james baldwin: revolutionary reflections

August 2, 2018
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Today as we celebrate James Baldwin’s 94 Birthday, we also recognize “The Day I Resisted. Celebrating Individuals Who Resist.” Baldwin was a revolutionary writer and radical activist who resisted with his words and actions.

In 1965, the American writers James Baldwin and William F. Buckley debated at the Cambridge Union whether the American dream had adversely affected African Americans. ‘This means,’ said Baldwin, referring to white supremacy in a passage that was widely quoted, ‘in the case of an American Negro, born in that glittering republic, and the moment you are born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone and every face is white. And since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose that you are, too.’

Baldwin was met with thunderous applause and a standing ovation at the close of his speech. He was the clear winner. But what was even more spectacular than his rhetoric was the look of surprise on Baldwin’s face in reaction to the audience’s response to his remarks about institutionalized racism and inequality in America.

A child of poverty, demoralized by society’s view of him as a Black gay man, misunderstood by his community, ostracised by his preacher father, not accepted by his church, Baldwin struggled to accept positive feedback and affirmation simply because he didn’t feel worthy of praise. For this reason Baldwin has become the unassuming icon for modern Black gay men and a generation of socially conscious millennials, many of whom were unaware of his existence until his recent cultural re-emergence in 2016’s Oscar-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.

Directed by Raoul Peck with the blessing of the Baldwin estate, it has projected Baldwin’s quotes, image and works prominently into the pop culture zeitgeist and social media landscape.

Baldwin’s cultural resurrection continues with the adaptation of his novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, into a feature film by Barry Jenkins, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay adaptation of and Best Picture for Moonlight.

Taschen Books recently released a letterpress edition of The Fire Next Time, which contains two of the most influential essays on race relations, now with Steve Schapiro’s photographs of the Civil Rights Movement. Even Baldwin’s Côte d’Azur property in Saint-Paul-de-Vence has been in the headlines of The New York Times over a battle for landmark status to preserve its former owner’s legacy. This renaissance coincides with the current political upheavals in the world, including President Donald Trump’s unconscionable sideshow, the Black Lives Matter movement for social justice, and a new, vocal and visible global LGBTQAI+ and non-binary community.

Analyzing today’s race, class and gender issues through the perspective of Baldwin’s brilliant and radical musings shows him to be not only ahead of his time during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s, but in many ways, right on time today.

In May 2016, I launched Native Son, a platform and community that inspires and empowers Black gay men. It is named after Baldwin’s first non-fiction book, Notes Of A Native Son, published in 1955 and featuring 10 essays about race previously published in Harpers Magazine, The Partisan Review and elsewhere.

I was drawn to Baldwin by his audacious self-actualization as an intellectual, activist, political voice and creative force at a time when black people were marginalized as second-class citizens, when being gay was socially unacceptable, and when intellectual criticism by black and brown minds and voices was not recognized by the mainstream establishment.

Baldwin was a self-created revolutionary who was not popular in his day – during the Civil Rights Movement, he was often referred to as Martin Luther Queen because of his queerness – but who was definitely years ahead of his time.

As a gay Black man, I believe we are forced to self-create ourselves because we have few role models to follow. We envision ourselves, based on fragments of our existence and experience. We piece together heteronormative characteristics from men in our lives – fathers, uncles, coaches, teachers, pop stars, fictional characters, and our vivid imaginations – to create an identity of what we believe we could be.

As a 50-year-old African American, I can’t think of many openly gay men, Black or not, that I could reference growing up in Cincinnati in the 1980s. Among the few were Baldwin’s characters in his novel Giovanni’s Room, Billy Crystal’s character Jodie Dallas in the controversial American sitcom Soap, Rock Hudson, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and the gender fluidity of metrosexual Prince. In the early AIDS era, gay men were closeted and vanishing in alarming numbers. Living out loud was not on the agenda.

For me, my acceptance of my homosexual self occurred in London, during the 1989 summer of the Batman movie and the neo-Afrocentric movement featuring Soul II Soul. Studying British media and advertising, I was working at Company magazine on an internship through Boston University.

Flipping through the pages of Time Out, I saw a film review of Looking For Langston, directed by Isaac Julien. Intrigued because I was obsessed with the Harlem Renaissance, my eye was drawn to the monochrome photograph of two naked black male bodies intertwined in a bed with white sheets.

The photograph was beautiful, enticing and haunting. Watching the film at a Piccadilly Circus cinema, I saw myself in Julien’s iconic, poetic masterpiece.

Native Son is about living an authentic life. When you live your truth, like Baldwin, you are liberated. Native Son’s mission focuses on celebrating black gay men in their fullness, creating visibility and controlling our own narrative. As the first Black gay editor of Vibe magazine (and in fact, the first Black gay editor of a national magazine), from 1998 to 2002, I didn’t realize that my experience was inspiring others. Editing American hip-hop music and culture’s magazine of record during its golden era was an important cultural and historical role. When we won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence, it was the first time a magazine for a Black audience had won the prize.

At the time, I didn’t realize that while I was striving for excellence, I was also influencing a generation of young black gay males around the world. My television appearances as a pop culture expert were an example of what a self-created Black gay man could look like and would become the foundation for my Native Son movement. My revolutionary act was to exist, be present and visible. Sharing my narrative as an out gay man in the pages of the magazine changed the cultural landscape and identity of a community forever.

I created Native Son because I am convinced that Black gay men around the world need to know who we are, what it means to live free and without shame. We need to know the mavericks, trailblazers and activists like Baldwin, Julien, Alvin Ailey, Bayard Rustin, Willi Smith, Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, André Leon Talley, E Lynn Harris, Bill T Jones, Sylvester, Reggie Van Lee, Darren Walker, Lee Daniels, Kehinde Wiley and many other pioneers on whose shoulders we stand.

As I write, I am sitting in Johannesburg, where Native Son will partner with the Thami Dish Foundation to create the Global LGBTIQ+ Network convention in October 2018. As we hosted the launch at Constitution Hill, the site of the former women’s prison in which Winnie Mandela was imprisoned, and of AFROPUNK Joburg, a gender-fluid South African man approached me. ‘I am so happy to meet you,’ he said. ‘I am a fan of Native Son. I found you on Twitter.’ At that moment, I realized that my vision to create safe spaces for Black gay men was a global necessity. Much bigger than me, it is about celebrating and preserving the legacy of our past, transforming and saving lives, and shifting culture so that we can see ourselves, just as Baldwin did for us.

This essay originally ran in Watts What Magazine in London. IG: @wattswhatmagazine