James Baldwin, 'Lifting The Veil'
August 19, 2010
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
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
'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."
See URL for Excerpt: 'The Cross Of Redemption'