Homosexual biographies: James Baldwin | Cultivation of red brick
Race. Religion. Homosexuality. This thematic trinity is central to all of Baldwin’s work. Write as a black man during the civil rights movement in the United States and as a homosexual during a time when “gay” was not even a term (Baldwin himself said he did was never considered ‘gay’; the only word he had was “homosexual”) perhaps it was inevitable that such themes would emerge. From reading his novels, and especially his essays, anger, passion and cries for understanding seem as important today as they were then, and perhaps even more so.
Born in the Harlem ghettos, New York James Baldwin grew up the eldest of nine siblings and never knew his biological father. He described Harlem as an area in which “poverty is high” and “entire families [are] condemned forever nothing… in the richest city in the world. In the midst of such desperation, Baldwin found security in the community of his local church, converting to Christianity at just 14 and preaching to larger crowds than his father-in-law, also a preacher. Three years later, however, Baldwin lost his faith and grew increasingly contemptuous of church and religion, claiming that “If the conception of god has no validity and no use, it can only be to make us bigger, freer and more loving. If God can’t do this, then it’s time we got rid of him.
First novel and the role of religion
His early education in Christianity never left him, however, and reviews have noticed on the cadences and rhythms of his writing like those of a biblical preacher. As a theme, too, the church has appeared time and again in Baldwin’s work, and his first novel Go say it on the mountain takes place over a single day, following a boy who just turned 14 and his family at church on a Sunday. The Boy is a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Baldwin himself, and the story involves flashbacks to the character’s grandmother’s past as a slave (Baldwin’s grandmother was also a slave), and the boy conflictual relationship with his father in a mirror of Baldwin’s own difficult relationship with his stepfather.
Racism and migration to Europe
After the death of his stepfather, Baldwin, now 19, moved in with the modernist painter Beauford Delaney and spent the next few years of his life working odd manual jobs to support his family while becoming a self-taught writer, posting essays and short stories, and at one point sharing a room with Marlon Brando, then not yet famous. 1944. Eventually, however, the racism he experienced became like a constant battle, so much so that “your the world is reduced to one red circle of rage”. Baldwin knew he had to escape the brutal racial segregation of states; in his own words, he felt that he “… was going to go to jail, I was going to kill someone or be killed.”
At 24, so broke he had only 40 dollars in his pocket, James Baldwin moved to Paris, literary haunt of writers as renowned as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Paris also worked its magic on Baldwin and the city becomes the setting for Baldwin’s second novel: Giovanni’s bedroom.
The controversy of Baldwin’s second novel
Giovanni’s bedroom became the subject of controversy on two fronts: first, because it dealt with what contemporary Guardian critic David Walliams called the “anomaly“ homosexual relations, and second, because it was entirely populated by white characters. Having been wrongly labeled as a single writer on race relations in America, Baldwin’s American editors feared that writing about white characters, let alone gay characters, alienated its new readership. Their refusal to publish his work, however, did not prove to be an obstacle: Baldwin found the sympathy of an English publisher, and the book that was once rejected became a literary classic.
Civil rights activism
Shortly after the publication of this second novel, Baldwin returned to the United States and became heavily involved in the civil rights movement, befriending figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. In addition to continuing to write and publish essay collections, Baldwin has made numerous public appearances in schools and universities to talk about racism in America. In 1965, Baldwin delivered his legendary ‘pin-drop’ speech during a Cambridge Union debate on the motion “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” And in 1963 he appeared on the TIME magazine cover, presented as a spokesperson for the civil rights movement. During the 1963 march on Washington, however, Baldwin was clearly absent from the list of speakers; many civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, did not want to be associated with a homosexual. As in the controversy surrounding Giovanni’s bedroom, some seemed to believe his homosexuality was in conflict with his darkness, perhaps in a mirror of the mixture of shame and hope experienced in church as a teenager.
One thing remains certain: James Baldwin was and still is, by his writing, a self-proclaimed “Disturbing the peace”. His mantle has been echoed by the many writers he befriended and personally inspired, such as Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe, and Netflix’s 2016 visual essay. I’m not your nigga is based on an unfinished final book by Baldwin. In summary, Baldwin’s most important legacy is this: to inspire writers and readers to continue to challenge a world still filled with injustice.
Read more Queer biographies of inspiring personalities:
Homosexual biographies: Keith Haring
Queer biographies: Gertrude Stein
Queer biographies: Robert Mapplethorpe