Saturday, August 03, 2013
Today (August 2 in the USA) would have been James Baldwin’s 89th birthday. Baldwin was a writer who straddled many of the divisions in society, ones that are still evident today: Race, sexual orientation, class. He was one of the first gay writers I ever heard about—but not until my 20s, after I was already out.
The fact that Baldwin was uncompromising in discussing race made much of white society feel uneasy about him, and his inclusion of gay themes in his work—more than a decade before the Stonewall Riots—created more distance. Growing up in the mostly white, Republican suburbs, I never heard of Baldwin until I went to university in the late 1970s, and even then, only because I had well-read gay friends who knew about him.
The video above is of Baldwin appearing on the Dick Cavett Show, apparently in 1968 (no date was given in the video, and this is the source of the date; There’s also an audio interview with him by Studs Terkel from 1961 that’s worth a listen). I think it’s a good example of Baldwin’s eloquent and passionate critique that so many white people found hard to hear. Nowadays, some white people would call him a “professional black”, that is, someone who, as Roger Green put it in a recent post, a black person for whom “their profession is BEING a black person.”
But, of course, all of this stuff I learned kind of late in the game, at a time in my life when I was discovering all the famous gay people I’d never known about. Maybe this fact made me more receptive to the rest of his message than I would otherwise have been, given my background. However, it was already a time in which I had enormous intellectual curiosity, anyway, so I don’t know.
What I do know is that I was diminished by not being taught about the breadth of American literature, particularly because, in Baldwin’s case, several of his novels have been included in various lists of the best American novels. But it’s also true that I was cheated by not knowing about gay people. I’d like to think that things are better now, at least in most places, but I know that in far too many, nothing’s really changed.
So I look at artists like James Baldwin, and think about how many others there must have been that I never had the chance to hear about. I think about the courage he had in tackling prejudice on many fronts, and the artistic integrity he displayed by writing about what he wanted to write about, even if it wasn’t socially acceptable at the time. And, of course, he was a fellow expatriate, and that’s another thing about him with which I can personally identify.
James Baldwin died in late 1987 of oesophageal cancer, aged 63. Below is a video of Baldwin speaking the National Press Club on December 10, 1986, less than a year before he died. His influence, however, continues.