From the 1940s until his death in 1987, the iconic novelist and essayist James Baldwin was at the center of the national conversation on race, social justice and civil rights. Next week, a previously uncollected series of Baldwin's speeches, book reviews, lectures, letters, magazine and essays will debut: The Cross of Redemption.
Not infrequently, James Baldwin found himself quite publicly fielding a deeply presuming question. Though versions varied over time, the rough paraphrase was this: "Was being born black, gay and poor a 'burden'?" Did he ever wonder, "Why me?" A dynamic, trailblazing presence on erudite TV chat shows as well as a de facto talking head booked to parse the complex territory of the Negro Problem, Baldwin was always ready with the not-so-inscrutable smile, then the ice-water answer: "No. I thought I'd hit the jackpot."
Baldwin was also eerily intuitive on the advent of a Black president. "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.... 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 will be president of?"
Strange times indeed. What's most fascinating about Baldwin is that his work addressed Black identity and gay consciousness issues before the Civil Rights Movement and/or Stonewall. It would be fascinating to hear what his take would be today.
The Cross of Redemption will be published on Tuesday.