Did the discovery that James Baldwin was gay affect the reception of his works?
By Prof. Maurice Amutabi, Ph.D
I recently looked at some reading lists of university courses in Kenya and other African universities and noticed that James Baldwin’s books had disappeared from most of them. I wondered if this was caused by the decline of scholarly interest in black liberation literature or by changing academic paradigms, where the focus seems to be on popular global themes. But I could help to explore another angle to this decline. Was this caused by the discovery of the fact that James Baldwin was gay?
When James Baldwin died on November 30, 1987, I attended a memorial meeting that was devoted to reading passages from his works, held in the Education Theater II at the University of Nairobi in 1987. It was held in the Education Theater II at the University of Nairobi, one of the places I have come to associate with intellectual greatness. This is the place I encountered Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Taban Liyong, Cyprian Ekwenzi, Chinua Achebe, Okot P’Bitek and other literary icons from the African continent. It was an intellectual shrine of some kind to me, and James Baldwin assumed such a huge image, in my mind. In this theater, I had witnessed the production of some of the most successful plays from Africa’s theatrical scene.
In 1987, I was a curious undergraduate at the University of Nairobi, keen to listen to the famous professors on campus and how they launched into each other at such forums, more than the theme of the workshop. I was in the middle of my undergraduate career and had just started studying James Baldwin. I had completed reading his works such as Nobody Knows My Name; Go Tell it on the Mountain; and Fire Next Time under Africa and Black Diaspora history course taught to us by Prof. Mwangi wa Githumo.
During the workshop, speakers included Chris Wanjala, Henry Indangasi, Wanjiku Kabira, Jane Nandwa and Peter Anyumba. James Baldwin was eulogized and celebrated as a literary icon by many of the speakers, especially his celebration of Black Aesthetics and deployment of poetic justice and fight for civil liberties for black people. In his writings, it was said, he demanded for social justice. He was praised for using the pen to do violence to the rightwing in the imperial North, especially in the United States, and seek justice for the oppressed. Baldwin’s reports on the civil rights activities of the 1960s made him special target of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which alone accumulated a 1750-page file on him because they regarded him as dangerous.
James Baldwin’s works were seen as revolutionary because they represented the poor, the marginal and the powerless. But not all speakers had nice words to say about James Baldwin. He was accused for being combative against some famous writers such as Richard Wright in order to elevate his own stature. What I liked about the presentations was the fact that all speakers had something positive to say about his wirings.
Speakers regarded James Baldwin as a radical and controversial writer. Many thought that he was bold and courageous. He was not as famous as other Black writers such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Because Baldwin lived such a diverse life, compounded with many controversies and hardships, especially allegations that he was not straight, there was anxiety as each speaker tried to place his ideas in the correct perspective. It was clear that James Baldwin was a public intellectual because his ideas shaped people’s opinions.
The ‘discovery’ that James Baldwin was gay seemed to change people’s perception of this literary icon. I had never heard about this until his death. In many African communities, bad behavior in which elders engage in is never made public or mentioned until they are dead. Baldwin, it appeared, had acquired the position of an elder and many African scholars had kept quiet about his gay inclination until he died.
Unfortunately, after the revelation that he was gay, James Baldwin’s books disappeared from university reading lists for almost all the courses. Baldwin was now paying for his sins in death. There had only been aspersions and rumours about his queer habit, but this time, it was being voiced openly. It was shocking for members of the audience to hear that James Baldwin the literary icon was gay. Chris Wanjala, one of the speakers that brought this ‘hidden fact’ out posed for a moment to allow the audience to absorb this fact. This cast aspersions on Baldwin’s character and even questioned his “Africanness” in the minds of some members of the audience. During Q and A, some members of the audience dissociated themselves from Baldwin’s behaviors but vowed to embrace his ideas and what he represented. They pointed out despite his erratic lifestyle Baldwin remained a Black man, and should be forgiven for his ‘sins’ now he was dead! They liked his ideas but did not condone the fact that he was not straight.
Today, the revelation of one’s sexual preference would not raise a lot of eyebrows as it did them. But still, there are questions that we can still ask now. Why was James Baldwin criticized for what was private? He was gay (the G word), but did that really matter as far as his literary works were concerned? Some thought that it did. He was condemned for engaging in what was seen as ‘dreadful’ practice of homosexuality (H word) while he was alive. This, in the 1980s was a taboo subject and you could see it on the face of speakers as they mentioned the ‘H’ word. This cast aspersions on his character and even questioned its “Africanness” in the minds of some scholars.
Because of the popularity of his work, some speakers engaged in some form of sanitization of essentialist aspects of his work, without focusing on the negative ones, such as his gay lifestyle. They celebrated the valorization of ‘Blackness’ and ‘Africanness’ while paying attention to his problematization of whiteness. Speakers highlighted James Baldwin’s own personal struggles and conflict, life in exile in France. His lack of a wife was mentioned as a social aberration, as if to question his manhood, social responsibility to reproduce or both. This tension, between private and public, and between self and society was cast against the coercive and oppressive laws under which he lived. Speakers seemed to absolve him from any tendencies. It almost appeared as if they were saying that he was driven to some of his urges by the society in which he was born and raised, rather than personal, conscious choices that he made. Works such as Nobody Knows My Name; Go Tell it on the Mountain; and Fire Next Time revealed a lot about his personal life, lifestyle and experiences. There was general agreement that he was a victim. But this does not still answer the question, why interest in his works has waned? Universities still prescribe books by Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney and other ‘liberation’ scholars. Why not James Baldwin’s?