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'One Woman’s Dystopia Is Another Woman’s Tuesday'
Essayist Max S. Gordon Takes Another Deep Look Inside ABC's 'Scandal'
“People invent categories in order to feel safe. White people invented black people to give white people identity...Straight cats invented faggots so they can sleep with them without becoming faggots themselves.”
James Baldwin & Nikki Giovanni, A Dialogue (1973)
“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.”
“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.
James Baldwin, Another Country (1962)
"Nothing can be hidden; secrets do not exist."
James Baldwin, Just Above My Head (1979)
PART ONE - WITNESS
Several years ago, I was introduced to a woman at a friend’s party. She and I got along famously, and at one point in our conversation, she said she wanted to introduce me to her husband who would be arriving any moment from work. She excused herself, and about a half hour later, they approached me together as I was finishing a conversation with our host. Holding a fresh drink in her hand, she presented her husband to me with great flair. “And this,” she said warmly, “is Edgar!”
I took in the shock-white hair, the thin mustache. Edgar and I shook hands, and I smiled and made my eyes friendly, yet blank – making a herculean effort not to reveal that not only did I already know her husband, but less than a month before I’d had sex with him.
He wasn’t an actor by profession, but he might have won an Academy Award for the performance he gave that evening. Edgar managed to actively engage in, but not overdo, the enthusiasm of making a new acquaintance. He feigned surprise while his wife shared details that she’d just learned about me as if hearing them for the first time. The three of us stood together for several minutes conversing and making small talk, and as we spoke, I searched for the desperate plea behind his eyes, the “Oh-shit-this-can’t-be-happening” look of panic that I myself was trying desperately to suppress. It wasn’t forthcoming. In fact, he was so placid, so relaxed, that at one point I began to doubt myself and to question whether I’d gotten him mixed up with someone else: an actor in a porn film, or perhaps a gay twin. Anything other than what I knew to be true: he was a man, married to a woman, who had sex with other men.
She was a woman whom, by the way, I already liked, and couldn’t help feeling I’d somehow betrayed, even though when I met her husband I’d had no idea, at least at first, that he was married. He and I never had more than a brief conversation in the sex club, and when the subject came up, he was already dressed and preparing to leave. He gave me an email address if I ever wanted to “hook up again,” and a cell phone number to use during the day, but, he cautioned, “If you text me, please be discreet.”
Now I watched as they left to greet other friends. We said a momentary goodbye, promising to exchange numbers before the evening was over and meet for dinner sometime. I began a pleasant exchange with the man beside me, but I could only offer him half an ear, still unable to shake the unreality of what had just happened. When I heard Deborah’s laughter from a group of people in the kitchen, and observed Edgar standing alone, I made my way over to him.
Edgar didn’t acknowledge me when I stepped up to the table; he was busy foraging through the remnants of several trays of food. I watched as he reached for a plate and napkin, examined something that resembled a tiny quiche, and popped it into his mouth.
We stood together for a few moments before he spoke.
“Great party,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
He asked, “How long have you known Andy?”
“A few years now,” I replied. “I used to work with him.”
“We used to be his neighbors. In fact,” - he added olives and a few slices of brie to his plate - “my wife sold Andy this apartment.”
“Deb got him a great deal. So, if you ever need a realtor, you know where to come...”
“I do now, “ I said. “Thank you. I’ll remember that.”
We smiled inanely at each other, nodding and nodding, until, unable to bear the unspoken conversation, I finally offered, “Look, Edgar - “
“Don’t worry about it, guy,” he said, winking and with a tight little laugh. He even clapped me on the back and massaged my shoulder briefly with one hand. I marveled at his boldness, or whatever it was that was passing for boldness. But a slight twitch of his mouth and the way his eyes searched the room furtively let me know he was aware of who was standing near us. Fortunately, as everyone else had already eaten, we had the entire table to ourselves. He lowered his voice only slightly and nibbled on something else from his plate.
“You handled it fine,” he said. “I appreciate that.”
“Does she know?”
“That you’re – “
“I’m not gay, if that’s what you’re implying. No, I don’t think so. Maybe. Who knows? We don’t talk about it.” He laughed it off, but I sensed he was slightly annoyed at my inquiry.
“You gave me your number,” I reminded him.
“I remember well. You didn’t call.” The harassed look left his face, and he leaned in, his mouth inches from mine. Now I was aware that someone might be staring at us. “Look,” he said, ‘my wife and I have been married a very, very long time. So before you convict me and send me to the gallows for my crime, just know: she’s not exactly innocent herself.”
“What does that mean?”
“We’ll leave it at that. ”
I didn’t know what to say, so I blurted, “I like her a lot.”
“Good,” he said. “I like her, too. That’s why I married her.”
“I feel guilty.”
“Why? You didn’t know I was married when we met.”
“This isn’t the first time this has happened to me,” I said, and explained to him how I’d taken a course after college, and how the teacher, on the last night of class and over drinks, described the man she was divorcing at the time. When she said his first name, his line of work, and made a joke about a fairly remarkable tattoo of his in a fairly remarkable place, I realized that I not only knew but had slept with the man and his tattoo. More than once.
She said, “If you only knew what this man is like, you’d know why I’m divorcing him,” and I thought to myself, I know exactly what he’s like. I know about the little tuft of hair on his lower back that he scratches when he stands to pee. I know that he can be tender in one moment, and then in the next jump up and wash himself at the sink after sex. I know the beer he drinks, what he likes on his pizza, and the corny outgoing message on his answering machine. Donald, whom I had met at the gym, “wasn’t gay”, like Edgar and, like Edgar, had also given me his phone number.
I remember thinking at the time how strange it was, this experience the three of us shared but would never share. Don was almost old enough to be my father, my teacher a few years younger. Perhaps it was presumptuous of me, but the whole thing felt like something out of a James Baldwin novel. I imagined how the world might perceive us: The white man, the white woman, "the black boy". Perhaps James wouldn’t have written about it, but I imagined he might have been interested in at least one aspect of the story; how Don, white, working-class, and “straight”, would have explained himself to his ex-wife if she had met us on the street together, as lovers. Given who we were, and where we were, there would have been no other explanation for our relationship. I thought of Giovanni’s Room and what the situation said about the three of us, the sexual and racial questions it raised, and not in faraway places like Paris, but in America.
Edgar seemed amused by my story, perhaps even slightly impressed. “Wow,” he chomped a cracker. “That’s quite a little tale.”
“I don’t know what any of this means,” I said.
“Why does it have to mean anything?”
“Maybe it means that men are liars or that I’m a whore. Or both.”
“Or that we’re all human, and things aren’t always black and white. You may not believe this, but I started sleeping with men so I wouldn’t cheat with women. And I can say in over twenty-five years of marriage I have never been unfaithful to my wife with another woman.”
“So you could never love a man romantically?” I asked, defensively. I knew better, but I couldn’t help feeling reduced. “Is that why you think sleeping with a man isn’t cheating?”
Edgar caught my tone, and said carefully, “I didn’t say that.”
He looked over my shoulder and raised a mini-quiche to his wife still in the kitchen. I turned and saw her smile at us, nodding vigorously and beckoning for him to bring the food. He made a small pile in his napkin.
“I’m being summoned avec quiche,” he said. “Before you judge me, however, just know – my wife and I haven’t had sex in over fifteen years. But we’re friends. You’ll know one day how much that matters - maybe it is all that matters. Nice talk, guy. You take care.” He winked, and walked away. When I reached for a mini-quiche after Edgar left, not because I was hungry but to have something to do with my hands, I realized he’d taken the last one.
The party had thinned, so I found a chair, and sat down, alone. I could hear Edgar’s voice in the kitchen, and while I knew he’d joined a conversation that had begun a half hour ago and that had absolutely nothing to do with me, his laughter, rising above the others, felt mocking, cruel. It was a hardy laugh - assured and carefree, as if nothing could ever intrude on its happiness. I was still deeply unsettled by the proceedings, but from the sound of his voice, he’d emerged from our exchange completely intact.
I imagined a scene in which I walked into the kitchen, positioned myself in the center of the convivial crowd and, after smashing all the mini-quiche in captivity, told Deborah everything I knew about her husband. I knew that wasn’t going to happen; I had no desire to hurt her, but the thought did invite me to examine where my anger came from.
Edgar wasn’t laughing at me, of course, I knew that, but I imagined that at one time in his life he might have laughed at men like me - out gay men, faggots. I also knew a man like Edgar would never be called a faggot, at least not to his face, as I have been. And if someone did call him one, he would just introduce them to his wife.
Edgar, and men like him, get all the pleasure of being gay, while risking none of the humiliation, none of the consequences. And there are consequences. If someone votes against gay marriage or denies a gay person employment, what does he care? That won’t stop Edgar from getting a blowjob on his lunch break. And even though I knew I was being unfair, because I didn’t know Edgar’s politics, what I did know was that sissies are getting their asses kicked every day in the brutal, macho world we live in. Gay, bisexual and transgender men and women are scorned, sometimes murdered, because of the silence of Edgars. If everyone truly knew how many Edgars there were on the planet, engaging in same-sex experiences, the world would change overnight.
I’ve known Edgars since I was a teenager. Most gay men do. I met my first Edgar in the public bathroom of a nearby community college. What I remembered was his lumber-jacket, his hunting boots, and his breath, which smelled of stale tar from too many cigarettes. And whether fueled by sex-positive adventurousness, insecurity, untreated sex addiction, or all the above, my life had been my research when it came to the subject of men.
My fascination at men’s ability to compartmentalize their sexuality had fueled the most outrageous situations: there was the Sikh taxi driver I made out with in his cab after a conversation about his grandkids back home in India (yes, I still paid the fare); the repair man who came to fix the heating unit in my old apartment and got naked because he was separated from his girlfriend at the time and “bi-curious”; the concierge at a hotel in Paris who came to my room after his shift at 3:00 am, and showed me pictures of his dog and three kids while we sat in bed until morning; the attendant in the hotel in Dallas who asked if I needed fresh linens and ended up in the shower with me; the man I met in Oregon, who gave me his home phone number. His wife answered the phone when I called, and when he arrived at the hotel the next day, he greeted me with, “By the way, Becky says hi.” The Turkish man in a convenience store in London who, when he didn’t have the items I asked for, invited me to look for them with him in the storeroom; the married man who held my hand under a jacket the entire two hour flight to Atlanta. It seemed the only encounter I hadn’t had was with the pizza delivery guy; and only because he was usually double-parked or had to be somewhere in thirty minutes or less.
I live in New York, and I’ve been to the places where the two black men share the white one, where the Puerto Rican man thrills the Asian man who fondles the Jewish man. And I am able to testify personally that the conversation about men and sexuality is not about one race, or one culture, one orientation or political affiliation; it’s about men, gay men, bisexual men, straight men. Men loving and fucking each other, in private, “getting down” in private, and - most of the time and in far too many places - lying about it; to their families, to each other, to themselves. And I'm not even including the millions of men who would love to be held in another man's arms but are afraid that this constitutes homosexual desire. Or the men who obsess about homosexuality, who go to places where men have sex, and sit, sullenly denying themselves. They get to have none of the pleasure, all of the guilt.
Patriarchy and our narrow definitions of masculinity require this fear, these lies. I’m not interested in reviving discussions here about men on the “downlow” or in demonizing bisexual men - talk-show topics meant to sensationalize or fetishize the experience of men who love other men, for entertainment or derision. What I am interested in, however, is courage and resistance, and what it means when a man breaks his silence and tells the truth about the masculine myth; about why John Wayne is ultimately a fraud, what homosexuality means to the cult of whiteness, and what men really do in the dark.
This essay is not intended only to be about men and sex. But to understand what is missing from Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, and how James Baldwin has been received and, too often, misconceived on the American literary landscape and in our cultural imagination, one must talk about men and sex, about faggots and shame. What this essay is about is my great appreciation for the black gay American writer named James Arthur Baldwin, his journey from America to France, his testimony, his brilliance, and his swashbuckling bravery which spellbound a nation, and which demanded and continues to demand that we face the truth about who we were, who we are. Hundreds of pages written about him would still only scratch the surface, and I know whatever I’ve written here will be incomplete. But I want to contribute to the conversation that has been revived about his life and work at this time, to share my perceptions on my extraordinary black gay brother - and testify to what I see when I look out my window, (what James called "the view from here"), on American men, masculinity, sexuality and race.
This essay is also about my appreciation for, and great reservations about, the recently released film I Am Not Your Negro, which I admire, but which I also find at times disappointing and exasperating; and which I believe must be examined for its participation in the same macho hypocrisy and homosexual denial that Baldwin spent much of his life trying to deconstruct.
It is not my intention in this essay to put James Baldwin in a box to suit anyone’s political agenda, including my own. Some people have a problem using the word gay to describe Baldwin. (Baldwin himself had reservations about the word.) And there is a case to be made about keeping the details of Baldwin’s sexual life private; he was a private person, as he made clear in several media appearances and interviews. But Baldwin became more open about his sexuality in later interviews, and society’s relationship to the homosexual changed a great deal between 1956 (the year Giovanni’s Room was published) and 1987 (the year of his death). I believe that now, thirty years later, it is possible to appreciate Baldwin’s homosexual experience and identity, to examine how that experience relates to his gifts as an artist, and how it defines his aesthetic, all without exploiting him.
There are also those will argue that James Baldwin was bisexual, drawing from his words, “I’ve loved some men, I’ve loved some women,” and recalling the times when he spoke in talk-show interviews, such as the one featured in Peck’s film, about “my wife, my children.” It is my belief, in moments like this, Baldwin was speaking more rhetorically than literally. Baldwin used the rhetorical voice throughout much of his written work and speeches, which is one of the reasons why some of his work was so inclusive and also so destabilizing. Describing what “we” do to the negro in America, for example, he wasn’t pointing a finger at us, exactly, but rather, helping us point a finger at ourselves. I cannot prove, and will not attempt to try, that Baldwin didn’t have sexual experiences at some point in his life with women. I believe, if these experiences happened at all in any depth, they were formative, part of his early years and not sustained in his adult life. It is the assumption of this writing that he led a predominantly homosexual life.
I worked for an AIDS organization in my mid- to late twenties, and on our intake form, in the space where we asked men about their sexual orientation, I remember distinctly the category “men who have sex with men.” Someone knew that for the men who came in for services, particularly men of color and working-class men, the word “gay” was an identity some of them outright refused to identify with. And yet the sexual behavior they were engaging in would have been defined by many as gay. I am less interested in James Baldwin as a “gay” man, although that word will be used throughout this piece, but rather as a man who was “queer” - a word which also has its limitations and from which some people recoil, but which defines for me anyone who stands outside the hetero-normative circle.
Because, within the construct of heteronormativity, not unlike the construct of whiteness, being “a little queer”, like being “a little black”, means that you exist, on some level, outside the tribe. There is no room for nuance. Heteronormativity demands the perfect “straight” ideal. Therefore, it is the awareness that you exist outside the circle, not necessarily whom you sleep with, that defines the queer experience. Within that definition it is quite clear that Baldwin, whether he considered himself “gay” or “bisexual”, was a “queer” man.
In a 1984 interview with Richard Goldstein, senior editor of The Village Voice, Baldwin says:
“The word ‘gay’ has always rubbed me the wrong way. I never understood exactly what is meant by it. I don’t want to sound distant or patronizing because I really don’t feel that. I simply feel it’s a world that has very little to do with me, with where I did my growing up...”
Goldstein asks whether he thought of himself as being gay, and Baldwin responds,
“No. I didn’t have a word for it. The only one I had was “homosexual” and that didn’t quite cover whatever it was I was beginning to feel. Even when I began to realize things about myself, began to suspect who I was and what I was likely to become, it was still very personal, absolutely personal. It was really a matter between me and God....It hit me with great force while I was in the pulpit. I must have been about fourteen. I was still a virgin. I had no idea what you were supposed to do about it. I didn’t really understand any of what I felt except I knew I loved one boy, for example. But it was private. And by the time I left home, when I was seventeen or eighteen and still a virgin, it was like everything else in my life, a problem which I would have to resolve myself.”
Goldstein asks later in the interview, “Do you have a special feeling of responsibility towards gay people?” He then reminds Baldwin that his public writing is partly responsible for elevating the gay experience into the realm of literature. Baldwin replies,
”Towards that phenomenon we call gay, yeah, I feel special responsibility because I would have to be a kind of witness to it, you know...The sexual question and the racial question have always been entwined...If Americans can mature on the level of racism, then they have to mature on the level of sexuality.”
It is remarkable that a black writer from Harlem, nominated for the National Book Award (and who might have won had Ralph Ellison not won the year before for Invisible Man - many agreed that Baldwin deserved it, but there was no way two black men could win in a row), follows up his first novel with a second one about a “straight” white American man in Paris who falls in love with an Italian man, who is gay and once married himself.
Baldwin’s American publishers rejected it, told him to burn the book, but he refused and published it in England. I am stunned by the amount of courage it must have taken, the self-knowledge and confidence that James must have had to insist on this, to trust his vision. That he could not be shamed or bullied into not publishing Giovanni’s Room is essential to the Baldwin legend and legacy. “They told me 'you can’t afford to alienate the audience,'” Baldwin told Quincy Troupe in his final 1987 interview. “I told them fuck you.” What it tells us is that just as he had to write Go Tell It On The Mountain about his experience as a black boy growing up in Harlem and the black church, Giovanni’s Room was a story he had to tell also, about his experience as a gay man. There was no compromise.
Consider: this wasn’t a writer who added a little short story about homosexuality to be buried in the back of a collection, or who created an ancillary gay character in a novel. This was his sophomore fictional effort - even riskier. Many people have enjoyed success with a first novel, but it’s the second novel that proves whether the first was a fluke. Baldwin’s reputation was at stake, because a writer’s reputation is always at stake. I cannot think of a single black writer of his generation, or perhaps any other, who did something so bewildering to those who supported him, literally risking his entire literary career. Giovanni’s Room was written in a certain time and place and psychological mind frame that no longer exist, pre-“Will and Grace”, of course, before Stonewall, before homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973. For a promising black writer, who could easily have written a second book about Harlem life, to jump off a cliff like this, was a brazen act of either self-destruction or self-love.
Writing Giovanni’s Room meant that, whether or not he acknowledged it explicitly in the press, he was coming out as queer to somebody. It shouldn't have been too much of a shock: there is a lovely queer subtext to Baldwin's Mountain - one of the most beautiful gay coming-of-age stories ever written. Giovanni’s Room isn’t about seedy sexual goings-on, a gay “Peyton Place”. It’s a love story. But it’s also about the absence of love, or rather the inability to love; what sexual fear, and fear of homosexuality, and - more important - fear of vulnerability, does to men, how it turns us into monsters. What makes the book deeply compelling, is that Giovanni’s Room is not only about homosexuality, but male hypocrisy, clear from the last lines: “The morning weighs on my shoulders with the dreadful weight of hope, and I take the blue envelope which Jacques has sent me and tear it slowly into many pieces, watching them dance in the wind, watching the wind carry them away. Yet, as I turn and begin walking towards the waiting people, the wind blows some of them back on me.”
I chose to begin this piece with a sexual liaison and a lie, because I needed to construct the role the “faggot” plays, and the silence that surrounds him, how he is too often a footnote in American culture, particularly black American culture. The demonization continues, of the singers, the writers, the actors, the dancers, who have given their lives, their talent and their beauty, and whom we still cannot recognize as gay. And, while I am careful not to fall into the trap of suggesting that black Americans have a special pathology when it comes to homophobia (although there are specific reasons why a black man, in a racist society, may feel he cannot be vulnerable), I must also acknowledge the role of the black church in perpetuating hatred against gays, as instanced by gospel singer and pastor Kim Burrell’s vitriolic sermon leaked last year. (Paradoxically, some black gay men have thrived in the black church, and found community; usually, as long as they stay in the closet.) Burrell's rant was disturbing, but not an aberration: that sermon, from which I will quote later in the piece, could be heard in many a church, white or black, on any Sunday morning.
What James appreciated, perhaps above all, and from a very young age, was the importance of family. And he knew that anything that tears apart the family will eventually bring down the house. For the white homosexual activist who wants to end sexual inequality, the conversation has to include race. For the black revolutionary who wants an end to racism, fear of homosexuality has to be faced. True black liberation cannot be achieved until both homophobia and sexism are challenged and eradicated from our community.
If you’ve read him, then you know that there were a few things in the world that frightened James Baldwin, but a conversation on race and sexuality wasn’t one of the them. He understood, as exemplified by the opening quotation, the relationship between the nigger and the faggot, cultural creations, societal demons; and who better to understand it than the man who wakes up one morning to find that he is both. James was fearless in this aspect, perhaps even more so towards the end of his life, understanding what silence does to the spiritual body. His final novel, Just Above My Head, appreciates the connection between lying about homosexuality and lying about family sexual abuse and rape, how they rend the fabric of the biological family, the church family, of society. James Baldwin, our elder brother, looking after his flock and “raising us”, demanded that we be better because he loved us, he loved us. What made him so brave was not necessarily his orientation or how he named it, but his refusal to ignore the sexual question and his understanding that examining it was integral to the healing of racism in America.
This is part of the triumph of I Am Not Your Negro and part of its disgrace; while it deconstructs the American sexual fear, for example, that refused to acknowledge Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte as sex symbols, the film also refuses to deal with the sexuality of his subject, or that Baldwin is indeed a “sexual” icon of a different kind. The man who spent his life demanding we tell the truth to each other and to ourselves deserves, at least in his own movie, to have the truth told about him.
Which is why this essay exists: I’m tired, frankly, of hearing people I respect saying that it doesn’t matter who James Baldwin slept with, that wasn’t the point. And in their insistence that Baldwin’s “gayness” is only a matter of his sexual experiences, meaning something to be footnoted, kept in the dark and private, they refuse to acknowledge that a black American gay aesthetic exists, that James’s homosexuality is also to be found in the inflections, the mannerisms, the approach, the humor, the sarcasm, the sass, the theatricality, the heroism. And it’s not just to be found in the “gay” books, either: The Fire Next Time was written by the same queer man who gave us Giovanni’s Room.
James Baldwin, coat on his shoulders, sunglasses, lit cigarette in one hand, fabulous and fabulously articulate, stands beside Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, brilliant men all, activists who responded with clarity and courage to a sick, unjust world. But we need to know what made James special, how like these men he was, and at the same time, why he was different. Some black activists and white politicians and - it was rumored - even the Kennedy brothers, referred to him behind his back as “Martin Luther Queen.” It is almost inconceivable that homophobia kept one of the leading proponents on race relations in America from speaking at The March on Washington in 1963, the same year The Fire Next Time was published. We need to appreciate what it meant for Baldwin to take on the mantle of speaking truthfully about the subjects of sexuality and race to a country in denial about both, and what it meant for him to keep witnessing anyway when people turned on him later, humiliated him and denigrated his work and his contribution, or when his later testimonials were considered by some in the seventies and eighties to be passé. We abandoned him, but he never abandoned us.
What is ultimately at stake is this: If you can acknowledge James Baldwin fully for what he was, then your admiration of him may lead you to a place of compassion and understanding for what you have been taught to fear in your own life. And ultimately this may save your life, or someone else’s. It’s not very complicated - if you admire Baldwin for the entirety of who he was, you may embrace your gay son, your lesbian daughter, rather than try and destroy them. You may come out of the closet with pride as bisexual, rather than destroy yourself. If you can admit how much you’ve valued Baldwin’s work and relied on him, as you’ve relied on King and Malcolm X, then you can admit that the black homosexual has a place beside you in the church pew and in the pulpit; not locked outside the church doors.
But what seems to be happening with the lives of too many black artists and political figures, and what I have witnessed with Baldwin’s legacy, is that people are allowed to pick and choose their Baldwin, like toppings at a salad bar - your Baldwin, her Baldwin, my Baldwin. And what you don’t like, what you can’t integrate because of your own sexual fears and agendas, you simply throw out because you don’t accept it. And a movie like I Am Not Your Negro, which is complicit in compartmentalizing its subject, lets you get away with it.
Now, you can’t get away with it if you read the literature itself. And you sure ain’t getting away with it if you read Another Country, Giovanni’s Room or Just Above My Head. If you read enough of Baldwin, not the writer and activist, but the spiritual teacher, if you “hear” enough of his sermons - and they are all sermons - then you will see the connection between the master beating the black slave, and you coming home and beating your gay child. That’s the harder conversation. This is why some people only want The Fire Next Time Baldwin, as if James Baldwin wrote only one book. Baldwin’s work is used to further black, radical consciousness, which is exactly as it should be used. But for too many of us, black and white, the conversation on race and sexuality ends where it often needs to go much further.
Some in the late Sixties, for example, encouraged Baldwin towards an ideological trick bag (for him) of hating white people, unable to appreciate his intimate relationships with "whites" throughout his life. (Baldwin made it clear repeatedly in his work that he considered whiteness to be a construct to be abolished, a moral choice one made. The white people he loved, while of European descent or actually European, were, arguably, committed to ending "whiteness" as well.) Swiss painter Lucien Happersberger was a lifelong friend, and occasional lover of Baldwin’s: Pat Mikell in her testimonial on Baldwin, The Last Days, confirms that James told her Lucien was the great love of his life. It has been suggested that his relationship with Happersberger was the inspiration for Rufus and Vivaldo in Another Country, but, racial identities aside, it is not easy to determine who inspired who. (When it came to being the “savior” and the “saved”, it seems Baldwin and Happersberger took turns. The relationship was equal parts devotion and exasperation.)
David Leeming was Baldwin’s personal secretary for years, as well as close friend and biographer; Mary S. Painter, to whom Baldwin dedicated Another Country, was both his confidante and, at times, emergency patron; and Orilla “Bill” Miller, described in the film, a white female teacher who was a mentor to Baldwin when he was a child, played a critical role in his development as an artist. Baldwin said of Miller in The Devil Finds Work: “It is certainly partly because of her, who arrived in my terrifying life so soon, that I never really managed to hate white people - though God knows I have often wished to murder more than one or two…She too.. was treated like a nigger, especially by the cops, and she had no love for landlords.” When Baldwin, as a teenager, became a preacher and committed himself to the church, he went to Miller and told her that he could no longer go to movies, read too many books, or - implied in all of this - continue their friendship. Miller told him at the time, “I have lost a great deal of respect for you.” Many years later, Miller told Baldwin she was somewhat mortified by what she had said, but James, now in his sixties, expressed his gratitude in the correspondence between them. The words haunted him at the time, he told her, but because of her courage, he was eventually able to stop preaching the gospel of the church, and start preaching his own.
Critiquing America’s racial problems required that Baldwin speak in strictly racial terms: “black vs. white”. But you can see from his appearances how the limitations infuriated and exhausted him, and how dreary he found them. This may be why he ultimately made his home in France. Eldridge Cleaver, in his scathing critique of Baldwin in “Notes on a Native Son”, took a more polarizing, less nuanced approach to his work, and condemned him for being an “Uncle Tom”. But truly to appreciate Baldwin’s work means loving past what is comfortable, maintaining a sense of discovery and sometimes moral outrage, a genuine love for all people, and always listening. It means, finally, moving beyond black and white, "gay" or "straight". That’s what made his table so welcoming.
And finally: My being devoted to Baldwin’s work does not mean that I am unable to appreciate its flaws. Baldwin occasionally plays his own macho games in his novels: In Giovanni’s Room, do Jacques and Guillaume, for example, have to be portrayed as such desperately aging queens? It was also deeply disappointing that in response to Eldridge Cleaver's attack in No Name In The Street he wrote: “I felt that he used my public reputation against me both naively and unjustly and I also felt that I was confused in his mind with that unutterable debasement of the male - with all those faggots, punks, and sissies, the sight and sound of whom, in prison, must have made him vomit more than once.” I choose to see this less as a capitulation by the writer, however, and more as a desperate attempt to stay relevant and in response to bullying; Baldwin is appealing to the macho side of the Black Power Movement.
A case can be made that Baldwin the novelist does not submit himself to the rigorous standards of Baldwin the essayist. In the later novels, Baldwin as scenarist seems impatient to get the story told, as if he has already envisioned its cinematic potential. Scenes occasionally play out as if they were abbreviations for a play or screenplay (he wrote both). Given his impossible schedule as a spokesperson and celebrity author, Baldwin was overwhelmed, and so this particular writing has a breathless, “reach-the-finish-line” quality. While Go Tell It On the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, most of Another Country, and all the essays, have the distinct mark of literature - every work containing some paragraph or line that reveals his genius - there are also sections of the later fiction, particularly his sex scenes, which read like popular “potboilers" by writers of the time: Irwin Shaw, Sidney Sheldon or Harold Robbins.
This can be particularly disconcerting for the reader who, in the very next paragraph, encounters - or rather collides with - Baldwin the activist, the preacher, the essayist, describing some aspect of the human condition, and intruding on the narrative with his usual fiery brilliance. Add to this, finally, the occasionally ponderous style, brought on by the need to write ‘the great American novel” or an epic, even when the story might succeed with a simpler construct, as the essays almost always did. Baldwin sometimes defeats the reader in these works by demanding the kind of attention often required in very long church sermons - there is always a payoff, of course, but one must work to get it. (Baldwin confided to a friend later in his career that he sometimes feared that he had lost the ability, or discipline, to write simply, and without so many sub-clauses.)
If this complex stew is too much, you may throw up your hands in exasperation, as some readers did, with Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone, Just Above My Head and parts of Another Country. But I love Another Country for what it attempts, whether or not it completely succeeds, and the extended first chapter is a masterpiece. I am moved by the relationships that are forged across racial, sexual, gender lines. Baldwin is in everyone’s head: black, white, straight, gay, male, female - every character is sympathetic. Whatever the book's excesses, it is written with great love; and it stirs primal emotions in this reader, particularly in its rendering of the disintegration of Rufus Scott.
I Am Not Your Negro is right in its basic premise: we need James Baldwin now more than ever. HIs work is the way out, the way through, the place that connects the white man, the black man, the black woman, the white woman, the homosexual, the transgender woman, the black church, the American sexual dilemma, the American family. I’ve chosen to place a special emphasis on the novel Another Country because it masterfully encapsulates all Baldwin’s themes and is one of the greatest demonstrations in all his fiction of his desire to encourage dialogue across the lines of sexual orientation, gender, class, and race - the perfect embodiment of his “welcome table.” I will leave readers to find their own synopsis, as I would like everyone to discover the novel as I did, in particular the extraordinary conclusion of the first chapter.
By telling us the truth about his own experience again and again, Baldwin invites us to tell the truth about our own. He presents us with the ultimate challenge and opportunity at his welcome table to meet each other, perhaps for the first time. It’s all there in his writings. But it’s not enough, nor has it ever been, just to look. If you’re reading James Baldwin you have to see. And if you truly are willing to see, then you will hear the great question that resounds through all his work: Can I get a witness?
I decide to go to a leather bar on Saturday night because I need to get out of the house, out of my head. As I get dressed, I listen to a podcast of Anderson Cooper on CNN. John Berman standing in for Anderson is interviewing Greg Phillips, the man leading the investigation of the three million fraudulent votes which President Trump claims were cast against him. Berman confronts Phillips with research on voter fraud, indicating how rare it is to the extent claimed by Phillips. Berman finally asks,
“You say you’re not here to prove intent. What are you here to prove?”
“Our hope is to create an environment where we can develop a dataset....Look, if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. And I’ll man up and say I’m wrong.”
“Look, the ship has sailed on that, Gregg,” Berman tells him. “The ship has sailed on ‘if I’m wrong, I’m wrong.’ You came out six days after the election saying three million people voted illegally and now the president of the United States is citing your comments and your efforts to say that there has been mass voter fraud in this country. That moment has passed for you.”
“Obviously you just want to fight and not listen.”
Later in the conversation, Kayleigh McEnany defends Phillips’ right to make his claim. I don’t need a TV screen to know it is her. Kayleigh and I have a long-term relationship. I’ve listened to her now, for what feels like thousands of hours, defending Trump on CNN. “We cannot call it a lie until we know in fact that he doesn’t have the evidence,” she says. “We haven’t seen the evidence and we need to give him time to produce it.” Berman explains that with that logic someone can claim there is life on Mars, and no one can say it is a lie until someone disproves it.
I think of the process of mystification. Later in the podcast, we are informed that Pence is the highest official ever to attend a pro-life event, the March for Life. Counselor to the President and spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway also attends, and gives the crowd encouragement: “Let me make it very clear. We hear you. We see you. We respect you. And we look forward to working with you.”
The conversation shifts to Steve Bannon’s calling the media the “Opposition Party.” One of the panelists, Hillary Rosen I think, says, “We are the adversary, that is correct. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We are not their best friends, and that is true whoever is in office. We’re not supposed to go out of our way to try to harm them, but the point is, we are not a party, but we are in opposition, by nature, our job is to be holding powerful people accountable. And so, this idea that we are supposed to just sit and listen to them...’keep your mouth shut and listen.’ That’s not our job.”
I stand in the living room in a towel, dripping. Outside cars pass in a sea down 145th street. The evening is particularly quiet for a Saturday. A police car moves through the empty streets, flashing lights, blue and red. I think of the women’s marches, and try to imagine whether Conway and Pence could really repeal Roe v. Wade. It doesn’t seem possible, but a Trump presidency didn’t seem possible either.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, Kellyanne Conway as Serena Joy, the ex-televangelist, defender of the religious right. Conway has that perfect alchemy of blonde, easygoing warmth and measured speech that for some masks her emotional violence, her ruthlessness. It’s all in the tension in her neck. I think about Ofglen, the Handmaid; how all of this has been prophesied by writers like Atwood and Octavia Butler and George Orwell. I think about James Baldwin saying over and over in speeches, "This isn't about race. It's about the life and death of our country." A friend posted a quotation from The Handmaid’s Tale on Facebook the other day: “That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on."
It is only a few weeks into the presidency and President Trump has begun the process of building the wall between the US and Mexico. The president of Mexico cancels his visit to the White House. If Trump’s cabinet is any indication of his intentions, I was wrong, as many of us were, in thinking that Trump was really a moderate in disguise as a Tea-Party Republican. There is almost no diversity in his cabinet, not even the usual attempt at tokenism that most people of color find insulting. I was enraged by the roles of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Alberto Gonzales in the Bush administration, but at least they were there. I am stunned that some working-class white people, and not only white, still believe that the man they elected reflects their interests.
Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. They are discussing Trump’s travel ban. The Daily News Saturday edition has a picture of the Statue of Liberty with a tear coming down her face. “Well, what did we expect?” a friend reminds me on the phone. She is impatient with Democratic bewilderment at this point, including mine. He said he was going to create a ban, and he created one. Now we have to organize, she says.
I worked at a bookstore for a year, and remember when my colleague Jeremy came from the shelves one day, furious. A customer had asked if there was something he could recommend for her daughter’s seventh-grade book report. The daughter, twelve, had brought home The Diary of Anne Frank, but the mother was returning it. She felt the book was too violent, too much of a downer. She wanted a historical book, but something perhaps with a happier ending.
“I wanted to say,” Jeremy fumed, “Why don’t you just tear the last ten pages out, asshole? Then you’ll get your happy ending.”
I thought about this the other day when I was buying something to drink in the bodega near my home. A black man, who is always there, was standing in the middle of the store, joking with the Arab men behind the counter. “Don’t worry,” he said, laughing. “If Trump comes after y’all niggers, you’ll be all right. I’ll hide you in my basement. You motherfuckers can be part of my underground railroad!"
On the train headed downtown to Chelsea, I look at the faces around me, New Yorkers: black, white, Latino, Asian, gay, straight, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, etc. Faces that irritate the hell out of me when I can’t find a seat, or when someone plays their music or a video game too loud, or eats something smelly or stands too close, or argues with their lover, or proselytizes. But these are my people, this is my tribe.
Young boys with boom boxes wait until the last minute before the doors close on the A train, knowing they have a truly captive audience; “Showtime! What time is it? Showtime!” Sometimes the music they play is grating and intolerable especially if you are trying to read, other times you look with wonder at their talent and grace. An old Latino man plays a small guitar and sings something melancholy in Spanish, or a group of men sit down in Kinte cloth and play African drums. A group of older black men sing The Drifters’ “Under The Boardwalk”, recalling Harlem Doo-Wop groups from the 50s and 60s. I think, my father would have liked that. Sometimes when I get off the train at 59th street, I am greeted by a cello and violin duo, students from nearby Juilliard. There is so much talent in New York you get spoiled, taking it for granted that not everywhere in the world do you hear a tenor singing a Mozart aria on your way to work.
The local subway car I transfer to is quiet, until a man enters the train saying he’s hungry, asking for our help. Some people who ask for money are addicts, but not all. These days, people linger outside the turnstiles, waiting for others to come off the train and swipe them in with their unlimited metro passes. Riding the subway is almost three dollars now, and a lot of people just don’t have the money. It’s illegal to solicit a free train ride, but a knowing smile silently asks, “Do you need a swipe?” “Yes,” comes the reply, a nod, and then a humble “thank you”, as the person passes through the turnstile. The exchange takes seconds but it happens all the time now. I am grateful to participate in these small acts of kindness, when I can. Not earthshaking, I know, may not change the world, but kindness just the same.
I look at the faces on the train, think of the Trump travel ban, and imagine a few faces disappearing, then more. New York without the Arab woman wearing a hijab or the man in a keffiyeh, people detained, unable to enter the country until America is “safe” again. I imagine the Asian faces gone, because we are at war over a trade deal gone bad, or we’ve pissed off someone’s president because of a nasty tweet. Japanese in internment camps again. Latino workers, many of whom get up at the crack of dawn to work in restaurants, bodegas, hotels, kitchens all over the city, men and women from Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, El Salvador, all deported, staring at an America they once knew, now from the other side of the wall. As these faces disappear, the train becomes literally black and white, like a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, only it is New York City in 2018.
And, taking it to its logical conclusion, I eventually disappear myself. I’m not allowed to be on the street past midnight, because of what President Trump is calling his “Soul Curfews”. Blacks in all the major cities, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, have to be inside by 11:00pm on the weekends. If we are out after midnight, we can get arrested. Crime is down, as he promised it would be, and the curfew is only temporary, he promises, just long enough to “Make America Safe Again.” In Trump’s America, the train arrives at Times Square mostly empty. A white woman quietly sits reading a book, a white man manages his suitcases as he exits the train, and nods to a white couple, who smile back, snuggled into each other and their new romance. Every evening now there is a silence throughout the city, hushed and eerie, like Christmas morning - everywhere you look it is white as snow. Only the occasion isn’t Christmas morning, it’s Saturday night.
When I arrive at the leather bar it is almost one, and I discover I’m not the only person who needed to get out of his head. The bar is packed. By one o’clock, the height of the evening, there are so many men inside that it is hard to move. I prefer it like this. There are times when the place achieves an energy that is male and tribal, with the smell of too many people sweating in too small a space. Everyone has to move as if they were a mass, not individuals, just waves, part of some huge sea. It’s a leather bar, but you don’t have to wear leather, although many do. The music is hot, house music pumping hard that reminds me of Detroit, the part of the world I’m from, and the sexuality in the room is unmistakable. It is not unusual here to walk past someone, make eye-contact with them and begin to make out with them seconds later. Personally, I like making out with strangers, it restores my faith in humanity - it’s like a pervert’s version of everyone holding hands and singing Kumbaya.
There is a shadow side, obviously, to some of the behavior that goes on here, but I find the energy in the room empowering. No one is hiding their homosexuality or apologizing for it here, which is liberating in itself. And there are so few places in New York where gay men can go for sex that aren’t private, hidden, concealed. Giuliani dropped a cloak of shame over the city when he was mayor, and it’s never been lifted. He “cleaned up the city”, for which, I’m sure, there are many who are grateful. But the effects of what he has done to the gay scene, to sexual freedom in New York, which ultimately means to freedom of expression, are much more sinister.
Tourists come to New York and are appalled by the sexual scene, by our sense of shame. They aren’t surprised by American sexual shame, mind you, but that it is so prominent here in New York, still considered by many to be “The Greatest City on Earth.” Gay tourists from Germany, from France, from Italy, Spain and England arrive and are mortified by what they find. Some New Yorkers have argued that Giuliani did us all a favor, shutting everything down and protecting the city from the AIDS epidemic; but Europe seems to be handling it just as well, and they didn’t shut down all their bars and sex clubs. Europeans understand sex. Men sometimes just want go somewhere, drop ten or twenty Euros, have their fun, and leave. Unlike our bathhouses, which ask for your ID, demand you become an exclusive “member”, then pay for a room; where you can still get humiliated if you don’t follow the rules. And there are so many rules - signs are everywhere reprimanding men, signs that read “The occupancy of this room by more than one person is absolutely forbidden”, threatening to throw men out for having sex in the steam room, at a bathhouse! Go to your room, lock the door, get back in your closet, and stay in your closet. After all the years it took to come out of one.
Perhaps none of this would matter if I lived in Topeka, Kansas, but I live in New York City. It’s one of the reasons why I came here, in fact, to escape sexual shame, to meet gay men who were "living out loud". Yet, even here, in this bar, which is legendary, security will shine a light in your face if you are seen getting too carried away. They have no choice. If they don’t respect the public sex laws they will get shut down. Compared to the gay bars in Berlin and Amsterdam, New York City’s gay scene is sometimes about as racy as taking a group of school kids to Chuck E. Cheese.
I imagine Vice President Pence, or someone like him, looking at the men around me now. This is the Gomorrah that they fantasize about when they pray for me or condemn me to hell. Men, backed up against walls, drinking, kissing, unfastening their belts. I look at the men on the dance floor, their shirts off, and I think about the musical Cabaret and the Weimar Republic. I wonder how many of these same men were listening to CNN as I was before they left the house, and if they too are afraid.
I think again about Pence, once Governor Pence, making it legal to discriminate against gay men and women in his state, Indiana, before he was selected as Trump’s running mate. Do the men around me realize it isn’t a very large leap from pro-life rallies and overturning Roe v. Wade to locking up homosexuals, first with the return of the Defense of Marriage Act, and soon after with random arrests for violating newly enacted “anti-sodomy” and “perversion” laws? My friend Gary thinks I’m being a little hysterical, sensationalist, fantastical. “That’s never going to happen,” he says. But Trump, Pence and Conway haven’t wasted any time with the travel ban: things are happening so fast, I wonder if we will still be on this dance floor, still making out in the bathrooms, when the police cars line up outside waiting for us like taxis waiting at the airport. Maybe I’m being alarmist, maybe Gary is right, but I wonder, was there someone like me thinking these thoughts in Berlin in 1933? When is paranoia not paranoia anymore?
The lights and music make us all seem so beautiful and free, and sometimes partying is the right answer, sometimes partying is a form of resistance. (I make a mental note to dedicate my next blow job to Pence and Kellyanne Conway.) When I think about Stonewall I realize, not for the first time, the debt we owe transgender activists of color, and all the men and women who revolted on that day. Like Anne Frank hiding, Stonewall today doesn’t just feel like a history lesson, but a living, breathing event. Where did their courage come from? I realize now that I’ve never known any other kind of gay life. I don’t know what it’s like to be drinking with friends one minute, and raided the next, the police at your door, a truncheon at your head, violated by those who are meant to protect you, because you’re a faggot.
Tonight I’m a little ashamed because I had lost weight, almost fifty pounds in the last six months, but in the weeks since the inauguration, I’ve been overeating from stress, putting it back on. What took forever to lose, seems to come back in a few days. I feel fat, and I really hate feeling fat around men. Fatness is feminizing in a macho world, it makes you appear vulnerable, out of control. Fat boys get teased in school, get called faggots. And part of the energy here, of the leather world, is invulnerability. On the phone earlier, my sister confronts me for fat-shaming myself. But I want to be special tonight, I have to be. A man reaches for me, two men are kissing beside him. A song comes on, a hard house beat, and the singer says the words over and over, like a mantra. Perhaps on another night the song would be fabulous, but tonight, and given what is happening in the country, I find the lyrics terrifying. As I stand to listen, an older man beside me is drunk, dispirited, not one of the chosen ones tonight. He staggers a bit, gives me an exasperated look, and stumbles past me. Our motivation for being here is simple: we both want to be adored.
The voice sings, “We’re looking for the man who will make us rich and famous.” And again, “We’re looking for the man who will make us rich and famous” And again, “We’re looking for the man who will make us rich and famous.” And I understand, I finally understand, clear like the voice of God (I often hear God in house music): That’s Trump. That’s the man we’ve been waiting for. That’s why all this is happening. Because in the end we all, or enough of us at least to put him in the White House, wanted the man who would make us rich and famous. So we can be rich and famous. Just like him.
Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro arrives just in time for a Trump presidency. When Baldwin says in the film, “I am terrified by the moral apathy, the death of the heart which is happening in my country”, he might as well be speaking of the 2017 election. The funereal tone also feels appropriate; for many of us, as we’ve watched this presidency in its first weeks, it may seem that democracy itself is being eulogized.
The film uses Baldwin’s unfinished work Remember This House as a meditation on race and loss; Baldwin was contracted to finish the book while he lived in St. Paul de Vence, but he spent time writing Evidence of Things Not Seen and was later too sick to meet his contractual obligations. (After his death, his publishers sued his estate for the advance he had been given, an almost unheard action, especially against a writer of his stature. They were later shamed into dropping the suit.) As the film, which is taken from his unfinished manuscripts on the project, suggests, Baldwin knew that in order for his profiles on Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers to be complete, he would have to come back to America to interview their wives, and, very important to him, their children - in the case of Malcolm and Martin, he specifically mentions their adult daughters.
Baldwin returned to America from time to time for speaking engagements and to teach during those years when he made his home in France, but the journey “home” wasn’t easy for him and produced, at times, great anxiety. While he desired to complete the book, and perhaps knew not only how important it was, but that he was the only one who could write it, it is very likely he knew that what was required was more than he was able to produce, in the storm that was his failing health, his social obligations, and the difficulty that all writers face: the enormous concentration it would require at this point in his life. The film is based on the thirty pages of notes which Baldwin left behind, an outline of the book that might have been. Peck’s triumph is that he manages to lull the viewer, through tone, beautiful imagery, and a director’s assurance, into thinking that the narrative is coherent, and not just fragments of an unfinished work.
I Am Not Your Negro assumes that we are already familiar with its three subjects. That presents less of a problem with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X who bring with them their own mythology and legend, but is unfortunate in the case of Medgar Evers. We understand from the movie that he was a civil rights activist and that he was assassinated in front of his family in his driveway; we also understand that Baldwin had a great affection for him, but that’s all we understand. (Baldwin met Evers, an NAACP field secretary, on a trip to the South when he'd reached out to James Meredith, the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi. After rioting and U.S. Marshalls had to be called in, Baldwin asked what he could do to help. Evers was advising Meredith at the time.)
What Baldwin's Remember This House really needs is a four-part biographical series, an hour and a half devoted to each of its subjects. Thirty pages of notes isn't a lot of material for a ninety-minute film, and Peck deftly fills in the gaps with other Baldwin works; the essay The Devil Finds Work; selections from Baldwin's posthumous collection, The Cross of Redemption, and several appearances where Baldwin is presented directly to the viewer, as a guest on the Dick Cavett show, and during a debate with William F. Buckley at Cambridge University in 1965.
I Am Not Your Negro is most riveting in its ability to show America’s racism through media images. At times it suggests a racial take on Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s The Celluloid Closet (book by Vito Russo), using clips from films like Imitation of Life, The Defiant Ones, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, not only to discuss race in film, but to illuminate Baldwin’s themes on the cult of whiteness, whiteness as a social construct.
Sam Jackson’s voice is almost unrecognizable as the voice of James Baldwin. Peck has slowed Jackson down and deepened his voice - there is none of Jackson’s signature hyperkinetic anger from Pulp Fiction, or the humor that has endeared him to audiences since he appeared as Mr. Señor Love Daddy in Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing. Choosing Sam Jackson, an “A-list” black actor, and a black radical screen presence, gives the film respectability and cool, but he is only used for weary reflection – the script and tone read like a deathbed confession.
Armond White from The Nation was the only movie reviewer I saw brave enough to suggest that Sam Jackson is entirely wrong for the voice of James Baldwin. Nowhere is this clearer than when clips from Baldwin’s actual appearances intrude on the somber narrative, revealing the man himself - smoking, tense, ferociously intelligent but fully in control of his oratorical gifts. Baldwin’s voice has an immediacy, a theatricality, at times the cadence of a preacher, and an almost English lilt, which contrast greatly with the narration. But there is something else, something in the eyes and movement, the hint of a boy who might have been called, at some point, a sissy or faggot by other boys, a boy who might have been teased because he reads too much, or is called ugly by his father. However, this particular boy has decided not to become smaller, but to be bold. I am suggesting here that in his appearances Baldwin was not only authoritative, but fabulous, with the affectations of a Hollywood diva. He was a star. This is not apparent in Sam Jackson’s humble performance; it simply can’t be, not in the way he’s directed by Peck.
Baldwin appears on the Dick Cavett show on June 13, 1968, and after his opening conversation on race with Cavett, Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss, who has been watching Baldwin’s section of the show from backstage, is brought in as Cavett’s next guest. When Weiss admits that he disagrees with almost all that he has heard Baldwin say so far, Baldwin gives him a dubious, “Oh no you didn’t, Miss Thing” look that every black gay man recognizes (and that could easily have been followed with a finger snap in Weiss’ face). Weiss makes his argument, and when his comments end with the typical “why must everything come down to race?”, James goes off on him (the intellectual equivalent of a snap):
“I don’t know what most white people feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate negroes or not, but I know that we have a Christian church which is white, and a Christian church which is black. I know as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means that I can’t afford to trust most white Christians and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church. I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me, that doesn’t matter, but I know I’m not in their unions. I don’t know if the real estate lobbyists have anything against black people, but I know that the real estate lobbyists keep me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the text books they give my children to read and the schools that we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith. Risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen!”
It’s an electrifying moment and a highlight of the film. (It, and most of the Baldwin clips, can also be found on YouTube.) James tells us in voiceover why he chose not to belong to certain groups - the Black Panthers, the Christian Church - and describes his role as a witness, and outsider. He was not a member of the NAACP, for example, “because in the North where I grew up, the NAACP was fatally entangled with black class distinctions or illusions…which repelled the shoe-shine boy like me.” Baldwin is referring to a need to resist black repectability. He must have intuitively known, while membership has its benefits, what that kind of respectability would cost him as an artist, and as a homosexual man. Yes, it is this same respectability that defines Peck’s sensibility throughout.
I have seen I Am Not Your Negro three times, and find it an enigma: while I am very grateful for it, and for the attention that it will bring to Baldwin’s legacy, there is something missing from it, and something else that almost defies you to deconstruct it. We experience James Baldwin through the lens of the three heterosexual black men he has written about, through their assasinations. In a way difficult to pinpoint, James is “heterosexualized” by implication, and there is almost nothing in the film to disabuse us of this notion. A younger generation, many of whom are experiencing Baldwin for the first time, may not know Baldwin was gay, which may be the film’s intention.
During a question-and-answer session in New York, where I Am Not Your Negro was premiered months before its official opening, I asked Raoul Peck in front of the audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music about the lack of queerness in his film. I shared my concern, points that I’ve already made here, that too often I feel that Baldwin’s sexuality is sidelined, avoided, that, as a black gay man, when I watch Baldwin I see another black gay man on the screen “reading” America, "throwing shade", and that that “read” comes out of a black gay aesthetic, an aesthetic not honored in the film. While we are given images on racial unrest and protest through Black Lives Matter, and a brief montage of those who have died at the hands of police brutality - murdered men and women who are certainly Baldwin’s “children” - Trayvon Martin, Tamar Rice, Aiyana Jones, and Amir Brooks we don’t get any images of black gay activists, or a commentary on the aggression towards, and murder of, transgender men and women - Kiesha Jenkins, Amber Monroe, Kayden Clarke, Islan Nettles, Shante Thompson. I also shared with Peck my suspicion - unproven, of course - that Baldwin’s literary estate encourages certain projects, but discourages others when the estate didn’t agree thematically with the artist’s intention. The audience applauded, a fact I share here not for my own aggrandizement, but because it seemed that the question was on other people’s minds as well.
Peck responded without defensiveness: clearly he had anticipated this question or had it asked of him before. And because I am unable to quote him verbatim here, I will not misquote him. I did, however, understand him to say that, while it was never his intention to deny that aspect of Baldwin’s life, his film was focused on this particular theme, the men he profiled, the unfinished work. I told Peck that evening: “That answer isn’t good enough, Mr. Peck, but thank you for your film.”
As I left, I wondered if I had been unfair to Peck and his work. That is always the problem with criticism for the black critic, particuarly when criticizing “black” productions. You are haunted by three things: one, the dearth of films out there in the first place (although this has been a good year for black films), so that if anything appears on the scene that isn’t completely degrading like a Soul Plane or Snow Dogs, it should be praised unequivocally and given a pass; two, the “you-should-be-glad-it-is-out-here, why-are-you-hating, if-you-don’t-like-it-make-your own-damn-film” school of thought, which supresses criticism and ignores the fact that criticism, when done well, can be an act of love; and finally, three, the “don’t-criticize-a-black-artist-or-his-or-her-work-in-front-of-white-people, we-already-have-it-hard-enough-getting-our-work-out-here-as-it-is” clause. This one affected me the most, because there were plenty of white people in the audience at BAM. But there were also black men and women, and I’m assuming some LGBTQ ones. I was encouraged when a black woman who sat next to me throughout the film, and wasn’t gay, touched my arm when the event was over and said, “Thank you for your question, I agree.”
You can feel like you’re a real dick in these moments, and unrealistic to boot, by not acknowledging the economic reality of Hollywood; you can’t come out as gay, you can’t tell it all in your film, because people simply won’t go see it. And if they won’t go see it, you can’t make money, and if you don’t make money, you can’t save money, compromising on certain projects now, so that you can make the ones you really want to make one day, the ones in which you will really get to tell the truth. Only, because the public rarely get these “truthful” movies, and because moviemakers underestimate their audiences, they are never pushed out of their comfort zone. The cycle perpetuates itself, and as moviegoers, and specifically as queer moviegoers, when a film with any gay theme comes out, we are expected to shut up and take what we can get.
Covering up difference has implications for all of us, as does coming out. When shame rules, when the faggot is footnoted, then it isn’t just homosexuality we can’t discuss: we can’t talk about our stage-four breast cancer, the nephew who committed suicide, the mental illness and hospitalizations, the child born “out of wedlock”, the rape during college, the depression, the divorce, or anything that might offend our perception of perfection which, on some level, also pertains to the cult of whiteness. Secrets are kept, lies are told. This is why the coming out of the homosexual, the honest confrontation with one’s identity, to oneself, to others, can be so liberating. To be fair: I Am Not Your Negro has a mention of Baldwin’s homosexuality, taken from an FBI file and typed across the screen, but if you reach for your soda the moment it appears, or can’t read fast, you’ll miss it. And the shady part is that what Peck has included is not an actual admission of homosexuality, per se; it is the FBI’s suspicion that Baldwin might be a homosexual, that he appeared to be one. At no point in the film is that suspicion confirmed by anything written by Baldwin. Later, during a clip from In the Heat of the Night Baldwin talks about men not kissing in film, and not kissing in America either. This one entry-point might have allowed a deeper exploration of homosexuality, Baldwin’s reflections of what America’s fear of sex meant about its fear of love. The writing is there, and I’ve quoted some of it here. For all that I Am Not Your Negro offers its audiences, the film is a series missed opportunities.
Peck, a Haitian and – in addition to film making - once Haiti’s Minister of Culture, appeared February 8 on Leonard Lopate’s WNYC radio show to discuss the film. Lopate acknowledged the film’s reception. Peck has a right to be proud, as the film has been nominated for an Academy Award, it has broken box office records, and has been called "a masterpiece" and "cinematic miracle".
Lopate dived right in: “The fact that [Baldwin] was gay at a time in the Civil Rights Movement where Bayard Rustin had been pushed into the sidelines of the movement because he was gay, that also must have made him feel a bit marginalized.”
Peck: There was in the movement of course some sort of homophobia as well. But Baldwin saw himself much more as a witness. So as a witness you have to be here. You have to be in the middle of everything. You have to meet the people. So that’s why he had never any barrier to go and meet those people. To go to the south, or to go to visit Elijah Mohammed. And by the way, it is one of the most beautiful essays of Baldwin, about his visit. And so he moved, as he said, freely amongst all those people.”
I listened to Peck’s response to Lopate exactly eight times before it occurred to me that Peck had basically served Lopate a “nothingburger” in response to his question (but a lovely one; Peck has a French-inflected accent, so to American ears it is a delicious-sounding nothingburger), and the host moved on. Peck’s answer would suffice if there had never been a book entitled Giovanni’s Room, written in 1956, a year after the Civil Rights Movement officially began. It is hard to imagine that the people Baldwin was meeting, including Elijah Mohammed, had no idea that he was gay, and the idea is offensive that a writer can’t see himself as gay and also as a witness, or as a gay witness, or that being a gay witness means one can’t “meet the people”. In the images we have of Baldwin at the time, including film and television appearances, he doesn’t seem to be a man hiding his homosexuality - or his stardom, for that matter - in his physical appearance.
It occurs to me when the interview ends that Peck is using Baldwin’s decision not to be a part of any group, and his role as witness (which I referred to earlier) as a justification for his being “closeted” in the movement. In other words, Peck argues that James chose not to belong to any group - the Black Panthers, the NAACP – so that he would be a better witness to everyone, so that he would not alienate anyone. (The group Baldwin might have joined, one wishes, was AA.) Baldwin was not affiliated with any traditional gay groups, but this doesn't let Peck off the “gay” hook as a filmmaker. He seems not to understand that not only was Baldwin not in the closet at that time in history, but that this argument doesn’t work, since homosexuality isn’t a group one chooses to join, but an orientation.
When I left the theater, over and over again I kept trying to imagine where I would put the “gay bits”: but they felt extraneous, off-topic, something that would obtrude on the sensibility of the film’s tone - better left as a footnote for later. And that’s the problem, and why the film, for all its craft and moments of visual brilliance, has a hollowness at its core. While it looks unflinchingly at race, there is another question that it decidedly avoids.
In an interview on the site Uptown, called 10 Questions with I Am Not Your Negro director Raoul Peck, the interviewer asks: “Did you create the film with a certain audience in mind, and if so, which?” Peck replied, “For one thing for sure, I wanted this film to be generic American, generic Black, generic Baldwin so that it could go into the rest of the world with its legitimacy. That’s for sure. Other than that, I find the film is for everybody.”
I am personally horrified to read the words “generic” and “Baldwin” (as any gay man might) used in the same sentence, but the interview does give me insight into Peck’s directorial choices. Faggots aren’t generic, never have been, and so I have to assume his goal was to make a film that didn’t offend any sensibility, one that “everyone can relate to”. This conflicts with Baldwin’s assertion that he ignored his publisher’s warning that Giovanni's Room would “alienate his audience.” I fear - and I mean no condescension by saying this - that as English is not Mr. Peck’s original language, he often reveals more than he intends to in interviews. Because, if he wanted to do a film about something generically black, I’m not sure why he picked this particular subject. “Generic American” that can “go into the rest of the world” is not James Baldwin, it's McDonald’s.
Peck later admits in the same interview with Uptown how he secured access to Baldwin's notes - and my suspicions about the Baldwin estate are confirmed: “I wrote to the estate, and everybody told me, ‘Forget it, they will never answer. They are known for being very closed up.’ And they answered me within like three days. They told me, ‘Come to Washington to meet with us.’ I met Gloria Karefa-Smart, James Baldwin’s youngest sister who has been working with him since he was 21. She gave me access to everything.”
Peck borrows liberally from the essay The Devil Finds Work and Baldwin’s unpublished notes, but he studiously avoids his novel Just Above My Head, particularly the scene between Arthur and Crunch, two young black male gospel singers from Harlem, touring the deep South, who make love with each other for the first time. Baldwin writes, “Crunch moaned again, surrendering, surrendering, as Arthur’s tongue descended Crunch’s long black self, down to the raging penis...curious, the taste, as it came, leaping, to the surface: of Crunch’s prick, of Arthur’s tongue, into Arthur’s mouth and throat.”
Just Above My Head was published in 1979, one year before Baldwin signed a contract with publisher McGraw Hill for Remember This House in January 1980. I offer this quotation not to shock the reader, but to point out: James was clearly witnessing something here about black gay life in his later work, and if Peck were to be true to Baldwin’s voice, it would make sense to commit to the sensibility from which Baldwin was writing at the time that he initiated the House project. In other words, I Am Not Your Negro is based on the false premise that, because there are no “talking heads” but only quotations of James Baldwin’s that have been selected for the narrative, the voice we hear is Baldwin’s. But exclusion can be just as provocative as inclusion, if not more so; in the absence of a gay commentary in any part of the film, it is clear to me that while the writing in I Am Not Your Negro is James Baldwin’s, the “voice” we hear is Raoul Peck’s.
“I Am Not Your Nigger”, which appears on the screen in bold letters at the end of the film (and which probably should have been the film’s title, but liberal white people would have been uncomfortable asking for tickets at the box office) could also be I Am Not Your Faggot. James understood the relationship between the nigger and the faggot, which is why this essay begins with his quotation. Baldwin says in the film, “What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts, why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I am a man. But if you think I am a nigger, it means you need him…and you have to find why. And the future of the country depends on that.”
“I Am Not Your Faggot” might say “I am not the silence you inflict on me. I am not the projection of your own sexual fear. If you cannot face my sexuality, that is your shame, not mine. And to the extent that you need to compartmentalize me, that means that you compartmentalize yourself, and you will never be whole, you will never be fully liberated.” There has never been a time when there has been a greater need to make this connection. We also need “I Am Not Your Bitch”, because in a Trump administration, niggers and faggots are certainly in trouble, and women are too.
I was surprised that it was Hillary Clinton I thought of, after watching a second viewing of Negro. When it came to her playing the patriarchal game, I often felt she knew it better than some men and believed, rightly or wrongly, that she'd win. I believed in how “tough” she was. Some white men were truly afraid of her, perhaps in ways they weren’t of Obama, and I didn’t feel protective of her (not that she needed my protection). In my imagination, Hillary Rodham Clinton was indomitable in a race with any one man. What I hadn’t anticipated, in those final months and weeks before the election ended, was the political equivalent of a gang-rape by Trump, Putin and Comey. It hadn’t even occurred to me that Hillary could lose, that three men could take her out. And while I can argue that her candidacy was flawed, someone must have known the balance of power that might have shifted with a female president, in much the same way that a black president has shifted the consciousness, perhaps not for all the voting public, but for eight-year-old children, whose only image of a living president a few months ago was black. We will have to wait to see the American fruit that grows from those particular seeds. What her presidency would have meant to a generation of girls and women, and men, is incalculable.
Reflecting on her defeat, I can also appreciate the true genius behind Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”. Clinton didn’t run against a man, in the end, but against a psychological state, a country’s conditioning. Inherent in the word “again” is the idea that we are not great now, that we are losers. And as Americans, there is one thing we know: we cannot lose. “Make America Great Again” appeals to the macho in us, and women have it too, have been conditioned in this country to believe in American invulnerability, which is why many women voted for Trump. The connection between macho representations of men, and how those representations are linked to images of whiteness in Hollywood films and television, is one of the greatest strengths of Peck’s film.
We are watching as much an attack on gender politics as on race, which is one of the reasons why those who want to deport immigrants often want to reverse gay equality and end Roe V. Wade, resist belief in climate change, cut healthcare. We need not only James Baldwin, the orator on race, but Baldwin the feminist. And whether he would have used that term to describe himself or not, it is evident from his life and work that he loved women, respected them, and was committed to telling their stories in the literature that he created.
The feminine is in danger. And what James knew, what all gay or bi-sexual men know, or any man who has tried to love another man, is that fear of homosexuality, which means hypermasculinity, makes men mean. And I’m not talking about closeted gay men here; I’m talking about all men, about how we raise our boys. Fear of homosexuality begins early and takes root; when men fear homosexuality, whether they are homosexual or not, they fear themselves; it is an attack on what is vulnerable in themselves. It really doesn’t have to do with “sucking dick” or - the ultimate macho horror - being sodomized. It’s about men being afraid to be women, because to be a woman means to be a victim in the patriarchal macho mind. Men are taught to be so afraid of being homosexual that their fear goes way past the act of sex and begins to erode our sense of empathy, our ability to feel compassion for anyone, including animals (factory farming) and the environment (fracking). Men go insane trying to avoid homosexuality to such an extent that they get backed into macho corners and refuse to come out. And when they violate women or beat their wives (or husbands), or start wars, they are reduced to the ultimate expression of machismo, and the only emotion they are able to sustain without shame; rage.
This is why Rufus beats Leona and ultimately destroys her in Another Country, this is why Rufus ultimately destroys himself. Baldwin could have taken the easy way out and left his Rufus one-dimensional, a spokesperson for a cause. But Baldwin was interested in something deeper than race or even sexual politics: he was about the business of love. Because while Rufus’ driving Leona mad is tragic, it is equally tragic and illuminating to see Vivado, who brings a “feminine” vulnerability to his interaction with Rufus, try to love his friend, and what is corrupted when these two men, one white and one black, try to love each other. I don’t need Rufus or Vivaldo to be gay for this to be true. Rufus and Vivaldo are American men, they are black and white, and love each other; and Baldwin knew that this was enough to mean they were in serious trouble. This friendship could exist only in another place where racism and patriarchy didn’t rule.
James Baldwin is the artist to bring these question to the table to us now, because a conversation in 2017 about Baldwin that only focuses on race, is stale and fails to offer an updated take on civil rights. Older activists and those who remember the period may stand for this singular approach, but the millennials I’ve encountered aren’t having it in their own lives. Millennials don’t want to choose between loving Malcolm X and hating their gay uncle. A conversation on race in 2017 that doesn’t include a discussion on rape, but only police brutality, means that we are unable to arrive at a conclusion about who is most targeted in our culture: black women, and specifically transgender black women. You simply can’t talk about James Baldwin in 2017 and justice and not talk about violence against transgender women of color.
Which is why it is important for viewers to appreciate that regarding the subject of race, conversations about gay rights and feminism are essential; that despite what we've been in the past, growth is possible. Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party is credited with giving a beautiful speech on August 15, 1970. He said, “Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion...We say that we recognize the women’s right to be free. We have not said much about the homosexual at all...When I say “insecurities,” I mean the fear that they are some kind of threat to our manhood. I can understand this fear. Because of the long conditioning process which builds insecurity in the American male, homosexuality might produce certain hang-ups in us. We should be careful about using those terms that might turn our friends off. The terms “faggot” and “punk” should be deleted from our vocabulary...We should try to form a working coalition with the gay liberation and women’s liberation groups.”
At it's core, Baldwin’s work explored why society scapegoats the black, the homosexual, in its need to create an “other”. But if a film is ashamed of its subject, or ignores critical aspects of his identity, it also “others” him and, intentionally or not, calls him a faggot - in the same way many of us have been called “nigger” when, in order to succeed in the white world, we’ve been asked to leave our cultural blackness at the door; to change our name. In this context, faggot is not a word that defines whom a man loves, but rather the shame someone else feels about whom he loves. And it is shame and the absence of an honest conversation about his homosexuality that reduce Baldwin’s portrait in I Am Not Your Negro, and diminish its contribution as a film on civil rights.
Meshell Ndegeocello’s Can I Get A Witness: The Gospel of James Baldwin directed by Charlotte Braithwaite is part rock opera, part church service, part encounter group. One arrives in the Harlem theater space and sees the instruments in the center of the room, the mics only a few inches from an audience member’s seat, and expects the intimacy of a recording session in a basement, or a service in a storefront church. The audience surrounds the musicians in an almost full circle, one side facing the other. Before the show begins, we are invited to walk around the space, admiring tubs of broken colored glass, and trees adorned with colored debris, while a pianist, in a funky futuristic outfit and wig, jams at a keyboard. The actors, accessible, move through the space freely, greeting the audience. During the performance, when I excuse myself for a few minutes to suppress a cough, the actress who opened the show and sits beside me, offers me a bottle of water from the stage and smiles. We’ve only just started, and already there is a feeling that this is more of a family reunion than a theatrical production.
Whether or not every part of the show is successful, I am grateful for it. It is moving to see - and I feel the same way with Peck’s film, whatever my reservations - people celebrating Baldwin, acknowledging him, re-discovering or discovering for the first time his great contribution, the power of his work. Baldwin was famous in America, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that his contribution was valued. I’ve read the obituaries and “tributes” in Time, Newsweek and other periodicals at the time of his death, and to say they leave something to be desired is generous. One reviewer spoke of Go Tell It On The Mountain as the only good book Baldwin wrote, another focused on the fact that Baldwin borrowed a typewriter when he had a deadline and never gave it back.
Can I Get A Witness begins with a poet voicing her outrage about the election of Donald Trump. A teacher and former musician who grew up in the New York City school system, and eventually opened a school himself, walks around the space describing his experience as an educator. He takes us through sections of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (there is a copy of the book on every chair, donated to libraries after the production is over) and the space is transformed into a classroom. While the music recalls less traditional gospel and more jazz and rock, there are spectacular numbers, almost pentecostal, that raise the roof, others that feel like New Age meditations. The structure of Can I Get A Witness seems inspired by the black church, but the music and the trance it creates are more like an African ritual or ceremony.
What moves me, along with an abstract painting of Baldwin and his small, boyish body which seems so vulnerable when considering the powerful, articulate man (this is the Baldwin the waif whom we see getting out of bed in Sedat Pakay’s film James Baldwin: From Another Place), is the feeling that while this is a church service, it is also a memorial, a fête, a way to say thank you to our Brother Baldwin. It occurs to me that we may need this more than he does - as Americans we never thanked him properly, and that is our shame. The experience is cathartic on many levels. Meshell Ndegeocello has the aura of privacy and established cool of a great jazz musician; in her sunglasses, and her gown that is part monk’s robe, part African priestess, she moves casually through the audience. With her short cropped afro, and relaxed warmth, she could be one of my great aunts when I was a child, moving through the room after a delicious holiday meal, touching everyone. “You all had enough? What else can I get you, baby?” Ndegeocello provides a laying-on of hands, and her reassuring fingers on my shoulders are gentle.
She apologizes to the audience at one point if she seems distracted, which has not been my impression at all, and announces that her father died the night before. Her grief, I imagine, adds another layer to her performance, one that I can relate to: I learned my father died the night I returned from the James Baldwin conference in London. At first I think, “What is she doing here? She should have canceled, taken care of herself.” But then I appreciate that this may be exactly where she should be, with us, with James. As part of the show, we all take communion together, the entire audience, small vials of water passed around as communion wine. Dual images are projected on opposite walls, James giving an interview, speaking about race, and preaching, preaching. I imagine that we are in his church, he is back in the pulpit.
Yet for all the show’s beauty, I still long for something I feel is missing. Ndegeocello, who, according to Wikipedia, has been in a same-sex relationship since 2011, and has acknowledged being bisexual, has dealt with homophobia courageously in her own work: “Leviticus: Faggot.”
Go to church boy
Faggot you're just a prisoner of your own perverted world
No picket fence acting like a bitch that's all he sees ain't that what faggot means
No love dreams
Only the favors sweet Michael performed for money to eat
‘Cause the man kicked the faggot out the house at 16
Amen mother let it be
Before long he was crowned queen for all the world to see bloody body face down
The wages of sin are surely death that's what mama used to say
So there was no sympathy
“Leviticus: Faggot” is harrowing, disturbing, and while I'm not convinced I needed it to be performed in Can I Get A Witness, it would have at least let us know what is at stake in a black gay life, and spoken to an aspect of Baldwin’s childhood experience, to black gay, bisexual and lesbian experience. It is the kind of fearless writing and witnessing, even if the audience is uncomfortable - the rape of Julia by her father in Just Above My Head - that was a hallmark of his work. I miss some representation of his homosexual life and his relationship to a black gay aesthetic, a man in the circle in a pair of heels as if he were walking a ball, gay women or men voguing, being, as the children say, "cunty", expressing their outrage, their black gay resistance, or poetry from Audre Lorde, Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Craig G. Harris, Tongues Untied, something, anything, about the pain and reality of queer black life; about the transgender community, or a celebration of that community. Police brutality is discussed and you will hear the words “Black Lives Matter“ when people speak of The Fire Next Time and of James. Yet many of us forget that the Black Lives Matter movement was created by black queer women. In the articles I’ve read, it’s usually a footnote somewhere, if it is mentioned at all.
The show ends with two images of Baldwin on film, running simultaneously in a loop as the cast, still singing and playing, walks through the open doors and into the outdoor winter light. It is a beautiful image, a feeling of crossing over, of James triumphant. By articulating his experience, by refusing to capitulate when it wasn’t easy to speak out, and by still witnessing even when it seemed fewer were listening, he won.
I wanted to return the next day to Can I Get A Witness, to be held again in that space, that sanctuary. Not only was it sold out, but I was told by someone in the box office that a hundred people had been on the waiting list for the performance I attended, over half of them turned away, confirming that we are hungry for James, hungry for truth. Can I Get A Witness was a moving experience for me, and I hope it is performed again and toured, a necessary catharsis for many of us grieving this time in history and needing inspiration. But if the show is being revised, I hope something will be included that will specifically address Baldwin’s contribution to queer history. I want people to remember who he was, and all that he was.
The film Moonlight has the distinction of containing one of the most tender scenes of black male empathy ever to be committed to film. While I appreciated the film throughout, and what it had to say about masculinity, the third act, the restaurant scene, which almost seemed more like a staged play, was the fulfillment of the movie’s promise for me. The scene could have gone on and I would have been fine staying in my seat another seven hours. Leaving the theater, I was convinced that Moonlight, like I Am Not Your Negro, is a work greatly needed at this time. (The film is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's unproduced play, In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue and directed by Barry Jenkins. McCraney is gay, Jenkins is straight.) Moonlight is a beautiful film to look at, “tastefully” done. But while seemingly benign in its approach, Moonlight does have its controversies.
I have had heated conversations with friends over whether or not the final moment required a more blatant love scene. I would argue that I was fine without it. However, the problem is not the end of the third act, but that we don’t get a love scene at any other point in the movie. Other than the two boys fondling each other briefly, which is also filmed “discreetly”, there is no sexual contact in the film.
I am aware there are those viewers who say that this is to the film’s credit; the usual “we don’t need their sexuality crammed down our throats” argument. That without graphic sex the movie will be seen by a larger audience, a movie about two black gay men that you could take your grandmother or church group to see. The idea is that if the hardcore homophobe is able to stick her toe in the gay water and not have her sensibilities offended, she may change her mind politically and be more supportive of gay causes in the future, less hateful. One reason this argument is persuasive is because sometimes it seems true; I’ve met people whose homophobic fathers ended up fans of Will and Grace, macho guys who would frame their faces with jazz-hands and say, laughing, “Just Jack.” (Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged that his stance on gay marriage changed in part having watched Will and Grace. ) Underplaying the graphic gayness may be great for a family movie outing, maybe even for politics; not so much for artist integrity, or the truth.
I went to Moonlight not expecting pornographic sex, but looking for something along the lines of a black gay Brokeback Mountain. Brokeback, now twelve years old, was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture, hardly an obscure film, and is considered a classic by many; the 2017 audience has been primed for something a little more explicit than what it gets in Moonlight.
Others will say that two black men could never get away with a kiss like the one between Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger in Brokeback. (It is now a legend that, before filming Six Degrees of Separation, Denzel Washington told Will Smith not to kiss another man when he played the black gay character in that film. It was bad advice and the movie’s credibility suffers for it.) While Moonlight may not directly play “respectability games”, the marketing around it, and the way it has been presented to the audience, have. I find a listing for the film in a local newspaper. The blurb mentions drugs, a young man (Chiron) dealing with his painful past, the movie's haunting tone, etc. Nothing black, nothing gay. This is bullshit. What’s going on?
When I Google Moonlight, a caption describing the film reads: “At once a vital portrait of contemporary African American life and an intensely personal and poetic meditation on identity, family, friendship, and love, Moonlight is a groundbreaking piece of cinema that reverberates with deep compassion and universal truths. Anchored by extraordinary performances from a tremendous ensemble cast, Barry Jenkins's staggering, singular vision is profoundly moving in its portrayal of the moments, people, and unknowable forces that shape our lives and make us who we are.”
Something is wrong. There is not one mention of a gay man’s journey in the blurb. The decision not to make the film sexually explicit now feels less like an artistic choice and more like a commercial one. A friend called me after the film won Best Picture at the Golden Globes and told me the director made no direct mention of black gay life in his acceptance speech, no inspiring message of the “Paul Haggis/Dustin Lance Black” variety to black gay artists, or young black gay men and women, isolated and struggling to survive - the Chiron's of the world. The love for which Moonlight has been praised dare not speak its name.
When a film, particularly one about a group marginalized to begin with, is so subtle, so tasteful, such a “poetic meditation” that it becomes a story anyone can relate to, in which no-one’s sensibilities are offended, no homophobia aroused; one must ask, is the movie’s vision compromised? (Paging Raoul Peck.) Do we fall into a different trap if a homophobe can walk out of Moonlight much the way someone might get off a scary amusement park ride, slightly exhilarated and applauding their own courage to sit through it? “I knew it was about gay guys, and I expected to be grossed out, but you know, that wasn’t so bad.” Shouldn’t some sensibilities be offended, or at least if not offended, rattled just a little? There is a problem when Will Truman’s character on Will and Grace (prime-time NBC in 1996) kisses his black lover played by Taye Diggs with more sexual enthusiasm than any black man is kissed by another in Moonlight, which is being considered by many people to be a black gay film.
Moonlight does, however, get into something profound: how shame, and not just sexual shame, and bullying, define who a boy becomes, giving us insight into men we see each day and call “hard”; what the journey is like for a man when he becomes hard, particularly a black man, when all avenues of love have led to disappointment for him, what a black man’s heartbreak, straight or gay, looks like. For that I am deeply grateful for Moonlight, and I believe James Baldwin would have been as well. Chiron, like John Grimes in Go Tell it On The Mountain is a black gay adolescent - isolated, dislocated, and wounded - who tries to find his place in his family and his community. In it's final act, Moonlight has the same "gay radiance" as Mountain: Kevin saves Chiron, as Elisha saves John. Days later, when I read some of James’ personal correspondence, I realize how truly profound parts of Moonlight are.
But, while at times both brave and compelling, Moonlight is also a conservative film, and exists within its own macho aesthetic. (Despite the fact that McCraney and Jenkins both grew up with addicted mothers, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the depiction of the mother. Because the film so carefully avoids clichés in its exploration of boyhood and what men become, I needed more nuance from the writing or the actress - the character seemed like a plot device.)
Like I Am Not Your Negro, the funkiness, the “cha-cha” heels, the glamour, the queenliness, the faggotry and all the other experiences that have defined some black gay lives, are completely missing. Not every black gay man is a “queen”, of course, but the complete absence of the “queen” in a black gay life onscreen is suspect. (For some viewers, the image of the queen, when not used for ridicule, can be as threatening as graphic sex.) And there is so little sex in Moonlight, it almost undermines its own premise: Chiron feels guilty, but with the exception of the incident with his friend Kevin, filmed from behind on the beach, we haven’t seen him do anything. Viewers don't have to deal with an adult black gay man's sexuality at any point in the film - as Kevin and Chiron are teenagers in this scene, their encounter can be "forgiven" as frisky, experimental, bewildered - a black gay The Blue Lagoon. Adult Chiron doesn't even get to fantasize about gay sex; he has a wet dream about Kevin standing alone and against a wall, smoking a cigarette. (He does, however, get to dream about Kevin having loud, raunchy sex with a woman earlier in the film.) Moonlight’s caution in its gay scenes, which can be mistaken for artistic restraint, along with the way it is advertised, is on some level an insult to the actual lives of many black gay men.
Nothing exists outside the filmmaker’s rigid concept of “gayness”. In Moonlight we don’t even get an ancillary “Miss Thing” reading a drug-dealer when she’s turned down for crack, or a black gay neighbor, not as comic relief, but as someone Chiron is afraid of becoming, who might reveal how gayness has been defined for him at school, at church, and the community’s reaction to it; where his contempt originates from. Anything too queer, too sassy, might interrupt the film’s tone, might shake us out of the “tragic sensibility” of the majority of the film. I loved Moonlight at times, but what I suspected in the film was confirmed for me when I saw I Am Not Your Negro the second time: when it comes to the subject of sexuality and race, there is nothing more terrifying in America than the power of a black sissy. Moonlight is aptly named; light from the moon is reflected, not direct at all.
I get lost trying to find Sedat Pakay’s house. The GPS is hopeless, of course: because of unanticipated road works, I am forced to make a detour, and finally call him in desperation. He answers calmly with familiar warmth and tells me to relax, I describe to him where I am, and he instructs me on how to take a different route. The tone in his voice reassures me that despite the GPS's intentions, I won't be driving in circles for the rest of my life.
I should have been at his home ten minutes ago, and am embarrassed at being late, and at my overall ineptitude. I don't want him to believe that I take our visit casually. The fact that he, as a close friend of James Baldwin, has invited me to his home, means everything to me. Sedat’s house is off a route near a town that my navigation system barely acknowledges, which makes visiting him that much more of an adventure. I know that when I eventually find him, he will live not in a trendy upstate town like Rhinecliff or Rhinebeck, but tucked away from the noise and chaos of a city, and even away from quaint country life. Finding him has been a journey in more ways than one. Just as I am envisioning a nightmare scenario in which I arrive at his home at precisely the moment that he has to chuff me out for another appointment, I recognize the name of a street he mentioned and make a right turn. Within minutes I am parked in his driveway.
The house could be a large farmhouse anywhere in America. An enormous tree provides shade for the porch, which faces the back, distinctly away from the road. While there is a generosity about the steps leading up to the door as I approach it, it is clear this isn't a place one stumbled upon accidentally. It would be easy to pass it by, unaware it existed.
Sedat steps off the porch to greet me with his wife Kathy. I had seen them together a week before, at the gathering of a friend who lives an hour away. “You must see Sedat, it’s been too long,” my friend informed me at the time, knowing my devotion to Baldwin, and brought us together at the small party he threw for his ex. When Sedat and Kathy arrived that evening, they had a generosity and friendliness that filled the room. Sedat was one of the lucky ones: it appeared to me that even though he and Kathy had been married for many years, he was still in love with her. He wasn't a loud man; when I first met him, I found him a cautious, observant; but under his slyness, a great humor and warmth. I could immediately see why he and Baldwin would have been instant friends, why Baldwin would want him around with his tortoise-like calm, particularly during life’s more hysterical moments. Someone placed a scotch in Sedat’s hand, we were re-introduced, and conversation immediately went Baldwin. He said the magic words: “You must come by the house sometime. Of course, when are you free.” I reminded him that we had met some years before. He was, in fact, the reason that I went to the James Baldwin conference in London. He’d been ill soon after, and with the death of my father that year, we’d lost touch. Now, eight years later, we were together in the same living room again. I'd hoped I’d become a better writer since then, I had work to show him, and whether he cared for it or not, I wanted him to know I at least had serious intentions. I also knew it was a miracle of health that he was even standing before me. I finished our conversation; I wanted to be greedy, but there were others who needed his attention and I had to share him. With naked eagerness I told him that, if he was available, I’d see him next week.
Sedat and Kathy invite me inside their home, but because it is late spring, and warm, we sit on the porch, eating almonds and drinking ice tea. I talk about my impossible diet at the time, and he talks about his health, and even though he shouldn’t be drinking, we discuss his favorite scotch. What impresses me about that day as I recall it now was not any “shocking revelation” about James Baldwin that I might have hoped Sedat would provide, but rather a confirmation of what I already knew. Sedat recalls the period in Hollywood when James was writing the screenplay for The Autobiography of Malcolm X; we talk about his time in Istanbul and the beginning of their friendship; about Engin Cezzar, the Turkish actor who invited James to come to Turkey, the visits from Yves Montand and Simone Signoret in Hollywood and France, the way people would drop in on James and how he loved his social life and his friends, but constantly had to protect the space he needed to write. In some ways, I regret that I didn’t record our conversation, but it might have been too formal and stilted if I had. What I got that day was a texture of a life: I feel Sedat receives me as James might have. I watch as Kathy tends to Sedat because he is still recovering from illness, but not doting on him, and I appreciate the way they fold me easily into their natural rhythm. At one point, Sedat invites me into his office and, after he shows me clippings and autographed copies of books by Baldwin, we sit down and watch his film together.
If you’ve seen PBS’s The Price of the Ticket then you’ve seen parts of Sedat’s film. Entitled James Baldwin: From Another Place, it is eleven minutes long, black and white. The film begins with a voiceover from Baldwin as we watch him get out of bed. He is in his underwear opening the drapes, and appears boyish and small. He puts on a robe, standing in the bright sun from the open window, and lights his morning cigarette, runs his hand over his hair. He discusses his work and his life as an artist as we watch him on the streets of Istanbul, negotiating his way through the crowd, dressed now as the literary figure, sunglasses, scarf. He stands outside a crowd, moving around the circle. We then see James in the marketplace, fingering books, leisurely, including one, ironically, on the FBI. In the final moments of the film he speaks, in profile, to the filmmaker. The smoke from his cigarette, never far away, curls up and teases the edge of the frame, a drink sits beside him on the table. We are shown the modest room he works in, a desk, a simple bed covered with books and his glasses. James fondles a set of prayer beads as he speaks. He seems relaxed and healthy, and talks about his work, his life. He is asked about his sexuality off-camera, which we do not hear, only his response: “I don’t really know how to answer that question,” he says. “I don't resent it but I don’t feel that it is anybody’s business.” He acknowledges that it is a very big issue for a lot of people, and emphasizes his privacy, and also his pride. Listening to him here, it is the most compelling argument for Baldwin’s “private life” to remain private, but one must also consider the year of the film, (filmed in the late Sixties, released in 1973), and his subsequent work and the interviews he gave. He speaks again, as the light from the window illuminates his desk:
“Love comes in very strange packages, and I think everything depends in a life on if you are able to accept what comes to you, because it never comes to you the way you think it will, it never comes to you the way you’re taught it will, it comes as it comes in the case of a person like myself, I was very quickly in kind of a space where I had to deal with my life as though I had no father, I had no mother, as though I had somehow arrived with no antecedents, so to speak, and had to make it up as I went along, had to decide by myself whether this was right or wrong, whether this was for me or not for me, whether if I said no, what the repercussions would be in my private life, and the life which no one knows anything about but me, and what would happen if I said yes.
I think the trick is to say yes to life...In my own experience, I’ve observed that American men are paranoid on the subject of homosexuality. Are terrified of it in some really very unrealistic way. Because if it is there, it’s there...It’s been in the world for thousands of years.”
We watch Baldwin move through the city, interacting with its male denizens. He travels in a small motorized boat down a canal, he walks through what looks like a town square. The men and a few women around him either look boldly into the camera with fascination, or ignore it completely - there is nothing in between. The contrast of the black and white film is so sharp, the afternoon sun so bright, the movie looks as if you could fall into it.
In the final image, Baldwin sits sipping coffee with two tuxedo-clad gentlemen. The camera reveals a group of Turkish men in a semicircle around them. These men appear throughout the film, well dressed, some older, some in their twenties. They stand as if posed for the camera for an advertisement, or as if they are to be selected for an athletic game. They study James. One places a hand on his hip. There is something audacious in the way they are standing, reminiscent of men in southern Italy, a swagger, a bit of sexual effrontery, handsome with a hint of menace. It isn’t clear from Baldwin what their relationship is to him, as an American, a writer, a black man, a gay man. There is a sense of anticipation, perhaps some potential confrontation, as he faces what may be a welcoming committee of sorts, or a mob. The look on his face is curious, not relaxed, but not necessarily afraid either; he may be bewildered as he examines this tribe, and wonders how he finds himself at this time, in this place. The image is a striking one, as we hear in the voiceover that he has finished his book.
Despite the brevity of the film, it is too much to take in at once. I realize I will probably have to see it at least fifteen times to see it at all. Before I can ask Sedat, respectfully, how I might acquire the film, and of course, pay him for it, he goes into another room and returns with a copy which he places in my hand. His only request is that I not download it onto YouTube or have a showing without permission (it had happened to him before), and I give him my word. We enter a large parlor where he then shows me some of the framed photographs he has on display of James, one of the most beautiful being the image used for the reprint of David Leeming’s biography: in it, James looks out at the camera, unprotected, bare, lovely. If you know James’ story, then you know his childhood affliction of being considered ugly which, at times, formed his perception of himself; but the picture is unmistakably beautiful, vulnerable, the kind of picture that could never be taken in a formal studio or by a stranger. James is open to someone he knew loved him, and would never betray him. In the photograph you see James the realized artist, but also the young man from Harlem who arrived in Paris with forty dollars in his pocket. The Harlem “shoeshine boy” who would later tell the world “Nobody Knows My Name.”
I sense that our visit is over. Sedat needs to rest, and I’m not sure there is anything else to ask. I, too, am exhausted. We embrace as I leave, and I get in the car, negotiating the driveway again, and waving goodbye. The roads home are less intimidating, and the GPS behaves itself, but I don't care. I feel weightless. I’ve just met one of James Baldwin’s close friends. If it wasn't for the DVD on the seat beside me, the whole visit might have been a dream.
Days later, I send Sedat a brief e-mail thanking him and Kathy for our visit and promising to be in touch when I return from England. I am in a hurry and am not packed, and don't share with him my intention to come back to the house with his favorite bottle of scotch, and also enough money to buy the portrait he’d shown me. At the end of the summer when I plan to return upstate, I look online to see if Sedat has a website where I can find the price. I discover a picture of him, a lovely young man in his twenties or early thirties with long black hair and an unruly full length beard, smiling into the camera. Behind him, James grins confidently, leaning over slightly to be seen. It was taken on a balcony somewhere in Istanbul, and the expanse of the city stretches out behind them with promise. Sedat was young then, and couldn’t have known how the black American artist from Harlem whom he’d befriended was going to change his life, but perhaps he suspected it. There was the sense of delight on his face that one gets when one meets a kindred spirit in the world – the anticipation of a lifelong friendship.
In search of his photography, and hoping he might give me a good deal when I next see him, I find Sedat’s obituary. He had died the week after I returned from Europe.
PART TWO - TESTIFY
“Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in act, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.”
-James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (1972)
“Grief is a sword, or it is nothing.”
- Paul Monette, Borrowed Time, an AIDS Memoir (1988)
Interviewer: "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 (laughing): "Oh 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."
-From the film, The Price of the Ticket, (director Karen Thorsen)
To understand what happened to my friend Derek on New Year’s Eve, and why he is outraged, to truly understand how faggots are footnoted, I first have to describe Derek for you: his glamour, his pageantry, the glory that surrounds him.
To see Derek you might think at first that he belongs to a tribe of gay men who often refer to themselves as “bears”. He has a full beard and stout, hairy body that he clearly loves, and he adorns it daily it with wraps, shawls, costume jewelry, wigs, earrings, and shoes; a presentation that recalls Hollywood of the Thirties and Forties, with that kind of fastidiousness and care.
What I admire about Derek is that he doesn’t need an event to celebrate himself. Work is even an occasion. It doesn’t feel right somehow to label him a crossdresser, a man in women’s clothes. Derek doesn’t just put on a dress and call it a day, he gives you everything, he wants you to have an experience around what he is wearing. And it doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive: the other day he wore a peasant skirt, white blouse, a scarf wrapped around his dreadlocks in a Sixties upsweep, red nail polish, wooden necklace, full red lips, and mascara - to an interview. He looked like someone’s beautiful mother leaving for the first day at her new job. I eagerly awaited his next “stunt”. In his most recent, he adorns a platinum-white Peter-Pan wig, matching white coat and heels, eyeliner and smooth beige foundation. As he drags a hand luxuriantly up his cheek, revealing platinum nails, he recalls late Fifties Dinah Washington. The comments on his Facebook page pour in. One woman enthuses with Moms Mabley-esque humor: “Child, you’re giving me ‘I just cashed my husband’s life insurance check.’ ” What is clear is that Derek is delighted with himself, is able to find the humor in himself.
He’s not laughing now. It is the last day of 2016, and he is dressed down in a black tank top which he has to adjust several times (“I’m giving you all a little titty meat,” he tells his viewing audience, “but that’s okay, I can do that”). There is an oversized Whitney Houston “How Will I Know” scarf that ties up his hair in a bow. The outfit is relaxed, but clearly he’s not, as he describes the blow-by-blow of what has happened, and in language that not only confirms for me that there exists a black gay aesthetic and language, but a fierce black gay resistance as well. He begins to testify: “Why close out the year like this, fucking with me?
"Oh Lord," he sighs. "Let me tell y’all what just happened.”
He makes himself comfortable in his bed, adjusts the camera screen for full view. “A friend of mine from high school (or I guess I should say ex-friend now), I’ve known her for twelve years, is getting married today. I have the invitation in my book, marked the shit off on my calendar and everything. I was excited to go, had my outfit picked out. I was going to wear this floor-length red number with a fur shawl. Bitch, I was about to serve you full divinity!
“Went to her wedding shower over the summer and everything. Now today is the wedding. Why did I get a phone call this morning from the bride, the day of, mind you, telling me that she has some concerns regarding my attendance? I didn’t know what to think because she had just called me and my husband the other day, asking our advice about something involving the caterer acting the fool.
“So she says that one of her family members had called and asked, “Is the ‘boy in the dress’ going to be there?” and so she wanted to know in advance what I was wearing.
“So I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be wearing a scarlet red halter top dress, floor length gown and a fur shawl.’
“And she said, ‘I just want to make sure that you’re protected, I’m looking out for you. I have concerns because these family members are from the South and they are very religious...’
“So I told her, ‘Okay, so here’s what you can do. Don’t worry about me. Not only am I from the South and went to college there, but I have family who are still there and in the Midwest. I know how to deal with them. That’s not a problem. What I need for you to do, is for you to tell me what it is that you would like me to do: do you want me to be in attendance at your wedding or do you not want me to be at your wedding? My protection is of no concern to you. Don’t worry about me, I got me.’
“She said, ‘Well, I understand that...I just really want to make sure that...you know...’
“I interrupted her. ‘Here’s what I want you to do. You decide.’ Because she was trying to get me to tell her, ‘Oh no, it’s okay, I’ll stay home. I’ll see you at another time.’ That’s what she wanted me to say. That’s not what Derek was going to say, on this day. Or any other day. Never.
“ ‘Well, I’m going to talk to Terrence (the husband), and I’m going to get his thoughts, because it’s his day too,’ she says.
“Cool,” I said. “Let me know.
“About an hour and a half later, I got a text message from her. ‘Thank you for wanting to come. We appreciate you. But we decided that it would be best if you didn’t come and we met up with you at a different time. But if you’d be open to wearing a suit, if you’d consider that, then it wouldn’t be a problem.’
“So this is what I wrote her back:
“No I will not be wearing a suit. Your call had nothing to do with protecting me, you and I both know that. You all don’t value or appreciate me because if you did, if you all was about shit, you wouldn’t have hit me with this eleventh hour homophobic trans-antagonistic bullshit. Extraordinarily disrespectful. So, low-key fuck you. Enjoy your wedding day. Bye.’
“She ain’t said nothing back. Of course not, because what is there to say. But what I decided in that moment is that a bitch like me is not doing this in 2017. Sissies, niggers and faggots have been taking the high road for way too long. I’m done, y’all.
“I am not going to allow people to be in my life, to enter into my life, to laugh, to party, but then when it comes down to being shit, and being about shit...you run and hide.
“It’s really cute talking about Oh, I’m an ally, I love the gays, when it doesn’t cost you anything. When you don’t have to confront your family and say, that’s fucked up that you can’t even sit in a church house, in the same pew, with someone you don’t even know, because they are wearing a dress.
“But then you invite me to the bridal shower, bachelorette party, ask my advice at two in the morning because now you hate your dress, or you need help deciding what your bridesmaids should wear. Then it’s okay to be gay. That’s a good day for me to be gay.
“Now here we are, the day of the wedding, and all of this shit comes out of nowhere. And I’m like, wow, that’s interesting. None of this seemed to be a problem before. By the way, did you even address this with them? Did you say to your family or friends that if you can’t act right then maybe you need to stay home? You didn’t say that, did you? No, because that would have been a sacrifice, that would have been work. So the person or people you would have had to omit from your guest list because they are problematic and don’t agree with who you say you are, or think you are, they don’t have to suffer any consequences.
“It’s part of this whole cycle of being a queer ally that for some is actually about performance and that’s not at all substantive. I also find it interesting that this happens on the heels of this Kim Burrell bullshit, because it’s that same shit. Where someone will look you in your face and smile in your face, and then get in the churchhouse and talk about how your faggot ass is going to hell and someone need to slap the gay out your mouth, and never say the shit to you, to your face. (Well, actually sometimes they will.) They just smile, benefiting from your company and your presence, then don’t want to hold their grandmother accountable for the slick religious shit she say, doesn’t want to hold their cousin, brother, sister, father accountable for what they say. But you’ll have them at your wedding, you’ll have them sitting right in the front row:
Your sister who stole five thousand dollars from you;
your mama who ain’t shit, who ain’t never been shit, who beat your ass for nothing, and who called you all kind of fast-ass whores;
your daddy who gave you fucking bulimia with the way he talked about your body when you were growing up;
your cousin Johnny who you can’t leave your daughter, your niece, or your youngest sister alone in the room with, but Cousin Johnny will be sitting right there in row number two.
But here’s me, in a dress, minding my own goddamn business, as I was yesterday, as I am today, and as I will be tomorrow. But I’m the problem.”
After mentioning again how amazing his outfit was going to be one last time, he ends his read with a brief postscript before signing off: “Quiet as it’s kept, and normally I don’t do this and I keep my mouth shut, but I’m 97% certain that your man is a faggot. There’s a three percent margin of error on that. I didn’t want to say nothing, because that’s between you, him and the Lord. But, baby, just letting you know. Your man is gay.”
“Anybody in this room who is dealing with the homosexual spirit, beg God to free you! “Kim Burrell travels across the stage of her church, wearing all black, shouting from one side of the room to the other. In the video recording of her sermon, she is clearly energized, and the church is rocking with her intensity, her deep conviction. “You play with it in God’s house in 2017, you’ll die from it. That perverted homosexual spirit is a spirit of delusion and confusion and it has deceived many men and women, and it causes pain on the body of Christ...”
Her congregation, who are not seen on camera, can be heard, offering their encouragement in the usual church tradition.
“Oh My God.”
“You can not get instruction to God’s holiness with that much perversion,” she rages. “You as a man will open your mouth and take a man’s penis in your face, you are perverted! You are a woman and will shake your face in another woman’s breast - you are perverted! It has come into our church and it has embarrassed the kingdom of God.”
At the time of this writing, Burrell’s clip has over one million views. Gospel legend Shirley Caesar defends Burrell in another clip, suggesting to her congregation that in the future services someone should collect everyone’s cell phones including the ushers’ and deacons’, believing, I’m assuming, that the fault was not what Burrell said, but the fact that it was recorded. She says, “If you were going to say something, you should have said it four years ago, when our president made ‘that stuff’ all right.”
That stuff. Perhaps without realizing it, Caesar is referring to the twenty-four years I’ve been with my partner, two of them married. That stuff. My first boyfriend and a close friend of mine both committed suicide in their forties, I believe, because of the isolation, loneliness, and some of the pain they still felt over society’s and their family's reaction to “that stuff.”
I consider these two women, the successful careers they’ve had in gospel music. I’ve certainly bought their albums. (My iTunes player, clearly unaware of the controversy and that we’re not speaking to Kim at the moment, plays her effervescent and secular “Let’s Make It To love” while I’m cleaning the house.) Now I wonder whether they have, at any time, been accompanied by a black gay man on the piano or organ, or if they have had a black gay musical director. As stars who make regular appearances before Christian audiences all over the country, I try to imagine if either of them has, at any time, had a black gay stylist. I imagine these men watching the same video that I’m watching from their homes and going on strike, a mass exodus of black gay men from the gospel recording industry: the studio sessions that end abruptly, the unaccompanied solos, the weaves that fall out, the make-up that’s busted before showtime.
I watch Burrell’s sermon a second time, and recall a monologue in a show by the black gay male theater troupe The Brother Tongue Collective from 1993. The character is the church organist, dying of AIDS, a fierce queen, who, having supported his church his entire life, now watches as they turn their backs on him during his hour of need. He interrupts the morning church service and “reads” the entire congregation with a sermon of his own. The monologue is at once hilarious and tragic. A friend of mine said, after watching Burrell, “We’re horrified by hate crimes like Orlando, as we should be, but there are little "Orlandos" happening all the time, mostly on Sunday morning.”
Burrell addresses the controversy surrounding her comments in a live Facebook post. She wears a simple scarf in her hair, and looks surprisingly relaxed and unadorned for a “star.” As she peers into the screen, she could be addressing a very close friend or family member at the end of an ordinary suburban day, having just put the garbage cans out on the corner in her robe, or before she brushes her teeth for bed. I find the intimacy a little disarming, and unprofessional. Perhaps she should have just put out a written statement, like everyone else does these days. I wonder where her publicist is, or if she even has one, but this seems to be the "intimate" effect she wants to achieve.
Kim smiles throughout her response, her tone chipper. “I’m signing on because people matter. Hi to everyone! We’re not in a war against flesh and blood. I came on because I care about God’s creations...And every person from LGBT and anything else that is supporting gay, I never said LGBT last night, I said S.I.N...To the carnal, all things are carnal, and to the spiritual, all things are spiritual. Don’t you understand I know that people are going to be mad? I have to do what God tells me to do and I’m passionate about what I do, and when people take it personal, especially if we’ve never met? You know that the enemy is setting that up.”
She continues: “I only signed on for a short while to let y’all know, don’t you dare be discouraged! Don’t you dare [think] what these people are saying….is rocking my world. I’m not to be shaken! Because I’m out here for God. I came on here because I love people. For every person who is dealing with the homosexual spirit, that has it, I love you because God loves you. But God hates the sin in you and me. Anything that is against the nature of God. I’m called to do what God called me to do...There are a lot of people that I’m aware of, that struggle or deal or have that spirit. Have I discriminated against them? Have I ever told them outright ‘I don’t love you and you’re going to Hell’? Who gives me the right to tell someone they are going to Hell? I don’t get that call. (But) there is a responsibility that we have in the church to represent the almighty God.
“I make no excuses or apologies. My heart is as pure as it comes….(And) all of you all who love me, do not retaliate. It’s not about retaliation, because it wasn’t anything that was personal. It would be personal if I told someone to their face. I talked to the spirit of that thing, and I won’t take it back!”
The tone of the video stays peppy, energetic, and motivational until the end. Burrell even encourages her fans and detractors to live with passion at one point, as she does. She signs off, laughing, “I love you guys! Off to do the work of the Lord!” She asks her fans to help her video go viral, as her sermon has.
Hours later, Burrell returns with another post. This time the tone is more sober, weary, with a whiff of defeat in the air. I may be imagining it but the bow in her hair, once perky, seems frazzled. She whispers as if the rest of the house has gone to bed. Clearly, in the space between the two posts, Burrell has been barraged with negative responses and she’s worn out.
She reminds everyone again that she never said anyone was going to hell. “But for all of you who are upset for some reason, my heart goes out so badly, cause it’s like you want to be mad, and you want to believe that I came out against the gays. I was addressing church people...and let’s get even more specific, ones who were in my church. My church! Where I pastor. And that’s what’s so demonic about all of this. ‘Kim Burrell says that gays are going to hell’ . Really? Stop it...Go to bed.
“And all y’all that’s sending rainbows, read what God really sent the rainbow for. Now stop, because y’all gonna make me make it personal, cause y’all are making it personal. You’re attacking a person who did not attack you. I never said God was killing a gay in 2017. I said people who operate with that spirit in the church with deception and attack themselves are going to have to face the master....and that death is attached to their behavior. Now if that’s you, okay. But I never said LGBT, gays were going to die in 2017. ”
Before Kim signs off she reminds viewers that for those who claim they have supported her in the past, “I have yet to sell a million records, I have yet to win a Grammy...so where is the support for real?”
There are writers and activists whom I admire, who decided not to comment on the Burrell controversy, one in particular considering it “low-hanging fruit”. I appreciate why some feel this way - exhausted with another homophobic church rant, why bother when there will probably be another within a few weeks’ time? I, however, as someone who has the homosexual spirit and who also has, arguably, engaged in that spirit “with passion”, I am fascinated with Kim’s sermon, her justifications and "honeysuckle hate", and with her comments, especially her final comments about her career.
A friend shares with me that in her activist circles she is hearing young black men and women who have “had it” with homophobic messages like Burrell’s – like Derek and the wedding, they’ve had enough. They aren’t interested anymore in exploring or understanding where homophobia comes from, nor are they convinced that the solidarity of race is more important than sexual or gender politics, which is the assumption many of us have made since the Civil Rights Movement. Because for someone like Burrell, who sounds, in moments like this, like a black gospel-singing Mike Pence, where does her solidarity lie? How do these young LGBTQ people know that when the revolution begins, she won’t lock the church doors with them outside, as she so clearly believes that, for homosexuals, the gates of heaven are locked.
Days after the clip surfaced, Kim Burrell was supposed to appear on the Ellen DeGeneres show with singer/songwriter Pharrell Williams, who wrote the music for the hit film Hidden Figures. Burrell is featured on the soundtrack. While she is well-known in black gospel music, Burrell has never had the kind of opportunity that the Ellen show can afford. Unlike Burrell’s rambling comments, Ellen’s tweet is curt and to the point: ‘Kim Burrell will not be appearing on my show.’ Pharrell sits down with Ellen by himself and they address her decision. Ellen explains that Kim said some very “not nice” things about homosexuals, “so I didn’t feel like that was good of me to have her on the show, to give her a platform after she’s saying things about me.” Ellen later continues, “As someone who received a lot of hate and prejudice and discrimination because of who I chose to love...it only gave me more compassion...I don’t ever want anyone to feel hurt because they are different.”
Williams is clear that he loves Kim, as he loves everyone, and that she is a fantastic singer. He then says, “There is no space, no room for any kind of prejudice in 2017...Whenever you hear some sort of hate speech, and you feel like it doesn’t necessarily pertain to you, you know, because you may not have anything to do with that, all you gotta to do is put the word ‘black’ in that sentence, or put ‘gay’ in that sentence, or put ‘transgender’ in that sentence, or put ‘white’ in that sentence, and all of a sudden it starts to make sense to you...The world is a beautiful place, but it does not work without empathy and inclusion.”
He continues. “And I get it...I get that some of the divisive stuff works in life...we learned that lesson last year, that sometimes divisiveness works. But you have to choose what side you’re on. And I’m choosing empathy, I’m choosing inclusion, and I’m choosing love for everybody, and just trying to lift everyone. Even when I disagree with someone, I’m wishing them the best, I’m hoping for the best because we can’t win the other way.” Pharrell may not be aware, but he might be channelling James Baldwin in his response. Baldwin told Mavis Nicholson in an 1987 interview she conducted with him for her program Mavis on Four: “It is not a matter of prejudice, it is a matter of cowardice. It is easy to blame the nigger, or the arab, or the Jew, or the dyke or the faggot. Anyone who isn’t you. You don’t want to see that you could be that person, that in some ways you are that person.”
I think of Pharrell William’s words when I see I Am Not Your Negro for a third time at a morning showing at the Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem. As my husband and I are standing in line waiting to buy our tickets, a stampede of teenage schoolchildren descends on the theater like a swarm of locusts, flooding the entrances, shouting their enthuasism. The entire 11 o’clock showing is sold out for them, the spill-over students are in ours.
I watch them watching the movie. They are antsy, occasionally checking their phones here, munching Twizzlers there; but when James is on, they are still, riveted - his dynamism simply won’t allow for anything less. He is not only a brilliant orator and debater, but a consummate performer who holds the audience in Cambridge and the audience in the movie theater spellbound. As the movie takes great pains to detail the Harlem roots from which Baldwin emerged, and I imagine that the students are from a school somewhere in Harlem, I became furious all over again at the fact that the movie won’t facilitate a conversation about his sexual orientation. The film will require a conversation on racism, but it doesn’t guarantee, unless in the hands of a very conscious teacher, one about homophobia.
In a speech he gave in 1986 at the National Press Club luncheon, almost a year to the day before his death, Baldwin said, “I am beginning to be obsessed with the future of the young...I learn a lot from young people... I think their elders have betrayed them by throwing Jaguars at them, and tv sets, and other kind of paraphernalia, instead trying to teach them, instead of trying to raise them, instead of loving them. They have been abandoned to the dream of safety. ....and children, unlike their elders, are not very easily fooled.”
I sit in the theater hoping he is right, and that through a process of intuition and osmosis, they will leave the theater knowing that James is “funny that way”, and find him so persuasive and beautiful, they will go home and see the beauty in their gay aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, mothers, friends.
Or perhaps they will stand up in church when a pastor like Kim Burrell is speaking and say, “Are you talking about James Baldwin? Because we saw that movie for a paper we had to write for English class and he’s nothing like that.” Perhaps they will have the conversations our generation could never have, and finally tell the truth about our other black gay artists; our great black male crooner, for example, singing romantic anthems, "here and now", to his heterosexual fan base and unable to celebrate publicly the men he loved. About our great female singer, beautiful and winning, forced to abandoned her "greatest love of all" to maintain her career, destroyed by the drugs she used to mask the pain.
There is a section in legendary Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler’s biography Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music in which he discusses the musical genius of vocalist Donny Hathaway. Wexler acknowledges that Hathaway’s “Giving Up” was one of the greatest productions in Atlantic’s history, including all Aretha Franklin’s and Ray Charles’ recordings. It is impossible not to hear the depth and richness of the black American experience in Donny’s voice. Wexler writes, “Donny and I were close, and it didn’t take me long to learn of the powerful, painful battles being waged between his heart and soul...his sexual identity was rife with uncertainty, loneliness never left him for long.”
There continues to be mystery surrounding Hathaway’s death, (his death was ruled a suicide) and whether he fell or jumped from a window in the Essex Hotel in New York in 1979. And while it may never be confirmed whether Donny’s death was the result of shame and self-hatred over “that stuff” or because he was sick (Hathaway was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic), what we do know is this: his voice, sanctified, was one James Baldwin deeply cherished and recognized, two boys singing gospel and preaching in the black church, the musical journey that James was to chronicle in Just Above My Head, the year Donny died. A voice that spoke to him and that told his story of anguish and praise: brother to brother.
To prepare for this essay, I begin re-reading David Leeming’s biography of Baldwin. I read while I walk. It’s a habit I’ve had since I was a child, and while traveling west along 14th street, I stop briefly in a store to buy something - aspirin, deodorant, a drink. When I get to the subway platform and reach for my book, it’s gone. Just gone. I retrace my steps. No, they haven’t seen it when I return to the cash register, no they haven’t seen it at the newspaper stand where I bought some mints. In less than five minutes the book has vanished into thin air, sucked out of my hands into outer space. I’ve left suitcases, wallets, keys, watches, coats, gloves, anything you can imagine, at counters, airport check-ins, lobbies, hotel bathrooms, usually to return hours, even days later and get my items back. But less than five minutes and gone, gone? This is rare even for me. What makes the disappointment bearable is that clearly someone needs to know about James Baldwin more than I do and now they are somewhere in the world reading my book.
I go to the Strand, the famous used bookstore on 12th street that advertises 18 miles of used books, and look for a replacement copy. The computer lists three, the man at the counter tells me, but when we go to the display table where it should be located, we cannot find a single one. He even looks in the back where there are books waiting to be shelved - nothing. As I Am Not Your Negro is premiering tomorrow, it is entirely possible that three customers are walking around the store with a copy in their hands. I look around to see if I can find the offenders. Perhaps I can persuade one of them for the sake of journalistic deadlines to abandon their copy. While the bookseller walks the aisles, I call Barnes & Noble: there isn’t a copy anywhere in the city, but you can order one and it will arrive in three days. I don’t have three days. Come on, James, I’m thinking, you’ve got to help me out.
The bookseller, a shaggy young man with blonde hair, full beard and a nose ring, shares my frustration and is determined to help. I tell him I will be right back and make my way to the fiction section on the main floor; perhaps someone mis-shelved a copy, I'm thinking, but it’s very unlikely. As I approach the “B” shelves, I run into Phil. I’ve seen him at social gatherings for years, but we’ve never had a chance to share more than casual small talk and our usual, “You know, we should really have coffee some time.”
The way we find each other in the narrow stacks today, our meeting feels planned and covert, like something out of a spy thriller, with an appointed time and spot. We lower our voices so we won’t disturb the man reading a few feet beside us. Although it is warmer than usual for February, he is dressed smartly in a thick, expensive tweed coat, tie, cashmere scarf. There is more gray in his hair since the last time I saw him.
He is aware that I am distracted, and I explain why. “Yes, Baldwin,” he says. “Great writer. One of my favorites. You know, James Baldwin got me laid.”
When I confirm that I’ve heard him correctly, he laughs. As Baldwin was born in 1924, I’m confused. I’ve imagined Phil to be only in his mid-fifties. James would have been ninety-three this year. I try to imagine them as contemporaries.
Phil laughs. “I turn sixty this year. I don’t mean that he personally got me laid, I mean his writing. Another Country, to be precise. It’s a long story for another time.”
I set down my bag. “Phil, I’ve got time.” The blessing that comes with the curse of searching for my house keys and finding out I’ve been holding them in my hand the entire time (that’s actually happened), is that in moments like this I can dig my heels into the center of the earth and not move for hours if I need to - no pee break, no water, just listening. If the Strand closed on us and Phil and I found ourselves standing in the dark of the store when they opened the next morning, I was going to hear his story. He glances around at the busy store, bustling at rush-hour, and promises to give me the “short version.”
He tells me about a boy he met in boarding school, whom I’ll call Eddie. The boarding school, on the East Coast, catered to boys from families with money and privilege. While Phil’s family was comfortable, they weren’t rich, but he’d gotten to the school though academic achievement. Eddie, who was black, had also achieved academically, but came from a background that was anything but comfortable. He’d grown up in the inner city, and learned about the school from someone in his neighborhood who had attended, received a scholarship, gone to college and had encouraged Eddie, many years later, to apply himself. This was the late Sixties. Phil and Eddie met and became friends in their junior year. They were soon inseparable.
It was almost a cliché of boyhood friendship, but I could tell the memories were authentic, and how much they meant to Phil by the look on his face. “Eddie and I used to wrestle and play sports together. We studied together. Shared food, clothes, money. Sometimes we took long hikes in the woods. There was a secluded pond that was near the property where we’d hike, and we’d go there late in the evening and skinny-dip. We were very comfortable with each other, physical and tender at times, embracing when we said goodnight, but nothing ever happened. I think I would have been mortified if it had. Most of the time it was a lot of rough-housing and jokes. We were always in each other’s rooms studying together. Mine wasn’t a very big room, so we’d both sit on my bed. It wasn’t a big deal, if we were studying late, for him to stay over.
“I had to read Another Country for a literature class I was taking, and when I told him about it, how amazing it was, he decided to read it too so we could discuss it together. It gave us a language to talk about homosexuality that we didn’t have. I don’t think we ever could have brought it up otherwise. I’d never had a sexual experience before, with anyone. You just didn’t talk about sex in my family. Race either. I come from a very conservative, very white family. But we could talk about Rufus, Vivaldo, Eric. It was easier to discuss their situations, made what we were feeling more abstract, less threatening. Like, 'What would you do if....' The scene where Rufus asks Vivaldo if he’s ever thought he was queer...
“One day we were on the bed together, studying, and he put his head on my shoulder, but in a way that was different, somehow. Before I would have said, ‘Get off, man’ and pushed away him or hit him and we would have laughed it off, but this time, I didn’t push him away, and no one laughed. We just sat there. I might have touched his hair or rubbed his shoulders, I’m not sure, but I remember there was something electric and scary happening because he wasn’t moving and he was still there, still against me, two minutes, three minutes, five minutes later, and I was thinking, ‘What’s going to happen here? How far are we going to go with this?’ It felt strange, unfamiliar, but at the same time, it felt right, like I’d wanted to hold him like this from the moment I’d met him and now it was okay. We sat like that for what felt like hours. So quiet. I kept reading the same paragraph over and over in my book, the page was blurry, I couldn’t concentrate on it. I have no idea what he was thinking, because I couldn’t see his face. I just felt his warmth against my chest. Then at one point he looked up at me and smiled a little, and I leaned down and kissed him on the lips. And we made love that afternoon.
“I say we made love, but we were sixteen, seventeen - we didn’t know what we were doing, really. We fumbled around and figured it out, it was sweet. When it was over, we didn’t talk about it. He left my room and said, ‘See you tomorrow’ and we discussed some plans the following day, or a test we had, as we always did. We didn’t say, ‘Are we boyfriends now?’ or ‘Do you love me?’ or anything like that. We spent time together the next day as if it never happened, and then a few days later, I hugged him to say goodnight, and it happened again. We were together our entire senior year as lovers, but no one knew, of course. He dated girls, and I went out on a few dates with women, but I knew at that time, even though I couldn’t tell anyone, I was gay.”
“When we graduated, I went to Harvard and he went to Princeton. We kept in touch and saw each other a few times. He got married, had kids, got a job on the East Coast, we lived four, five hours from each other. I wouldn’t hear from him for months at a time, and then he would call me and say he needed to see me. And by ‘I need to see you’, he didn’t mean, let’s make a plan to get together in a month’s time and spend the weekend somewhere, which would have been fine. He meant, he was going to get into a car at that exact moment and drive the four hours to where I was living. No warning, just, I’m on my way, now. And he would always make sure to arrive late, never during the day, so that I would say around eleven or twelve o’clock at night, ‘It’s too late for you to drive back now, why don’t you stay over’ and he’d say, ‘You’re right, I’ll get a room in town’, and I’d say, ‘Why don’t you stay here?’ and he’d say, ‘You don’t mind?’ and I’d say, ‘Of course I don’t mind.’ I’d make a bed for him on the couch, say goodnight, and at some point, he’d come and get in bed with me and we’d make love. It was strange, we had to go through that ritual every time I saw him. He would never just call and say, ‘I want to have sex with you this Thursday’. That would make it pre-meditated, and would mean that he wanted me, that he wanted sex with a man. It had to happen by accident. So we kept having these little ‘accidents’, throughout the years.
“I believe this had to do with his religion; his wife’s family was very religious. He’d come from a background where his grandfather, I think, was a Baptist minister. I know the religious aspect became more intense after he got married. He only once described his church to me, and how his family went a few times a week. One night, after we were together, he was in bed beside me and I think I heard him whispering before he went to sleep, he might have been praying. I knew he was in a job that he hated and he never wanted to talk about his family - he kept the details of his life very vague. It was like one day we were in school together, years that were golden, and then everything dropped off after that, just became cold and gray.
“I dated a few people here and there, and had relationships that failed. I often wondered what would happen if he ever got divorced and came to live with me and we tried to make a life together, but that might have only been my fantasy. On those visits, when he drove up and we’d spend time together, we would laugh like old times, or talk about school, and I saw him the most happy. And he was so tender with me, the way we held each other in bed. But I came to love and dread those calls. I couldn’t wait for them, that would have been cruel to myself, but when they came, I couldn’t wait to see him. Sometimes I wouldn’t hear from him for an entire year, and I didn’t feel comfortable calling him at home, this was before cell-phones, of course. I wasn’t even sure if his wife knew who I was. When we were together, I felt all the old feelings about him, and I was grateful, but then when he left, I felt lonelier than I had before he called, and I almost wondered a couple of times if I should just tell him not to call me ever again because it was just too painful.
“I regret now not asking him more about his life, and how he was feeling. I know that he was having sex with a few men, anonymously, but I don’t believe that he ever had a lover, or a man that he loved. I know he felt trapped, and maybe there were some things he couldn’t tell me, even if he’d wanted to, that he thought I wouldn’t understand. I wanted to give him something, find some way to help, but when he’d leave, he’d just say, ‘Take care of yourself’ and I had no idea when I’d see or hear from him again.
“I didn’t have to ask him to stop calling me in the end, because eventually the calls just stopped. I didn’t hear from him for over two years. At that time, I reached out, called his family and mentioned that I was a friend from school. His wife was happy to hear from me, he had mentioned me before. She told me that he’d left her, and that at one point, he completely disappeared, for a while no one knew where he was. I left my number again, in case he called. When I called the number she gave me for him, it was disconnected. I thought I might hear from him, that he would at least get in touch with me at some point, but I never got that call. When I called her back later that same year, she said that she was sorry, that he had died from cancer. She thought I knew, there had been an announcement, but I don’t know who she thought would have told me. I wished her well, and gave her my condolences. I always wondered about his dying of “cancer.” This was the Eighties, and he was in his mid-forties. I can’t know for sure, but she didn’t have a lot of details, and she was off the phone in a hurry. I wondered if it had been AIDS but I’ll never know.”
A woman said ‘excuse me’ as she walked between us, and glanced worriedly at Phil as she passed. He gave a short nervous laugh, as he wiped away the tears streaming down his face. “I’m sorry. I promised you the short version, didn’t I?”
“It’s okay, I’m listening.”
“So, that’s the story of how James Baldwin got me laid,” he said. “And why I’ll always be grateful for his book.”
“Phil, I’m sorry.”
He shrugged, and apologized again. “It’s okay. I haven’t talked about that in a while. Maybe I haven’t talked about it at all, like that. I just kept thinking after I found out he died that I wanted a better life for him, a different life. What do you do when you want to save someone, and you can’t? I kept replaying it in my head, what I might have said, how it might have turned out differently, but I don’t know what I could have done differently, other than love him.”
Phil and I embrace for several moments and he takes a long, deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he says, finally. “I must go now. I’m meeting someone for dinner in five minutes and I’m late. I just came in here to browse and kill some time because I was early. I probably look a mess now, don’t I?”
His nose is red, and he roughly runs a hand down his face, like a curtain coming down at the end of an act. Eventually, all traces of sadness are gone.
“You’re fine,” I reassure him.
I ask his permission to include his story here and he says yes, if I change the names - he wants to respect Eddie’s privacy. We embrace, agree, as we always do, that we really must have that coffee sometime, and he leaves me in the aisle.
As I am leaving the store, I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s the bookseller with the beard. His smile and voice are eager. “I was looking for you, “ he says. “The Baldwin book you wanted. There’s a hardcover copy waiting for you downstairs at the desk.”
The following day, I receive a message from a man I’ll call Andrew. I met Andrew on my last visit to London. Although it is rare for me, I’ve kept in touch with him and as I will be returning in a few weeks, he has reached out to discuss my travel plans. We met last year in a bathhouse in London, and later for a brief coffee on Old Compton Street. He told me in a message months ago that when I return there is something important that he would like to speak with me about.
I’ve met several people in England over the years, but Andrew’s voice is so “posh” it sounds fake, like something from another era, not 2017 but 1917. It brings to mind, or at least to my mind, people trotting by on horses in riding gear, going hunting with packs of hounds trailing behind them, or coming down in evening dress for dinner and ringing little bells to call their servants.
At first, when Andrew introduced himself, I thought, he’s got to be kidding with this frightfully-frightfully, upper-crust, lord-of-the-manor bullshit. But I’ve spoken with him several times now and it’s real, and rare; sometimes when people come from that background in England, I’m told, they try to suppress it, or may even add a few working-class “matey” bits to fit in, and not draw attention to their class. But I’m glad Andrew hasn’t changed his way of speaking for anyone. It’s lovely to the ear, the way Hollywood actors in America were trained to speak in 1930s movies to communicate wealth and class.
In one of our early conversations, he says something about the sexual prowess of black men. He means to flatter me, I suppose, but his presumptuousness pisses me off, and I’m immediately upfront with him.
“Let’s not mythologize each other, Andrew. Either we really get to know each other or let’s not even bother. Because if this is going to be ‘Boyz In The Hood’ Meets ‘Downton Abbey’, I’m not interested.”
He laughed with surprise at first, but his voice became reflective and the tone changed. “Agreed. I’m very sorry. Seriously, I didn’t mean any harm.”
Andrew and I bonded the day we met, having both witnessed a fairly spectacular moment at the bathhouse. Bathhouses in London, unlike any in the U.S. that I’ve ever been to, occasionally serve alcohol. It’s a very different culture. You can eat at the bathhouse, get a drink, go online, watch television; I once watched a World Cup match there, a thrill for me as I’d never watched a sporting event with a group of men, gay or straight.
That evening, I was at the bar getting a glass of water, wearing only a towel along with the other men walking around, when I overheard an Englishman beside me having a conversation with his friend. They were talking about theater in the West End, and when he smiled at me, I took that as an invitation and joined in. It was a typical gay musical theater conversation with much laughter, we talked about Imelda Staunton in Gypsy and her incredible rendition of “Rose’s Turn”; then I finished my water and took my leave, returning about an hour later to find the man I’d been speaking to before, now completely inebriated and arguing with the bartender who was watching him with a weary look on his face.
“What do you mean you won’t serve me?” the man said, swaying slightly and lifting a finger to the bartender’s face. He was about my height, white, thin, with black hair closely cropped, and expensive glasses. “Get your manager at once.”
“I am the manager,” the bartender sighed. “I can give you Coke, coffee or tea, sandwiches, whichever you prefer. But no alcohol, I’m sorry.”
“You’re not sorry! You don’t even look sorry! I don’t want tea! I don’t want your bloody sandwich. Give me a drink, I can pay.” He stumbled slightly and pushed several pound coins across the counter. The young man tending bar pushed them back. His dark olive skin suggested he might be Spanish, Turkish, or Arab, I couldn’t locate where he was from by his accent. He had a bland, undistinguished handsomeness and languid efficiency, and his tone suggested he’d had this particular conversation too many times before.
“I must ask you to step away from the counter, sir, please. “
At this point, the man recognized me, and tried to engage my help. “You’re American, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Yes.” I’d told him before, but he looked pleased with himself as if he’d guessed.
“You wouldn’t stand for this in America. This would never happen in New York, would it?”
“It might,” I said.
He took another step towards me, and searched my face as if he were reading something. “You know, America has the right idea. Donald Trump, he wouldn’t stand for this.” He spoke of Donald Trump the way Americans of another generation used to talk about John Wayne.
“There, I said it. I know people don’t like what he says” - he put up a hand to stop me from interrupting - “but he’s got some good ideas. He’d make a good president.”
When I didn’t respond, he nodded his own confirmation. “You agree, don’t you? But you’re not allowed to say it. Just like I’m not supposed to say Brexit is good for this country, but it will be. You’ll see.”
Brexit had been voted on only two weeks before. Now, when I stood in crowds of people in London, waiting for the elevator at a tube stop or on a train, there seemed be a hushed tone, a familiar sense of mass bewilderment and betrayal, a “how did this happen, and who is responsible” mood that I’d felt in New York the morning after George W. Bush became president.
He turned his attention back to the bartender, pounded the counter. Clearly invoking Trump had refreshed his campaign and given it new life. "I must have that drink." I walked away and heard behind me the familiar refrain: “I’m very sorry, Sir--”
Moments later, I saw him making his way down the long hall, grumbling his dissatisfaction, and obviously rebuffed again. Before reaching the showers, he collapsed onto the floor and was flat on his back. A few men gathered, one helped him to his feet. The barman swiftly arrived.
“Sir, I must ask you to leave now.”
“I’m not going anywhere, let go of me!”
“Sir. I am asking you please to leave now.”
The man took his finger and stabbed at the chest of the barman, who stood stock still, like a large, immovable tree. “Look. Why don’t you just go back where you came from? You’re disgusting. You don’t even speak English.”
There were men sitting on risers in front of the tiny porno theater. All activity froze. It was a surreal scene, the sex on the screen still banging away vigorously and noisily, the porn actors unmoved, as we all stood in a shocked tableau.
What amazed me were the seconds that followed. There were about fifteen to twenty of us, watching the drunk man and the bartender locked in place, everyone waiting to see what would happen next.
Finally, a short, dark-skinned man, covered in hair and shaped like a box, broke the tableau and lifted his fist: “You can’t say that here. Get him out of here.”
Another man who looked Arab, and old enough to be a grandfather, said, “Yes, you must get him out.”
“Yeah,” chimed in a rail-thin, red-haired man, pale, with splashes of freckles. “Fuck off, mate!”
Shouts of “Get out!” and “We’ll have none of that here!” were resounding from the crowd. Men in towels, and one completely naked from head to toe, spoke in languages I recognized and a few I didn’t. Their words amounted to the same thing, I surmised, from the look of rage on their faces. Finally, the barman threw up his hands and said, “I’m calling the police.”
The drunk man looked at the crowd completely bewildered, maybe even thrilled at the minor riot he’d started. He shouted back at a few of the men who surrounded him and eventually his eyes lit on me, almost in desperation: again, a familiar face. Since I had been friendly with him at first, I felt the need to offer my own black American twist to the proceedings:
“You betta get your drunk ass out of here,” I whispered in his ear. “They’re calling the cops on you.”
As black American music has for decades penetrated the European pop charts, something in my black words seemed to penetrate the London fog around his brain. He looked at me in a moment of terrified clarity and stumbled sullenly down the hallway to the locker room, dressed, and left without further incident. Andrew was the first face that I focused on in the crowd and we shared an amused laugh, then went back to the bar to get a drink together.
What fascinated us both was that moment of silence before all hell broke loose. Every mob has a moment where a decision is made. In the story I've told you now, our mob made the right decision, and I am grateful. But we knew there existed an alternative, nightmare universe, either in the future, or in the past, or perhaps happening in the world at that very moment, where the same crowd gathered, surrounded the bartender and the drunk man, a universe where, instead of the barkeeper's, we took the drunk man’s side.
I replayed the incident in my mind, hear the man’s words. “Look. Why don’t you just go back where you came from? You’re disgusting. You don’t even speak English.”
A voice shouts to the bartender, “Yeah, go back where you came from!”
“Learn to speak English, mate.”
Someone pushes the barman from behind into someone else who pushes him back into the center of the crowd. “Dirty Foreigner!”
“Get out of our country. Stop taking our jobs!”
I thought about Trump, the fact that even though he wasn’t president, and although I knew he never would be, his influence, his spite, had already traveled the world. It was July. And while I couldn’t blame him for what happened in the bathhouse that day, across the ocean, I knew that he gave the drunk man exactly what he needed, and all that he needed in that moment to empower his racist rant: permission.
Andrew is working from home when I return his call. We make a plan to meet soon after I arrive, and trusting a gut feeling I have, I remind him of the important conversation he mentioned. As I am aware that is married with children, I’m assuming that it may have something to do with coming out, as he has been closeted for years. I don’t feel it is my place to judge his circumstances, and I know that the dishonesty bothers him.
“I suppose,” he begins, “that it is a bit unfair of me to say that I have something to tell you and then leave it at that. You been waiting more than six months now and I haven’t given you so much as a sentence on the topic and I do apologize.”
“It’s fine, Andrew.”
“It’s about a friend of mine who died last year. My good friend. Lawrence. Are you sure you have time for this?” I assure him I do.
Andrew tells me about a man he met at Cambridge, of African descent. They fell in love at college. Andrew acknowledges that while Lawrence never admitted they were in love, he knows that he fell in love with Lawrence from the first day they met. They shared a sexual relationship on and off for years, and they were devoted to each other as friends, but Lawrence was deeply ashamed of homosexuality, coming as he did from a strict religious background and a very proud family. Lawrence was aware that as an African son, if his family had even suspected that he was gay, it would have been an enormous, unforgivable source of shame for everyone: and he vowed he would never “do that to them” even if it cost him his happiness in life.
“It would have been impossible for us to build a life together,” Andrew said, regretfully. “But sometimes I still imagined a world where we both made different choices. Where we were able to be together. And we couldn’t have been more different, and I don’t mean in the obvious ways. Temperamentally. If we had been together, perhaps he would have discovered that I am absolutely monstrous, or I would have discovered that about him. We fought quite a few times. But I know that he loved me. No matter what happened in our lives, he always came back to me. I was devoted to him and he knew that. And in one way we were the same: family came first.”
After they graduated, Andrew met his wife and got married, but Lawrence never married. Rather than choose an unhappy marriage, Andrew explained, he chose nothing. He moved to London where he became a successful professional, pouring all his heart into his career. The communication was sporadic, Andrew admitted to me, and they met a few times for sex. Lawrence would send him emails with graphic gay images and jokes, and act as if they were “mates” and not the lovers they were, but despite the humor they shared, Andrew felt the sadness behind the communication.
Sometimes they sat in bed, considering where their lives had taken them. Andrew admitted to me that he loved his wife and children, and would make the same decision again with everything he knew about himself. He even acknowledged that his wife knew he was attracted to men and had slept with men before they were married. But he also felt as if he’d compromised or lost some part of himself somewhere, and while Lawrence would never admit it, Andrew knew he felt the same way.
Then a year ago Andrew’s life was thrown into chaos when he found out that Lawrence had died. He’d gone to bed one night and hadn’t woken up. Dead at forty three. No warning, no sickness, no death-bed scene. Andrew was inconsolable, made worse by the fact that Lawrence was simply a “school friend” to anyone who knew their relationship. He went into counseling because he couldn’t stop crying, he explained. It was more than just the loss of his friend or lover, it was as if a period in his life were over.
“I tried to speak to my best friend about it. You think I sound posh!” Andrew managed a laugh. “This man is very rich, he’s been to the best private schools, has the family crest, Oxford-educated, straight, married, wife went to Cambridge, three kids, all of it. We’d never spoken once about Lawrence. Not once. And Lawrence was the most important man in my life. I tried to explain to him, to tell him our story. But it was as if he couldn’t understand. He knew I’d had attraction to other men before, that wasn’t the shock of it. My friend understood loss. But what he couldn’t understand was why I felt so...abandoned. It was the way Lawrence died, so...unfinished. He didn’t understand that Lawrence had taken with him something only he and I shared. I only realize now, what I felt he took from me was ‘hope’.”
“I went to the funeral. It was a traditional African funeral, and there were so many people there. All his family and friends. There may have been two hundred people, possibly more. I sat in the back, the schoolfriend, and watched as they talked about him, told stories about him, and I thought, and not vindictively at all, although it may certainly sound that way now: ‘Let me speak. I have a story to tell.’
“Maybe I did feel a little angry, about the religious part, the way that he was so afraid to say or do anything that would shame them. When I encouraged him to challenge their beliefs when he was alive, he told me I couldn't relate, it wasn’t just about fighting religion, it was something more powerful, that I didn’t understand what happens in an African family. I wanted to say, ‘Bullshit!’ But how could I say his life was a lie, when I had to run out of the hotel room at five to pick up my oldest son from football practice?
“But it was remarkable, as I sat there, surrounded by all those people and yet alone, and wondering to myself if there was one person besides me in that room who knew the whole story. Everyone talked about how successful he was; and he was, he made a lot of money. His family was very proud, as he’d hoped they would be. But I knew that he was ashamed. That’s why he never married. Perhaps he was a better man than I, he didn’t want to lie to his wife as I’ve sometimes lied to mine. And I love my wife,” he reminded me. “I’ve never lied about that. You see, I felt so frustrated, because I wanted something wonderful for Lawrence. I wanted love for him, even if I couldn’t be the one to provide it. I wanted to save him, but I wasn’t sure from what, or for what. But how arrogant was I? How could I save him? I hadn’t even been able to save myself.
“There was a reception after the funeral, and I thought, I just want to find one face, I don’t care if it is another man he was involved with besides me, just one man whom I can make eye contact with, and we can find some corner to share our stories about him, not the "press releases" that so often pass for eulogies when someone dies, but about who he really was, what he was like in bed, that he liked a finger up his arse, a bite on his nipple when he came - anything! I was desperate for the truth.
“Or maybe I wanted someone just to hold me at the back of the church and say, ‘Yes, Lawrence told me how much you mattered to him.’
“I looked through that entire fucking crowd, I walked around for hours as it thinned and everyone went home. I never found that face, I never found that man.”
Andrew paused and we were silent on the phone for a few moments. “That’s what I wanted to tell you. There’s more, of course. But that’s all I can manage for now, I think.”
“I understand,” I said. What I also understood Andrew to be telling me, although I wasn’t entirely sure, was that he’d had a nervous breakdown after Lawrence’s death. It also wasn’t clear that the breakdown was over.
“I’ve had to think about my entire life. Who I am, what I want, how I got to this place. I don’t know if there are any answers.”
I told Andrew that I thought he should read James Baldwin’s novel Another Country.
“I don’t know if there are any answers there, either," I admitted, “But you may find empathy. You may also find this hard to believe because I’m finding it hard to believe myself, but yesterday....” I told him about the Strand and speaking with Phil about Eddie.
“You have a brother across the seas,” I told him. “Interesting that you both used much of the same language and arrived at the same question: How do you save someone?”
“He sounds interesting,” Andrew said. “I think I’d like to meet Phil someday.”
“You will,” I promised him. “In my piece.”
David has died. I find out about his death from a friend of mine who is also a passing acquaintance of his. We are on the phone talking about an organization to which we both belong, and he says, as the conversation is coming to a close: “Oh, by the way, did you hear about that guy that died, I can’t remember his name. The Vietnam vet, a writer, I think - he wrote that movie, the one about the sisters with Bette Davis. A heart attack. His name was David something.”
My mind violently refuses the details, but I know they are too specific to be about anyone else. I imagine I startle Gary with my initial reaction because he replies, “I’m so sorry. I thought you might have heard already. I didn’t mean to surprise you. I didn’t know the two of you were friends.”
“Yes.” The voice that comes from me sounds like a six-year-old child, lost. “We were good friends.”
I don’t know what else I said in that moment, but I began pacing the floor, and felt a bold and familiar sensation, warm and heavy like something poured, descend from my head down the length of my body. Like the family visitor whom you reluctantly oblige, who brings to your house memories of unpleasant and lengthy stays, grief had arrived and was going to take over my life for a while. My first thought, after my mind allowed Gary’s words in, was a selfish one: I don’t have the resources for this, not now, not with Trump about to be inaugurated and the depression I’m still feeling from the election. I cannot go through the ice, I thought. But David was dead and here it was.
Gary’s silence was respectful. He may have been embarrassed for me, I wasn’t sure. He and I usually shared rapid-fire barbs, and glib, New York sarcastic exchanges. Now I was heartbroken and bare, and we’d never been here before: this was too real for us. I said over and over like an idiot, “Oh my God. I can’t believe it. It just can’t be. It can’t be.” I made him repeat what few details he knew and repeat them again, while I explained to him that I had an email in my inbox that very moment in which David had asked to meet for lunch. We hadn’t set a date, and I was late getting back to him because there was plenty of time, because there is always plenty of time. Until there isn’t. I was reminded of Sedat.
David and I were going to meet at that diner near the Center, I told Gary, we’d just seen each other a few weeks ago, He looked fine, vibrant, in fact, he was excited about his writing, which was going well, working title of his new project...I heard my voice rattling on and remembered myself. Gary listened patiently. I imagine he felt somewhat obliged to, as he’d delivered the devastating news. But it wasn’t fair to keep him on the phone any longer. He seemed relieved when I finally released him and told him not to worry, I’d be fine. I realized that nothing I could say would make David more vivid for him. He’d met David only a few times in passing. His experience of David’s death was the way one reads a newspaper obituary for a stranger - not personally sad, but detached and regretful. He extended a final apology to me, we said we’d speak another time, and he hung up.
I felt betrayed, kicked in the chest, angry at God. I was scared of what was coming, yet I could also feel another part of me that welcomed the approaching storm, surrendered to it. Something, finally, that was non-negotiable, un-spinnable, not for sale, and that had nothing to do with the noise and rage of politics. Something devastating, piercing, yet absolutely holy and true. To every room I entered, David’s death brought a silence, a silence that is with me still.
And I was grateful; despite the years we hadn’t been in touch, he and I had never lost our affection for one another. A month or two before, an unexpected encounter with a mutual friend ended with the three of us locking arms and traveling down Seventh Avenue to David’s haunt, Elephant & Castle, for dinner. The friend sat amused as David and I caught up, summarizing the last ten years in a matter of minutes, and feeling that no time had passed since we’d last seen each other.
In those intervening years, a partner had come and gone in his life, and I’d married my partner of twenty-four years. David had been a mentor to me years before, whether he knew it or not, and I’d always been fascinated with his work and his story. Now, years later, I had new writing to share with him, and he was enthusiastic about it. I felt more confident, less an apprentice than a colleague, comfortable enough, at least, to tease him about the title of the book he was writing, and suggest one of my own.
We reflected on his work, particularly a recent performance of one of his plays, The Whales of August, that had been performed in Japan, in Japanese. David didn’t speak the language, but he was in awe at how beautiful, how right, the performance was. Sitting with him, the afternoon sun pouring in through the diner window, I was grateful to be on the other end of another writer’s attention; no cell phones going off, no texting, just “old school”, hungry listening. I am convinced listening is the new wealth. Talking with David always meant climbing to a higher emotional altitude - looking at one’s history and devastation from a great height. There was laughter and silliness up there, but mostly the examination of pain. I always felt as if his arm were holding my waist, as if he were saying, as we looked down at the traumatic past, “Don’t worry, you won’t fall, I’ve got you.” In that way, he was prodigious, stalwart, monumental.
On our last day, David and I were parting ways at the subway entrance at 14th Street and Seventh Avenue, when he decided he wanted to go over to the park across the street and sit for a while. There is an AIDS memorial under construction there, and the park had been renovated years ago, with a great open space and surrounding benches. The day was unusually warm for winter, almost like late spring, with splashes of bright, clear sunlight. Even though we’d said our goodbyes twice, I asked to join him briefly. We found a bench close to the memorial, and made plans for getting together again, possibly to see the film Moonlight. We returned briefly to a topic we had discussed earlier at the table, but it was obvious that that conversation was over and I was picking at it.
What I felt, perhaps for the first time, was that David wanted some time alone to sit without me. He’d always carried with him a sense of privacy and reserve - every writer does - but I’d never felt it that strongly before. I clearly was on the other side of something that wasn’t cold, just decisive. I don’t usually consider myself a clingy person, but I found myself making small-talk, bullshitting, being inarticulate and, for some reason I couldn’t explain, not leaving him.
Eventually, I had to excuse myself because I felt I was seriously intruding on his quiet. Knowing that the next part of the new book could be coming to him in the silence, I was required as a fellow writer to abandon him. We embraced again and he smiled. I looked back at him as I left, sitting there by himself. And even though we had one last brief greeting a week later on the street, the day I left him in the park feels like the last time I saw him.
At his memorial service it was clear that, despite my convincing myself that my relationship with David had been unique, each of his friends felt exactly the same way. His ability to focus on you, to alter you with his kindness and, when it was called for, get your attention with his almost biblical anger, was profound. It seems inconceivable that he could give that much concentration and care to all of us, that we could each feel like his precious one.
As the tributes were read, his picture was projected on a screen, taken, I believe, at his family home in New England. Unlike the pictures on a nearby table that revealed a young man with dark drown hair, well-groomed mustache, and a young playwright’s theatrical determination, David seemed more relaxed in older age. At 73, with a gray goatee and neatly trimmed hair, he had the joyful expression of a five-year-old kid who has been chased around the backyard of the house and finally collapses in exhaustion, lying on his back in the cool summer grass: free. The man in the picture was deeply satisfied and yet eager for more, a soul capable of great delight. It was the open smile I recognized, with just the slight hint of mischief behind it, the handsomeness that only deepened in his later years. We listened as his favorite poem, Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” was read, but it was the last two lines from Oliver’s “The Summer’s Day”, read by one of his friends, that most fit the image above. “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I believe in David Berry, I believe in James Baldwin. I don’t know if they met in their lifetimes, but I imagine they would have admired each other, would have appreciated the other’s capacity for empathy. They might have spoken of writing, of loving men, and loneliness. I know that David respected Baldwin’s work, and I trust James would have appreciated the courage of David’s first play, G.R. Point (Graves Registration), as one of the first produced plays, if not one of the only, to deal with the aftermath of Vietnam.
James would acknowledge the importance of the name David: his brother David was perhaps his greatest friend and ally in life. And then they would discuss what it meant to be the oldest sibling, to grow up in a family that was crumbling around you, that only you could save. David would share with James that he had to return from Vietnam after his mother died, to take care of his brother and sister. James would recount the now apocryphal history of taking care of his eight brothers and sisters after his stepfather died. Both men became mother and father when their circumstances required it of them. And even when they were bewildered by life, outraged and terrified at the responsibility thrust upon them, they were brave and they showed up. They were nurturers, great lovers of people, and never stopped mothering and fathering, never stopped creating a beloved community and family wherever they went. And while I know that there are heterosexual men who also take care of their families and children, what I am describing in these two men, what they did for their families, both biological and chosen, is something else. There is a different texture to it when it is a gay man who nurtures, and it is this texture, these men, that I am honoring here.
David and James, gorgeous souls, are in my thoughts when I hear Kim Burrell’s rant. Someone else I know has posted a link to it on Facebook, and it seems she’s become a laughing-stock, a “hot mess”. When I look at her, however, I feel sadness. I think of all the gay people she imagines will never get into the kingdom of God. As David has been dead only a few weeks, her portentous words are even more significant and chilling - if he isn’t allowed in “God’s Kingdom” then where, in her mind, will he be welcome?
Hate speech is easy, I surmise, when the subject is an abstraction, a generalization, an entire community or a “sexuality”, not the person standing in front of you. I’d like to believe that, given the chance, she would see that her vitriolic rant is foolish when made more specific; I know when she talks about the “perversion of the homosexual spirit” she can’t possibly be speaking about my James, my David.
In my fantasy, Kim is invited to the welcome table at James Baldwin’s home in France. She arrives at St. Paul-de-Vence and is offered a seat between David and James near the head of the table. David introduces himself, Kim is polite and shakes his hand. They have a lovely conversation because Kim is friendly by nature, and David is, and always has been, a gentleman. And although they learn as the evening goes on that they have both suffered in life, Kim, who keeps her religious views to herself, remains, in her mind, resolute. She likes David, but as a white, gay man from New England his experience is still remote for her, not compelling enough to change her mind.
Jimmy, on the other hand, is a completely different story. He has the Bible verses, he knows the hymns, he’s stood in that pulpit by her side. Oh, the stories she might trade with him! Jimmy, who preached as a young evangelist, who developed the rhetorical style that shaped his writing, Jimmy the prodigy, who knows the Gospel cadences, knows where to place the inflections to get the congregation on their feet, how to deliver that Holy Ghost power that sends parishioners into the aisles for catharsis - the laying-on of hands, the quiet authority. Helping them offer to God their pain, while praying for the forbearance it takes to work every day in a white-folks world; the injustice they endure and leave at the altar each week. My soul looks back and wonders how I got over. The boy preacher stands before the congregation and they are finally released by him - relieved and exhausted and perhaps a bit more hopeful than they were - onto the Harlem streets.
Jimmy once loved the church as Kim claims she does now. And even if his homosexuality repels her, she must at least be able to appreciate what Maya Angelou once described about her brother Bailey: “his black male disappointment in life.” Somewhere she must know all too well the comfort and terror that the church provides for a black, gay man like Jimmy.
The streets of Harlem are different now, but the pain of a white-folks world hasn’t changed that much. In 1939, young black girls jump rope together and black boys playing stickball are called inside by their mothers as a storm approaches. The sky boils and a cold rain comes down, coy at first, and then in relentless, brutal sheets. A man hurries for a bus, a newspaper over his head. A woman fights a battle against the wind as her dress flaps around her like an angry sail; she reaches the door of a brownstone just in time, and light, and warm voices envelop her, beckon her inside. There is a boy, however, who is outside, alone. He is dark, quiet, still.
You recognize him, Kim, standing motionless outside the church gates. He reminds you of someone: brother, nephew, son. He looks about fifteen. He was once allowed inside, when he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ and made his family proud, but no more. If you reach back through the years, you can still hear the shouts, the haunting echoes of his sermons, the amen corner, the organ, praise songs, the release. Hallelujah! Now he is locked out, by your ferocious rhetoric and doomsday predictions. Outside the church he built, he lingers; you’ve seen him before. In his too-short coat, nappy hair, big eyes (always those eyes), witnessing; he watches everything. He claimed you, won’t you claim him, finally?
If you look through the window, rivulets of rain make it almost impossible to tell from the storm outside which are his tears, which his blood. It trickles from his outstretched palms, from his open wrists, from the night when the pain became too much. There was no room at the inn. You praise God and offer his black gay children for crucifixion. You stand warm inside the house he built, that he gave his soul and blood to, praising Jesus, yet ignoring his great sacrifice. You ask yourself as you see him finally retreat, as he vanishes completely into the darkening storm: Wasn’t that my beautiful black son? Was that the soul I was meant to save?
PART THREE - EMERGE
"Our history is each other. That is our only guide. One thing is absolutely certain: one can repudiate, or despise, no one's history without repudiating and despising one's own."
James Baldwin, Just Above My Head (1979)
“I am not trying to glorify black people or denigrate white people, I’m trying to point out that we are, whether we like it or not, connected, and that connection should be our triumph and our glory, instead of our shame.”
James Baldwin, National Press Club Luncheon (1986)
“They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For those who cannot out.”
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (1984)
When you look up James Baldwin in the New York Public Library Archive, there is exactly one box and one folder of his papers available at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The box, which includes correspondence and an excerpt of his first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain is small, upright, like a box in which you’d keep your tax receipts or sheet music.
Compare this with the more than 100 boxes dedicated to poet and memoirist Maya Angelou, and the almost 100 for playwright Lorraine Hansberry. As both are Baldwin’s contemporaries and, one can argue, equally important black literary figures (and friends), it is inconceivable that so little of his correspondence and personal papers has been made available to academics, researchers, other writers, and in this year which marks the 30th anniversary of his death.
It is clear from Raoul Peck’s earlier interview that Baldwin’s literary estate makes the majority of papers, which haven’t been released, available for specific projects they endorse, for which he is extremely grateful, and which he acknowledges in every interview, and lists in the credits of his film. But the fact remains that it is someone else’s criteria which determine who is granted or denied access to Baldwin, criteria that have never publicly been made known. This is deeply frustrating, especially when one takes into account the “democratic” spirit that usually governs literary scholarship, and particularly that of a figure of James Baldwin’s stature.
Yale University’s Beinecke Library has almost all the Baldwin papers which have been made available in their collection, some acquired in extraordinary circumstances involving the acquisition of a storage building in Philadelphia that once belonged to a publisher, in which a suitcase of Baldwin’s was purportedly left behind. The papers contain writings and personal items dating back to the years 1943-1945, and there are other files with manuscripts and his personal correspondence throughout the decades. Altogether, the two collections, at Yale and at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, form the entire available Baldwin collection. According to Wikipedia, the total amount equals 3 linear feet. (Maya Angelou’s papers are measured at 199 feet.)
I think of those who might have benefited from access to the bulk of Baldwin’s papers, in particular black gay artists and scholars, many of whom we lost in the late Eighties and early Nineties to AIDS. I fear that these papers may not become available in my lifetime. It is my belief that, given how generous Baldwin was with his time, with himself, he would have encouraged a different choice concerning his unpublished work; that, given how much of his biography he shared, he would want scholars to evaluate him with all the information available, that he would want to be deeply known.
I sense there has always been a desire to protect James, and there were many years, perhaps most of his career as a public figure and spokesperson, one with an extensive FBI file, when he needed protecting. But it is thirty years later, a lifetime later. What is he being protected from now?
There are rules to be followed before I am granted access. I am moved by the boundaries and protection in which the papers are kept; that his work and life are valued and respected. A protection Baldwin always sought, finally granted; a care by his country and dignity that he was never afforded in life. And even though I find the contents of the box and the folder on Baldwin to be threadbare, I am grateful just the same.
It feels right to read about Baldwin in Harlem. As I reflect on his childhood, I find it regrettable that many do not know the role played by African-American poet Countee Cullen in Baldwin’s early development. Cullen, not featured in the film, taught Baldwin in his formative years and provided an example of a black gay male writer as artist, as did painter Beauford Delaney, who became a life-long mentor, father, friend. According to biographer David Leeming, Cullen, a Harvard graduate who had been to Europe and spoke French, provided James with an example of black gay intelligence, worldliness, and sophistication. Delaney, who arrived in Baldwin's life at a crucial time of crisis, was his "principal witness" and would teach him to see in new ways by encouraging him to open the "unusual door."
There isn’t much on Baldwin’s romantic relationships in the file, but there is a letter he wrote to a friend as a young man, I believe aged nineteen or twenty, about a woman he claims to be in love with. She is Jewish, divorced, and although he describes her as “not pretty at all”, he also talks about her green eyes and her slim waist. Baldwin tells his friend that she has discouraged him because if anyone is going to be hurt in their relationship it will be him, and she’s not sure she’s in love with him or feels the same way about him as he does about her.
I find it curious that this “romance”or crush, minus a few random journal entries, is the extent of Baldwin’s romantic life available in the collection. I’m a pretty careful reader and I can’t find any of his male lovers, and if they are there, I don’t recognize their names - and I’ve read all the biographies. I do not take this letter to be proof that Baldwin isn’t homosexual - many gay men have written that letter to a friend, or one just like it. (It isn’t hard to fall in love with someone who isn’t available or who can’t or won’t reciprocate.) Baldwin tells his friend that the woman is brilliant, that he loves her mind. I wonder if she is the object of affection discussed in I Am Not Your Negro. The narrator in Peck's film describes a white woman with whom he is involved, and the cloak-and-dagger maneuvers required for them to see each other, to keep from getting in trouble with a racist society and the police. Peck takes several minutes of screen time to describe this clandestine heterosexual love affair, yet there is no mention anywhere in his film of male lovers or of gay bars, or of the times Baldwin spent and lived in Greenwich Village.
I discover (through the papers at Yale) that James spent a night in jail in the U.S. in the years following the publication of Giovanni’s Room. I’d known about the time he was imprisoned in France, which he wrote about in his essay Equal in Paris, but this was news. The circumstances were bizarre: Baldwin was out with friends for a drink in New York City and passed by some people who had stolen a decorative lantern from a nearby restaurant or bar. In a jovial mood, he asked the man holding the lantern how he kept it lit. As they were all standing there talking and laughing, the police came and arrested everyone. The "case" against Baldwin was laughable, but the prosecutors persisted. At one point he considered going public in order to shame the court system and even thought of suing: “these people hate publicity,” he wrote. The problem was, Baldwin hated publicity as well, or at least this particular kind. “I’m always bitterly aware,” he continued, “that my life is not the kind of life that can bear the moral scrutiny of the public, nobody’s life is, of course, but mine is totally unprotected. And then I thought of my family, especially my mother, who lives in a kind of sleeping uneasiness about me anyway, and I thought it might be much better if this could all be handled quietly, I haven’t even told her anything about this.” To be clear: there is no evidence I can find that Berdis Baldwin disapproved of James' sexuality. However, reading this letter, written to Mary S. Painter, and considering the fact that Mrs. Baldwin survived her son, this was the first time it occurred to me that James may have been guarded about his sexual identity in those earlier years, not because of personal shame, or internalized homophobia, but rather from a dutiful son’s desire to protect his mother from public humiliation.
There are random items, all fascinating: pay stubs, tax information, a war pamphlet on the draft for conscientious objectors, and a small card advertising a talk by a Japanese woman on, "The Japanese-American relocation program and its effects." Sometime in his late teens or very early twenties, James began writing a novel about Bill, a white man, and Johnnie Grimes, his black lover, who live together as a couple in the Village in the 1940s. (John Grimes - the name Baldwin uses for his protagonist in Go Tell It On The Mountain.) Bill rents the apartment by himself, mentioning to the landlady only that he will later be joined by "a friend". When Johnnie arrives, the landlady furiously tells Bill she has nothing against negroes (but won't have them living in her building) and threatens to call the police. Bill tells her sarcastically that there is no law in New York that says "a negro can't live with someone of the master race", and that he can move in whomever he likes. Baldwin writes: "It's a good thing she knew nothing about them. They could be in jail tomorrow if she did. Odd that such a thing could be punishable by law." Later in the story, Johnnie goes to meet a friend at a restaurant where, while he waits, he is aggressively cruised by a sailor at another table. It would be another twenty years before Another Country and its themes of New York life, interracial relationships, and homosexuality would be published, but for those who deny that gay themes are an essential part of the Baldwin oeuvre, it is all there in his early writings.
It is in the box of Maya Angelou’s correspondence that I find what I have also been looking for, Baldwin’s communication with another black artist. He begins a letter to her, dated November 20, 1970: “Dear Sister: It was marvelous to hear from you, I didn’t know how much I wanted to hear from a solid, loving, funky, no-shit friend. Most connections have so much shit attached to them that, without quite realizing it, one turns away, gives up, opts out: one ceases to expect very much from human beings and that’s not only sad, it’s dangerous.”
I read what is in the file, from telegrams to the order of service at his funeral in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In the few available letters, I am able to glean the process of a great writer. And it means everything to me to know that a writer can be famous and successful and still doubt his new work, to be reminded of why a writer must take care of her health (Baldwin discusses the illness and death of Lorraine Hansberry at thirty-four, and of his own constant exhaustion), and that it is okay to feel burnt-out, tired, afraid, and alone, and that the work can still get done, must get done.
In Angelou’s collection of letters, there is one from Baldwin written to a friend, Scotty. James gives him permission to share the letter with Maya, which is probably why it still exists. This letter and others in his file, give me further insight into this remarkable man. I am reminded that when James was nineteen, his stepfather, the only father he knew, went into a mental institution in Long Island and that six months into his stay, Baldwin discovered his mother was pregnant with her ninth child. He had a job making twenty-nine dollars a week. When his stepfather (also a preacher) died, his mother was so distraught, she went into labor and gave birth to his youngest sister.
In this letter to Scotty and others, James describes his restlessness at that time in his life - being fired from jobs, unable to sit still or concentrate, devoted to his family but needing, somehow, to free himself:
“It can be said, I think, that I have spent so much of my life taking care of others because I was afraid of something else - I have, certainly, never willingly, allowed anyone to take care of me. Why? I think I believed what my father always said. He said that I was the ugliest boy he had ever seen. I had to compensate for that judgment. “
He describes to Scotty the story familiar to many readers, of his time in Paris where he was falsely imprisoned for “stealing” bed sheets from a hotel. “When I came out of jail in Paris, I had to play the role [of] don’t worry about me, I’m all right.” Baldwin, unable to speak French well, experiences a series of disasters: he is ill, in Aix-en-Provence, is thrown into the hospital for an operation, has no money and has left his passport there. He describes wandering the streets of Aix, waiting for money from Paris that hadn’t arrived, and for someone, anyone to help. He even turns to his mentor Richard Wright, and asks for ten dollars, but Richard turns him down. When the wound reopens he writes, “I held myself together by thinking of a man in Paris, who said he was in love with me, with whom I was in love.” He goes to his man’s house “to eat, to take a bath, to find a doctor, to weep, to be held in someone’s arms - his arms - to be brought back into the world.” He finds this man with a woman, and realizes that his affair with him is over. They walk out of the man’s house, the three of them, he leaves the couple in a cafe and travels alone. And finally: “...that walk up the boulevard, that December morning, chilled and hardened something in me. It became impossible for me to ask anyone for anything.” Baldwin is finally rescued by a friend who gives him money. When Baldwin assures him that he may not be able to pay him back right away if ever, the man encourages him to “pay it forward” - advice that he tells Scotty changed his life.
In James Baldwin’s letter to Scotty I see his pain and isolation, and also how he translated pain into art: the sense of betrayal and dislocation which became the character Giovanni in Giovanni’s Room, when Hella returns from Spain and David abandons him. In Baldwin’s wandering through Paris looking for help, I see Rufus in Another Country, desperate, proud and in need, finally breaking down and calling on his best friend Vivaldo. Different city, same streets.
James’ letter to Scotty is beautiful, sometimes terrifying to read, and a confirmation. While we may never know the identity of the man Baldwin claimed in this letter to have loved and who he claimed was in love with him, we know that one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, black and brilliant, loved men. And we know it in his own words. It shouldn’t be a revelation, really: Baldwin admitted it himself. But somehow this is different, reading it in a letter like this. It matters to me as a gay black man, once a gay black boy, who doubted himself, who couldn’t imagine what loving a man might look like, or what being an artist might look like, who felt frightened and alone and ashamed, to know that James had already traveled that rocky terrain.
My father didn’t call me ugly, as James’ did, but he called me a few other things, and we fought. Then there came a day when I vowed he would never make me cry again. Cold steel ran though my veins at the thought of him. I became an emotional alcoholic the day I made that decision at fourteen - my first drink of alcohol came five years later. I see in myself the pain of being afraid to ask for help, the way boys emotionally shut down and break down, often in their teens, and how the world calls this initiation “becoming a man.” This is the theme of Moonlight. Gay boys have their own specific version of this hardening, as overachievers, caretakers, being useful and - too often - used. Anything to avoid the deep suspicion that we are not good enough, will never be good enough, because we are homosexual. Baldwin understood that it was shame about being a "nigger" that drove his father to search for purity in the pulpit, and the shame of being a "faggot" which led James to join him there; the shame and contempt many of us see in our father’s eyes, or our mother’s, long before we have a name for the feeling which makes us different. What do you do when the arms to which you go for love, for sustenance, are the same arms that try to assassinate you? Baldwin understood this question, not only in terms of fathers and lovers, but of our nation.
James is speaking for many men (and women), and the terror we feel, to trust, to lay our burdens down. At the heart of this letter lies a profound question: how can you be truly loved, or find love, if you can’t let go of control, if you can’t relax, if you are always in pain, “beating back the past”, believing what you’ve been told about yourself? Who has authority over your life?
It is raining outside, and as I approach the church, I see the room. There is a light on inside. Its incandescence against the dark night is welcoming. It’s been a while since I’ve been to an AA meeting. I told a friend during the election that if Trump became president I might have to live in the rooms, going to meetings back to back: recovery as sanctuary. AA may be one of the few places left I know that feels truly democratic. I can deal with white people in AA. A certain smugness and entitlement which racism encourages doesn’t usually exist in these rooms, or is at least suspended until we’re all back out on the street.
I think it has to do with being addicts in recovery, the relationship between pain and truth. White lives get smashed by addiction, just the same as black ones. The beautiful blonde woman who looks as if she should be luxuriantly shaking out her hair in shampoo commercials, or speaking authoritatively to a courtroom jury on TV, sits next to a black homeless man under a blanket who sips coffee from a cup he holds in both hands. They know each other’s names, which is rare outside this room, and they also know that they share a love for vodka, and for crack cocaine. The white businessman, who once “had it all”, lost it all five years ago, including his wife and kids, to his addiction to methamphetamine. The Asian woman sitting across from him, who runs her own catering business, is his sponsor. She found the rooms after two nights in jail for drunk driving. Addiction, like death, is the great leveler, a different kind of welcome table, and as an alcoholic, I know this is where I belong.
I nod to a few familiar faces as a man walks in, almost on my heels. He’s wearing a Trump tee-shirt with those words emblazoned across the front: “Make America Great Again.” I feel violated, as if someone just walked into my home and took a shit on my dining-room table. Of all the places I have had to deal with this slogan, this is the last place - especially on the intellectual, leftist, democratic, and predominantly Jewish Upper West Side - where I imagined I’d have to look at it. It feels provocative here, and he keeps his chest out, a slight smirk on his face, daring anyone to challenge him. He takes a seat in the back.
As I deliberately look away from him, I notice a woman sitting in the row across from me. She is black, and her handbag, the strap draped over the chair, is open ever so slightly to reveal a book which looks familiar. Because I am always curious to know what people are reading, I lean over slightly and see James’ face, peeking back at me. She is reading David Leeming’s biography of James Baldwin, and the picture on the front is the one taken by Sedat, the image I saw framed in his home, that I one day hoped to buy. I think about Sedat, stepping off the porch of his house to greet me, and how his love for James has found its way to this AA meeting a hundred miles away.
I speak to the young woman during the break: she is a student, visiting New York from Nigeria, studying at university and taking a course on Baldwin. My questions are rapid-fire, and she answers with amused laughter at my enthusiasm. She hasn’t read anything about him before. She has never read Another Country but it is on the list and she is looking forward to it. I think of the characters that await her: Rufus, Vivaldo, Leona, Ida, Cass, Richard, Eric. The love and heartbreak and wisdom and warmth and fierceness that are in that book, that are James Baldwin’s work. I am so excited, I have to back off a bit to keep from overwhelming her because I feel so overwhelmed. In moments like this, I feel as if I’ve run into a childhood friend while traveling along a trail in a remote foreign country. I think about James and the family he still creates, the people he has brought together in the piece I am writing: Philip and Eddie, Andrew and Lawrence, Derek, Sedat and Kathy, David; and now this woman, whom I thank several times, and welcome to the room. She is new to recovery. Perhaps one day I will know her story.
When the meeting ends, on the way out I pass the man with the tee-shirt. I had completely forgotten about him. While I was reflecting on James, that shirt, and whatever power I might have given it before, evaporated. The message I am being sent is clear: read Baldwin, and keep re-reading him as a way to survive the next four years.
James Baldwin personally matters to me because, for the black and queer voices you will never hear, who could not rise above the chaos and terror of oppression to testify, one voice emerged. For those of us lost to the needle, the pipe, the suicide note, the church, to war, to poverty, to sexual abuse, to social and political violence, unable to tell the tale, James told it for us. I celebrate him, and I need his queer voice acknowledged. I’m fighting like hell for it, in fact, because how many artists have we had, black or white, who were fearless enough to reveal us to ourselves and expose the Great Lie? As Baldwin once said, with words meant for those who try to extort the closet homosexual, but that also defined his career: "You didn't tell me, I told you."
During the question and answer period (written on cards) of the aforementioned National Press Club Luncheon in 1986, Baldwin was asked, “How would you assess the state of race relations today, how much change have you seen since The Fire Next Time?" After giving the audience a slightly helpless smile that almost hid his frustration, Baldwin responded with what he called a “modest proposal”:
"What I would really like to do," he began, "I want to establish...White History Week. (Audience laughs and claps.) Because the answers to these questions is not to be found in me, but in that history that produces these questions. It’s late in the day to be talking about race relations. What are you talking about? As long as we have 'race relations', how can they deteriorate or improve? I am not a race and neither are you.
“No, we are talking about the life and the death of this country...I’m not joking when I talk about white history week. One of the things which most afflicts this country is that white people don’t know who they are or where they come from. And that’s why you think I’m a problem. But I am not the problem, your history is. And as long as you pretend that you don’t know your history, you are going to be a prisoner of it. And there is no question of you liberating me, because you can’t liberate yourselves. We are in this together.
"And finally: when “white people” talk about progress in relation to black people, all they are saying and all they can possibly mean by the word progress is how quickly and how thoroughly I become white. I don’t want to become white, I want to grow up. And so should you."
There is space at the welcome table. Have a seat. Eat, drink something. Argue. Stay for a few days. Sing. You will hear Donny Hathaway’s music in this house, and Aretha and Billie and Bessie. James, at the head of the table, still talks passionately about America, about white Americans, and you will hear his disappointment and outrage, his exasperation, and, at times, his despair. There are somber moments when he may even wonder if it was worth the sacrifice, if anyone really heard what he was saying. He is older now, not the young man on the TV screen waving a cigarette with dramatic flair, but the voice is familiar, the cadence the same. So much is different, so many gone, but what hasn’t changed is the love that fueled the concentration, the enormous gift he gave us. It was always about love, or none of it would have mattered. And when Jimmy loves you, then you are loved, baby - you are his brother, his sister. There is always a place for you at his table. And by loving us, by seeing us, he allows us to be all that we are, he embraces our multitudes. If we love him, we must extend to him the same courtesy.
We know that academia 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 opening line, “He was facing Seventh Avenue, at Times Square”, if he follows Rufus’ journey, of homelessness, 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.
February 25, 2017 New York City
Farber, Jules B. James Baldwin: Escape from America, Exile in Provence, Louisiana, Gretna, 2016
Leeming, David, James Baldwin, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994
Maya Angelou papers, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library
James Baldwin letters and manuscripts, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library
James Baldwin Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
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