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A new collection of James Baldwin's writings

August 21, 2010 | 10:30 am


"Writers are obliged, at some point, to realize that they are involved in a language that they must change," James Baldwin wrote. "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."

That's how Baldwin began an Op-Ed piece that ran in the Los Angeles Times -- "On Race, Language and the Black Writer" -- on April 29, 1979. It's among the previously uncollected pieces that make up the new Baldwin anthology, "The Cross of Redemption," edited by Randall Kenan. This Sunday, it's reviewed by Lynell George. She writes:

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."

It's typical Baldwin -- catching the questioner off-guard, turning the assumption on its head.

Baldwin, who died in 1987, can seem eerily prescient. "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?"

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: James Baldwin in 1985. Credit: Associated Press