- 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...