Living Black & Gay in the ’50s
In the centenary year of his birth, author James Baldwin has only gained in stature for the wisdom with which he wrote about being black and gay when it wasn’t easy being either.
You brushed off labels like “Negro,” “ghetto boy,” “bastard,” and, more than anything, “faggot.”
If James Campbell, in his biography of you, fights against the latter label in particular—an easy insult for most of your adversaries—it is because he is aware that your homosexuality for you is the expression of your freedom, a way of being yourself, and not the expression of some deviation or, in his terms, of some “genetic ambivalence,” definitions that distort the understanding of any individual.
In your day, the contradiction was obvious: on the one hand, your country held up individual freedom to the level of a democratic ideal, but, on the other, sanctioned racial segregation. Consequently, as Dwight A. McBride attests, the ideological confrontation between capitalist and communist factions would alter the discourse on sex, race, and the African-American community. You would have a voice in this discourse …
In fact, after welcoming your article “Everybody’s Protest Novel” into its first edition, the journal Zero published another of your articles in the following issue, entitled “Preservation of Innocence.” It is a brief text with philosophical leanings that revolves around the notions of normality and abnormality in human nature. The saga of the homosexual, according to your analysis, is that he must always confront the most profound grief: that he is abnormal because he has opted to turn himself away from his original function, that of a procreator, for a relationship bound to sterility. Since homosexuality is as old as the human race, the most suitable attitude would be to consider it as a material component of normality. Sex, with its myths, confronts us with the complexity of our behaviors and our beliefs. You remind us that men and women have imperfection in common, and are indivisible. Because of this, tampering with the nature of one has an impact on the nature of the other. Their absolute separation—man having to comfort himself in his masculinity, and woman assuring her own function as a woman—would destroy each of their souls. Although it is often repeated that women are more gentle, legends insinuate that they may be “mythically and even historically, treacherous.” Novels, poetry, theater, and fables have sometimes entertained this paradox, which only personal experience is capable of first clarifying, then blocking you in your tracks. “This is a paradox which experience alone is able to illuminate and this experience is not communicable in any language that we know. The recognition of this complexity is the signal of maturity; it marks the death of the child and the birth of the man.”
“Preservation of Innocence” remains the very first text in which you speak explicitly about homosexuality, before continuing to explore this theme in your following works, most notably in your second novel, Giovanni’s Room.
In January 1985, two years before your death, you publish another article, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” in the famous erotic American magazine, Playboy, founded in 1953 by Hugh Hefner. This monthly periodical welcomes writers from time to time; the world’s leading writers have published here, including Vladimir Nabokov, Ian Fleming, and Margaret Atwood.
In “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” you examine the notion of masculinity by drawing on a multitude of autobiographical elements. You look at your own experience as a homosexual and try to understand the malicious gaze of the other, in particular the American heterosexual male.
Starting with the idea of androgyny, you argue that there is a woman in every man, and vice versa. As a consequence, “… love between a man and a woman, or love between any two human beings, would not be possible did we not have available to us the spiritual resources of both sexes.” However the American sexual ideal is intimately related to a certain idea of masculinity. It is this ideal that creates, among other things, “… cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white.” The young, American man will therefore develop within this imaginary complex…
Your first homosexual experiences—even if they are then limited to a few encounters—take place in the bars of Greenwich Village. New York City at the time, according to McBride, attracts men and women who are exploring and expressing their sexual difference. In Greenwich Village, you and several other “faggots” endure the jibes of the “moral police”: “There were only about three of us, if I remember correctly, when I first hit those streets, and I was the youngest, the most visible, and the most vulnerable.”
At the age of sixteen these bad guys chase you, often under the amused and complicit watch of policemen. This makes you say that it was not the police you feared, but rather the guys who decided that you tarnished the respectability of the neighborhood.
Seek shelter? Where? In a movie theater? There you had to fear the wandering hand of an older man, or another man who, standing in front of a display of pornographic magazines, looks at you with eyes that say everything: “There were all kinds of men, mostly young and, in those days, almost exclusively white.” Richard Wright would never see eye to eye with you about your lifestyle. Homosexuality for him was linked to perversion. He does not shy away from generalizations, since he remarks to one of his friends, when talking about you, “It’s always the same thing with these homos” or, again, “Sure he can write, but he’s a faggot.”
The publication of Giovanni’s Room in 1953 is quite an event. There are three reasons for this: the novel does not take place in America, there are no black characters, and the homosexuality of the hero is clearly stated.
France is the backdrop for Giovanni’s Room, not without reason. This spatial displacement reveals your thirst for freedom, your desire for openness and to break with the protest novel. Your main character breaks free from the archetype of the African-American novel: David is not black. He resembles nothing of John Grimes, your “double” in Go Tell It on the Mountain, considered at the time to be one of the first books about the black condition.
David frequents the homosexual milieu in Paris while his fiancée, white and American, is traveling in Spain. The novel takes a unique look at the quest for sexual identity, in this way building upon reflections made in “The Preservation of Innocence” and that you pursue, near the twilight of your life, in “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood.”
On the back cover of the first paperback edition we get a glimpse of the media buzz.
The New York Herald Tribune celebrates “the story of a young American man grappling simultaneously with the love of a man and a woman,” before adding that “Mr. Baldwin navigates these issues with an exceptional degree of candor, and yet, with such dignity and intensity that he avoids the trap of sensationalism.” The Evening Standard, for their part, is even more won over: “Probably the best and certainly the most frank novel about homosexuality in years …”
The story is heart wrenching, as much for the characters’ anguish as for the beauty of the writing, rendered lively and sensual through its poetic intensity and the strength of its imagery. Rather than mulling over the collective unrest over the black condition, you explore individual desperation, the hopeless tragedy of a man confronted with solitude and accepting a fate that drives him to self-destruction. In this lies the meaning behind the entire body of your work; understanding the collective through the individual.
Giovanni’s Room nevertheless unleashed some very negative reactions in the black American community. The Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver does not mince his words and rejects in passing your entire body of work: “There is in the work of James Baldwin the most agonizing, complete hatred for Blacks, in particular for himself, and the most shameful, ardent and servile attraction to Whites than can be found in the work of any other black American writer of our day.”
Is this to say that the novel is deaf to the cries of the oppressed, impervious to the power of protest? In a few lines—no doubt quickly forgotten by your opponents— you give a reading of history distanced from the clash of civilizations, with all of the pain, bitterness, humiliation and rape it entails. At base it is a cry for reconciliation, for forgiveness and for redemption that we hear in the character David’s confession on the first page: “My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past.”
Copyright © 2014 by Alain Mabanckou from Letter to Jimmy (translated by Sara Meli Ansari). Reprinted by permission of Soft Skull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint.
Alain Mabanckou was born in Congo-Brazzaville in 1966. He is the author of Broken Glass, Memoirs of a Porcupine, and African Psycho, among others. He currently divides his time between Paris and California, where he teaches French literature at UCLA.