I recently attended an event about the life and work of James Baldwin. I knew him only as the author of Giovanni’s Room, which I hadn’t yet read, and as a civil rights activist. But I didn’t know any details about the man.
The event was pegged to the publication of a fancy new edition of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. The book costs $200, so neither you nor I can afford it. But it contains old and new photographs by Steve Schapiro, who captured some of the most arresting portraits of the civil rights era. In fact, Schapiro was at the event itself, recounting tales of travelling to the south as a white photographer and hanging out with people like Baldwin and Martin Luther King.
The other speaker was Quincy Troupe, a poet and writer who knew Baldwin in the 70s and 80s. He was the last person to interview Baldwin, in his home in France before he died in 1987.
Because of the book publication, the discussion centred on Baldwin’s role in civil rights activism. But to me, it was also of interest that Baldwin was gay, and made such a huge contribution to gay life as Giovanni’s Room, which I knew was significant. (I’ve since read it, and I can confirm it’s stunning and still important.) So I was pleased to hear the moderator bring up Baldwin’s love of men. He asked something like, “What role did his homosexuality play in his activism?”
I thought that was a poor question. It’s not quite clear what it meant, or how one might answer it. The speakers bungled it. The both sorta shrugged and said that Baldwin had never tried anything with them.
I was shocked by this answer—from both of them. Whatever the question was, it definitively wasn’t about that! What on earth made them both think that we’d be interested in whether Baldwin fancied them, or, knowing they were straight, made a pass at them? Sure, it’s fun gossip but we were here to discuss his activism and his courage and his brain. Whether he shared his dick pics is another matter entirely.
I decided to give them a second chance. In the audience Q&A, I raised my hand. I asked: “My question isn’t whether you were worried that he’d come on to you, but whether he worried that his homosexuality would be used against him or to undermine the civil rights movement?”
I don’t think they’d ever thought about that, because yet again they bungled it. They both said he didn’t hide his sexuality but also that it wasn’t on display either.
What is it about straight guys who can’t give a straight answer like “I don’t know”?
It was clear they hadn’t discussed this with Baldwin. Or at least that he hadn’t confided his thoughts in them. I still don’t know the answer. I will have to read more about Baldwin.
Meanwhile I can amuse myself by picturing these two usually thoughtful and well-meaning guys stumbling over this topic. The story shows that even with gay people in your life, you have to go the extra mile to understand where they’re coming from. And I don’t mean worrying about the angle at which they’ll try to lean in for a wet snog.