Celebrating LGBTQ+ Icons - James Baldwin
James Baldwin was born into poverty in Harlem, New York in 1924. He went on to become one of the greatest and most influential writers on the 20th century writing in many forms publishing novels, essays, plays and poetry across his career. Drawing on his own experiences as a black, LGBT and impoverished man, Baldwin’s writing is inherently intersectional in nature. He described his own work as simply “bearing witness to the truth.”
(Licensing info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Baldwin#/media/File:James_Baldwin_37_Allan_Warren_(cropped).jpg) (In public domain).
Throughout his body of work, he often features African American gay and bisexual men as he highlights the tensions between these two identities his characters experience on a daily basis. Baldwin was open about his relationships with men and women throughout his life. Commenting in 1965, he said “If one’s to live at all, one’s certainly got to get rid of labels.” He believed strongly that sexuality should not be strictly interpreted in categories – explaining the simplicity of his belief of equality in love as “Everybody’s journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy.”
His second novel, Giovanni’s Room, was innovative for its time as it explored the taboo subject of a homosexual relationship. The manuscript was rejected from many publishers who warned this could detrimentally affect Baldwin’s career. Baldwin had left his native Harlem for Paris to escape the racial tensions and segregation present in 1950s America. His time in Paris inspired the setting for Giovanni’s Room. The narrator is an American man in Paris who has an affair with an Italian waiter also living in the city. Eventually, the novel was published in 1956 and has gone on to become not only one of Baldwin’s most famous works but also one of the foundational texts of LGBT+ literature. The S&W Pride group are currently reading Giovanni’s Room as part of our celebration of Pride month and are looking forward to a book group discussion exploring the text.
Baldwin was also dedicated to the American Civil Rights Movements and became close friends with some of its leading figures. Tragically, he experienced the assassinations of three of his friends who were leaders in the Civil Rights movement in quick succession - Medgar Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Their deaths impacted Baldwin deeply and influenced his writings about race in America.
Baldwin passed away in 1987, aged 63, after a short battle with stomach cancer. At his funeral service, friend and legendary American novelist, Maya Angelou said “His love opened the unusual door for me and I am blessed that James Baldwin was my brother.”
Even after his death, Baldwin’s work has been brought to life on stage and screen. In 2016, an unfinished manuscript was adapted into the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro to critical acclaim and earlier this year, it was announced that a biopic of Baldwin’s life starring Golden-Globe winning actor Billy Porter is in the works. These productions demonstrate how poignant Baldwin’s life and work has been in representing the LGBT+ and black communities even decades after his death allowing his memory to live on through future generations.
Emma Hendrie is a solictor in Shepherd and Wedderburn’s Planning and Environment team and a member of the firm’s PRIDE Network.