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James Baldwin: My Uncle and His Love Life

Harlem wasn't just a regular setting in the corpus of his work; it was more like a pantomime Greek Chorus. For Uncle Jimmy, Harlem was a unique holy ground of sacrificial sensibility.
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August 2, 2014 is the day my family and I gather in New York City to celebrate Uncle Jimmy's 90th birthday with the gift of co-naming 128th Street "James Baldwin Place."

Harlem wasn't just a regular setting in the corpus of his work; it was more like a pantomime Greek Chorus. For Uncle Jimmy, Harlem was a unique holy ground of sacrificial sensibility. A familiar love, like the first bosom one knows, where the habitual bondage had no safe words -- he had to leave.

Like most of God's creatures, the first woman he loved was his mother. Grandma Berdis was an oracle and the purest source of love I've ever known. I wish she was here to share stories of her cooking for Uncle Jimmy and Marlon Brando before either of them became famous. His early relationships, some being unintentional crusades, traveling from Harlem to Greenwich Village, were courageous exercises that prepared him to be a global citizen.

Harlem was his heart; France was his home and the place he died. He took extended respites in other countries finding a comfort zone among others brave enough to think and love freely. If one could separate body from soul when we transition, giving each a burial ground, I'm sure my Uncle Jimmy would fool us in our speculation and awe us in his reasoning.

Uncle Jimmy's "jackpot" was about him being true to himself more than it was a barometer of achievement under pre-conditioned circumstances. His life mission was always the pursuit of righteousness not the fool's gold of happiness. My father, who wasn't necessarily the biggest champion of gay inclusion, would laud his brother for declaring his "manhood" so that no one could blackmail his sexuality.

I want to be an honest man and a good writer.

In being true to himself, his second novel was a gay themed love story set in Paris with no black characters. That feat, a leap of faith, could have been career suicide in the 1950s, instead it gave him freedom. An understated freedom to be a writer who happened to love the talent of a dead white man named Henry James; a man who was by no means from Harlem. When you allow yourself to love someone who is different there is a higher chance that they will also love you. Beware, it takes practice to respect differences knowing we all fear unrequited love.

Though never trapped in the domestic abuse situations that often resulted in death of his countrymen, his most volatile relationship was with Uncle Sam. He states:

I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one's own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright.

One could argue that Uncle Jimmy's first landmark is Giovanni's Room, the nation's oldest LGBT bookstore named after his book. Though there is no landmark in France, before his death, the country awarded him as Commander of the Legion of Honour. It is one thing to love your country, but to be adorn, in another country, means that you are not invisible -- and love can be your redeemer when you follow your heart wherever it takes you. In a 1984 interview in the New York Times Book Review, he states:

I was a maverick, a maverick in the sense that I depended on neither the white world nor the black world ... That was the only way I could've played it. I would've been broken otherwise. I had to say, 'A curse on both your houses.' The fact that I went to Europe so early is probably what saved me. It gave me another touchstone -- myself.

Excuse my French, or lack thereof, I don't know what's he's saying but I romanticize him teaching me the language, so I just listen to this clip as if he was in front of me.

He was a magnanimous friend, confidant and adviser to many of the most culturally significant figures of his generation. My aunts had to share him with his other sisters, some being: Angela, Audre, Josephine, Lena, Lorraine, Margaret, Maya, Nikki, Nina, and Toni. My uncles had to share him with other brothers, many who were foreign and of other persuasions: Achebe, Avedon, Baraka, Belafonte, Cezzar, Davis, Kazan, King, Poitier, Rustin, and X.

These love affairs had nothing to do about celebrity. Their bond was made out of an activist adhesive, an artist's integrity and a layer protecting all that enhances the soul. They kept each other alive.

One writes out of one thing only-one's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art. The difficulty then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact that I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation.

It's always awkward when I meet an adult (of any race) who has never heard of my uncle. I try not to snobbishly judge by erudition (especially since unc was self-taught and I'm no summa cum laude) but in some ways I pity them because they would probably see the world much clearer, therefore try to perform better in the role of their lives. Symbolically, the wide eyes of James Baldwin reveal insight and perspectives that makes objects appear as prophetic foresight. However, in actuality, like the furrows in his face, he gives nothing more than an honest historical analysis of human nature.

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.

During this Year of Baldwin celebration, the eye-rolling question that keeps coming up is "What would Jimmy say about ____?"

I suspect he would be a Gulliver among today's Lilli-pundits, graciously excusing himself out of the conversation due to the suffering side effects of redundancy. What would Jimmy say about Israel and Palestine? What he wrote in The Nation in 1979, this:

But the state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of the Western interests. This is what is becoming clear (I must say that it was always clear to me). The Palestinians have been paying for the British colonial policy of "divide and rule" and for Europe's guilty Christian conscience for more than thirty years.

What would Jimmy say about the first black U.S. president? What he said in a 1961 speech for the Liberation Committee for Africa, this:

Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day-thirty years, if I'm lucky -- I can be President too. It never entered this boy's mind, I suppose -- it has not entered the country's mind yet -- that perhaps I wouldn't want to be. And in any case, what really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro "first" will become the first Negro President. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he'll be President of.

Then he would give the real "State of the Union" in 60 seconds:

I'd like to thank the biographers, readers, scholars, activists, theater companies, and long diverse list of notables such as the Angelou Family, Hilton Als, Rich Blint, Herb Boyd, Common, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Colman Domingo, George Faison, Lupe Fiasco, Nikki Finney, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, Ethan Hawke, Bill T. Jones, Khary Lazare-White, Fran Lebowitz, Samuel Legitimus, David Linx, Audra McDonald, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Nas, Clarence Nero, Brandon Odums, Raoul Peck, Ernest Shaw, Stew, Colm Toibin, Jose Antonio Vargas, Kerry Washington, Lawrence Weschler and all the purveyors of my uncle's legacy. This not an excuse to namedrop; yet a roll-call-to-action, to challenge ourselves and inspire others to do the same.

The world is before you, and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.

There is less Baldwin in schools because he is a gateway drug of thought and more and more of our children are being taught not to think. Meanwhile the oppressors are establishing more interdependently systematic ways to deprive oxygen to our brains. Luckily, there is something innate that makes us instinctively thirsty for truth. As we selfishly master our crafts and maximize our opportunities to make a living, we must fervently create ways for humanity to thrive. I am so proud that Harlem now has a James Baldwin Place but can't help myself from asking, what would Jimmy say if they erect a building on his block that has a "poor door" entrance?

There is never time in the future in which we will work on our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.

Happy Birthday Uncle Jimmy! Today we celebrate your life, tomorrow we go back to your life's work. #Baldwin90

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