Wednesday, June 6, 2012

James Baldwin: the price of the ticket

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an African-American writer. I had not read anything by him until recently, when I picked up his 700-page collection of essays, entitled The Price of the Ticket. It's quite a read. Baldwin expresses himself with a directness and passion that seemingly few writers have. He cuts to the heart of the matter - and then he does it over and over again. In forty years and seven hundred pages one can't help but repeat oneself occasionally, especially when it seems that one's readers still aren't getting it. Nonetheless, I never found this book boring, although there was one thing about it that really troubled me.

Rather, there was one thing which troubled me a little and one thing which troubled me a lot. The little thing is that Baldwin often says "Americans" when he means "white Americans," and he says "we" and "us" when, again, he seems to mean white Americans. As far as I can recall, the only piece where he consistently refers to "black Americans" and "white Americans" was written for Ebony. If he felt that all of his other essays were written for a white audience, that's rather disheartening. Personally I would hate to spend my career explaining my people to foreigners.

In one essay, "Strangers in the Village," he asserts that Negroes are Americans ("Negro" is the term he uses for almost all of this book) and then on the very next page returns to saying:
Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world--which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white--owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us--very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will--that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality.
That essay was written in 1953. I have the impression that these days black people are allowed to speak for themselves. Anyway, it struck me as strange.

Here is the thing which troubled me a lot: I was aware before reading this book that James Baldwin was homosexual, and I naturally wondered what he would say about that. The short answer is: very little, and none of it good.

His first reference to homosexuality is a review of Andre Gide's memoir, published in 1954. Baldwin explicitly says, "His homosexuality, I felt, was his own affair which he ought to have kept hidden from us." This sums up Baldwin's attitude towards his own homosexuality - at least, as far as it relates to the straight world.

There are two types of closet: the individual closet, in which no else knows that you're queer (and you might not even admit it to yourself.) Then there is the "community" closet, in which you socialize with other LGBT people but never come out to a straight person. Baldwin was willing to discuss homosexuality in certain contexts. In fact, in 1949 he had published an essay defending homosexuality, called "The Preservation of Innocence" - but he chose not to include this essay in his "official" collection of non-fiction. In that sense, he remained in the closet.

I understand that all of his novels deal with homosexuality (I haven't read any of them.) By the time he complained about Andre Gide sharing his sexuality with the world, Baldwin had already published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. I do not know if he seriously thought that everyone would believe he was straight, even though he wrote fictional stories about gay men. In a sense, though, that is what the closet was like, especially in the 1950s. If you went around repeating a lie, people would happily ignore any evidence to the contrary - because they don't want it to be true. Anyway, Baldwin finished up his review of Gide with a bunch of guff about how men need to love women and women need to love men. Just in case anyone might have any suspicions.

To the best of my recollection, there are only two essays in The Price of the Ticket in which Baldwin discusses his homosexual experiences: "No Name in the Street" and the last essay in the book, "Here Be Dragons."

In "Here Be Dragons" he states that he was introduced to homosexuality by an older man. He also talks about being harassed on the street as a teenager:
On every street corner, I was called a faggot. This meant that I was despised, and, however horrible this is, it is clear. What was not clear at that time of my life was what motivated the men and boys who mocked and chased me; for, if they found me when they were alone, they spoke to me very differently--frightening me, I must say, into a stunned and speechless paralysis. For when they were alone, they spoke very gently and wanted me to take them home and make love. (They could not take me home; they lived with their families.) The bafflement and the pain this caused in me remain beyond description.
And about his experience of movie houses on 42nd Street (where men gathered for anonymous sex):
At bottom, what I had learned was that the male desire for a male roams everywhere, avid, desperate, unimaginably lonely, culminating often in drugs, piety, madness or death. It was also dreadfully like watching myself at the end of a long, slow-moving line: Soon I would be next. All of this was very frightening. It was lonely and impersonal and demeaning. I could not believe--after all, I was only nineteen--that I could have been driven to the lonesome place where these men and I met each other so soon, to stay.
Did Baldwin ever learn that there was more to gay love than loneliness and secrecy? Did he ever meet any gay men who weren't in denial? If so, he doesn't mention it anywhere in The Price of the Ticket. In fact, he barely talks about his adult relationships with men at all. (He does talk about his sexual relationships with women, although they all seem to have taken place in his teens or early adulthood.) In "No Name in the Street" he recounts two anecdotes: one about a white Southern man who gets drunk and gropes him - he makes it clear that this was nonconsensual - and one about his unrequited love for another white man. None of this provides a positive depiction of homosexuality. Maybe his experience of his sexuality was never positive. And yet, again, under some circumstances he was willing to speak out.
For the first time in his career, novelist James Baldwin openly identified with the Gay community by addressing more than 200 persons at a forum sponsored by The New York Chapter of Black and White Men Together (BWMT-NY). The forum was held June 5 in the Gay synagogue known as Simchat Torah on the West side of Greenwich Village. Speaking with candor and openness about his own homosexuality, Baldwin claimed that his life-long sexual orientation had never been a secret, but he had not always felt it was necessary, "or anybody's business," to openly affirm it.
That quote is not from The Price of the Ticket. It's from Blacklight, a black gay magazine which was published from 1979 through 1985. They do not specify in what year this occurred, but if they followed the standard practice of starting a new volume with each new year, then it would have been around 1981.

Nonetheless, his final word on open homosexuality appeared in "Here Be Dragons:"
There is nothing more boring, anyway, then sexual activity as an end in itself, and a great many people who came out of the closet should reconsider.
That essay was published in 1985. 1985. Apparently Baldwin had not yet heard that silence equals death. He doesn't mention AIDS in the essay at all, but he does mention Boy George.

James Baldwin tells many stories about heroic black people and their frequently-tragic ends. He could tell similar stories about the GLBT people he had known, but he doesn't. (As it happens, he praises Bayard Rustin, and says it was a shame that he got kicked out of the SCLC, but he never says what he got kicked out for.) And I was genuinely moved by his recollections of Martin, Malcolm, Huey Newton (who, as it happens, criticized homophobia in the movement,) and Elijah Muhammad, by his descriptions of Harlem, the pre-civil rights era, and the civil rights movement - especially because while it was happening, no one knew whether it would succeed or fail. Nonetheless, by the end of the book I couldn't stop asking myself, "why is his righteous indignation only for straight people?" He was so good at righteous anger - arguing from a position which is both angry and rational. He insisted over and over that black people were human beings, that they didn't deserve the mistreatment they usually got. But it would seem that he never stood up for queers.

For black people, the price of the ticket is very high. But for gay people, the price of the ticket is that you're not even allowed to say you exist. That is what I learned from this book.

Update (June 25, 2012): I just finished reading W.J. Weatherby's memoir of Baldwin, Artist on Fire. According to the reviews I've read, this is the only biography that devotes any significant amount of coverage to Baldwin's homosexuality - in fact, almost everyone quoted, whether they knew him personally or professionally, says that he never made any secret of being gay. Weatherby also provides this quote from Baldwin, close to the end of his life:
All these movements - women's liberation, gay liberation - all these eruptions. Perhaps I'm old-fashioned, but I feel very dubious about all that. You don't have to prove you're a woman, and if you happen to be homosexual or whatever, you don't have to form a club in order to learn to live with yourself.
Can you imagine how he would react if someone said, "Black people don't need a movement. You don't need to prove that you're black, and you don't have to form a club in order to learn how to live with yourself"? (I do think he was very concerned about proving his manhood, incidentally.) And yet reading this memoir did give me more sympathy for Baldwin. He had a hard life, and - as so many people have found - success didn't make it much easier.

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