Honoring The Love That Brought You Here: On James Baldwin and His Legacy For The Black Queer Artist
by Max S. Gordon
From the Opening Plenary Session, “The Elder Baldwin, The Queer Baldwin, The Global Baldwin”, The International Conference on James Baldwin hosted by La Maison Baldwin, June 16, 2022, Côte d’Azur, Nice France.
(Panelists: Gabrielle Civil, Max S. Gordon, Diane Harriford, Dr. Khadijah Queen.)
“But just remember, love brought you here. If you trusted love this far, don’t panic now.”
— James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk
I come to you in pieces.
I now live in a country where, within a ten-day period, two young men under the age of twenty-one killed over thirty people with assault rifles, almost all of them of color, over half of them children. Laws are being passed which mean that if a twelve-year-old girl is raped by a family member, she will not only be unable to get a legal abortion, but that if anyone tries to help her terminate the pregnancy, they will both face felony charges.
When I am writing, and decide at 1 a.m. to go get ice cream, I am afraid what may happen if I’m stopped by the police. These aren’t just the musings of an overactive imagination. In my native state of Michigan, an officer was recently charged with second-degree murder for shooting an unarmed Black man in the head at point-blank range while the man was on the ground.
And finally, in the state of Florida, conversations about slavery, considered to be under the guise of teaching “critical race theory”, and the ability of a teacher even to say the word “gay” in elementary school classrooms, are being prohibited and criminalized. We are currently airing congressional hearings because an ex-president attempted to overturn a democratic election.
The irony is that in 1948, when James Baldwin arrived in Paris, Brown vs. Board of Education hadn’t yet passed, which meant that segregation in schools was still legal, a woman’s right to choose was decades from being legislated in 1973 by the Supreme Court as Roe V. Wade, and Jim Crow was still practiced in the South. In the town where I grew up, there was an effective curfew for Blacks after dark.
In other words, the more things change, the more things stay the same.
It’s summertime in America right now, and the living ain’t easy. I’ve never felt so much anxiety in my life. I don’t feel particularly healthy; sometimes I don’t even want to leave the house. But I’m here, because I feel it is important for me to bear witness to what is happening in my country, to tell the tale. I learned the importance of witnessing from the Black American writer James Arthur Baldwin, who told me in his work and interviews that it wasn’t enough just to watch the news each day and shout, “Goddamn it!”. Anyone can look out the window, see what’s going on and get pissed off. But an artist has a responsibility to bear witness. We must show up as ambassadors of the truth, whether that truth is beautiful or ugly. When people spend millions of political dollars to undermine and destroy you because you are transgender or gay, when a domestic terrorist loads his gun because he wants to kill as many Black people as he can (and that’s a quote), being seen at all when you are Black and queer instantly becomes a form of resistance.
So, in much different circumstances than the ones Baldwin faced in 1948 when he also crossed the Atlantic Ocean, I am here. I don’t know where you’ve come from, but in all the ways that we will honor James Baldwin this weekend, perhaps the most symbolic will be making this journey across the ocean ourselves.
While this isn’t my first time in France, I’ve never been to Nice before; as I stood in the airport trying to figure out, “Okay, what’s next?”, as the man drew me a map when I finally arrived at the hotel, I had a moment when I thought, “Where the hell did James Baldwin get the nerve, the courage to come here?” From what I’ve read, no one drew him a map, there was no Yelp or Expedia; many of the streets he walked down were uncharted for a Black American writer in his twenties. I’ve sometimes joked with friends that Baldwin’s true peers aren’t other Black and white American writers and ex-patriates living in Europe but rather, decades later, astronauts like Neil Armstrong. Given the responsibilities he had at home, and the little money in his pocket, he might as well have been going to the moon. Baldwin, the international traveler, the pioneer, reminds the Black queer artist that the entire world is hers, and that when the politics of her country betrays her, she has options.
So here we are today at this conference. Perhaps fewer people than we might have had a few years ago, but if you are like me, a “conference” on James Baldwin would be complete sitting at an outdoor café with a table full of interesting people discussing the opening pages of Another Country. I consider that first chapter a masterpiece. Analyzing Baldwin is always a delicious prospect for me. But it does come with its challenges, including - depending on the company - which “Baldwin” we are discussing. Baldwin was one man, one writer, but I feel that his identities are too often compartmentalized, and sometimes compromised, and that has also compelled me to come here and bear witness of a different kind.
In 2016, I wrote an extended essay on Baldwin called “Faggot as Footnote.” That piece was inspired by my viewing of the film “I am Not Your Negro.” I am not here to put down that film; anything that brings James Baldwin’s work to a larger audience is exciting to me. At the same time, I felt the need to express my frustration about the fact that while a nuanced conversation about Baldwin and race was encouraged in that film, a conversation about sexuality and queerness and his work was not.
I saw “I Am Not Your Negro” three times in theaters in New York and on one occasion I watched it on 125th street with what seemed to be several classes of school children on a field trip. In any other context, a hundred kids in a movie theater would have driven me out of the theater screaming, but I was eager to see how they would react to Baldwin, particularly the scene where he is on The Dick Cavett Show in 1969, waving his cigarette and reading racism in America “for filth” as only a Black queen can. When the film was over, I knew those kids would go back to their classroom and have a fascinating discussion about race. My disappointment was that, unless they had a particularly sensitive teacher, they probably wouldn’t talk about queerness, and how James Baldwin’s experience as a queer man informed his ability to appreciate injustice in the world — how queerness, in additional to Blackness, had shaped his perception, his language.
Most importantly, I remembered being in elementary school myself struggling with my identity as a queer boy. An opportunity was missed in that film not only to have a conversation about intersectional identities and why it is usually the same suspects that target us using racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism and class inequality, but also to have an appreciation of queerness and the queer people in these kids’ own lives: if James Baldwin was gay or bisexual, James Baldwin our shining hero, maybe they could have a greater understanding of their queer aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, parents, or — most essentially — for themselves.
That is what is so interesting to me about queer identity and Baldwin — some people think that when you talk about the queer Baldwin you are looking for a roster of who he slept with. But I am here to explore the texture of language, to acknowledge the Black queer voice, just as a brilliant academic can help us to understand which experiences in America are woven through the literature of Black women writers and artists, some of whom may never have met. What can you find, for example, in Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” that you can also find in Morrison’s “Sula” and “Beloved”, and the poetry of Alice Walker, and Nina Simone’s “Four Women”? Is there a Black queer aesthetic? What in James Baldwin’s use of language can be tied to the work of Black queer male writers like Richard Bruce Nugent, Essex Hemphill, Randall Kenan, the films of Marlon Riggs, the political vision of Bayard Rustin, or the demand for justice and resistance in the poetry and work of Black queer women like Audre Lorde, Cheryl Clarke, and Barbara Smith?
But in order to put together a Black queer aesthetic, we have first to acknowledge who is queer — we must not participate in a cover-up. Which is why a conference like this matters, and why discussing the queer Baldwin and how he relates to the queer Black artist matters. As Baldwin wrote in 1979, “Nothing can be hidden. Secrets do not exist.”
And, on a final note, “I Am Not Your Negro” was based on an unfinished work Baldwin had contracted with McMillian Publishing about his relationships with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement. The same year he signed the contract to write that book, tentatively entitled “Remember This House”, he published his final novel, “Just Above My Head”. This has a deeply ironic significance for me; in a film that doesn’t explore queerness in Baldwin’s writing in any detail or make explicit connections between homophobia and racism, “Just Above My Head” contains probably one of the most explicit love scenes between two Black men, Arthur and Crunch, in all mainstream Black literature. In the interests of time, I will not read the excerpt to you, but let’s just say Baldwin was inspired; not many writers can write a love-scene that includes blow-jobs, falling in love, and the taste of semen, Pepsi, ketchup, mustard, and onions. In other words, there aren’t many passages in literature, Black or white, where you can get your groove and your dinner on at the same time!
But let’s be clear, defining the queer Baldwin, or searching for a queer aesthetic, does not necessarily mean defining Baldwin’s personal sexuality or even his fidelity to a queer ideology or movement. Baldwin may confound the researcher who tries to put him in a particular box; in interviews he at times rejected aspects of the traditional gay rights movement (I suspect because of the racism he found there). Sexual questions were always bound up in the idea of traditional masculinity, and I think he preferred the definitions of sexuality he found in the European model of the time. He may be an early proponent of the concept of sexual fluidity, as least as far as his articulation of male sexuality and what it personally meant to him. We might also question to what extent his public iterations of sexual identity were influenced by his early relationship to the Christian church; did he feel a need to protect his family or “the movement” from shame? It is impossible in these opening comments to go into any real detail about this subject, but I feel confident we will explore it in depth this weekend.
I will venture to say that, however he defined himself, and however we define ourselves as queer people, we can all benefit from Baldwin’s queer audacity and sass. As he once said, “You didn’t tell me, I told you.” Or that wonderful clip from the film The Price of the Ticket, when the British interviewer says, “Now, when you were starting out as a writer, you were Black, impoverished, homosexual. You must have said to yourself, Gee, how disadvantaged can I get!” Baldwin at first raises his eyebrows, and then replies, laughing: “No, I thought I hit the jackpot. It was so outrageous you could not go any further. So you had to find a way to use it.”
I still marvel at the Black writer, almost unanimously discouraged from following up his Black coming-of-age novel “Go Tell It On The Mountain” with “Giovanni’s Room”, a story about a white American man who falls in love with an Italian bartender in France — who saw that book coming? But even when they first refused to publish it in the US, he didn’t back down, consistently demanding in all his work that we ask questions about sexual politics along with the racial ones.
Rufus and Vivaldo in “Another Country”:
“Have you ever wished you were queer?” Rufus asked suddenly.
Vivaldo smiled, looking into his glass. “I used to think maybe I was. Hell, I think I even wished I was. But I’m not. So I’m stuck.”
Rufus walked to Vivaldo’s window. “So you been all up and down that street too.”
Vivaldo: “We’ve all been up the same streets. There aren’t a hell of a lot of streets. Only we’re taught to lie so much about so many things, that we hardly know where we are.”
It is my believe that James Baldwin was one of the great lovers of the twentieth century, and by lovers I’m not speaking of sexual prowess — I’m speaking of a curiosity about people, a generosity, a fascination with the human story, its travails and triumphs, which I believe are essential to any great writer. I would like to suggest that we “James Baldwin” each other this weekend, that we listen to each other, that we engage, and get into the deliciousness of difference, that we appreciate how each of us has arrived at this particular welcome table. When I see Baldwin in my dreams, I see his eyes, the large eyes his stepfather humiliated him for, but that I feel expressed his deepest longing to see more, know more. He didn’t miss anything. In a world where too many of us catch ourselves texting at the dinner table with loved ones, let’s commit to seeing each other this weekend; Baldwin style.
In this time together, we will discuss and assess Baldwin, and perhaps, given where we are in 2022, come to new conclusions about his work and, in some instances, new criticisms, perspectives, and revelations. Baldwin encouraged us to be unafraid and searching. Whatever we discover or uncover, I feel confident it will be will damn interesting. I know that there are many people who would have loved to have been here and for whatever reason cannot, but if you are in this room today, and you made the journey, I think it safe to say you really wanted to be here, and that makes this mix of people particularly juicy.
Whenever I think about Baldwin at home, receiving artists in his house in St. Paul de Vence, I imagine a man who would greet you on the path, and ask you to have a seat, find out what he could learn from you. I imagine he was this kind of teacher with his students, because we were all and continue to be his students; and I imagine he might have been this kind of preacher, because we all are, and will continue to remain, part of his congregation. I call him a great lover because I believe he was in love with the human mystery; you see it in his characters, in his rage at the Republic, and in the conversation about forgiveness. No matter what criticism one has of Baldwin’s writing, I always come away with the most profound feeling after reading his work that I’ve been seen, and I’ve been loved.
And when we visit the ground that was Baldwin’s home, where he made his final peace with the world, in some ways a journey will be complete. So, I came here today to lay a burden down, to share my thoughts, and to celebrate the life of a great Black American artist. And to make the renewed promise that I will never take for granted what it means for the Black American writer, the descendant of slaves who were beaten or worse for just learning to read and write, to tell her or his story, and gain the entire world’s attention. What did it mean then, to tell the tale, Black and queer, guns aimed at him, ready to fire? Where did Baldwin’s courage come from, what exactly was the price of that ticket? Is it just as expensive as it was in 1948 when he left for these shores or has the price gone up?
A woman acquaintance of mine has recently sat down with the descendants of people her ancestors enslaved. It’s not an easy conversation to have, but these two women, Black and white, are doing the work I believe Baldwin would have admired and felt the need for in 2022. The fabric of a country unravels when it is unable to face its crimes, to face itself. So many conversations are necessary right now.
May the memory of James Arthur Baldwin bless all our conversations this weekend. And may we hold each other tight. If you’ve read any Baldwin then you know that his works may be called essays, poems, plays and fiction, but in all ways, they are training manuals on love, telling us to hold each other dear or lose each other at our own peril. Baldwin, our elder brother, always watching over us, reminding us about the importance of the human family and to remember that we’re all we’ve got.
From the final paragraph of my piece “Faggot as Footnote”:
We know that academia and the literary world has claimed James Baldwin, but it is the homeless black gay teen on the pier, hustling for a meal tonight or a place to sleep who needs to know that Jimmy is his, that James Baldwin belongs to him. And if he reads “Another Country”, if he begins with that line, “He was facing Seventh Avenue at Times Square”, if he follows Rufus’ journey, of homeless, hunger, prostitution, and grief, and if he appreciates what racism and homophobia do to the beating black heart, how they can annihilate — it may keep him alive one more day. Because he’ll know: we’ve been here before, and James understood.
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His essays include “A Different World: Why We Owe The Cosby Accusers An Apology”, “Family Feud: Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the Desecration of Black Art”, and “How We’ll Get Over: Going To the Upper Room With Donald Trump”.