Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

James Baldwin, exile writer

Novelist and essayist
James Baldwin (1924-1987):

"I think Americans are terrified of feeling anything, and homophobia is an extreme example of the American terror that's concerned with growing up. I never met a people more infantile in my life. It's a way of controlling people. Nobody really cares who goes to bed with whom...I mean the nation doesn't really care. They care that you should be frightened of the consequences of what you do. As long as you feel guilty about it, the state can rule you. It's a way of exerting control over the country, by terrifying people."

In 1979, when African-American novelist/essayist James Baldwin addressed a forum sponsored by the New York chapter of Black and White Men Together (BWMT-NY), he opened up for the first time about his own homosexual orientation. Speaking with candor, Baldwin claimed that his life-long sexual orientation had never been a secret, but he had not felt it was necessary, "or anybody's business," to affirm it. "Before I was seven years old," he said, "there were already multiple labels on my back, beginning with 'nigger.' By the time I was 14, I went through a kind of nervous breakdown, when I was a Pentecostal youth preacher in Harlem, and by the time I was 17, 1 had survived all those bigoted labels, including 'faggot.' It wasn't, and it isn't, easy." Baldwin mentioned that, while he was gay, he did not necessarily identify with the institutionalized and "ghettoized" homosexual community. Gays, like blacks, he stated, were being used as scapegoats for white society's own fears. He claimed that, by and large, white gays practiced the same racism against black gays. He mentioned that Gore Vidal, the celebrated gay writer, had referred to him as a "jungle bunny."

In answer to a question from the audience, Baldwin seemed to indicate that his own political consciousness as an open gay advocate had evolved over a period of time. It began with the writing of his book, Giovanni's Room (1956). "That was something I had to do; I had to work through it," he said, in reference to writing the book. It was no secret that it was partly autobiographical.

More recently, he admitted, his consciousness had brought him to the point where in his latest novel, Just Above My Head (1979), he was able to write freely about the homosexual relationship of two blacks. His previous works dealt with sex between whites, or between blacks and whites but not between blacks.

During his teenage years in Harlem and Greenwich Village, Baldwin began to recognize his own homosexuality. In 1948, at the tender age of 24, disillusioned by American prejudice against blacks and homosexuals, Baldwin left the United States and departed for Paris, France, with $40 in his pocket. His flight was not just a desire to distance himself from American prejudice. He fled in order to see himself and his writing beyond an African American context and to be read as not "merely a Negro or even a Negro writer". Baldwin noted shortly after he first arrived in France, "I didn't go to Paris. I left New York."

He left the United States also desiring to come to terms with his sexual ambivalence and flee the hopelessness that many young African American men like himself succumbed to in New York. In Paris, Baldwin was soon involved in the cultural radicalism of the Left Bank. His work started to be published in literary anthologies, notably Zero, which had already published essays by Richard Wright, whom Baldwin called "the greatest black writer in the world". Wright and Baldwin became fast friends, and Wright helped Baldwin get published and ultimately secure numerous literary awards.

Baldwin would live as an expatriate in France for most of his later life. Baldwin came to be seen not only as an influential African American writer but also as an influential exile writer. He became a close friend of the singer, pianist, and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Along with Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, Baldwin helped awaken Simone to the civil rights movement then fomenting. Among Baldwin’a circle of friends were Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Rip Torn, Alex Haley, Miles Davis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Margaret Mead, Josephine Baker, Allen Ginsberg and Maya Angelou.

1 comment:

  1. A friend introduced me to his books when I was in the army, in the mid 60s. I found them fascinating.