Edited and introduced by novelist Randall Kenan and published in August, 2010, The Cross of Redemption arranges nearly 60 previously uncollected essays, speeches, reviews, and profiles by James Baldwin, one of the 20th century’s most prolific and politically engaged black writers. For readers unfamiliar with Baldwin’s writing, these pieces will convey the crux of his work: his improvised dissent from the vocabulary which Americans use to make sense of the world. For those who are familiar with Baldwin’s work, especially his essays, The Cross of Redemption amounts to an album of “studio tapes” on which we hear songs we know in ways we’ve never heard before.
Reading the book, in fact, reminded me, more than anything else, of listening to the alternate takes of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue released several years ago by Columbia or to These Songs for You, Live!, containing new versions of Donny Hathaway’s classics. The beauty of this particular re-issue is that it echoes Baldwin’s own approach to truth-by-riff, of generating meaning through repetitions that, if we pay close attention, pull familiar words apart and put them back together. So, what’s the basic tune being re-issued in The Cross of Redemption?
Baldwin insisted upon the need to change the implications of the language we speak. In “On Language, Race, and the Black Writer,” Baldwin writes: “Writers are obliged, at some point, to realize that they are involved in a language which they must change. And for a black writer in this country to be born into the English language is to realize that the assumptions on which the language operates are his enemy.” But, not so fast. Baldwin also knew one couldn’t banish an “enemy” with impunity. Born in the Harlem ghetto, “the Hollow,” (as opposed to Sugar Hill or another middle class part of Harlem), he’d already been banished himself. Thus, in “Anti-Semitism and Black Power,” he writes: “I would like us to . . . create ourselves without finding it necessary to create an enemy.” It follows that, in debates over standard English vs. black English in the late 1970s, Baldwin concluded: “everything must be learned but to be put to your own purposes.” What of Baldwin’s own purposes?
High among them was his will to force the English language we speak to “confess” where it came from. Often he did this by combining brutal simplicity with subtle complexities. In the 1964 speech, “The White Problem,” he says: “In this country, for a dangerously long time, there have been two levels of experience. One . . . can be summed up in the images of Doris Day and Gary Cooper: two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen. And the other, subterranean, indispensible, and denied, can be summed up, let’s say, in the tone and in the face of Ray Charles.” In other words, there are two levels, one white, one black. Simple, brutal. But, not so fast. In his classic, and now available, 1964 essay “The Uses of the Blues,” as regards the latter level of experience, he writes, “I’m not talking about race . . . when I say “Negro,” it is a digression . . . I’m not talking about a people, but a person.” As for the other level, in “On Language, Race, and the Black Writer,” he writes: “There is not a white person in this country . . . who can prove he’s white.” When Baldwin told this to audiences in the 1970s and ’80s, they laughed. Knowing what they heard, he meant exactly what he said. Then, he’d subtly draw the two meanings into a collision.
Baldwin’s musical approach to creating new meaning in old terms through brutal and subtle repetitions is clearer in The Cross of Redemption than in any other single book published under his name. As the repetitions occur, the reader’s vision of Baldwin’s meaning sharpens. By the end of the book, for instance, it’s clear that, in Baldwin’s newly positioned list of American terms, “white” refers to a “state of mind” convinced that life can be happy, clean, and safe and “black” means “a level of experience that Americans deny.” Brutally and subtly, The Cross of Redemption unmasks and offers alternatives to the language in which “white” (defined immediately above) means success and privilege and “black” signifies trouble. In Baldwin’s view, used in this way both terms contribute to a national effort to create a “means of avoiding the facts of life.” Baldwin realized that such a language is any person’s enemy exactly because, until it’s understood, it guards against “any genuine confrontation between these two levels of experience” that contend, finally, and certainly by now, in the lives of everyone.
The Cross of Redemption exhibits dozens of such confrontations whereby Baldwin brutally and subtly teases new meanings by shifting assumptions beneath terms we know. In one spectacular instance of this, Baldwin routes what it means to be “speechless” for black Westerners by aligning the term with the view west over the Atlantic from a window of the slave fort on Goree Island, Sénégal. Looking out the window in 1962, as had thousands of captured, soon to be exported Africans over centuries, he says he tried and failed to see the other side: “I tried to imagine what it must have felt like to find yourself chained and speechless, speechless in the most total sense of that word, on your way to where?” Such re-definitions produce newly resonant meanings in terms through which we see the world and through which the world sees us. The effect works on our ears as well as our eyes. With Baldwin’s speechless gaze west in mind, listen, for instance, to Charles Lloyd’s great, conversational, quartet piece “The Water is Wide” (on his 2010 album Mirror). Within the history of musical, “black” speech pitted against Western speechlessness Baldwin sets up in Senegal, I think, we can begin to hear the pressure in which black music (and black speech) takes shape against a past still very much alive in the present. The Cross of Redemption shows how Baldwin used language as a kind of music that, consciously played, could, as he wrote in “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist,” “rob us of our myths and give us our history, which will destroy our attitudes and give us back our personalities.” In “Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption,” he writes: “Music is our witness, and our ally. The ‘beat’ is the confession which recognizes, changes, and conquers time. Then, history becomes a garment we can wear, and share, and not a cloak in which to hide; and time becomes a friend.”
Ed Pavlić’s most recent books are But Here Are Small Clear Refractions (2009), prose and photos set in a secret theater of the “war on terror” amid islands off the coast of Kenya and Somalia, and Winners Have Yet to be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway (2008), an epic poem set in the life of the late soul singer. He is a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Georgia in Athens.
(image credit Allan Warren)
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