Four years ago, shortly after I had begun thinking about the life and work of James Baldwin, who has been dead for fourteen years now, Dr. Betty Shabazz, widow of the martyred political leader Malcolm X, lay in critical condition at the Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, 80 percent of her body covered in burns. It was June. James Baldwin’s famous eyes, the shape of poppies in bloom, stared out from the paperback editions of his novels and plays, essays and dialogues, which I had begun to read and reread earlier that spring, not long before I sat—as if in a narcotic trance—before my television set, taking in the newsreel images of Betty Shabazz’s life. One of the conditions of being a writer is that all those authors you have loved and learned from, and by necessity have taught yourself to forget, the better to get on with your own work, end up encroaching on the real events of your life. It was impossible for me to look at Betty Shabazz, or the grandson who had allegedly set his grandmother aflame, without wondering what Baldwin would have made of it all. I imagined he would have seen in the story of Malcolm X, whom he had known, and Betty Shabazz, and their orphaned children, a parable of the splintered black American family. In particular, he would have seen something of himself in that scared and angry and messed-up black boy, committing, horribly, such irrevocable violence against his family, believing he had nowhere to go.
That spring, I existed in a kind of self-protective numbness, paused between the death of Betty Shabazz and my own resurrection of James Baldwin. I became lost, once again, in Baldwin the writer; lost in the rise and fall, the rise and fall of his language. As I read Baldwin in my present incarnation, I realized that he did not have a great formal mind. He did not have an expansive command of American history or politics. He wrote out of a sense of presumed intimacy with the reader, an early precursor to many of the memoirists currently in vogue. In order to read him again, I had to submit to his mind—obsessive, emotional, and self-reflective as it was. He invented and reinvented himself, book by book. And through that invention he had grown dependent on his audience’s ability to make him feel complete, seen, known. I had learned from his example: the writer of delicate, precise talent who becomes a public figure, a spokesman, ceases to be the writer he meant to be. Yet, what I identified with in Baldwin’s work—the high faggot style of his voice, the gripping narrative of his ascent from teen evangelist to cultural icon—had not changed substantially since the days when I had devoured his books like some weird food, as he had described his own early love of reading. My admiration for the way in which he alchemized the singularity of his experience into art had not diminished.
As a child I had suspected that Baldwin and I were similar, but for a long time, I was unprepared to accept that. I have never been comfortable being identified as a black anything, spokesperson in particular, particularly when that description comes from a white audience that knows nothing about its limitations. Nor have I ever been comfortable with the presumed fraternities some black writers, academics, and intellectuals feel with one another. I have spent my entire life trying to come to grips with my feelings for my own family, and I have not had room to be adopted by a family to whose provincialism, competitiveness, and numerous apprehensions I am not genetically bound.
Baldwin, at one point in his life, felt the same way. In 1959, when he was thirty-five, he wrote from self-imposed exile in Europe that he had left America because he wanted to prevent himself from becoming “merely a Negro writer.” He went on to become the greatest Negro writer of his generation. Perhaps none of us escapes the whipping post we’ve carved our names on. Baldwin’s career became a cautionary tale for me, a warning as well as an inspiration. After leaving home at nineteen, he worked for a while at a defense plant in New Jersey. “I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people. . . . That year in New Jersey lives in my mind as though it were the year during which, having an unsuspected predilection for it, I first contracted some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels. Once the disease is controlled, one can never be really carefree again, for the fever, without an instant’s warning, can recur at any moment. It can wreck more important things than race relations. There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood . . .”
In November 1948, when he was twenty-four, unwilling to end up like his stepfather, sitting at the window, locked up in his terrors, Baldwin used the money from a literary fellowship he’d won to book passage to Paris. He arrived with just over forty dollars to his name and few contacts, other than Richard Wright, who’d arrived there two years earlier. But postwar Paris proved to be a refuge for a number of black Americans, and the Parisians, as Baldwin’s friend Maya Angelou has said, were delighted with them. They were neither les miserables nor Algerians. France was not without its race prejudices, she recalled in an interview; it simply did not have any guilt vis-à-vis black Americans. And black Americans who went there, from Richard Wright to Sidney Bechet, were so colorful, and so talented, and so marvelous, and so exotic, who wouldn’t want them?
Shortly after his arrival, Baldwin met a seventeen-year-old Swiss artist named Lucien Happersberger. The fact that Happersberger was white and Baldwin was black was less of a transgression than it would have been back in the States. “In Paris,” Baldwin said, “I didn’t feel socially attacked, but relaxed, and that allowed me to be loved.” But Lucien, who was bisexual, and more attracted to women, was not completely available to Baldwin. Straight and bisexual men were to Baldwin’s taste—or rather, to the taste of the isolation he fed on. For Baldwin the first principle of love was what love withheld. His purpose was to get through another man’s terrors in order to recognize his own. In the gay demimonde, where looks count for a great deal, Baldwin was not a success, even after he became famous. There’s a famous eighteenth-century person, a poet told me, who used to say, “I can talk my face away in twenty-five minutes,” and Jimmy could do that, to a point perhaps. But he was not pretty enough to compete in a world he had chosen for himself. If one is black and gay, and one’s primary sexual interest is in men who are neither, one lives at a distance from one’s desire.
Baldwin pitted his ugliness against Western standards of beauty in his second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), a short tale of love and abandonment that takes place in the bars and hotels of postwar Paris. The protagonist and narrator is a white boy from New York named David, who is in, one assumes, his late twenties. David is adrift in Paris. He is adrift, or more accurately in flight, from his homosexuality. At a gay bar he frequents, he meets an Italian bartender named Giovanni, who is sweet and passionate, and just a trifle dimwitted, but who feels—shades of E. M. Forster. David can commit neither to Giovanni nor to his fiancée, Hella. His lack of a moral center has serious consequences. Made desperate by David’s abandonment, Giovanni steals from his former employer and murders him in a scuffle. The melodramatic plot, in which each man really does kill the thing he loves, creates in microcosm the tone of Baldwin’s later, unwieldy novels, notably the passionate Another Country (1961). Giovanni’s Room isn’t exactly self-affirming, but the fact that Baldwin wrote about the world of his sexuality at all is extraordinary given the year and his race. So intense was the stern Puritanism of most blacks I knew while I was growing up that one was not simply a faggot but a damned faggot. When Giovanni’s Room was published, Richard Howard recalls, “It was regarded as an exceptional book, and gay people were proud that such a thing existed, and that it should have been written by a black person was kind of phenomenal.”
Baldwin was not a natural novelist. His voice as an essayist intrudes on the plot lines of every novel he wrote, except Go Tell It on the Mountain, which was, in nearly every sense, his story. It was in Baldwin’s essays, unencumbered by the requirements of narrative form, character, and incident, that his voice was most fully realized. And his attacks on the straight white gatekeepers of culture and politics remain appropriately vicious. In the 1950s his most pugnacious contemporary was Norman Mailer. In 1959 Mailer published Advertisements for Myself, which contained his essays, evaluations, quick comments on the talent in the room. In it, he declares his admiration for James Jones and other major novelists of the time, but says, “James Baldwin is too charming to be a major writer. If in ‘Notes of a Native Son’ he has a sense of moral nuance, which is one of the few modern guides for the sophistications of the ethos, even the best of his paragraphs are sprayed with perfume. Baldwin seems incapable of saying ‘fuck you’ to the reader. Instead he must delineate the cracking and the breaking and the melting and the hardening of the heart, which could never have felt such sensuous growth and little deaths, without being emptied as a voice.”
Fag bashing? Baldwin did not take Mailer’s comments lying down, and it’s the faggy exhaustion of Baldwin’s voice, the hardening of his heart, that amuses. Baldwin’s subsequent essay about Mailer, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” published in 1961, deflates Mailer’s macho posturing with perfumed wit: “Norman, I can’t go through the world the way you do because I haven’t got your shoulders,” he writes. “‘I want to know how power works,’ Norman once said to me, ‘how it really works, in detail.’ Well, I know how power works. It has worked on me, and if I didn’t know how power worked, I would be dead.” This is not ebonics, but gaybonics—the stylish voice one hears in many a black gay bar. Baldwin slyly makes fun of Mailer’s infatuation with a predominantly black gay jazz world. “Negro jazz musicians really liked Norman,” he writes, “but they did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely hip. They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” Baldwin did not, however, own up to his reciprocal fascination with straight white boys and their privilege.
Another Country, Baldwin’s hip book about interracial sex, gay sex, pot smoking, and nihilism, turned out to be an artistic challenge. By the time Baldwin published Another Country and the essay collection Nobody Knows My Name, both in 1962, he had become America’s leading literary black star. Both books were commercially successful, but the reviews of Another Country were mixed. The novel centers on Rufus, a black male artist, who falls in love with a Southern white woman he meets at a party and has sex with her on the host’s balcony. After becoming involved with her, Rufus is tormented by a world that cannot understand their love. He beats her, she ends up in a mental ward, he commits suicide. The subplots, about adultery, bebopping, and ambition, are equally melodramatic. Elizabeth Hardwick astutely observed in her review for Harper’s, “In certain respects this novel is a representation of some of the ideas about American life, particularly about the Negro in American life, that Baldwin’s essays have touched upon. But what is lacking in the book is James Baldwin himself, who has in his nonfictional writing a very powerful relation to the reader.”
When Baldwin began writing Another Country, he had temporarily renounced his exile to return to the States. He wrote part of the book in the novelist William Styron’s guesthouse in rural Connecticut. Styron recalled: “We gave him a place to stay. It was winter. I used to watch him, this very black figure, climb through the snowdrifts toward our house. I was writing Nat Turner, and I talked to him about it. Later, he defended the book, which came under attack by black intellectuals. We’d feed him, and he’d come around at night. We’d have these very liberal political people over, and Jimmy, who’d embarked on his role as a preacher, used to stand in front of the fireplace and say, ‘Baby, we’re going to burn your mother-fucking houses down.’”
To try and unravel the various contradictions in Baldwin’s work is to risk seeming foolish. Ideology denied in one book is confirmed as gospel in another. In his earliest essays he insisted he did not want to be the things he eventually became, merely a Negro, merely a Negro writer, merely a homosexual, merely a spokesperson for his race. And yet these contradictions are one of the most valuable features of his work. Without a large edition of work about his culture, his history, his politics on which to base himself, he had to make himself up, which is still the curse for others not unlike him who feel they only have James Baldwin to work against. Baldwin understood this particular kind of ambivalence, having written the following at thirty-six: “One of my dearest friends, a Negro writer now living in Spain, circled around me, and I around him, for months before we spoke. One Negro meeting another at an all-white cocktail party cannot but wonder how the other got there. The question is: Is he for real, or is he kissing ass? Negroes know about each other what can be here called family secrets, and this means that one Negro, if he wishes, can mock the other’s hustle. Therefore one exceptional Negro watches another exceptional Negro in order to find out if he knows how vastly successful and bitterly funny the hoax has been.”
Reading Baldwin, I was able to laugh again. This laughter is somewhat quelled by the knowledge that there is one great Baldwin masterpiece waiting to be published, one composed in an atmosphere of focused intimacy, and that is a volume of his letters, letters his family does not want published. When I asked one of his biographers why the Baldwin family wouldn’t allow his letters to be published, he explained that the family felt he shed a negative light on them, particularly on David Baldwin, who was their father, and not his. And they were uncomfortable with his homosexuality. And yet Baldwin left his legacy in their hands. In the end, even a bastard may be reclaimed by his family.