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Last year marked the 90th anniversary of James Baldwin’s birth, a milestone that has helped spark a revival of interest in the life and work of the past century’s most enduring icon of black and gay writing. In a public ceremony held on the date of Baldwin’s birthday last August, his childhood street in Harlem was renamed “James Baldwin Way,” a symbolic event that generated a flurry of high profile articles in the New York Times and elsewhere arguing for the importance of teaching Baldwin in high schools and the renewed relevance of his sustained and trenchant critique of American racism in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death and, more recently, the crisis in Ferguson.
A well-produced, year long festival still underway in New York City, “The Year of James Baldwin,” has included events at New York Live Arts, Harlem Stage, Columbia University School of the Arts and the New School’s Vera List Center for Arts and Politics, featuring performances, testimonials, and other cultural commentary by such luminaries as Bill T. Jones, Carrie Mae Weems, Jamaica Kincaid, Colm Tóibín, and Jake Gyllenhall. Additionally, this year has seen the reissuing of Baldwin’s first and arguably finest novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain, and the gay classic, Giovanni’s Room, both from Vintage, as well as the publication of Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems (Beacon Press) with an introduction by Nikki Finney.
Most recently, Melville House has published, James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. The collection brings together four previously published interviews with the author, including two that will likely be of particular interest to those who seek to better understand Baldwin’s biography and his complex and often contradictory legacy as a trailblazing figure in gay literary history. The first of these, “Go the Way Your Blood Beats,” in which Baldwin is interviewed in 1984 by gay journalist and then-editor in chief of the Village Voice, Richard Goldstein, is one of the rare occasions when Baldwin spoke candidly about his personal life and his thoughts on the gay community. The second, “The Last Interview,” which has been published in expurgated form elsewhere but is now presented in full, is the writer and poet Quincy Troupe’s wide-ranging conversation with Baldwin just days before he died at his home in St. Paul-de-Vence in the south of France in 1987.
Taken together, these two interviews offer a window into Baldwin’s mindset late in his life and career, one that is particularly valuable given that Baldwin’s personal letters are not currently available to the public—a state of affairs lamented in print by everyone from Baldwin’s two most notable biographers, David Leeming and James Campbell, to the writer Hilton Als, who wrote in the pages of the New Yorker that these letters are “one great Baldwin masterpiece waiting to be published.” It is in these letters that Baldwin reportedly writes at length about his romantic relationships with other men, including one man, in particular, Swiss artist Lucien Happersberger, to whom he famously dedicated Giovanni’s Room.
Goldstein’s interview took place on the patio at Baldwin’s old hangout in the West Village, Café Riviera, and was frequently interrupted by passerby, many of them presumably gay, who stopped on the street to tell Baldwin how much he meant to them. Much of it revolves around Giovanni’s Room, which Goldstein describes as an “early vector of self-discovery” for a generation of gay men. Because Baldwin often depicted same-sex relationships in his fiction but only rarely explored the topic in his personal essays, Goldstein’s probing questions make their conversation nothing less than unprecedented in the long history of Baldwin interviews that usually don’t include a “whisper” about Baldwin’s sexuality, as Goldstein puts it in his introductory blurb.
Some of the information we learn is not new but nonetheless serves as a useful reminder of just how brave Baldwin had to be in order to write Giovanni’s Room in the first place. For example, Baldwin discusses how his publishers didn’t want to publish Giovanni’s Room, which features no black characters and instead focuses on a love affair between a white American and an Italian in Paris, because it would jeopardize his position as a “young Negro writer” of much promise. (It had to be published in England before it sold in the States). We also get a rare peek into how important the book, and its subject matter, was to Baldwin’s development both as a writer and as a human being. “If I hadn’t written that book,” Baldwin says after Goldstein asks him about his decision to write forthrightly about homosexuality in the novel, “I probably would have had to stop writing altogether.”
Throughout the interview there is a marked dissonance between Goldstein’s pronounced interest in the significance of Baldwin’s writing for gay culture and Baldwin’s resistance to this line of questioning. When Goldstein pushes him to elaborate on how his own unresolved sexuality motivated him to write, Baldwin admits that “the sexual thing,” as he puts it, was “for a while the most tormenting thing and it could have been the most dangerous.” But Baldwin also makes a point of refusing to call Giovanni’s Room a “gay” or “homosexual” novel. “Giovanni’s Room is not really about homosexuality,” he claims. “It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody. Which is much more interesting than the question of homosexuality.”
In this regard, perhaps the most interesting portions of the interview involve the verbal gymnastics Baldwin employs when pressed on the topic of the term “gay” itself. “The word ‘gay’ has always rubbed me the wrong way,” he tells Goldstein, and goes on to describe “homosexuality” as a “verb,” not a “noun.” Baldwin’s rhetorical moves here probably have less to do with Michel Foucault than queer theory might suggest and more to do with the way his life spanned generations, from the pre-Stonewall era and a gay liberation movement with which he had no real affiliation, to finally, the early onset of the AIDS epidemic (about which he never wrote despite fact that according to David Leeming’s biography one of his final lovers died of the disease, his ashes scattered in the garden of Baldwin’s home in St. Paul-de-Vence).
But Baldwin’s apparent caginess on this topic likely has the most to do with his particular experiences as a black man who loved other men, most of whom did not identify as gay or homosexual. “The people who were my lovers, well, the word ‘gay’ wouldn’t have meant anything to them,” he tells Goldstein. Here it’s impossible not to think of Lucien Happersberger, who remained Baldwin’s life long friend, and the person Baldwin always called the love of his life, even after he left Baldwin to marry a woman. (The child Happersberger had with her would become Baldwin’s godson bearing a name that tellingly fuses those of the two former lovers—Luc James).
Also noteworthy in terms of Baldwin’s resistance to the identity category “gay” is how he counters Goldstein’s pointed questions by consistently emphasizing that how an individual experiences race necessarily complicates sexual categories. “A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marked because he’s black or she’s black,” Baldwin says before going on to make the still valid critique that the mainstream gay world can have some “very unattractive features, including racism.”
The interview ends with Goldstein asking Baldwin what advice he would give a gay man who is about to come out. Baldwin once again balks at the terms it’s clear he feels Goldstein is imposing on him, but nonetheless closes the conversation with the memorable lines from which the title of the interview is drawn: “Best advice I ever got was an old friend of mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation.”
One wonders whom this old friend Baldwin references might have been, but one possibility is that it was Beauford Delaney, the older black gay painter who Baldwin called his “spiritual father” and who helped the young Baldwin understand that it was possible for him to live his own life as a black artist and as a black man who loved other men. As the biographer of both Baldwin and Delaney, David Leeming should be credited for preserving the story of their friendship as a key component of black gay history, including the fact that when Delaney died in 1979 in a mental hospital on the outskirts of Paris Baldwin had a mental breakdown himself that was so severe he could not bring himself to arrange or attend Delaney’s funeral. This was a dark period for Baldwin, which is perhaps a reason why when Quincy Troupe asks him about Delaney in “The Last Interview,” which took place less than a decade after his mentor’s death, Baldwin defers the conversation by saying, “Let’s talk about that over dinner.” That portion of the conversation never, in fact, happened because Baldwin, overwhelmed by the pain of his terminal cancer, could not finish their last interview session.
We are fortunate nonetheless to have everything that came before that in Troupe’s interview with Baldwin, a conversation that ranges from their shared love of Miles Davis to the impact of the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King on Baldwin’s psyche and his struggle balancing celebrity, political activism, and writing. Giovanni’s Room is also once again discussed at length, including more details about how, when his publisher told him, “this new book will ruin your career, “ Baldwin says, “I told them fuck you.” We also learn about the peace he found in the village of St. Paul-de-Vence and thus why he decided to purchase the three hundred year old farmhouse there where the interview itself took place.
Much of this material, in fact, had been covered in previous interviews, but what lends this one its special interest, and its particular pathos, is the knowledge that it will be Baldwin’s last. In his extended introduction to the interview, Troupe recounts his arrival at the Côte d’Azur airport in “sun-splashed Nice.” He describes how it felt to be greeted there by Baldwin’s brother, David, who told him that Baldwin was ill and that the doctor gave him at most a month to live. Although it is heartbreaking to confront some of Troupe’s more graphic physical descriptions of the ailing Baldwin, including “the birdlike frailty of his ravaged body,” it is also deeply moving to read about how Baldwin still flashes “that brilliant smile of his, his large eyes bright and inquisitive like a child,” and also how Lucien Happersberger, who was with him until the end, “lifted him to put him to bed.”
Indeed, ultimately, the greatest contribution of this volume of interviews may in fact not be any of the actual conversations recorded in its pages. Rather, it may be the way that Troupe’s highly descriptive introduction invites us into the most private space of all: the house where Baldwin, one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, lived his final days. He notes the colorful paintings by Delaney hanging on the walls, a “black pen-and-ink drawing of Nelson Mandela, against an orange background, accompanied by a poem,” Baldwin’s framed Legion of Honor citation certificate perched on the fireplace mantle with a sword and an old fishing rifle both pointing towards it, as well as a black and white photograph of Baldwin and a number of sculptures and other memorabilia. Along with information contained in Leeming’s essential biography, Troupe helps bring us as close as we will ever be to those final moments when Baldwin, surrounded by all of these objects and memories that meant so much to him, took his last breath, his brother, David, holding his hand, and Lucien Happersberger kissing his face.
James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
By James Baldwin
Paperback ,9781612194004, 192 pp.