A Year in Reading: Daniel José Older

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The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin

Whenever I have a daunting essay to write, I turn to the Patron Saint of Telling It Like It Is, the Grand Truthteller, James Baldwin. For me, Baldwin is one of those authors that I hope to never have read everything by, because I always want to be able to read something by him for the first time. Fortunately, he was almost as prolific as he was utterly brilliant. This year, faced with two difficult essays (one for an anthology inspired by Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, both due around the same time), I finally cracked open The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, and it felt like bright light exploded out of every page. I couldn’t wrap my head around how these essays had gone uncollected until 2010. This was one of those books that I would’ve been better off underlining the sentences I didn’t want to revisit, because there were way fewer of them than the ones I ended up marking. (Some samples of my margin notes: “Jesus.” “Whoa!”). Baldwin is, as usual, unsparing, passionate, poetic, direct, conversational (some of the pieces here are transcripts, others letters), and, overall, wildly in love with the English language and all the blessed damage it can do to the powers that be. “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare” rightfully reclaims the Bard as a poet of the people, touching on jazz and the immense power of the vernacular along the way. “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” and “As Much Truth As One Can Bear” wreak havoc on the simplistic myths we tell ourselves about art and society, and both essays still manage to emerge from all that fire with a sense of purpose and hope. Perhaps the most breathtaking and haunting part about these collected works is that, for all their well-aimed precision regarding the disasters surrounding Baldwin when he was writing, they speak just as perfectly to today’s crises. “You have come so far,” the book seems to sing quietly, beneath all that love, and rage, and analysis. “You’ve got so far to go.”

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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