobility to be found in all the universe. But the play does not even suggest that we have the perception to know evil from good or that such a distinction can ever be clear: "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones . . ."

Once one has begun to suspect this much about the world — once one has begun to suspect, that is, that one is not, and never will be, innocent, for the reason that no one is — some of the self- protective veils between oneself and reality begin to fall away. It is probably of some significance, though we cannot pursue it here, that my first real apprehension of Shakespeare came when I was living in France, and thinking and speaking in French. The necessity of mastering a foreign language forced me into a new relationship to my own. (It was also in France, therefore, that I began to read the Bible again.)

My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way. If the language was not my own, it might be the fault of the language; but it might also be my fault. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.

In support of this possibility, I had two mighty witnesses: my black ancestors, who evolved the sorrow songs, the blues, and jazz, and created an entirely new idiom in an overwhelmingly hostile place; and Shakespeare, who was the last bawdy writer in the English language. What I began to see — especially since, as I say, I was living and speaking in French — is that it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience. The structure of the French language told me something of the French experience, and also something of the French expectations — which were certainly not the American expectations, since the French daily and hourly said things which the Americans could not say at all. (Not even in French.) Similarly, the language with which I had grown up had certainly not been the King's English. An immense experience had forged this language; it had been (and remains) one of the tools of a people's survival, and it revealed expectations which no white American could easily entertain. The authority of this language was in its candor, its irony, its density, and its beat: this was the authority of the language which produced me, and it was also the authority of Shakespeare.

Again, I was listening very hard to jazz and hoping, one day, to translate it into language, and Shakespeare's bawdiness became very important to me, since bawdiness was one of the elements of jazz and revealed a tremendous, loving, and realistic respect for the body, and that ineffable force which the body contains, which Americans have mostly lost, which I had experienced only among Negroes, and of which I had then been taught to be ashamed.

My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past. Under this light, this revelation, both myself and my past began slowly to open, perhaps the way a flower opens at morning, but more probably the way an atrophied muscle begins to function, or frozen fingers to thaw.

The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him. It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it. I think it is simply that he walked his streets and saw them, and tried not to lie about what he saw: his public streets and his private streets, which are always so mysteriously and inexorably connected; but he trusted that connection. And, though I, and many of us, have bitterly bewailed (and will again) the lot of an American writer — to be part of a people who have ears to hear and hear not, who have eyes to see and see not — I am sure that Shakespeare did the same. Only, he saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.

That is why he is called a poet. And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, unnameable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man, and to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him, the people — all people! — who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to find him there.

Excerpted from The Cross of Redemption by James Baldwin Copyright 2010 by The Estate of James Baldwin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.

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The Cross of Redemption
The Cross of Redemption

Uncollected Writings

by James Baldwin and Randall Kenan

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