Meet James Baldwin, the black, gay, angry novelist who pathed the way for the Stonewall uprising

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the June 28, 1969 Stonewall Inn rebellion in New York City.

Fortunately, the commemoration has been kind to its leading African-American figure, Black transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, who as historian Martin Duberman recounts helped trigger the rebellion by climbing a lamp post to smash a police windshield, was commemorated by New York City this Spring with a monument to her life. 

Johnson’s participation at Stonewall is an important reminder of how, by 1969, the US civil rights and Black Power movements had intersected with the emerging struggle for LGBT+ liberation. Indeed, other Stonewall leaders like Craig Rodman were participating in solidarity demonstrations with the Black Power movement two years before the fateful June rebellion.

But who prefigured Marsha P Johnson’s radical black queer leadership?

One answer is James Baldwin. Baldwin, born Black, gay and angry in Harlem in 1924, was the quiet, simmering voice throughout the 1950s and 1960s of the need to conjoin Black and LGBT+ liberation. Baldwin is best known to literary historians for his groundbreaking 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, the first major openly gay novel by a prominent African-American author. Yet the book that most directly anticipates the public uprising of Black queer life at Stonewall is his lesser-known 1962 novel ‘Another Country’.

The tragic protagonist of ‘Another Country’is Rufus Scott, a bisexual African-American jazz musician. Scott commits suicide when he cannot reconcile his sexual desires with his experiences of racism and his marginal economic conditions. For Baldwin, Rufus is to the American mind what he called in a later essay a “freak… treated – in the main, abominably – because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.” For Baldwin, Rufus is a martyr to queer Black lives disallowed.

Because of its detailed renderings of gay, bisexual, and interracial sex, ‘Another Country’ was declared “obscene” by the city of New Orleans. Baldwin’s novel also drew the attention of the FBI, its notorious director J. Edgar Hoover handwriting in the margins of his growing surveillance file “Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert?”

Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert? – FBI director J. Edgar Hoover

Baldwin fought back, publicly threatening to write a book exposing the intimidation and harassment techniques of the Bureau. At the same time, in a 1965 New York Post interview, Baldwin assailed American homophobia, and referred to compulsory heterosexual sex as “pure desperation.”

Baldwin was quietly assuming a role as a public dissident setting out to interrogate and challenge American ideas not just about race, but sexuality. Thus in 1968, one year before Stonewall, Baldwin published his first novel with a Black bisexual protagonist, ‘Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone’.

Leo Proudhammer is an aspiring actor who slips into his sexuality in a tender, evocative scene of love-making with his elder brother. Baldwin also makes Leo’s most satisfying love interest a firebrand young Black radical named Christopher, whose African-American friends talk revolution, “their beautiful black kinky hair spinning around their heads like fire and prophecy…with Camus or Fanon or Mao on their person.”

‘Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone’ was Baldwin ode to both the Black Power Movement – by 1968 emboldened by the lives and assassinations of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. – and to the role of Black gays and lesbians in a simmering American revolution.

James Baldwin was defended from homophobia by Black Panther leader Huey Newton

Baldwin’s increasing visibility as a Black gay intellectual, however, also had the effect of surfacing homophobia in the same Black Power movement he endorsed. In 1967, Black Panther party member Eldridge Cleaver attacked Baldwin in his book ‘Soul on Ice’.

Speaking of Baldwin’s novels like ‘Another Country’, Cleaver said Baldwin’s work represented “the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites that one can find in the writings of any black American writer of note in our time.” Cleaver added, “Many Negro homosexuals, acquiescing in this racial death-wish, are outraged because in their sickness they are unable to have a baby by a white man.”

James Baldwin. (PH)

Baldwin was stung by the attack, writing that Cleaver “used my public reputation against me both naively and unjustly.” Yet Cleaver’s homophobic rant also galvanised other Black Power activists to defend Baldwin. Black Panther leader Huey Newton rose to the occasion, proclaiming that Black revolutionaries “should try to form a working coalition with the gay liberation and women’s liberation groups. We must always handle social forces in the most appropriate manner.”

We must always handle social forces in the most appropriate manner.

Newton synthesis of gay, female and Black liberation leads us back to Marsha P. Johnson, and back to Stonewall. In the same year of Newton’s defence of Baldwin and gays and lesbians, Johnson began attending meetings of the Gay Liberation Front, a group formed in the immediate aftermath of Stonewall.

The group’s name was a tribute to anti-colonial national liberation struggles in Algeria and Vietnam, struggles which James Baldwin and the Black Panther Party had publicly supported before Stonewall, and which Newton sought to bind together in his defence of both Baldwin and Black and gay alliance.

While James Baldwin was not at Stonewall to see and hear the sights and sounds of gay liberation, his life, and the life of Marsha P. Johnson should be remembered as part of the same long arc of LGBT+ liberation.

Happily, that memory is being created now, inspired, appropriately, by the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. As Marsha P. Johnson was being commemorated this Spring with a monument near the Stonewall Inn, New York City’s Landmark Preservation Commission was moving forward to confer historic status on James Baldwin’s West 71st street apartment.

In his final work of literary creation before his death in 1987, James Baldwin paid subtle tribute to the victims of the HIV crisis. Marsha P. Johnson herself died HIV positive in 1992, after years of working with ACT UP advocating for a response to the AIDS disaster.

Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The words might also describe the life of Marsha P. Johnson, and the revolution at Stonewall she helped to make.

Bill V. Mullen is the author of the new biography ‘James Baldwin: Living in Fire’ (Pluto Press). He is Professor of American Studies at Purdue University.