During Black History Month, the narrative is typically constructed to highlight Black people who have achieved greatness. But it often leaves those who also identify as LGBTQ+ and gender nonconforming out of the conversation. This year, CASSIUS disrupts the mundane by highlighting Black queer and trans luminaries whose lives and work deserve celebration.
From a young age, James Arthur Baldwin demonstrated signs of genius. Born in 1924 in Harlem, he met a young white teacher, who he lovingly nicknamed “Bill,” who encouraged his talents and helped him direct his first play. They went to museums, talked about literature, and went to the theater.
“I loved her, of course, and absolutely,” Baldwin wrote. “It is certainly partly because of her, who arrived in my terrifying life so soon, that I never really managed to hate white people.”
Baldwin’s home life was rather tumultuous. His mother never told him who his birth father was, but his stepfather was a fire and brimstone lay preacher. Through religion, he found his power—he was 14 when he began preaching and developed speaking skills, in turn falling in love with rhetoric and writing. He became a minister and used this power to defy his father by continuing his education instead of quitting and finding a job. But when he was 16, he left the ministry for what he perceived as hypocrisy and racism in the church.
After graduating high school, he tried to live at home to support his family after his father’s passing. Baldwin began to find himself while working service jobs as a waiter in New York City’s Greenwich Village. He’d have one-night stands with men while maintaining relationships with women, exploring his sexual identity. He also began to write seriously, winning his first fellowship in 1945 and publishing a book review in 1947.
After winning a Rosenwald fellowship, 24-year-old Baldwin took a trip to a place that he had waited his whole life to see: Paris. Leaving the country behind with $40 in his pocket and no knowledge of the French language, he left the racial politics of the United States behind. There, he wrote Go Tell it on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, Giovanni’s Room, and other works, establishing himself as a major literary figure.
“I left America because I had to,” Baldwin told The New York Times. “It was a personal decision…. I had to leave; I needed to be in a place where I could breathe and not feel someone’s hand on my throat. I went there to get enough away from The American Negro Problem—the everyday insults and humiliation, the continual sadness and the rage—so that I could sit down and write with half a clear head.”
Giovanni’s Room, in particular, shattered the perceptions of sexuality in a time when homosexuality was still taboo. But Baldwin argues that the book itself isn’t really about homosexuality—”it’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody.”
“Everybody’s journey is individual,” he once said in an interview. “If you fall in love with boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality.”
While Baldwin felt that sexuality and race “have always been entwined,” he has said in an interview that he didn’t particularly feel connected to the gay community.
“The word ‘gay’ has always rubbed me the wrong way,” he said. “I don’t want to sound distant or patronizing because I don’t really feel that. I simply feel it’s a world that has very little to do with me, with where I did my growing up. I didn’t understand the necessity of all the role-playing…and in a way, I still don’t.”
In many ways, this Baldwin quote speaks to an issue that still persists in the queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) community. The figures that are pushed to the forefront to represent the “gay” community are usually white (Ellen Degeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, Jazz Jennings, etc.) just like the issues that are prioritized (same-sex marriage). Meanwhile, many QTPOC are still suffering at a higher rate from lack of job stability, housing security, domestic and sexual violence, access to adequate healthcare, and more.
We lift up James Baldwin in the spirit of justice and liberation for QTPOC, today and always.