"People invent categories in order to feel safe. White people invented black people to give white people identity...Straight cats invented faggots so they can sleep with them without becoming faggots themselves." James Baldwin & Nikki Giovanni, A Dialogue ( 1973 )
To understand what is missing from Raoul Peck's documentary I Am Not Your Negro, and how James Baldwin has been received and, too often, misconceived on the American literary landscape and in our cultural imagination, one must talk about men and sex, about faggots and shame.
This essay is about my great appreciation for the Black gay American writer named James Arthur Baldwin, his journey from America to France, his testimony, his brilliance, and his swashbuckling bravery which spellbound a nation, and which demanded and continues to demand that we face the truth about who we were, who we are.
Hundreds of pages written about him would still only scratch the surface, and I know whatever I've written here will be incomplete. But I want to contribute to the conversation that has been revived about his life and work at this time, to share my perceptions on my extraordinary Black gay brotherand testify to what I see when I look out my window, ( what James called "the view from here" ), on American men, masculinity, sexuality and race.
This essay is also about my appreciation for, and great reservations about I Am Not Your Negro, which I admire, but which I also find at times disappointing and exasperating; and which I believe must be examined for its participation in the same macho hypocrisy and homosexual denial that Baldwin spent much of his life trying to deconstruct.
When one considers Baldwin's work, it is remarkable that a Black writer from Harlem, nominated for the National Book Award, followed up his first novel with a second one about a "straight" white American man in Paris who falls in love with an Italian man, who is gay and once married himself, a novel called Giovanni's Room, published in 1956.
Baldwin's American publishers rejected it, told him to burn the book, but he refused and published it in England. I am stunned by the amount of courage it must have taken, the self-knowledge and confidence that James must have had to insist on this, to trust his vision. That he could not be shamed or bullied into not publishing Giovanni's Room is essential to the Baldwin legend and legacy.
"They told me 'you can't afford to alienate the audience,'" Baldwin told Quincy Troupe in his final 1987 interview. "I told them fuck you." What it tells us is that just as he had to write Go Tell It On The Mountain about his experience as a Black boy growing up in Harlem and the Black church, Giovanni's Room was a story he had to tell also, about his experience as a gay man. There was no compromise.
If you've read him, then you know that there were a few things in the world that frightened James Baldwin, but a conversation on race and sexuality wasn't one of the them. He understood, as exemplified by the opening quotation, the relationship between the "nigger" and the "faggot," cultural creations, societal demons; and who better to understand it than the man who wakes up one morning to find that he is both.
James was fearless in this aspect, perhaps even more so towards the end of his life, understanding what silence does to the spiritual body. His final novel, Just Above My Head, appreciates the connection between lying about homosexuality and lying about family sexual abuse and rape, how they rend the fabric of the biological family, the church family, of society. James Baldwin, our elder brother, looking after his flock and "raising us," demanded that we be better because he loved us, he loved us.
What made him so brave was not necessarily his orientation or how he named it, but his refusal to ignore the sexual question and his understanding that examining it was integral to the healing of racism in America. What James appreciated, perhaps above all, and from a very young age, was the importance of family. And he knew that anything that tears apart the family will eventually bring down the house. For the white homosexual activist who wants to end sexual inequality, the conversation has to include race. For the Black revolutionary who wants an end to racism, fear of homosexuality has to be faced. True liberation cannot be achieved until homophobia, racism and sexism are challenged and eradicated from our community.
This is part of the triumph of I Am Not Your Negro and part of its disgrace; while it deconstructs the American sexual fear, for example, that refused to acknowledge Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte as sex symbols, the film also refuses to deal with the sexuality of his subject, or that Baldwin is indeed a "sexual" icon of a different kind. The man who spent his life demanding we tell the truth to each other and to ourselves deserves, at least in his own movie, to have the truth told about him.
Which is why this essay exists: I'm tired, frankly, of hearing people I respect saying that it doesn't matter who James Baldwin slept with, that wasn't the point. And in their insistence that Baldwin's "gayness" is only a matter of his sexual experiences, meaning something to be footnoted, kept in the dark and private, they refuse to acknowledge that a Black American gay aesthetic exists, that James's homosexuality is also to be found in the inflections, the mannerisms, the approach, the humor, the sarcasm, the sass, the theatricality, the heroism. And it's not just to be found in the "gay" books, either: The Fire Next Time was written by the same queer man who gave us Giovanni's Room.
James Baldwin, coat on his shoulders, sunglasses, lit cigarette in one hand, fabulous and fabulously articulate, stands beside Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, brilliant men all, activists who responded with clarity and courage to a sick, unjust world. But we need to know what made James special, how like these men he was, and at the same time, why he was different. Some Black activists and white politicians andit was rumoredeven the Kennedy brothers, referred to him behind his back as "Martin Luther Queen." It is almost inconceivable that homophobia kept one of the leading proponents on race relations in America from speaking at the March on Washington in 1963, the same year The Fire Next Time was published. We need to appreciate what it meant for Baldwin to take on the mantle of speaking truthfully about the subjects of sexuality and race to a country in denial about both, and what it meant for him to keep witnessing anyway when people turned on him later, humiliated him and denigrated his work and his contribution, or when his later testimonials were considered by some in the '70s and '80s to be passe. We abandoned him, but he never abandoned us.
What is ultimately at stake is this: If you can acknowledge James Baldwin fully for what he was, then your admiration of him may lead you to a place of compassion and understanding for what you have been taught to fear in your own life. And ultimately this may save your life, or someone else's. It's not very complicatedif you admire Baldwin for the entirety of who he was, you may embrace your gay son, your lesbian daughter, rather than try and destroy them. You may come out of the closet with pride as bisexual, rather than destroy yourself. If you can admit how much you've valued Baldwin's work and relied on him, as you've relied on King and Malcolm X, then you can admit that the Black homosexual has a place beside you in the church pew and in the pulpit; not locked outside the church doors.
But what seems to be happening with the lives of too many Black artists and political figures, and what I have witnessed with Baldwin's legacy, is that people are allowed to pick and choose their Baldwin, like toppings at a salad bar your Baldwin, her Baldwin, my Baldwin. And what you don't like, what you can't integrate because of your own sexual fears and agendas, you simply throw out because you don't accept it. And a movie like I Am Not Your Negro, which is complicit in compartmentalizing its subject, lets you get away with it.
Now, you can't get away with it if you read the literature itself. And you sure ain't getting away with it if you read Another Country, Giovanni's Room or Just Above My Head. If you read enough of Baldwin, not the writer and activist, but the spiritual teacher, if you "hear" enough of his sermonsand they are all sermonsthen you will see the connection between the master beating the Black slave, and you coming home and beating your gay child. That's the harder conversation. This is why some people only want The Fire Next Time Baldwin, as if James Baldwin wrote only one book. Baldwin's work is used to further Black, radical consciousness, which is exactly as it should be used. But for too many of us, Black and white, the conversation on race and sexuality ends where it often needs to go much further.
I Am Not Your Negro is right in its basic premise: we need James Baldwin now more than ever. HIs work is the way out, the way through, the place that connects the white man, the Black man, the Black woman, the white woman, the homosexual, the transgender woman, the Black church, the American sexual dilemma, the American family. I have a great admiration for his novel Another Country because it masterfully encapsulates all Baldwin's themes and is one of the greatest demonstrations in all his fiction of his desire to encourage dialogue across the lines of sexual orientation, gender, class and racethe perfect embodiment of his "welcome table."
By telling us the truth about his own experience again and again, Baldwin invites us to tell the truth about our own. He presents us with the ultimate challenge and opportunity at his welcome table to meet each other, perhaps for the first time. It's all there in his writings. But it's not enough, nor has it ever been, just to look. If you're reading James Baldwin you have to see. And if you truly are willing to see, then you will hear the great question that resounds through all his work: Can I get a witness?
Excerpted from the essay "Faggot as Footnote: On James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, Can I Get A Witness, and Moonlight" ).