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Callaloo 27.2 (2004) 457-480

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Looking for Jimmy Baldwin:

Sex, Privacy, and Black Nationalist Fervor

In an interview conducted shortly after the release of his film, Looking For Langston (1989), Isaac Julien remarked that his project could easily have been titled "Looking For Jimmy."1 Instead, Julien's film, which explores the relationship between the black gay artist and the community, is dedicated to Baldwin, whose photograph weaves in and out of Julien's meditation on Langston Hughes. Julien's use of Baldwin's image renders visible a gay black artistic lineage that has historically been obscured.2 By juxtaposing the Harlem-born Baldwin with his literary forefathers of the Renaissance, Julien suggests the ways in which Baldwin—as a gay black artist—is a direct descendant of homosexual and bisexual writers such as Bruce Nugent, Wallace Thurman, and Claude McKay.3

Unlike Hughes's sexuality, which Julien acknowledges has always been clouded in uncertainty, Baldwin has arguably been the most visible gay African-American writer since the Harlem Renaissance. Implicit in Julien's iconographic invocation of Baldwin is that we do not need to look for Jimmy since his sexuality—in contrast to that of Hughes—has never been in question.4 Often cited as an inspiration to many black gay writers, Baldwin's work, according to Joseph Beam, helped rip the hinges off the closet.5 Until the publication of Just Above My Head (1979), Baldwin's last novel, Beam claims that African-American writers had been suffering "a kind of 'nationalistic heterosexism.'"6

Whilst his writing offered solace and recognition for many of his contemporary readers, it was not until the 1980s that criticism (notably the work of Andrea Lowenstein and Emmanuel Nelson) began to argue for Baldwin's central place, not only as an important African-American writer, but as a black and gay artist. Even a cursory glance at recent scholarship on Baldwin indicates the ways in which the field is dominated by articles on Baldwin's explorations and depictions of black masculinity and sexuality. To cite one of many recent examples, Yasmin DeGout, in a recent collection of Baldwin essays, makes the point that "any reading of Baldwin's fiction reveals him to be progenitor of many of the theoretical formulations currently associated with feminist, gay, and gender studies. . . ."7

But even as Baldwin's reputation as an important—perhaps the most important—gay black American writer of the twentieth century becomes increasingly secure, a closer examination of his work reveals a myriad ambiguities, contradictions and uncertainties that sit uneasily with his increasingly iconic status. Although Baldwin—and in particular his fiction—is noted for his bold portrayal of homosexual relationships, [End Page 457] it was not until 1968 with Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone that Baldwin depicted sexual relations between two black men in a novel, and not until his last novel, Just Above My Head (1979), that he explores sexual love between African-American men. In fact, as David Bergman has pointed out, Baldwin is careful to frame his "homosexual" relationships through bisexuality, whether past or present.8 Still more surprising is Baldwin's insistence that his second novel, Giovanni's Room (1956), a work that has emerged as a key work of twentieth century gay fiction, "is not about homosexuality."9

Not only did he steer readers away from the homosexuality of Giovanni's Room, but Baldwin repeatedly rejected the adjectives "homosexual," "gay," and "bisexual." "The word gay," Baldwin told Richard Goldstein, "has always rubbed me the wrong way. I never understood exactly what is meant by it," a view that Baldwin also forcefully echoed in an interview with James Mossman:10

Those terms, homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, are 20th century terms which, for me, have very little meaning. I've never, myself, in watching myself and other people, watching life, been able to discern exactly where the barriers were.11

Asked by Goldstein whether he considered himself gay, Baldwin replied that he did not: "I didn't have a word for it. The only...


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