James Baldwin

As Audre Lorde famously stated, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” It is neither revolutionary nor revelatory to claim that one of the fiercest adherents to that philosophy is/was James Baldwin. Raising his voice in opposition to American involvement in the Viet Nam conflict.

Marching in favour of civil rights across the deep red South and the complicit blue North. Challenging the NAACP about what he claimed was its systemic elitism. Preaching about culturized racisms. Navigating oppressive strictures embedded in the discourses of sexuality, whether in terms of Black Nationalist exclusion or American national antipathy.

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Baldwin understood clearly the critical and vital dynamic of intersectionality–that an injury to one is an injury to all. Indeed, in a 1984 interview with Richard Goldstein (among other contexts), he stated emphatically that race and sexuality “have always been intertwined.” Umoja isn’t just for Kwanzaa. Now go watch Titus Burgess’ video, “45”; I’ll wait. James Baldwin’s words about unity still resonate.

And they articulate the intricate network of intersectionalities that, as a young man, I found so difficult to pick apart. Little did I realise then that I was wasting my time trying to extricate them all from what I perceived as a blurry mass of unreconciled and indistinct challenges. How could I self-identify as this AND that AND that AND that, when categories of self-identification I was navigating themselves appeared to be mutually and virulently exclusive?

Enter into a young man’s life the work of James Baldwin. Enter Just Above My Head—a prophetic title for me, as it turned out, as I knew something was just out of my reach. Something that would give me access to the world I was not yet feeling at home in. Something that would feed my desire for revolution in the form of revelation.

There is a unifying, symbiotic nature to Uncle Jimmy’s politics that cannot help but evidence itself in his aesthetic—a phenomenon that I recently re-discovered and re-examined in light of the release of Barry Jenkins’ atmospheric, yearning film version of If Beale Street Could Talk. It’s one that informs my reconsideration of the place of Baldwin in my experience. It forced me to consider where and how the novel came to be, appearing as it did in the middle of his career and eliding the explicitly “homosexual” focus that had largely characterized his major works of fiction.

Because James Baldwin himself was defined by so many co-dependent forces, externally and internally, his career as a public intellectual and private citizen was defined by his own struggle to reconcile his role as an artist who often found himself isolated from one or another of the groups that, in a better world, might have provided the sense of community he sought—just as I was seeking community. As I re-entered Baldwin’s world intensively for the first time since grad school, I started to see his bifurcated self-perception/position in brighter light of his catalogue of novels, perhaps most happily–and for me, most helpfully–in his final novel, Just Above My Head.

Just above my head by james baldwin
Just Above My Head by James Baldwin

“I feel like a stranger in America from almost every conceivable angle,” he once said in response to a question about his being “gay,” taking time also to clarify that the word “gay” did not suit him because of what he saw as “the necessity of all the role-playing” that such a label and community incurred. Ironically, he maintained his role as the observational outsider and as participant in his role as artist: “Toward the phenomenon we call gay . . . I feel special responsibility because I would have to be a kind of witness to it, you know.”

Indeed, his remarkable body of work—my focus here is his fiction–speaks to his ability to navigate the poles of these seemingly exclusive positionalities. He explored each by way of examining the whole of his identity as a same-gender-loving man.

Whether or not he had the language, he had the experience—the stuff of poetry, according to “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” one of Audre Lorde’s most eloquent essays. Examining his nascent understanding of his own sexuality within the context of his spiritual and racial awakenings in his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, externalizing his mature understanding of himself as an same-gender-loving black man by casting it in the history of a white man in Giovanni’s Room, and finally exploring a full public embrace of his many embodied self-understandings in Another Country, Baldwin was engaged in a career-long effort to navigate the poles of his self-perceived status as both insider and outsider.

And while critics most often will use one or more of the three aforementioned novels (go ahead—do an internet search of scholarly articles and see where critical interest lies most heavily), I suggest that his final novel, Just Above My Head, articulates his most mature and revolutionary ideas about how to live both publicly and privately as an SGL black man trying to revise then-current narratives about what each of those identification categories signifies. As such, it provides a uniquely powerful lens—and roadmap, if I may mix analogies–by which we can measure our own current narratives to find unity in what might appear to be chaos.

And I don’t use the word “revolutionary” lightly, deliberately accessing both its profundity and its range via the words of Joseph Beam: “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act.” Baldwin himself was trying to revise a long literary narrative in which black men, in the words of Keith Clark, “are constantly under siege.” But Just Above My Head stands as James Baldwin’s final novelistic attempt to disrupt the siege and, in his words, “break out of the whole sentimental image of the afflicted nigger driven that way (to suicide) by white people.” If it is not, by acclamation, Baldwin’s greatest novel, I find it still useful via my extended deliberations with my own psyche, to recover, revise, and rewrite my own narrative because it undoes much of the damage inflicted upon me—the fragmentation I was attempting to counter.

But how so, especially in a novel in which the SGL protagonist dies violently in a squalid men’s bathroom in a London pub? How is that any kind of a happy ending for this questioning queer boy?

Using Baldwin’s Giovanni as exemplar, I suggest that even as marginalized/colourized (swarthy Mediterranean) “outsider” in his own narrative, Giovanni accomplishes little in the world by his death that reaches beyond his rarefied locality. He may remain committed to an honest existence as an SGL man, but where are the ripples? David, the ostensible and white protagonist, leaves him behind with regret but with a desire to leave the sordidness of his Parisian experience behind him. To expunge, even deny, one’s role in one’s choices seems to me to be a particularly painful form of white-washing, even as it lays waste to the material that forms the basis of humanity’s understanding of itself. If it is true, as Lorde suggests, that art reproduces and recharges experience, then the denial of experience is the denial of representation. Cries of “Represent!” still resound in the 21st century, and as such, decry efforts to obliterate experience or the people whose experience tell important stories.

Alternatively, Baldwin’s final novel rewrites Giovanni’s narrative in ways that I learned to rewrite mine—and for similar reasons. Just as Baldwin was negotiating intersecting concerns and communities throughout his life and work, I found myself as a young man (and even on of “those days,” as a middle-aged man) trying to find ways to counter the impetus toward my own exclusions so that I would not end up, even metaphorically, dead in the men’s room. Specifically, I started to recognise my answer in the intersection of Arthur’s embracing of sexuality and his efforts at socio-political protest—an intersection that he speaks to in the Goldstein interview: “The discovery of one’s sexual preference doesn’t have to be a trauma. It’s a trauma because it’s such a traumatized society.”

For Baldwin, that trauma derives largely from a right-wing homophobia that relies on a terrorist mechanics. “The capacity for experience is what burns out fear,” he states, adding, “Because the homophobia we’re talking about is really a kind of fear. It’s a terror of the flesh” that creates guilt. As long as you feel guilty about it, the State can rule over you.” But as Amiri Baraka stated in James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, “Jimmy Baldwin didn’t go around proclaiming homosexuality, nor did he deny it.” When I realized that I could disentangle myself from the mechanism of state power by simply disengaging from ownership of state-sponsored terror—and by extension, my own self-imposed guilt—I began to recognize the possibility for a healthier integration of my own varied positionalities. That could then energize a personal liberation even from the external influences that were (and are) invested in my destruction.

So when I saw Jenkin’s Beale Street again recently and recognized those forces at work in Fonny’s life (though not in terms of Fonny’s sexuality), I saw again how they were working in mine. Uncle Jimmy was right when he said the devil finds work. And he was right when he showed, in Just Above My Head, that those forces don’t necessarily have the final say. If the work of mourning is the resolution of loss, then Arthur’s defiant death showed—and shows me—that loss waters the future. For it is through Hall, Arthur’s brother, that his song is passed on. Early in the novel, Hall observes, “Your life can now be written anew on the empty slate of his,” adding, “I saw myself in Arthur.”

In this way, the private loss transforms into a means of cultural revolution. Countering a limited political narrative that, at least at the time, there was no room for homosexuals in the revolution—resonances with Bayard Rustin gush forth here—Arthur’s legacy lives on in the imperative that we are inextricably linked to, and responsible for, the people we love. For me, a novel about political revolution became a textbook for personal revelation.

It is experience that teaches that lesson, and the experience of finding the links, the vital stream of humanity that flows through all of us, that nurtures commitment to tomorrow. Those delimiting categories of self-identification and exclusivity simply evanesce in the wake of such an experience as brother Baldwin capture in this life-saving novel for me, and those “mutually and virulently exclusive” ideas find themselves existing—and thriving—in a broader epistemology of unity and its cultural expression in the redemption mined from Ujima and through Baldwin’s seemingly generous narrative of inclusion—the narrative of his life.


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