Let’s talk about James Baldwin. You know, the award-winning American novelist, playwright, essayist, intellectual and social critic. James Baldwin. And, more specifically… —well, no. Hang on.
First, let’s get the obligatory newsworthiness bit out of the way, so that I can at least pretend to be inflicting journalism upon you by giving you a timely and local reason I’m presently discussing a writer who died of stomach cancer in 1987: Albuquerque’s KiMo Theatre will be screening director Raoul Peck’s 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, Thursday, Jan. 24 at 7pm. The screening will be followed by a discussion with local authors about Baldwin’s legacy and importance. There. All done.
Okay. Now then. James Baldwin. He was easily one of the best writers, social critics and intellectuals our nation has ever produced. Born in New York City in 1924, he wrote about whatever interested him, and frequently those things included the different ways people classified themselves and each other in the United States, and how those caste systems impacted the psychology of humans and the sociology within which they functioned. Baldwin, who himself was identified as bisexual and black, tackled intersectionality before it was even a thing. Hell, it’s barely even a thing now. He was not only ahead of his time, he was in many ways even ahead of our time too, and as such opted eventually to move to France because there he had more freedom to be seen as just a writer, no other qualifier or marginalization necessary as it seemed to be in the United States. In France, he wasn’t seen as a black writer or a gay writer; he was seen as an important American writer, period.
Baldwin’s openness about his sexuality was present from the start. His second novel, Giovanni’s Room, written in 1956, was about men in love with one another. It was who he was. So why, some are asking, did Peck choose in this documentary to ignore Baldwin’s sexuality? Why did the director choose to highlight one aspect of Baldwin’s self, struggles and writings (the black one) while simultaneously completely erasing another (the bisexual one)? And, more importantly, should we be offended?
I Am Not Your Negro has been lauded and applauded for its many merits by mainstream critics; but others take issue with its erasure of Baldwin’s sexuality. An essay by Preston Mitchum in ThinkProgress blasted the documentary for failing to “reflect the totality of [Baldwin’s] life.” Many others did likewise.
Interestingly, one of the nation’s leading LGBT publications, The Advocate, took a different approach to I Am Not Your Negro, saying that “it is not only a must-see but one that should be studied and absorbed over many viewings.” Critic Daniel Reynolds said outrage about Baldwin’s sexuality being glossed over in Peck’s documentary is misplaced. “But I Am Not Your Negro is not a biography,” he wrote. “It is a lesson, and one that is desperately needed in a world still rattled by police violence, protest, and hate crimes. As Baldwin remarked, ‘History is not in the past. It is the present.’ ”
Indeed, Reynolds seems to say, it is as unnecessary to mention Baldwin’s sexuality in this documentary as it would be to mention the sexuality of any other person in making a film about their writings on society, class and race.
I Am Not Your Negro is a film based upon 30 pages of an unfinished manuscript Baldwin began writing about the assassinations of three of his close friends: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X and Medgar Evers. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film is a powerful piece that, given how long Baldwin has been gone, is nothing short of prescient, as he tells us things like “People denied the American dream will wreck it.”
Nonetheless, there are many in the LGBT community who would have liked to see Peck make more of Baldwin’s sexuality.
What are we to do with this documentary, then? What are we to do with its accolades and criticisms? What are we to do with the fact that all these years later, at a point in American culture when we are said to be embracing intersectionality, Peck still seems incapable of describing the black-power part of Baldwin without sweeping the openly bisexual part of Baldwin under the proverbial rug, even though Baldwin himself was very open about his sexuality, and wrote at least two books about it?
It is too convenient, contextually, to dismiss the erasure of Baldwin’s sexuality in this documentary as an oversight or the product of focusing only on one aspect of his writings.
To wit: Numerous studies, including one from Daboin, Peterson and Parrot published in the American Psychological Association journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority in 2015, have demonstrated that homophobia exists to a far greater degree in African American men than it does among white American men. The authors concluded that “Blacks reported greater endorsement of religious fundamentalism and the traditional male role norm of status than Whites.” The reason? A hellish combination of conservative religiosity and generalized emasculation via ostracism in the greater (read racist) society.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that Peck, 65, is from Haiti, a nation that consistently ranks as among the worst in the world when it comes to the rights of LGBT people, where homophobia is even more overt than it is among African American men. That in and of itself is no reason to suspect homophobia, of course. But Peck is also the former minister of culture for Haiti’s government—the same government that in 2017 made it illegal for anyone to publicly announce support for any LGBT person. So, no, I don’t think it was mere coincidence that his documentary glosses over Baldwin’s sexuality, and I don’t think we should give him or this film a free pass on the omission. It should be impossible to speak of Baldwin and his perspective as a perpetual outsider without linking it to all the ways in which he was marginalized.
Albuquerque poet Gabe Reyes, who also identifies as a bisexual man of color, said he thinks the erasure of Baldwin’s sexuality might also be due to his having been bisexual rather than gay or straight. “Bisexuality often gets erased within our media and societal dialogues,” said Reyes in an interview with Weekly Alibi. “It's almost as if people consider it too complicated to display someone being attracted to people of multiple other genders. They pick and choose whatever sexuality is most convenient for the story they're trying to tell, which often is heterosexuality because that's still considered society's ‘normal.’ Even within spaces occupied by people of color we still have to acknowledge prejudices that remain and open up a truly intersectional dialogue.”
I do wonder what Baldwin himself would make of all this. I suspect he would raise a brow and give his famous world-weary, wry, thoughtfully sad smile and say, as he once did: “I am what time, circumstance, history have made of me, certainly, but I am also much more than that. So are we all.”