A photo of James Baldwin graces the cover of Poets & Writers this month. Coincidentally enough, I was just revisiting his book of essays that I read as an undergrad, The Price of the Ticket. What an excellent book & man.
Here’s an excerpt from an essay, “Here Be Dragons,” that seems fitting for today:
“But this by no means sums up the state or the possibilities of the human being in whom the awakening of desire fuels imagination and in whom imagination fuels desire. In other words, it is not possible for the human being to be as simple as a stallion or a mare, because the human imagination is perpetually required to examine, control, and redefine reality, of which we must assume ourselves to be the center and the key. Nature and revelation are perpetually challenging each other; this relentless tension is one of the keys to human history and to what is known as the human condition.
… The American idea of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American idea of masculinity. Idea may not be the precise word, for the idea of one’s sexuality can only with great violence be divorced or distanced from the idea of the self. Yet something resembling this rupture has certainly occurred (and is occurring) in American life, and violence has been the American daily bread since we have heard of America. This violence, furthermore, is not merely literal and actual but appears to be admired and lusted after, and the key to the American imagination.
…The American ideal , then, of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American ideal of masculinity. This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden–as an unpatriotic act–that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.
The exigencies created by the triumph of the Industrial Revolution–or, in other terms, the rise of Europe to global dominance–had, among many mighty effects, that of commercializing the roles of men and women. Men became the propagators, or perpetrators, of property, and women became the means by which that property was protected and handed down. One may say that this was nothing more than the ancient and universal division of labor–women nurtured the tribe, men battled for it–but the concept of property had undergone a change. This change was vast and deep and sinister.
For the first time in human history, a man was reduced not merely to a thing but to a thing the value of which was determined, absolutely, by the thing’s commercial value. That this pragmatic principle dictated the slaughter of the native American, the enslavement of the black and the monumental rape of Africa–to say nothing of creating the wealth of the Western world–no one, I suppose, will now attempt to deny.
But this principle also raped and starved Ireland, for example, as well as Latin America, and it controlled the pens of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence–a document more clearly commercial than moral. This is how, and why, the American Constitution was able to define the slave as three-fifths a man, from which legal and commercial definition it legally followed that a black man ‘had no rights a white man was bound to respect.’”
Whew. If you haven’t read from this collection, there’s a copy in your local library or a used copy at Amazon (new copies aren’t sold anymore). Baldwin goes on to relate these ideas to his personal experiences growing up as a black man in New York City, specifically Harlem, who initially had sex and fell in love with men, white women, and a few black women. He was something of a self-declared “freak” because of the back-and-forth beatings and embracings by the same men struggling to assert their masculinity as well as find some relief from it. Baldwin’s considerations of race, gender, and sexuality are astute, personal, and applicable to all.
One of the topics I discuss with my expository writing classes is gender. Though there is an occasional snicker or sigh, there is more often a hunger to discuss issues of masculinity, and inevitably, homosexuality, that I can barely control at times. It’s as though these recent high school grads have finally been given permission to talk about such sordid topics as adults and are finding a way to articulate their thoughts without falling prey to the usual behavioral checks. No one has to call someone else a “fag” simply because he says he doesn’t have a problem with gays. This leads to a discussion about the limitations of living up to one’s masculine potential and how we learn to control (& threaten with misogynist or homophobic name calling) each other when a guy isn’t fulfulling his proper role. The best class I ever had where this particular discussion went full confession was a class made up of almost all young men. The first time I walked into this class, I was totally initimidated. And they turned out to be one of the most respectful and open groups I’ve ever had. But I’m waxing nostalgic here…
Get the book. Thank Baldwin later.
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.