Baldwin saw and thought about human realities deeply. He thought in places far removed from normal and acceptable thought practices. Measured on multiple dimensions he was an outsider: a fact he gladly embraced. His phenomenology was predicated upon an outsider-insider duality. He was, substantially in, but not of the space/time continuum of US and Western epistemic protocols. This made him prophetic, subversive and transgressive. He self defined his social and ideological positionalities. He was, as far as was possible, a self defined human. He acknowledged all of the varied identities applied to him by the social and cultural systems that defined the world he inhabited. None of them quite fit him, as he thought. He was a “black gay man” in a white supremacist society. The race, class, gender, sexuality preferences and intersectional matrices said something about who he was, but did not fit all of who he was and his possibilities. He was, as he thought, even as child, far more (as they say in the streets: “way more”) than the meanings of all those words separately or in some marginalizing combination when applied to him. For instance, many people who did not know him or never experienced him in person or through his novels, plays and essays took shortcuts, defining him only as a “gay black man”. That combination of words and meanings of course than and now (although less so now) meant a broken, indeed pathological and dangerous person on every scale of human normality. He of course insisted he was human and was not and would never allow himself to be anyone’s definition of him, especially if the societal meanings of those words cursed, stigmatized or stereotyped him. For instance, Eldridge Cleaver, a leader of the Black Panther Party and the famous essayist, in his book Soul On Ice attacked Baldwin as inauthentic in black and revolutionary terms and the white man’s tool to divert the black revolution. Cleaver insisted Baldwin was a petit bourgeois counterrevolutionary whose life was defined by what he considered desires that did not fit a black or revolutionary definition of masculinity. For Cleaver homosexuality was a petit bourgeois and counterrevolutionary impulse. He called Baldwin a “faggot”. Jimmy responded by informing Cleaver in the essay “To Be Baptized” that he did not know what Cleaver’s experiences were in or out of prison, but assured him, that he was not one of the “sissies” (Baldwin’s words), he had encountered in his life. Many of them, Baldwin asserted, had been broken on the wheel of life, still struggling, not merely with their sexuality, but their humanity as black men. But he counseled Cleaver that as a revolutionary he had more in common with himself, because the artist and the revolutionary are driven by profound urges of love for their people, even when the people they love often misunderstand them.
But more than being a writer Jimmy decided he wanted to be James Baldwin, whatever that was or would become. The characters in his novels and plays are like Dostoevsky’s in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, complex subjects, products of unpredictable intersubjectivities and circumstances. He was able to write Giovanni’s Room, a novel situated in Paris where none of the characters were black and all of the main ones were homosexual or bisexual. He said, however, it was not, as many still believe, a “gay novel”. He said it was a novel about people attempting to find human community, generosity, empathy and love: and how, more than not, they fail. That is the case, while the places and racial identities and even sexual preferences were vastly different, in for example, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Another Country, Blues For Mr. Charlie, Tell Me How Long The Trains Been Gone and If Beale Street Could Talk. And just as it diminishes his intellectual, artistic and philosophical enterprises to call his other novels “black”, it is just as misleading to call Giovanni’s Room “gay”: just as misleading as it is to reduce Baldwin to “a gay black man”. That might be what he is to you, or the society in which he lived, but not what he was, or for that matter what he strove to be. Just as his life’s journey, in spite of every obstacle, was to be James Baldwin, which for him meant to be human in the sense of a free, self-defining and self-actualizing, his characters had the same strivings. His oeuvre is a type of multivolume autobiography of humanity in the time of white supremacy. It can be thought of as a form of humanity’s self-narrative, told by a living, striving part of humanity. The narrative is about more than black folk, gay folk or poor folk, they are the concrete forms he gives to the human: but it is about the complexities, tragedies, comedies, strivings, pathologies, failures that humans experience as they attempt to be human: while ironically trying to hold on to nonhuman (perhaps prehuman) and semi-human culturally invented identities and practices.
He was completely honest and courageously principled when defining who he was. In a 1984 interview for the Village Voice with Richard Goldstein, Baldwin was asked, “Do you feel like a stranger in gay America”. His answer was progressive for then and now, although because of time for different reasons. Baldwin answers:
“Well, first of all I feel like a stranger in America from almost every conceivable angle except, oddly enough, as a black person. The word “gay” has always rubbed me the wrong way. I never understood exactly what is meant by it. I don’t want to sound distant or patronizing because I don’t really feel that. I simply feel it is a world that has very little to do with me, with where I did my growing up. I was never at home in it. Even in my early years in the Village (the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan), what I saw of that world absolutely frightened me, bewildered me. I didn’t understand the necessity of all the role-playing. And in a way I still don’t.”
The interviewer returns to that question later on, asking, “Do you think of the gay world as being a false refuge?” He answers,
“I think perhaps it imposes a limitation which is unnecessary. It seems to me simply a man is a man, a woman is woman and who they go to bed with is nobody’s business but theirs. I suppose what I am really saying is that one’s sexual preference is a private matter. I resent the interference of the State, or the Church, or any institution in my only journey to whatever we are journeying toward. But it has been made a public question by the institutions of this country.” He went on to say that on all questions of identity and preference, he refused to think from within the language of the positionality or intellectual geography of the oppressor.
James Baldwin’s mind was an unsurpassed critical weapon for the oppressed. He was, as such, a figure not of the past, but of our now/time. He was and remains a thinker for us in what he called “the long meantime”, the time of America’s long and terrifying racial counterrevolution. Amiri Baraka in his eulogy at Baldwin’s home going service, brilliantly observed, “His spirit is part of our own, it is our feelings’ completion. Our perceptions’ extension, the edge of our rationale, the paradigm for our best use of the world.” And then Amiri concludes, “For Jimmy was God’s black revolutionary mouth. If there is a God and revolution his righteous natural expression. And elegant song the deepest and most fundamental commonplace of being alive.”