Baldwin’s Queer Politics:Brim’s James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination
The last fifteen years have occasioned a renewed interest in the writings of James Baldwin among political theorists. In work by Carey McWilliams, Lawrie Balfour, George Shulman, Jack Turner, Stephen Marshall, and others (myself included), Baldwin has become, in different ways, the spokesman for a multiracial democratic politics, developing a powerful critique of ongoing racial violence and naïve liberal innocence while also founding a vision of genuine integration and democratic flourishing. Yet the Baldwin predominant in political theory has for the most part been a partial Baldwin, a Baldwin shorn of his ambivalent and ambiguous sexuality. As political theorists have sought a vision of transformative democratic politics in his work, they have at the very same time often rendered invisible the queerness of Baldwin’s social and political horizons. Matt Brim’s James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination provides a basis for challenging this occlusion and, by implication, the democratic politics built upon it. Political theorists would do well to attend these arguments and to begin to envision James Baldwin’s distinctively queer politics.
Writing from the context of queer and literary studies, Brim begins his study by remarking on how James Baldwin often functions as a surprisingly untroubled queer signifier; Brim proposes to explore some of the paradoxes of Baldwin’s queer exemplarity to uncover deeper ambiguities and incongruities in Baldwin’s work. These paradoxes reveal in particular the vexed relation that queerness has to normative practices, both representational and disciplinary. This vexed relation appears especially in the implicit queer/normal dyad that in turn bespeaks a simplistic liberation/constraint paradigm, a paradigm that forces queer politics into a vicious cycle of always having to seek out more liberatory queerness. For Brim, Baldwin’s work provides an opportunity to extend the moment when the queer and the unqueer exist in unpredictable, unresolvable, and untenable relation and thus a way to examine “queer normativities” with a self-critical lens.
Baldwin has, according to Brim, become an exemplary queer writer in part by virtue of an identity politics that Baldwin explicitly rejected. “Tight-fisted reading practices” have fostered identifications of Baldwin as best understood either in terms of race or in terms of sexuality; as a result, Baldwin’s writing has led an “odd double life” (9). Yet for Baldwin, identity is “less a marker of static sameness and difference than of unrecognized, painfully assimilable otherness within the self” (11). Thus attending to identity proves both orienting and disorienting as one is forced to locate the self in a sea of tumultuous difference. For Brim, Baldwin’s “queer imagination” provides “a way of registering the alchemic dynamic by which a ‘person’ emerges, fails to emerge, or refuses to emerge amidst socially prescribed identity categories” (12); Baldwin provides a “queer black real” against the “thinning effect” of the “rut of race- and sex-normative thought” (14). In other words, Baldwin reveals the possibilities of queer thought and the need to “think the unthinkable” (16) against and beyond reified categories.
Brim develops these arguments through subtle and compelling readings of Baldwin’s first three novels – Go Tell It On the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, and Another Country – as well as many of the stories that form the collection Going to Meet the Man. Reading Go Tell It On the Mountain, Brim reveals what he calls the “paradox of queer utility,” interpreting the novel as troubling Baldwin’s appropriation as a spokesperson for queer politics. Go Tell It offers “a mode of inquiry” into the self that untethers it from its history – and thus Baldwin from his own history – while nonetheless showing the unpredictability of such work: the freeing of the self from being entirely determined by its history also opens it to unexpected possibilities and modes of expression. The novel ends with “a vision of contested awakenings and cyclical struggle” (50). Go Tell It thus offers “a search for new terms that he [John] does not yet find,” showing how queer subjectivity arises out of a web of desires that attest to the “residual gap” between gay and queer, a gap whose meaning is created in part by similarity to other non-heteronormative practices (53).
In perhaps the most masterful chapter of the book, Brim reads Giovanni’s Room three ways: as an exemplary queer text; as a post-queer gay novel; and as the basis for a gay-trans analysis. As a queer text, Giovanni’s Room seeks to explode the categories on which injustice has been based and grapples with how to achieve “genuine human involvement” once freed from such understandings. As a post-queer gay novel, Giovanni’s Room leads readers to see Baldwin’s rejection of “gay” as moving in a dangerous direction because “being gay is as good as humanity gets” (74). Yet Brim also suggests that an opening for a gay-trans analysis is woven into the entire fabric of cultural production inasmuch as Giovanni’s Room can provide an opportunity for “fundamental corporeal questioning” by showing the “recalcitrance of bodily matter” that emerges at the end of the novel.
Another Country for Brim shows how one crossing of the lines of identity can motivate and enable another. The novel is “deceptively queer” because of its use of gay men for the education of the straight. Baldwin is, according to Brim, “a gay trader,” in that he depicts the heteronormalizing questions of gender and race being worked out on the “loving” body of the gay man. Another Country thus shows how the social fabric created by various threads does not unravel evenly: gay men are integral – the “homosexual secures the heterosexual” (116 – 7) – and yet hidden away. Women and black gay men are both effectively prostituted for the maturity and development of the straight and the normal.
Reading “The Rockpile,” “The Man-Child,” and “Going to Meet the Man,” among other stories, Brim extends his analysis of Baldwin’s queer imagination to the strange meaning of being white: how racial fatherhood itself appears contestable and constructed in Baldwin’s short fiction; and how dual interracial fatherhood emerges from an unnerving reconciliation suggestive of a future state of racelessness. These stories show that Baldwin refuses to locate race fears in the flesh, instead highlighting the inability to reproduce symbolic whiteness and thus the origins of recurring anxieties about sexual prowess and the shaky foundations of white supremacy. As Baldwin famously pronounced, “white people are not white” (148).
These sketches of Brim’s arguments cannot do full justice to the rich textures and surprising insights that fill his book. The sensitivity and vision of Brim’s readings concoct a complex “queer imagination” across the chapters, creating what Brim calls “a navigation system for liberatory thought and action” (153). Crucially for Brim, the capaciousness and self-criticism of this imagination depends on unmooring it from Baldwin’s own work. The “shock of queer failure” that takes place when we recognize the boundedness of Baldwin’s writing can serve to open the imagination even further. If Baldwin’s own imagination seems “queerly circumscribed” when it comes to women (to take another example), this allows us to see that the exemplarity associated with his “queer maverick” status might also lead to a particular brand of raced sexism. According to Brim, Baldwin’s search for masculine valuation as a black gay man proscribes the representation of lesbians. When Baldwin takes the “black man as the ever-degraded but necessary center” of his work (163), this erases the reality of black and lesbian women. The queer imagination thus enables and disables, creating possibilities for queer thought even as it delimits these possibilities.
To return more directly to Baldwin, we might agree with him that “havens are high priced.” Baldwin’s queer exemplarity comes at the price of overlooking both limits and possibilities in his vision. And just as the spokesperson role for Baldwin in queer studies pays a high price so too does what we might call Baldwin’s democratic exemplarity. The relevance of Brim’s critique for political theorists should by this point be obvious: much as queer studies has made Baldwin a spokesperson, political theorists have heroized him and begun to canonize his work. Moreover, while in queer studies work on Baldwin has focused on his relevance for considering gender and sexuality, in political theory the near exclusive focus has been on his importance for the future of a democracy shadowed by a violent history of racial exclusion and marginalization. Brim’s troubling of Baldwin’s queer exemplarity thus provides an opportunity to reconsider his democratic exemplarity and to challenge and expand the political imagination seeded by Baldwin’s work along three axes.
First, while Baldwin may be “a democratic believer,” in Balfour’s words, Brim’s study should remind political theorists of how Baldwin’s race consciousness comes twinned with a troublesome queer consciousness, one that exhibits an “odd boundedness,” according to Brim (160), and appears most notably in his fictions. Even attention by political theorists (such as Carey McWilliams, Susan McWilliams, and myself) to these fictions has been oddly quiet about Baldwin’s queer imagination. As political theorists continue to return to Baldwin, Brim’s work not only calls for renewed attention to Baldwin’s fictions but also to supplementing Baldwin’s voice with those of his contemporaries (whom he never really heard) such as Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, and Audre Lorde.
Second, reconciling the visions of integrated democratic flourishing drawn from Baldwin with his “queer failures” also requires revisiting the very foundation of these visions at the level of the subject. With their emphasis on elaborating a democratic subject from Baldwin’s work, political theorists may have inadvertently reified the category of citizenship in ways that trade on Baldwin much as he traded on gay men in Another Country. That is, Baldwin becomes the site for “getting over” or “moving past” racial violence; with Baldwin’s “approval,” democratic theorists can get on with the business of doing democracy. In this context, Brim’s study calls political theorists back to the undecidability of subjectivity illuminated by Baldwin’s account of identity as an ever unfinished struggle to escape constraining categories as well as his simultaneous encouragement of his fellow Americans to “achieve our country.”
Finally and third, this basic restlessness at the core of Baldwin’s work also points to the mercurial and radical nature of his political vision. Beyond rethinking the uses of Baldwin, engaging his queer imagination requires political theorists to learn to think the impossible as the basis of any queer politics. As Brim puts it:
If queer can be defined not only as marking sexual or erotic practice but as an imaginative act or impulse or investment that pushes back against the impoverishing heteronormative construction of reality, Baldwin has a fiercely queer imagination, the ability to think states of desire that operate “impossibly, against all reason.”(16)
Recognizing Baldwin’s queer imagination in Brim’s study thus brings us to the open potentiality of Baldwin’s queer politics, a politics not necessarily restricted to extant formations of democracy nor to current visions of multiracial self-governance.
Joel Alden Schlosser is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Bryn Mawr College, where he teaches courses in the history of political thought and contemporary political theory. His work has previously appeared in Political Theory, The Journal of Politics, Political Research Quarterly, Polis, The Review of Politics, and Theory & Event, among others. He is the author of What Would Socrates Do? (Cambridge, 2014), and is currently working on a book–length project on Herodotus, social science, and democratic politics. Joel can be reached at email@example.com