In 1963, James Baldwin delivered an address titled, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” at the Community Church in New York. From the outset, the speech, reprinted in Randall Kenan’s recently edited volume, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, proffered two propositions by the author and activist: “that the poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only the poets” (Cross 42; emphasis added). Baldwin’s second proposition was at once moral indictment and national prophecy expressed in rather exercised tones at the height of the civil rights movement:
The second proposition is really what I want to get at tonight. And it sounds mystical, I think, in a country like ours, and at a time like this when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make. … Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion. In this sense, all artists are divorced from and even necessarily opposed to any system whatever.(Cross 42; emphasis added)
Baldwin employs here what were by then his characteristic, New Testament-style rhetorical devices of exhortation and summary appraisal finely honed during his early years in the church. “Only poets.” “All artists.” For him, the American poet (writer) is a spiritual figure, a seer, prophet, griot, witness, all too keenly aware of the sharp edges of national life and experience. He goes on to trace, “just for kicks,” the journey of this tortured subject, deploying “his” story simultaneously as model and cautionary tale for the isolated artist. The creative trajectory described is not so much Baldwin’s but a surrogate for sensitive, creative figures who “begin to discover that [they] are moving and … can’t stop this movement to what looks like the edge of the world” (Cross 42). In Baldwin’s expansive moral imagination, the artist in the American context is outlaw, a fugitive subject not only guilty of the crime of being acutely aware of the arrested state of American democracy, but who is further ostracized by her co-citizens because they are alive to the fact of this deep consciousness, but “cannot bear to watch it because it testifies to the fact that they are not” (43). Here, the artist-poet should not be understood in opposition to the contributions of the range of actors who make up Baldwin’s revolutionary band. Rather, the artist is especially “enjoined,” as the author so exquisitely termed it, “to conquer the great wilderness of himself. … [To] blaze roads through that vast forest; so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place” (Collected 669).
Baldwin’s long preoccupation with the “illusion of safety” as a crippling and destabilizing feature of American life, one that must be wholly rejected, is what is most compelling for our framing postscript to this historic special issue devoted to one of our major twentieth-century American writers. Consistent with his retort to William Faulkner in the particularly charged essay, “Faulkner and Desegregation,” Baldwin indicts the Mississippi-born author for endorsing the self-interested mantra of “going slow” in the direction of integration as a means of allowing the “emotional people” of the American South time to regain their equilibrium in rapidly changing times. Baldwin’s response to Faulkner is piercing, advanced as it was on the heels of [End Page 741] the Southern author’s infamous interview in March 1956. There, he declared that if the situation of desegregation rose to a contest between the federal government and the state of Mississippi, he would fight for Ole Miss, “even if it meant going into the streets and shooting Negroes” (“Faulkner” 121).1 As Baldwin understood it, Faulkner’s insistence on “going slow” recalled Thurgood Marshall’s insightful analysis of this flawed southern...