- Don’t Forget about UsJames Baldwin, the Black Church, and Black Queer Identity
It was incoherent, adolescence is a peculiar time but certainly it had something to do with it, but it wasn’t conscious. That became conscious when I became aware that as I stayed in the pulpit, against my will, perhaps. As I learned more and more about my congregations, and how little I could really console them. I was much young, with any kind of wisdom. I was learning more and more about myself and I began to see, in a sense, I was hiding in the pulpit. And, if I kept on doing that I would become a liar. Lie to my congregation, lie to myself, and whatever faith, whatever possibility of faith and love in my life I would destroy it, so I left—James Baldwin, “James Baldwin Talks about Love, Sexuality, and Race”
The aforementioned words shared by James Baldwin provide an insider’s look into his journey of self-discovery regarding his sexual identity. He began to learn more about himself, mainly who he was—a young man with same-sex desire. One of these streams of consciousness took place in the church, particularly, in the pulpit. It was in the sanctuary of God’s bosom that Baldwin became aware, conscious, as he states, that if he chose to remain in his position as a minister for the people, preaching God’s Word, that he would be a liar, [End Page 19] deceiving himself and his congregation. Reflectively, Baldwin knew more about the Black Church, particularly the ministers and pastors who had deceived many with their false prophesying and malfeasance. They not only misled the “souls of black folk,” but the danger and hyperbole against black sexuality was deftly regulated and tied to the binaries of male and female, man and woman. The gay black man and lesbian woman filling the pews of the church were seen as abominations, and Baldwin understood what this meant in relation to race and family and the respectability of the souls of black folk in the 1950s and ’60s.
More importantly, Baldwin’s words identify his position in the center of black life and in the Black Church. Like many other prominent black preachers of the day, Baldwin became the focus. Oftentimes, black preachers and pastors are regaled in the black community as god-like figures, or, at a minimum, human conduits to God, who, like Jesus, can walk on water, turn water into wine, heal the sick, and raise the dead. It is within this purview of power that Baldwin understood being in this position was a dangerous business of mixing his sexuality, male desires, and the Bible. Baldwin was not willing to bear the burden of his sexual identity being in conflict with God’s Word, or the people’s salvation. He resisted buying into the ideologies of gender and sexuality informed by white patriarchal and puritan heteronormativity that the Black Church had adopted. So, he walked away from the church, from saving himself and others, in order to be and live in his truth. Baldwin felt the need to be his authentic self, which oftentimes conflicted with the beliefs of the church, especially the church’s views on sexuality and sexual identity, meaning effectively that the church is nonaffirming and unaccepting of gay, queering, lesbian, and homosexual persons. Yet, Baldwin loved his people deeply, and he chose to be profoundly in love with them. But, more importantly, he loved himself.
Baldwin’s words also illustrate what it means to love deeply those who look like you, who reflect shared experiences and encounters of a life that begs to be seen, heard, and acknowledged. The beauty of Baldwin stepping away, in fact, is the way he re-emerges into the lives of black folk as witness and narrator of their lived experiences. In writing and speaking honestly about race, identity, gender, and sex, a truth emerges. A truth about one’s self, and community. Mainly acceptance. And, in the black community and in the Black Church, particularly for black queer folk, there remains the question: Who are you...