- James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination by Matt Brim
Readers expecting a text lionizing James Baldwin will not find it in James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination. Halfway through the introduction Matt Brim offers a word of advice: "this book is by no means … an homage" (15). Indeed, Brim dislodges Baldwin from his privileged position within African American gay letters as a means of illuminating how the "queer and unqueer exist in unpredictable, unresolvable, untenable relation" (6). This is precisely the reason James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination proves more compelling than the numerous panegyrics about the writer.
Brim tracks the paradoxes within Baldwin's oeuvre in his first chapter. The argument Brim presents is convincing; however, the staggering array of sources makes for a tedious read. One is anxious for Brim to make his grand entrance. When Brim finally appears, his argument—for reconsidering Baldwin as a paradoxical figure who, despite writing about black gay men, never engaged in an extended dialogue with other black gay writers—calls attention to Baldwin's general reluctance toward being perceived as a gay black writer. Brim presents Baldwin's many interviews and speeches in which the writer repeatedly distanced himself from other black gay male writers as evidence: "I knew of Langston and Countee Cullen, they were the only other black writers whose work I knew [as a youth], but for some reason they did not attract me. I'm not putting them down, but the world they were describing had nothing to do with me, at that time in my life" (39). Here, one is tempted to forgive Baldwin and dismiss his comment as an instance of an artist not so subtly heralding his talent as being unique from that of his peers. Brim, however, maintains that moments like these highlight Baldwin's steadfast refusal to align himself with other black gay writers. Where, Brim asks, are the collaborations between Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, Countee Cullen, and other black male writers that would "[broaden] our understanding of the American black gay male experience?" (41). Brim is not arguing that Baldwin should have engaged with other black gay men solely because he fits into those categories, but that Baldwin's deliberate avoidance of gay black contemporaries signals his problematic alignment with mostly heterosexual white and black men: "Wright, Eldridge, Cleaver, Malcolm X, Norman Mailer, and William F. Buckley Jr. offered Baldwin straight and/or white male figures against whom he could define himself and his work" (40). These contradictory relationships form the bedrock of Brim's analysis of Go Tell It on the Mountain. For Brim, Baldwin's debut novel "is not a recollection and portrayal of authentic experience or identity, be that identity 'black' or [End Page 580] 'black gay male'" (44). Instead, Go Tell It on the Mountain functions as the vehicle by which Baldwin contemplates a space for "new terms that he does not yet find" (52). While his critique of Go Tell It on the Mountain is sound, Brim's investigation into Baldwin's disavowal of black gay male identities marks the touchstone of this chapter.
In the following chapter, Brim puts forth an intriguing thesis: that Baldwin's efforts to transcend the signifiers of "gay" and "black" result in the veritable erasure of uniquely gay subjectivities. Brim notes a disturbing pattern in Giovanni's Room, in which homosexuals are routinely pathologized: for Baldwin, he writes, "the homosexual can achieve full humanity only by transcending homosexual specificity" (74). Describing Baldwin's tendency to normalize queer identities as the author's "universalizing impulse," Brim argues that Baldwin "degrades the importance of sexual identity in order to privilege our shared humanity." Essentially, Baldwin's perspective amounts to nothing more than tautology: "To argue that we are all complex human beings," Brim contends, "is to argue, literally, nothing." Brim's discussion of Baldwin's so-called universalizing impulse lays the groundwork for scrutinizing the dehumanization of trans subjectivity in Giovanni's Room. Employing what he calls a "trans-gay" analysis, Brim considers how David, an American man in Paris who...