From the Archives: February 1988

Down at the Cross
NATALIA61 / Shutterstock
NATALIA61 / Shutterstock

[JAMES BALDWIN] spoke the truth to us all and frightened many of us with such declarations as, “There is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure.” But he would not allow us to take the easy route of mesmerizing guilt or undemanding fear. For he was a child of the black church who had fought his own demon-possessed interior battles of the wilderness. So in his essay [“Down at the Cross”], Jimmy demanded that we hear him when he added to his socio-political challenge these words: “Whoever wishes to become a truly moral being...must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”

And, of course, many of us knew that with Jimmy it was never simply a matter of hurling such words into the darkness and retiring to his typewriter. We knew of his wrestling with the Divine. We had seen him too often on the edges of the Southern battlegrounds, moving in, taking his place in the marches, speaking words of inspiration to us, raising money for the cause—in other words, experiencing in a variety of ways what it meant to be “down at the cross.”

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