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.