LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This week, we've been exploring the ways that race weaves itself into American lives, and you may have noticed something about our conversation so far.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In the story of a white senator, the life of his black slave is barely recorded.
WERTHEIMER: In the story of a white explorer, we only know some details about his secret black wife.
INSKEEP: Our next subject cast a bright light on people who've been overlooked: the celebrated writer James Baldwin. A TV interviewer once noted some details of his background.
(Soundbite of archived recording)
Unidentified Man: Now, when you was starting out as a writer, you were black, impoverished, homosexual. You must have said to yourself, gee, how disadvantaged can I get?
Mr. JAMES BALDWIN (Writer): Oh no. I thought I hit the jackpot.
Unidentified Man: Oh great.
INSKEEP: Baldwin said he wanted to make use of his identity as a writer. His writing drew on his childhood in Harlem as the son of a black preacher. His writing also drew on his love of English and Shakespeare. And in the 1950s and '60s he became a leading public thinking on race.
(Soundbite of archived recording)
Mr. BALDWIN: It's part of the dilemma of being an American Negro. One is a little bit colored and a little bit white. And not only in terms, in physical terms, but in the head and in the heart. And there are days - this is one of them - when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it.
INSKEEP: Some of James Baldwin's essays, speeches and journalism are now collected in a book called "The Cross of Redemption." The editor, Randall Kenan, says Baldwin's complicated identity challenged white and black people alike.
Mr. RANDALL KENAN (Editor, "The Cross of Redemption): He had actually been on the list of speakers for the March on Washington in August 1963, which was actually organized by a black gay man. And mysteriously, Baldwin was taken off the list of speakers. This caused - his sexuality often came up when he was dealing with very conservative religious organizations and that sort of thing.
And even, when he, in the '70s, was trying to help organizations like the Black Panther Party, it would be thrown up at him in very hurtful ways at times.
INSKEEP: James Baldwin was fairly open about it. It was widely known, his sexuality, at a time when that was not widely accepted at all.
Mr. KENAN: Well, there was something magical about how he did it. I mean, Baldwin's second novel, "Giovanni's Room," was about a gay love affair between two white men. His publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, who had published his first novel to great acclaim, they wanted nothing to do with it. And a lot of people thought, well, are you insane? You're a young black and you're just going to ruin your career with your second book. What are you doing?
INSKEEP: Ruin his career why? Because he would just offend everybody?
Mr. KENAN: Well, yeah, it was just not done. I mean, very few people who had published - other than, you know, sort of pulp tabloid-sort of things - nobody published serious literature about, you know, homosexuals. So, I mean, right out of the box Baldwin was going to blaze his own path - and he got away with it. It's hard to imagine how he did.
Part of it was his charisma, his rhetoric, but he did get away with it, where a lot of people would have had the door slammed in their face.
INSKEEP: There's a fascinating piece of writing in the collection that you've pulled together and it's of a boxing match. It's of two boxers, each of whom have huge public personas and it's the early 1960s and they're both African-Americans.
Mr. KENAN: Sonny Liston and Patterson in the early '60s. This was the fight of all time. These were two major heavyweight boxers. You know, it was one of those fights that had been put off and put off. And so the anticipation had grown so great. And Baldwin went there - and it's a remarkable profile of the fight.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about one of those African-American boxers, Sonny Liston. His public image was of a criminal, which he actually had been, of a guy who was connected to the mob, which is probably true, and also just of being an awful, stupid beast. What did Baldwin find when he met this man?
Mr. KENAN: Well, he found him to be this gentle teddy bear. I mean, I think that so many of the things that came with his reputation, Baldwin was familiar with that. So he saw right through that and saw to the man, who was a very complicated, very dedicated, and very spiritual, on many levels, person. And Baldwin saw that, I think, better than most people were equipped to see it.
INSKEEP: There's a line here in this description. He says Sonny Liston reminded me of, quote, "big black men I have known who acquired the reputation of being tough in order to conceal the fact that they weren't hard."
Mr. KENAN: Exactly, beautiful. That puts the point right to it. Yeah, I think there is a dichotomy between the way the world views a person and the way your folk see you. So I think that what we see in this piece is, you know, underneath that veil, which a lot of people who aren't black and who haven't come up in those situations might not be aware of.
INSKEEP: You know, here's another quote from James Baldwin. He's addressing an audience here. He says you give me this advantage - and I think when he says you, he's talking to white people, white America. He says, you give me this advantage, that 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. What does he mean by that?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I think the situation of African-Americans has always been one of the minority being placed as observers of the majority culture. I mean, we see the television, we read the newspapers. We are privy to so much about white folks' lives, and I think not even a tenth of that is known about the minority by the majority. So I think he was very well placed in being able to say that I know much more about you than you do about me.
INSKEEP: Where do you think that comes out in his writing?
Mr. KENAN: Well, certainly in the fiction and in the non-fiction, most loudly in "The Fire Next Time" in 1962.
INSKEEP: Describe that, the context of that piece and what he said.
Mr. KENAN: Well, he was asked by the editor of the New Yorker to interview the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, one of the founders of the Nation of Islam, the Black Muslim sect, and he went to Chicago to his mansion and interviewed him. And it turns into this essay, this long peroration, a sermon about race, and it became a huge rallying point for black folk and white folk. And it was one of those times when I said he lifts the veil, and white people felt that they had an insight into black America they didn't have before.
INSKEEP: Do you think Baldwin forced white Americans to look at themselves differently?
Mr. KENAN: On some level. I think that we're taking ourselves back there - the tensions were so high, there weren't a lot of places for people to communicate. So Baldwin gave people something actually to talk about. White folk and black folk could get together and say, oh, did you read this? And on top of that, I think that he did give people when he talked about growing up poor in Harlem, when he talked about the Pentecostal churches, when he talked about what it felt like to be this young black boy who was discriminated against, I do think he gave people an insight that they otherwise wouldn't have had.
INSKEEP: Our series is called American Lives. The book is "James Baldwin: The Cross of Redemption," uncollected writings, which have now been collected by Randall Kenan. Mr. Kenan, thanks very much.
Mr. KENAN: Thank you.
INSKEEP: At our website, NPR.org, you can read James Baldwin's essay "Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.