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Reading, Looking, Listening, . . . Questioning

James Baldwin Today



Notes of a Year of James Baldwin

By Rachel Corbman

Review of the opening session of the Year of Baldwin, New York Live Arts, April 2014.

Click here for PDF version.

 

The definitive James Baldwin documentary, The Price of the Ticket (1989), memorably opens with archival footage from a British television interview that aired shortly before the novelist and essayist’s early death in 1987. “Now, when you were starting out as a writer,” the interviewer queried, “You were black, impoverished, [and] homosexual. You must have said to yourself, ‘Gee, how disadvantaged can I get.’”

“Oh, no, I thought I hit the jackpot,” Baldwin responded, smiling wryly. “It was so outrageous, you could not go any further. So you had to find a way to use it.”[1]

In the past decade, this exchange has appeared quite frequently in the popular press, including the recent coverage of the Year of Baldwin: an ongoing, New York City multidisciplinary festival which is celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of Baldwin’s birth.[2] Quoted also in the opening session of the festival, Baldwin’s quip both signals and encapsulates what has become the dominant understanding of the writer and his legacy. Indeed for better or for worse, Baldwin is now primarily remembered as a gay and African-American writer.

Not surprisingly, then, race (particularly blackness) and sexuality (particularly homosexuality) stand out as the pervasive themes within the diverse range of panel discussions and cultural events planned as part of the year-long Baldwin tribute, which kicked off this April with a five-day festival at the performance space New York Live Arts. The prominence of these themes is not without its irony. Throughout his career, Baldwin was vocal in his distrust of identity categories, once stating that “no label, or no slogan, and no party, and no skin color, and indeed no religion is more important than the human being.”[3] Here, Baldwin reserved a particular ambivalence for homosexuality. In fact, while Baldwin included homosexual characters and themes in his fiction as early as 1951, there are only a limited number of essays in Baldwin’s extensive corpus of non-fictional work that tackle homosexuality head on. Two such essays—published in 1949 and 1985—bookend his career. The first, “Preservation of Innocence,” considers America’s fixation on homosexuality with specific attention to contemporaneous depictions of homosexuals in popular fiction and literature. In the end, he concludes that it is impossible to construct a worthwhile novel about “the homosexual” because “people refuse, unhappily, to function in so neat and one-dimensional a fashion.”[4] Thirty-six years later, Baldwin returned to the subject of homosexuality in his essay “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood” in which he wrote, albeit sardonically, that a “great many people who came out of the closet should reconsider” —a painful barb coming from someone of Baldwin’s stature at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.[5]

To discuss race and sexuality in Baldwin’s work without falling into the trap of tokenizing Baldwin as a gay African-American writer requires a careful balancing act. The scholars, artists, and cultural workers invited to participate in the conversation on stage at Live Arts for the most part navigated these ropes with great agility. For example, in an animated exchange during the Q&A portion of the “After Giovanni’s Room: Queer Imagination and Futurity” panel, an audience member expressed disappointment that the panelists opted to focus on Baldwin and queerness as opposed to Baldwin’s queerness. “He was an artist first,” choreographer and festival organizer Bill T. Jones responded. “He was a thinker and essayist. He was an activist. He was a witness. He said he was not a public speaker. Where down this list does he say I am a queer or gay person?”[6]

Discussion at Live Arts, instead focused on a more sophisticated question: If Baldwin were alive today, what would he be thinking and writing about? This core question was fueled by the perceived relevance of his writings to the current social and political situation. Co-curator of the festival and non-fiction writer Lawrence Weschler reiterated on a number of occasions that the major impetus behind the series of events was a feeling among the organizers that Baldwin was perhaps the most important and enduring voice of his generation of writers—and the most urgently needed now. Similarly, Margo Jefferson, a professor of writing at Columbia University, suggested that we are still grappling with the same set of social issues that Baldwin’s work centered on, specifically involving race, caste, and class, and the intersection of identities.[7]

What would Baldwin have to say about the acquittal of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager; or the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against affirmative action, following on the heels of the highest court’s gutting of Voting Rights Act of 1965; or the racist diatribes of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling? Although it can be taken for granted that Baldwin would not accept the premise that we live in a post-racial society, what would he make of Obama’s presidency? Although these are open questions, I am reminded of a quote from a speech Baldwin gave in 1961. “What really exercises my mind,” mused the writer, “is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro ‘first’ will become the first Negro president, what I am really curious about is just what kind of country he will be president of.”[8]

In contrast to the almost eerie applicability of Baldwin’s analyses of domestic race relations to current events, the parallels between his views on homosexuality and the current priorities of the LGBT rights movement are less clear-cut. Journalist Nancy Goldstein and Baldwin scholar Rich Blint both wondered aloud if Baldwin would have expended much ink on marriage equality. Juxtaposing the fact that she could be married to a woman in seventeen states yet fired in thirty-two for having a picture of her wife on her desk, Goldstein posited that Baldwin would be more invested in preventing job discrimination than promoting same-sex marriage. “I think he would care about the fact that people couldn’t make a damn living,” Goldstein insisted.[9] Blint also speculated that, in regards to same-sex marriage, Baldwin would have advocated for a more “flexible menu,” one that would include a wider range of legal options. Shifting seamlessly from Baldwin to his own perspective, Blint offered his critique: “I am not against the campaign for marriage,” he explained. “But I am against … the lack of complexity and texture [in the ways] in which it is being pursued.”[10]

How do we expand the variety of legal forms of marriage in “imaginative and progressive ways”?[11] These kinds of questions, raised over the course of the festival, stir a strange mix of emotions, leaving me as invigorated by the quality of the dialogue witnessed as I am distressed by the mass media’s limited vision regarding issues of race and sexuality. In my 2012 Zeteo piece on the critical reception of Giovanni’s Room (1956) in the Black press, I concluded by suggesting that Baldwin’s work can be used to challenge overly simplistic narratives of gay and African-American histories, which reduce “gay” and “African-American” into discrete and easily manageable categories.

For me, the Live Arts festival was especially useful in more concretely developing this concluding thought in relation to current events and debates. At the same time, though, I am increasingly skeptical of the fitness of the festival’s dual focus on contemporary African-American and gay issues, the latter of which seems undermined at every turn by Baldwin’s complex and era-specific relationship to his own sexuality, as well as by the evolving emergence of a modern gay identity over the course of the twentieth century. (Along with the parallel emergence of lesbian, bisexual, female-to-male, and male-to-female identities.) While queer theorists and LGBT historians have utilized Baldwin’s fictional depictions of male bisexuals and homosexuals in countless and often fascinating ways, I remain unconvinced that either Baldwin’s fiction or his essays impart wisdom that relates directly to the LGBT movement in its current manifestation.

That said, Baldwin’s larger project of promoting a world less constricted by gender norms and uneven race relations remains a worthwhile takeaway for readers. It is broad and abstract enough to be applied widely and indefinitely into the future. Over the course of five days, the Live Arts festival made a compelling case for the continued importance of Baldwin’s writing on multiple fronts. And if this thought-provoking start is any indication, the Year of Baldwin should prove to be a welcome and even essential tribute to one of the major American writers of the twentieth century.

 

Rachel Corbman is a doctoral student in Women’s and Gender Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. Her current research centers on twentieth century feminist, LGBT, and African-American social movements. Her article, “Next Time, the Fire in Giovanni’s Room: The Critical Reception of James Baldwin’s Second Novel in the Black Press,” was published in Zeteo in Spring 2012.

 

Endnotes

[1] James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, directed by Karen Thorsen, Nobody Knows Productions, American Masters, 1989.

[2] Kathi Wolfe, “Long Life Prophetic Voice of James Baldwin,” Washington Blade, April 30, 2014. Accessed via washingtonblade.com. Andrew Belonsky, “Today in Gay History: James Baldwin Didn’t Understand ‘Homosexual,” Out, August 2, 2013. Accessed via out.com. Robin Lindley, “Picturing James Baldwin in Exile,” HNN History News Network, February 11, 2013. Accessed via hnn.us. Lynell George, “The Cross of Redemption” (review of a book by James Baldwin), edited by Randall Kenan, Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2010. Erin Overbey, “Eighty-Five from the Archive: James Baldwin,” The New Yorker, February 11, 2010. “American Lives: James Baldwin, ‘Lifting the Veil,’” NPR books, August, 19, 2010. Accessed via http://www.npr.org.

[3] James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, 1989, directed by Karen Thorsen, Nobody Knows Productions and American Masters.

[4] James Baldwin, “The Price of Innocence” in Baldwin Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1998), 600.

[5] James Baldwin, “Freaks and American Ideal of Manhood” in Baldwin Collected Essays, op cit., 827. Most critics consider this essay to be reactionary. In the 1980s Baldwin was increasingly expected to identify and celebrate his identity as a gay man. Baldwin was uncomfortable doing so, however, for reasons discussed in this article— and perhaps due to some ingrained homophobia common to gay men and lesbians of his generation. His comment that most people who came out should reconsider should be read against contemporaneous activist efforts encouraging gays and lesbians, particularly including closeted or semi-closeted celebrities, to come out.

[6] “After Giovanni’s Room: Baldwin’s Queer Imagination and Futurity,” at Live Arts in New York, NY, April 25, 2014. For a full video of the panel visit www.newyorklivearts.org/liveideas2014.

[7] “Baldwin’s Capacious Imagination and Influence” at Live Arts. New York, NY, April 24, 2014. For a full video of the panel visit www.newyorklivearts.org/liveideas2014.

[8] “James Baldwin, “From Nationalism, Colonialism, and the United States: One Minute to Twelve—A Forum” in the Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings edited by Randall Kenan (New York, NY: Vintage, 2011), 10.

[9] “James Baldwin—This Time!” at Live Arts, New York, NY, April 24, 2014. For a full video of the panel visit www.newyorklivearts.org/liveideas2014.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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