Reading James Baldwin’s “Anti-Gay” Gay Politics

If James Baldwin were alive, the Harlem-born author would be 83 years old today.

Though he died of stomach cancer in 1987, Baldwin’s legacy lives on in his classic novels, such as Go Tell It On The Mountain, which examines the church’s often repressive role in black communities.

Giovanni’s Room, meanwhile, offers an honest, heart-breaking account of homo love. Baldwin’s fiction definitely pushed the envelope. His personal politics, however, were a different story.

Journo James Withers takes a look at Baldwin’s gay politics – or lack thereof, after the jump.

James Baldwin’s books are part of my childhood. My parents’ bookshelves were stacked with the best and the worst of civil rights-era literature. Kyle Onstott’s racial – and excitingly confusing homoerotic – potboilers Mandingo , Drum, and Master of Falconhurst sat alongside, W.E.B. DuBois’ The Philadelphia Negro, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and The Panther and the Lash. Baldwin’s essays and novels, however, held a place of honor and our collection grew with each fresh publication.

My first Baldwin memory is barely making a dent in The Fire Next Time. It bored me and had none of the perplexing thrills of Onstott. From his first novel, the autobiographical Go Tell It On The Mountain, until his untimely death in 1987, Baldwin was the country’s prophet. He consistently urged us to reimagine our racist reality – and each other. When it came to race, Baldwin was insistent and unequivocal, but his loving voice remained mute on sexuality.

In “The Price of the Ticket,” the introductory essay to his collected non-fiction, Baldwin tells a rather sad tale of a young friend named Eugene. One day, years before Baldwin became a household name, Eugene decided “to run down a list of his girlfriends; those he liked, those he really liked, one or two with whom he might really be in love with and then, he said, ‘I wondered if I might be in love with you.’”

Baldwin admits he was scared to respond to this loving declaration and dismissed it. When Eugene threw himself off the George Washington Bridge, Baldwin writes, the exchange came back to haunt him. “I wish I had heard him more clearly: an oblique confession is always a plea.” A tragic story, yes, but when Baldwin lists the reasons why a young man would take his life, sexuality is not mentioned. Eugene’s race and class are (he was black and needed a place to live), but what his gay life might have been gets put aside. Sexual inarticulacy became Baldwin’s motif, even after he came out of the closet.

Essentially a homophobic beat-down of Baldwin , Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice reads, “Homosexuality is a sickness, just as are baby-rape or wanting to become head of General Motors.” Baldwin responded in an essay “No Name in the Street” and despite the thirty-five years since its publication, Baldwin’s timidity still astounds:

I felt that he [Cleaver] used my public reputation against me both naively and unjustly, and I also felt that I was confused in his mind with the unutterable debasement of the male—with all those faggots, punks, and sissies, the sight and sound of whom, in prison, must have made him vomit more than once.

In a rhetorical flourish Baldwin separates himself from all “those faggots, punks, and sissies” forgetting that Cleaver, or any homophobe, makes no distinction. A faggot is a faggot is a faggot, no matter how much work you have done for civil rights.

It is rather easy for me to take Baldwin to task for this. The Black Power movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s was the rage and anyone seen as lacking power or blackness was put under the bus by those convinced they were working for the revolution. After Black Power became another part of history and Cleaver had defected to the GOP, Baldwin continued to write about sexuality in a way that was cowardly, as if he was trying to make a
distinction between himself and those other “male debasements.”

Baldwin’s “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood” was originally published in Playboy (!) in 1985. In that essay, Baldwin talks about a lover he had at 16. The gentleman was 38 and a Harlem racketeer.

And though I loved him, too – in my way, a boy’s way – I was mightily tormented, for I was still a child evangelist, which everybody knew, Lord.

Baldwin expresses a fealty to this older lover, who would occasionally take him to the bars (Baldwin drank ginger-ale, his lover brandy) because his “Poppa” was the first Harlem man to see the young writer’s poems. This affair, even with the overt issues, is painted in rosy hue: man of the streets nurtures the young sensitive writer. It isn’t until Baldwin leaves the neighborhood and heads downtown to Times Square and Greenwich Village that he learns is “the punch line of a dirty joke.” Once he begins to meet other gay men, Baldwin adopts a decidedly offensive attitude toward his queer peers: “the male desire for a male roams everywhere, avid, desperate, unimaginably lonely, culminating often in drugs, piety, madness or death.”

Is Baldwin playing Cleaver’s notes better than Cleaver could imagine? Baldwin’s gay-tinged novels give us the key. From Giovanni’s Room to his last novel, Just Above My Head Baldwin’s gay characters are “everywhere, avid, desperate, [and] unimaginably lonely.” While he bravely wrote about gay love, Baldwin lacked the imagination to dismantle the homophobic influences. Now an avid fan of Baldwin’s work, I’m at once moved by his language and saddened by how it failed him.

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  • forbesfart

    “Baldwin lacked the imagination to dismantle the homophobic influences.” Baldwin did not lack imagination.His language relects the generational realities of blackness.

  • Sam J. Miller

    James Baldwin is the greatest American writer–for my money, anyway, of which there’s not a lot. It’s important to take a challenging look at his queerness, and I salute this article for doing that. On the other hand, Giovanni’s Room was published in a world where Queerty, Perez Hilton, Queer Eye, Noah’s Arc, and openly gay elected officials were all unthinkable. If we’re gonna call him on his shit, let’s also call ourselves on the assumptions we make based on the privileges we enjoy now, which were won by the incredible courage of hundreds of thousands of queer pioneers, of whom one of the foremost, for all his conflicted feelings and confusion, was James Baldwin.

  • Craig Hickman

    If you haven’t, read a conversation that James Baldwin had with an openly gay editor (whose name escapes me) of the Village Voice about the gay movement. In short, Baldwin distances himself from a politics based upon sexual attraction. It didn’t make a lot of sense to him. Baldwin was about love between humans. For him, sexuality was too fluid to organize a movement around. Perhaps he would have changed his mind if he saw what was going on right now. Perhaps not. A part of me thinks that he saw “gay” as a privilege white people enjoyed. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a queer pioneer in his own way, as Sam J. Miller asserts.

  • Sexy Rexy

    Just because he didn’t give the mainstream gay community a long-term rimjob like some of his other contemporaries doesn’t make him a coward. One written beat-down does not a coward make. And at least Baldwin wasn’t an admitted rapist like Cleaver. Smite Baldwin with a hammer for making gays in his writings HUMAN first instead of stereotypes, or for not engaging a glorified thug like Cleaver…

    Of course you like Onstott’s awful Falconhurst novels, they are essentially bodice-ripping trash with a gay racist sensibility – big black bucks getting blown by massa – Caucasian, PLEASE. Of COURSE you like that shit. Baldwin was so above that, and maybe that makes you a tad uncomfortable that he didn’t indulge your stereotypical fantasies. The fact that you consider that tripe real writing automatically makes me question your judgment – and taste, or lack thereof.

    And if you are black, then I feel even more sorry for you.

  • Corey

    @Sexy Rexy: Well I’m black and I agree with the article. While Baldwin has his merits I can’t look up to him or truly respect him with those comments.He’s not the only one to speak of “faggots sissies and punks” as if he wasn’t one himself. If you recall the book “Faggots” by Larry Kramer he completely decimates the gay men of New York while still being one himself.

    A TRUE LGBT visionary/hero loves and embraces and loves the entirety of their community because they understand that all of the things that make us different is what makes us beautiful.

    Some people got it and some people don’t, Baldwin doesn’t. That doesn’t mean his work didn’t different give a very raw and emotional perspective because it did. We as gay people must work on separating gay/queer people from LGBT Heroes because they’re not always the same/

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