Friday, June 07, 2019

James Baldwin's Potent Interweavings of Race, Homoeroticism, and the Spiritual

Since 2009 I've shared every year during the month of June a series of "Queer Appreciation" posts. Each series is comprised of a number of informed and insightful writings to mark Gay Pride . . . or, as I prefer to call it (since 2011), Queer Appreciation. I always try to include in each series a diverse range of writers and topics; and, in general, the writings I share are positive, proactive and celebratory.

Without realizing it at the time, my Quote of the Day last Friday serves well as the first post in this year's Queer Appreciation series. I continue the series today with an excerpt from Michael Cuby's essay, "James Baldwin's Queerness Was Inseparable from His Blackness." The springboard for Cuby's piece is the award-winning 2016 documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro which, although not primarily focused on Baldwin's personal history, nevertheless presents him as both unapologetically black and unapologetically queer.

[James] Baldwin's edition of The Last Interview includes a conversation between the author and journalist Richard Goldstein about being gay in America. Obviously, it also touched on blackness – primarily because Baldwin believed that race and sexuality "have always been entwined." But Baldwin's summation of what separates black homosexuals from their white counterparts is still perhaps one of his most insightful lessons.

After Goldstein, who is gay, mentioned feeling distinct from his straight white peers, Baldwin told him that his feelings of "otherness" were the result of feeling like he had been "placed outside a certain safety to which you think you were born." Those of us who are both black and gay, however, experience life quite differently. "The sexual question comes after the question of color," Baldwin told Goldstein. "Long before the question of sexuality comes into it," a black gay person is already "menaced and marked because he's black." While being gay is just one more marginalized identity that black people are forced to contend with, Baldwin explains that for white people, being gay is simply an unexpected anomaly, whereupon they realize that they are no longer at the top of the social food chain. Baldwin maintained that Caucasian feelings of otherness based on sexuality lay in "direct proportion to [their] sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society." It's not a struggle for them, so much as a "bewilderment and complaint."

According to Baldwin, the origins of racism lay more in white people's refusal to give up power than in any innate desire to truly despise another human being. "They thought vengeance was theirs to take," he said, describing how the colonialist mind works. To him, the dismantling and ultimate destruction of racism could come after white people truly took the time to understand the value of human dignity. But he also acknowledged that such epiphanies don't occur out of the blue – that's why he believed in the possibilities of coalitions. Baldwin admitted that he believed the (white) gay rights movement and the civil rights movement could align themselves, but only because both groups had experienced oppression from others who feared their prosperity. Blacks had dealt with white fears, while queers had dealt with the fears of straight men.

Unfortunately, Baldwin's hopes of an integrated resistance to white supremacy, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, and other dominant American social regimes seem harder to achieve than ever. But his greater lesson is that to be hopeful for the future is not to be ignorant or blind. Baldwin may have put too much faith in the white people that he hoped would grow to see him as human, but he also made sure to hold up a mirror in his work, so they could see just how much they were breaking him (and the black community) down. That's what I Am Not Your Negro does most effectively: It shows its audience how difficult white society makes it for black people to thrive. As someone who was used to being met with resistance both for being black and for being gay, it's no surprise that Baldwin's thoughts on what it means to be disenfranchised in this country were so forthright and profound.

Something about Baldwin's hope for a better tomorrow is uplifting as our nation enters a period of political turmoil. It inspires us to keep pushing through and fighting for the recognition of our humanity – exactly as we are, whether that be gay, queer, or both. As he had it in The Last Interview: "I was not born to be what someone said I was. I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself and myself only."

– Michael Cuby
Excerpted from "James Baldwin's Queerness
Was Inseparable from His Blackness
February 3, 2017


About James Baldwin, The Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit notes the following.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a writer who sought in his life and work to honor his love of men and his African/African-American heritage – embracing spiritual expression and political activism. Exemplary of his artistic interweaving of these dimensions of his life are episodes in the short story "The Outing" (1951), a tale rooted in the Biblical story of David and Jonathan, in which Johnny Grimes realizes, during a church picnic, that he has fallen in love with his friend David Jackson.; and in the novel Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), in which a bisexual Black actor, Leo Proudhammer shares a loving relationship with a radical African-American activist named Christopher. Of this novel, Emmanuel S. Nelson writes, "Baldwin casts the homosexual in a redemptive role. Christopher's name itself . . . suggests his role as a racial savior. But Christopher is also comfortably and confidently gay," the result is a potent interweaving of ethnicity, homoeroticism, and the spiritual.

Related Off-site Links:
James Baldwin's Black Queer Legacy – Anthony James Williams (Electric Lit, March 23, 2017).
James Baldwin's Sexuality: Complex and Influential – Mashaun D. Simon (NBC News, February 7, 2017).
James Baldwin’s Blueprint for the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement – Tre'vell Anderson (Out, May 19, 2019).
James Baldwin on Being Gay in AmericaThe Village Voice (June 22, 2018).
American Lives: James Baldwin, "Lifting The Veil" – NPR (July 15, 2011).
James Baldwin, a Guide in Bleak Times – JoAnn Wypijewski (The Nation, January 21, 2015).

NEXT: John Gehring on Why Catholics
Should Participate in LGBTQ Pride Parades

The Wild Reed's 2018 Queer Appreciation series:
Michelangelo Signorile on the Rebellious Purpose of Queer Pride
Liberating Paris: Exploring the Meaning of Liberation in Paris Is Burning
Stephanie Beatriz on the Truth of Being Bi
Queer Native Americans, Colonialism, and the Fourth of July

The Wild Reed's 2017 Queer Appreciation series:
Our Lives as LGBTQI People: "Garments Grown in Love"
On the First Anniversary of the Pulse Gay Nightclub Massacre, Orlando Martyrs Commemorated in Artist Tony O'Connell's “Triptych for the 49”
Tony Enos on Understanding the Two Spirit Community
Making the Connections

The Wild Reed's 2016 Queer Appreciation post of solace, inspiration and hope:
"I Will Dance"

The Wild Reed's 2015 Queer Appreciation series:
Vittorio Lingiardi on the Limits of the Hetero/Homo Dichotomy
Reclaiming and Re-Queering Pride
Standing with Jennicet Gutiérrez, "the Mother of Our Newest Stonewall Movement"
Questions for Archbishop Kurtz re. the U.S. Bishops' Response to the Supreme Court's Marriage Equality Ruling
Clyde Hall: "All Gay People, in One Form or Another, Have Something to Give to This World, Something Rich and Very Wonderful"
The (Same-Love) Dance Goes On

The Wild Reed's 2014 Queer Appreciation series:
Michael Bayly's "The Kiss" Wins the People's Choice Award at This Year's Twin Cities Pride Art Exhibition
Same-Sex Desires: "Immanent and Essential Traits Transcending Time and Culture"
Lisa Leff on Five Things to Know About Transgender People
Steven W. Thrasher on the Bland and Misleading "Gay Inc" Treatment of the Struggle to Overturn Prop 8
Test: A Film that "Illuminates Why Queer Cinema Still Matters"
Sister Teresa Forcades on Queer Theology
Omar Akersim: Muslim and Gay
Catholics Make Their Voices Heard on LGBTQ Issues

The Wild Reed's 2013 Queer Appreciation series:
Doing Papa Proud
Jesse Bering: "It’s Time to Throw 'Sexual Preference' into the Vernacular Trash"
Dan Savage on How Leather Guys, Dykes on Bikes, Go-Go Boys, and Drag Queens Have Helped the LGBT Movement
On Brokeback Mountain: Remembering Queer Lives and Loves Never Fully Realized
Manly Love

The Wild Reed's 2012 Queer Appreciation series:
The Theology of Gay Pride
Bi God, Somebody Listen
North America: Perhaps Once the "Queerest Continent on the Planet"
Gay Men and Modern Dance
A Spirit of Defiance

The Wild Reed's 2011 Gay Pride/Queer Appreciation series:
Gay Pride: A Celebration of True Humility
Dusty Springfield: Queer Icon
Gay Pioneer Malcolm Boyd on Survival – and Victory – with Grace
Senator Scott Dibble's Message of Hope and Optimism
Parvez Sharma on Islam and Homosexuality

The Wild Reed’s 2010 Gay Pride series:
Standing Strong
Growing Strong
Jesus and Homosexuality
It Is Not Good To Be Alone
The Bisexual: “Living Consciously in the Place Where the Twain Meet”
Spirituality and the Gay Experience
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage

The Wild Reed's 2009 Gay Pride series:
A Mother’s Request to President Obama: Full Equality for My Gay Son
Marriage Equality in Massachusetts: Five Years On
It Shouldn’t Matter. Except It Does
Gay Pride as a Christian Event
Not Just Another Political Special Interest Group
Can You Hear Me, Yet, My Friend?

See also:
Worldwide Gay Pride – 2017 | 2016 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride – 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007
Gay Pride: A Catholic Perspective
Reclaiming and Re-Queering Pride
Police, Pride, and Philando Castile

Images: Photographers unknown.

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