Know your past live your future

James Baldwin by  Tonderai Munyevu

James Baldwin by Tonderai Munyevu

Illustration by Jannelly

Tonderai Munyevu is an actor and writer. His credits include Black Men Walking (Royal Court & National Tour), Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (Young Vic), Zhe (Soho Theatre) ,Carmen (Grange Park Opera) amongst many others. His writing includes The Moors (Tara Theatre), Harare Files (International Tour), Zhe (Soho Theatre), and The Tranquil Minds (BBC Shorts). His prose and fiction has been published in many anthologies including The Johannesburg Book of Reviews and Black and Gay in the UK published by Team Angelica.

He was a child preacher, essayist, novelist and dramatist born and educated in New York, publishing his first novel (Go Tell It On the Mountain) in 1953. He died in 1987. His work often explores themes of queer love. He has found a place in today’s popular culture mainly as truth teller about race. (Catch If Beale Street Could Talk and I Am Not Your Negro)

I am devoted to him, and it started with his novel Just Above My Head.

There I was a 13 year old boy having just moved from Zimbabwe in the cold 1996 weather. Grappling with the biting cold, the school bullies and just being away from the sun and all the things that I knew and loved. What I missed the most though was this persona I had created of myself at boarding school. The intellectual anglophile. Someone used to speaking, and doing it well. Comfortable in my queerness and yet it not being the defining thing of my life. I was the class monitor. Ignoring my role spectacularly by being the one to instigates the riots and merry times. Back in the dormitory, way after the lights had been called off, me and the boys who were so inclined would play around, enjoying each other, secure in a queerness without a definition of what that actually meant. (I use queer in this context as it relates to the meaning it has now, we knew noting of this then.)

After a year of this jollying around, my London based mother brought us to England. And to all those idiosyncrasies of new labour London in 1996. Suddenly I was being called ‘gay” in loud screeching voices. I would retreat to the library, if I was not in my bedroom dancing to you know who (’96 was the Spice Girls zenith). So it was I found Harlesden library and James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head.

In this book was something I hadn’t yet encountered. The kind of black bodies I was no longer seeing around me. The phrasing of the words on paper, the absolute awareness and deliberate depiction of Arthur (a gay black man, recently deceased having been a world famous soul singer) as black and queer was at once thrilling, scary and also challenging. So, these things I had experienced had not been private or hidden, or “just us” after all? There was love in these pages, between men, written about so tenderly and sensually. It seemed by someone who knew, so real it was to me. A passion, mixed with art. Music. A way of being. But it’s also about family, depicted with authenticity. Here is someone who knows what he is writing about.

That is the genius of Baldwin as a queer icon-best exemplified in this book about being black in America, hand in hand with being queer. He is at peace with his sexuality in this prose. But I consider him a hidden icon. It was unheard of then to be queer and black. The black fight must have eclipsed the gay one. Not all people, as is now, where in unity about equality-gay issues where not on black people’s agenda.  I wonder if Baldwin made a choice. And what has been the cost of it?

As it was, he was far more prolific at exposing the real horror of what it meant to be a black man in America. He was at the forefront of the civi rights movement but for me his real value lay in his exquisite prose. It did the most to help me secure a singular identity that rested in ignoring all the indignities I was experiencing. It helped me focus on developing myself as an individual.Years later as an actor, people would often say I should play Baldwin and this always gave me a thrill,(because he was intelligent, witty, powerful and somehow more himself than anyone else-was that me? Sure, I could play that!) It would be like going back to being a little boy first discovering him.

Certainly, James Baldwin is a queer icon often forgotten for being one because his greatest legacy regarding his queer work was on paper. On paper he was stunning and eloquent and uniquely black- (Hall describes Arthur as having “that rainforest of senegalese hair”) these are men dealing with what it means to be a man, one of whom a black man who loves other black men. Come to think of it, its always this kind of boldness of talent and honesty-almost daringness that attracts me to most queer artists who I admire. Coming from a culture in which certain things were never said but could be challenged by being. As a migrant too I found Baldwin fascinating having moved to France in 1948. Was this the way to evade closer inspection? How he defined himself seems in relation to his “shuttling” back and forth between France, the United States, Switzerland and Turkey until 1970 when he settled in Saint Paul-de-Vence where he died. In this novel his understanding of the life of an artist, of displacement, the flip-side of talent,  of whats hidden and can never be expressed, has lasted and had a major impact on me.

Watch a clip of Baldwin being interviewed and you certainly are curious about his queerness. Take a closer look and there is so much about him that its not up for discussion and there in lies his most potent message for us today. Could he have done more? Thats always the question we throw at public figures, right? Whats true is you can always find thematic links to his gay self even in his early works. That is his legacy. Not all heroes are made equal, there is infinite variety in being useful. Baldwin teaches us perhaps how we, as queer people, have had to bend so often, never being totally and fully ourselves. I know I owe him a debt I am repaying by being entirely myself, (to some extent, there is always a limit, isn’t there?) that is the luxury of our age. I know I certainly would not have made it here, as I am, without Just Above My Head. It changed my life.

Illustration by Jannelly: ‘I’m a New Jersey based artist who happens to enjoy making art for very obscure or unpopular media! I believe that the best art is the kind that is made with the heart on one's sleeve, and i hope that's what you see in my work!'

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