LGBTQ Legacy: James Baldwin

31 May 2018
Written by Sara Hanks

“LGBTQ Legacy” is a series of Equality Utah posts celebrating influential lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals who have gone before us. Each post focuses on a particular person and reflects upon the ways we can honor their memory.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a celebrated novelist, playwright, and social critic. The 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript and has renewed people’s appreciation for all Baldwin contributed to the literary world and to the national conversation on racism as a gay black man in the United States.

Born and raised in Harlem, Baldwin showed an early talent for writing and was encouraged by various mentors at school and in his community. He left the United States for France in his twenties, motivated largely by his need to escape the racial prejudices that prevailed in his home country. His most notable works include the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain and a collection of essays called Notes of a Native Son.

James Baldwin addressed the injustices of racial discrimination with eloquence, vulnerability, and strength. Here are a few ways we can each become inspired by his legacy and feel empowered by the words he left behind:

1. “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” James Baldwin was a dedicated student of the American story and understood its complexity. In this quote and in his other works, Baldwin called attention to the United States’ complicated history. As we consider the struggles for equality and acceptance today, do we understand how our struggles fit into the larger story? Even if we aren’t as devoted to studying history as Baldwin was, we can each develop more appreciation for the equality movement’s previous successes and failures, which will help us feel more connected to those who came before us and will allow us to see a more complete picture of the world, with all its beautiful and its terrible parts.

2. “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” To have a special influence in a child’s life, we can pay attention to the words we use and the ways we treat those around us, especially in Utah, the state with the highest birth rate in the nation. All children—including those who are LGBTQ or come from LGBTQ families—deserve to live where they will be recognized and valued for who they are and deserve to be brought up and be educated by adults who teach by example that all people are worthy of respect and belonging. We can set powerful examples by supporting fair and just policies and laws and by treating others kindly and working to better our communities.

3. “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” While Baldwin did spend the majority of his adult life in Europe, he didn’t turn a blind eye to problems in the United States. He continued to write and speak about the history of racial oppression in his home country and worked as an active participant in the civil rights movement. He saw what needed to be changed and faced those things head on. As we encounter injustice today, we may wonder whether change is even possible. But, to create fair and just communities, places where LGBTQ citizens and their families are valued and protected, we each need to face the current reality, look at the issues, and work to understand them better. Then, as we accept Baldwin’s insight that “nothing can be changed until it is faced,” we can gain the courage to push past our fears, become more involved in the political process, and address problems of inequality and discrimination more directly.

Baldwin’s influence in literary circles and in the forming of black social consciousness in the 20th century continues to resonate today, allowing the LGBTQ community and its allies to learn from his insights.

What else have you learned from James Baldwin’s words or example? And which other LGBTQ heroes would you like to see featured in Equality Utah’s future “LGBTQ Legacy” blog posts?

Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter (@EqualityUtah) or Facebook (facebook.com/EqualityUtah).

Are you ready to face and to change issues affecting Utah’s LGBTQ community? If so, we can suggest some great places to start: check out our resource guide, attend one of our signature events, or think about volunteering for Equality Utah!

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