- Being James Baldwin, or Everything Is Personal
I was not born to be what someone said I was. I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself, and myself only.
No true account, really, of black life can be held, can be contained in the American vocabulary. … I don’t see anything in American life—for myself—to aspire to. Nothing at all. It’s all so very false. So shallow, so plastic, so morally and ethically corrupt.—James Baldwin, “The Last Interview”
One of the privileged few, who had the choice as a literary genius, James Baldwin was comfortable dwelling in the world, where he continued to love and passionately criticize his homeland, but where he also felt free to reject what he did not like about its culture. He expresses this sentiment in the last interview he gave to Quincy Troupe in mid-November 1987, at
CR: The New Centennial Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2016, pp. 47–64. ISSN 1532-687X. © 2016 Michigan State University. All rights reserved. [End Page 47] his beloved house in St. Paul-de-Vence in France, just days before his death. This last glimpse of the writer’s self-perception as someone estranged from American culture, and yet committed to changing it an essay, a book, a speech at a time, has inspired the epigraph for this chapter. Baldwin knew well that being visible as a black writer and public intellectual made him especially vulnerable to others’ interpretations: in another interview he identifies the feeling of having to contend with “all those strangers called Jimmy Baldwin” (Baldwin and Auchinloss and Lynch, 79). In the soundtrack to the 1970 gem of an art film that the filmmaker and photographer Sedat Pakay made about him in Istanbul and released in New York in 1973, Baldwin acknowledges the advantages of his transatlantic location and optic—one always sees one’s home better, he explains, “from another place, from another country” (Pakay 1973). It is an enviable and, for Baldwin, creative and productive, but often a lonely, vantage point.
The epigraph emphasizes something else besides Baldwin’s cosmopolitanism and his well-known gospel of all-embracing kinship—his recognition of shared humanity with all people of all epidermal hues, of his own uniqueness as a person like no other, and of his being an African American writer and activist who was both gay and bisexual, and also a pioneer of black queerness. I chose these particular words of his because they articulate, however ironically, one of the key tenets (if not clichés) of Americanness—individualism—at the same time they confirm that its embrace was precisely what caused the author’s irrevocable exile from home.
Having spent the majority of his writing life abroad, Baldwin described himself euphemistically as being uprooted and living in flux, a “transatlantic commuter, carrying my typewriter everywhere, from Alabama to Sierra Leone to Finland” (1987, 123). Yet he also made it clear that he had not so much wished to leave this country, as he was driven out of it by desperation, racism, poverty, and homophobia. As he writes in the introduction to his last volume of essays, The Price of the Ticket (1985), with his signature prophetic insight that, sadly, finds relevance in this day and age when corporations are regarded as “persons” and our public education, police, and judicial systems are ailing: “There was not, then, nor is there, now, a single American institution which is not a racist institution… . [T]he architects of the American [End Page 48] State… decided that the concept of Property was more important—more real—than the possibilities of the human being” (xix).1
That essay ends with one of the most poignant comments on the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny in twentieth-century American letters, as Baldwin puts in conversation transatlantic journeys and literary traditions that have often been seen as incompatible, the passage that considers the “real reasons for [the white American’s] journey”: “I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white and who...