August 2, 1924– James Baldwin:
“Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law.”
The very first “gay” book I read was James Baldwin’s beautiful, provocative Giovanni’s Room (1956). At 15 years old, the tragic story did not lift my spirits at all. I was reading anything and everything I could find that dealt with the subject of homosexuality or that was written by a gay person, and the message I was getting was not positive. I had already decided as a young teenager that my life was not going to be tragic because I was gay, yet I was searching for someone to point the way. Still, I found the novel to be erotic and the language was exciting, the voice new.
I continued to follow Baldwin’s life and work, from his exile in Europe to when he returned to the USA and took an active role in the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. I kept reading his novels, poems and essays, and I really admired his work. I had my eyes opened by his words.
The grandson of a slave, Baldwin had a life of extreme hardship, growing up illegitimate and very poor in Harlem. As a child, he searched for a way to escape his circumstances. Baldwin:
“I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.”
By the time he was 14, Baldwin was spending much of his time in libraries and had found his passion for writing.
During this early part of his life, he followed in his religious, strict stepfather’s path and he became a preacher. Of those teen years, Baldwin wrote:
“Those three years in the pulpit, I didn’t realize it then, that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty.“
The language of the church, the language of the Bible, its cadences and tone had a huge influence in Baldwin’s writing style.
Baldwin didn’t find what he was looking for in the church and after working for a short while for the New Jersey railroad, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village, where he worked as a freelance writer, mostly doing book reviews. He caught the attention of famous novelist, Richard Wright, who helped him get a grant so he could support himself as a writer.
But, after having his work rejected by publishers because he was a Negro and queer, and recognizing his race and gayness made him an outsider in his own country, Baldwin left for Europe at 24 years old. Paris became his new home, but he would finish his first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, a semi-autobiographical story about a teenager living in Harlem, while living in Switzerland in 1953. The passion and depth with which he described the struggles of black Americans were unlike anything that had been written. Although it didn’t sell well at the time, Go Tell It On The Mountain is now considered an American classic.
Although he spent a great deal of his life abroad, Baldwin always remained a quintessentially American writer. He published two novels, Giovanni’s Room and Another Country (1962). He never ceased to reflect on his experience as a black man in white America. In numerous essays, novels, plays and public speeches, the eloquent voice of Baldwin spoke of the pain and struggle of black Americans and the saving power of brotherhood. Readers began to respond; both Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and Another Country became bestsellers.
In the early 1960s, overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility to the times, Baldwin returned to the USA to take part in the Civil Rights Movement. Traveling throughout the South, he began work on an explosive work about black identity and racial struggle, The Fire Next Time (1963). It also became a bestseller and Baldwin ended up on the cover of Time.
The American Civil Rights Movement was not open to gay people. The only known gay men in the movement were Baldwin and Bayard Rustin. Rustin and King were very close, and Rustin was the architect of the success of the March On Washington in August 1963. Many were bothered by Rustin’s gayness. King considered homosexuality to be a mental illness that could be overcome. King later distanced himself from Rustin and Baldwin. Baldwin was conspicuously uninvited to speak at the March On Washington.
Baldwin was harassed by the FBI, with a 1885 page file on his activities. He had a contentious relationship with the FBI, blaming violence in Birmingham during the spring of 1963 on J. Edgar Hoover. Baldwin even taunted the FBI by saying in interviews he was writing a book about their operation. The work never materialized, but the idea sent the FBI into a frenzy as it tried to get its hands on a manuscript.
After the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, Baldwin returned to France, where he worked on a book about the bitterness of the times, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974). It was adapted to film by Oscar-winning film, director/writer Barry Jenkins, who has long dreamed of the project (in 2016, Jenkins’ film Moonlight became the first film with an all-black cast, the first LGBTQ-related film to win the Oscar for Best Picture). If Beale Street Could Talk received rave reviews and was on most 10 Best lists, and it won a Best Supporting Actress statue for Regina King at the 2019 Academy Awards and Golden Globes. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award and a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award.
Baldwin began to realize that violence might be the only route to racial justice. Some optimism about peaceful progress would return in his themes, but by the early 1970s, he also suffered from writer’s block. Baldwin:
“Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent, which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it.“
Baldwin and Marlon Brando enjoyed an especially close relationship for more than two decades. They lived together in New York City before they were each famous. Baldwin was the driving force behind Brando’s unabashed support of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1983, Baldwin became a professor in the African-American Studies department of the University Of Massachusetts. He spent his final years in St. Paul de Vence on the French Riviera, where he left this world, taken by that damn cancer in November 1987. He was just 63 years old.
Baldwin had an astonishing list of good friends and supporters: Billy Dee Williams, Huey P. Newton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Rip Torn, Alex Haley, Lena Horne, Miles Davis, Josephine Baker, Allen Ginsberg, and especially, Nina Simone and Maya Angelou, who called Baldwin her “friend and brother”.
Baldwin was made a Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur by the French government in 1986.
You really need to catch the documentary film I Am Not Your Negro, one of the best films of 2016. Written by Baldwin and directed by Raoul Peck, it is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. Streaming on Netflix.
“White people cooling it means a very simple thing. Black power frightens them. White power doesn’t frighten them. We are not, you know, bombing a country out of existence. Nor menacing your children. White power is doing that. White people have to accept their history and their actual circumstances, and they won’t. Not without a miracle they won’t. Goodwill won’t do it. One’s got to face the fact that we police the globe–we, the Americans, police the globe for a very good reason.“