#20BooksOfSummer Book Two – James Baldwin, ‘Notes of a Native Son’ (1955)

A e-reader with a picture of the cover of Notes of a Native Son. It shows a black and white photograph of the author as a young man wearing a white shirt with his arms crossed.

I am what time, circumstance, history have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.

James Baldwin, ‘Preface’ to Notes of a Native Son (1984)

James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. He was a novelist, essayist, playwright and a social critic who was active in the civil rights movement. He spent many years of his life in France where he went to escape the racism and homophobia he had experienced in the United States. Notes of a Native Son was his first book of non-fiction. It was published in 1955 when Baldwin was just thirty one, two years after his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.

The essays in Notes of a Native Son are grouped into three parts. The first considers representations of African American people in literature and film. The second is based on Baldwin’s experiences of life and politics in the US. The third is made up of reflections from his early years in France. It feels like this structure is quite deliberate and is intended to take the reader on a journey with Baldwin.

The book’s ‘Preface,’ written thirty years later in 1984, is fascinating. Here James Baldwin reflects on what he was trying to achieve when he wrote Notes of a Native Son. He discusses how the essays reflect his struggle to locate himself within his inheritance because, ‘one cannot claim the birthright without accepting the inheritance’. It’s unsettling to see that some of his observations in the Preface (itself now over thirty years old), could easily still be applied today. Baldwin talks about the way African American people are always told to wait for things to change and to be patient. He speaks of the ‘panic stricken apprehension on the part of those who have maligned and subjugated others for so long that the tables have been turned’, something I think we have seen recently in the ‘debate’ over removing the statues of slave traders from public spaces.

For, if trouble don’t last always, as the Preacher tells us, neither does Power, and it is on the fact or the hope or the myth of Power that that identity which calls itself White has always seemed to depend

‘Preface’ to Notes of a Native Son

As a white, British reader, one thing that feels a little strange to read is Baldwin’s use of the word ‘negro’ to refer specfically to African American people. It isn’t language we would use now, but it is important. Baldwin doesn’t use it as a neutral term to refer to black people; it seems intended to convey something uniquely American and highly symbolic, an identify, or perhaps a figure, that has been created through an immense weight of history and cultural meaning (Black people as seen by the white culture), meaning that Baldwin wants to engage with in these essays.

Quite a lot of the content in the first three essays went rather over my head because I haven’t actually read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Native Son by Richard Wright. Nor have I seen the film Carmen Jones. It’s still comprehensible, though, because Baldwin is discussing what these texts tell us about beliefs that underlie the representation of African American people. The essays in this section remind me a little of Roland Barthes’s book, Mythologies, which was published a couple of years later in 1957. Here Baldwin was already talking about the way certain ‘signs’ and ‘mythologies’ are created and imposed upon people. He is critical of all three texts and wrestles most, I think, with Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son. It’s clearly an important work, which on one level Baldwin identifies with, but he argues that it turns its subject into a monster and leaves him nowhere else to go. Baldwin’s friendship with Richard Wright did not survive the essay.

The next section is based on aspects of Baldwin’s life in America. ‘The Harlem Ghetto’ is about ‘the rage of people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet’. It considers the role of black leaders, newspapers and religion in the struggle for civil rights, including the difficult subject of anti-semitism in the culture of Harlem at the time. ‘Journey to Atlanta’ is about Baldwin’s younger brother’s experiences of working for (and being exploited by) the Progressive Party. Again, as a white British woman, a lot of this went over my head! But it was an interesting read which uses humour to tackle the way Black people were being used by the party at the time.

The middle section contains one of the most powerful essays in the book, ‘Notes of a Native Son’. This is an incredble, searing piece of writing about Baldwin’s father who died when his son was nineteen, on the same day as his youngest sister was born. His father’s funeral took place on the same day as the Harlem Riot of 1943. The essay’s place at the centre of the book, its doubling with the title, and the dedication of the work to Baldwin’s youngest sister, Paula Maria, indicates its power and central importance.

I’ve read Baldwin’s novel Go Tell it on The Mountain, which fictionalises his experiences as a child preacher and his difficult relationship with his father, so I knew something of the story. Baldwin’s father was a deeply troubled and damaged man who simply could not connect with other people. Baldwin says hauntingly, ‘there was something in him ‘groping and tentative which was never expressed and which was buried in him’. His father encouraged his son’s brilliance, as long as it manifested itself as something he approved (preaching), but he was also controlling and oppressive. As Baldwin leaves Harlem and encounters the racism of the white world, he begins to understand his father’s rage and trauma. This experience brings him to the point of breakdown and a confrontation that endangers his life. As he says towards the end of the essay, ‘I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain’.

The essays in part three are told from the perspective of Baldwin’s early years in France. There is an essay about encounters between the Aftrican American people living there and people from various countries in Africa and how hard that meeting is. There’s an essay about American students living in Paris while studying on the G.I. Bill which probably feels the most dated in the collection now. There is a funny and horrifying essay about Baldwin’s kafkaesque experience of getting arrested for stealing a bedsheet, being put in a French prison for eight days, and finding himself unable to communicate with the criminal justice system.

The final, and brilliant essay, ‘Stranger in the Village’ brings the collection full circle. Here Baldwin uses reflections on his time spent living in an entirely white Swiss village to delve into the relationship betweeen white Europeans and Africa and how this has played out in the history of slavery and white supremacy in the US. In the Swiss village, Baldwin finds himself treated as ‘a living wonder’, a creature that is hardly even human, and realises that the people there have no idea about the history with which he lives: ‘People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them’, he says. He discovers startling racist customs, such as ‘buying souls’ in Africa for conversion to Christianity (something my own mother did at school in the 1940s) and people ‘blacking up’ during carnivals. He considers the difference between being the first white man to be seen by black people in Africa and being the first black man to be seen by a village full of whites; the difference is conquest and power, what it means to be controlled by white culture and the inescapable rage this creates. As he says,

‘this village brings home to me this fact: that there was a day, and not really a very distant day, when Americans were scarecly Americans at all but discontented Europeans, facing a great unconqured continent and strolling, say, into a marketplace and seeing black men for the first time. The shock this spectacle afforded is suggested by the promptness with which they decided that these black men were not really men but cattle’.

A decision which has shaped history and from which there is no way back to the ‘simplicity’ of this European village, ‘This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again’.

Baldwin talks about many things in Notes of a Native Son, but there are two striking silences. Women are almost entirely absent from the essays and Baldwin avoids talking directly about his sexuality. Women are mentioned here and and there, but Baldwin seems to be referring almost exclusively to men and addressing a presumptively male audience in which women appear to be subsumed and have no separate voice. Maybe it’s a 1950s thing. I don’t think it has anything to do with his personal attitudes because he was a close friend and supporter of many black women activists and creators, including Nina Simone, Lorraine Hansburry, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, so I’ll be interested to see whether he addresses this issue in later works.

The biggest silence, though, is the silencing of Baldwin’s sexuality which clearly couldn’t be spoken about openly in a book published in 1955. There are only shadowy hints beneath the surface of the text. It does feel like a big ommission because no doubt his sexuality had an enormous impact on his life experiences. He went to France to escape homophobia as well as racism. As with many LGBTQ people throughout history, sexuality can provide the motivation to get out and create new lives elsewhere.

Notes of a Native Son is a powerful collection which gripped me despite gaps in my knowledge. I’m looking forward to reading Baldwin’s later essays and novels now to see where his thinking developed, especially The Fire Next Time.

Read for #20BooksOfSummer20

More

Documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Making Gay History Podcast

I’m loving the fascinating interviews on Making Gay History podcast

The Making Gay History podcast mines Eric Marcus’s decades old audio archive of rare interviews — conducted for his award-winning oral history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement — to create intimate, personal portraits of both known and long-forgotten champions, heroes, and witnesses to history.

35 Years since the first Cardiff Pride

It’s been 35 years since the first Pride event took place in Cardiff

Nice article on the BBC.

“At one of the [gay social] meetings he [Mr Foskett] said ‘I think we should have a gay pride march in Cardiff’.

That might not sound particularly strange now, but back in 1985 it was like, ‘are you serious?’ He was very keen and his sort of enthusiasm was very infectious.”

The small group got planning and the event took place on 20 June.

With placards reading “gay love is good love”, the procession marched from Queen Street to the students’ union in Cardiff.

“It was a small band of people, but it was a huge step for Cardiff I think, because of what it represented,” said Mr Brown.

Mr Foskett remembered it being “quite fun, and very small”.

“The people that we encountered were friendly. People laughed. People were incredulous, but they weren’t hostile.”

Today, the Pride Cymru events draw in 50,000 people, with 15,000 attending 2019’s parade, but the first march was less than 30, according to Mr Brown.

BBC, Pride Cymru: 35 Years since ‘huge step’ in Cardiff

RIP Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer, playright, author, gay rights and AIDS activist, died this week at 84.

The Advocate, Larry Kramer Towering Figure of Aggressive AIDS Activism, Dead at 84

Making Gay History Podcast, interview with Larry Kramer

Hollywood Reporter, Larry Kramer, ‘Normal Heart’ Playwright and AIDS Activist, Dies at 84

Pink News, Larry Kramer’s furious, impassioned HIV speech is essential viewing 30 years on

Rest in Power.

LGBT History + Wales

I meant to post this a while ago but got distracted by, well, a pandemic. My friend Norena (author of the groundbreaking Forbidden Lives: LGBT Stories from Wales) wrote a great roundup of all the events that happened here for LGBT History Month 2020: Wales + LGBT History Month round up.

It’s heartening and moving to see so many activities happening across the country. We have come such a long way, even if as Norena says, we now need to move beyond events being restricted to celbratory days and months.

Llongyfarchiadau LGBTQ+ Wales!

LGBT Bookstores

The shops, who supported each other by sharing news and ideas, became cornerstones of the communities they served, hosting political organizations and providing safe spaces for people to explore and embrace their sexuality. Such inclusiveness —  along with the spirit of the anti-war, anti-establishment revolution that fanned out before and after Stonewall — encouraged others to build upon the idea started by Rodwell and the Oscar Wilde. By the mid-1980s, queer bookstores were in more than 20 cities across North America as well as venues in Germany, France, Australia, the Netherlands and the U.K.

Jason Villemez

Good article about the history of LGBT bookstores

Sapphic Link Love #11

From Ancient Rome to Judith Butler in this issue …

Cheryl Morgan blogs about the evidence for women loving women in Ancient Rome, Tribade Visibility Day

The Paris Review has a great piece on The Fabulous Forgotten Life of Vita Sackville West

them, 100 Years Ago, this Lesbian Doctor Helped Contain NYC’s Typhoid Epidemic

TIE Campaign podcast has episodes on Lesbians Against Section 28 and Anne Lister

A long and detailed article in Out History, A Tribute to Phyllis Lyon (1924 – 2020)

The Advocate, Netflix Doc Reveals the Queer Romance Behind A League of their Own

Interesting interview with Judith Butler about her latest thinking Judith Butler wants us to reshape our rage

A lovely blog from Torch, Women Retold: Eurydice and Portrait of a Lady on Fire

And a nice interview with the poet Jackie Kay, DIVA meets LGBTQI literature royalty, Jackie Kay MBE

RIP Phyllis Lyon

Lesbian activist, Phyllis Lyon has died at the age of 95. Lyon and her wife, Del Martin, did an enormous amount to progress LGBTQ civil rights from the 1950s onwards. Here are some articles about their legacy:

The Advocate, Phyllis Lyon, Pioneering Lesbian Activist, Dies at 95

Autostraddle, Phyllis Lyon, Incomparable Lesbian Civil Rights Activist, Has Died at 95

The Guardian, Phyllis Lyon, LGBTQ rights pioneer, dies at age 95

Bay Area Reporter, Lesbian pioneer Phyllis Lyon dies

Rest in power.

Sunday Post: End of February

Life

My goal this week was to get through it without letting stress take over my life. I knew it was going to be busy at work, and when this happens, I tend to let self-care drop just when I most need to keep it up.

I delivered online training on Tuesday, went to Mid Wales for an all-day meeting on Wednesday, and gave a presentation to an important meeting on Thursday.

Overall, I managed the stress pretty well. I kept up other activities and didn’t have any anxiety attacks. I even had drinks with colleagues on Friday which was nice.

I went to a really good LGBTQ History Month event at The Senedd on Saturday. The speakers were all excellent and it was nice to catch up with some people I hadn’t seen for a while. I learned about this project, Out in the Museum, which started at the V&A in London and is now being picked up by other museums across the UK. There was also a showing of a powerful short film, Invisible Women, about intersections between women’s and LGBT rights activism in the 1980s.

We were planning to see Portrait of a Lady on Fire but my partner has a cold so we’ll try and see it next weekend.

Reading

I finished Nalo Hopkinson’s short story collection, Falling in Love with Hominids. It’s a really good collection and well worth reading, although the stories were much closer to horror than I expected. Proper post to follow.

Pride and Prejudice is my current bedtime book.

Television

Mainly watching Schitt’s Creek at the moment.

Music

I’ve been listening to Nina Simone this week after twitter reminded me that 21 February was her birthday. So many incredible songs, but I think my favourite – right now anyway – is ‘Sinnerman’. The energy of this performance grabs me every time.

LGBTQ book legacy

An LGBT book collector “passionate about justice” has left his 30,000-piece collection to a university.

Jonathan Cutbill, a founder of Gay’s The Word bookshop in London’s Bloomsbury, died last May aged 82.

His collection, which dates back to 1760, will be moved from his Shrewsbury home to the University of London.

Geoff Hardy, a friend of Mr Cutbill, said the “incredible legacy” featured the history of LGBT issues and the oppression people had faced.

Mr Cutbill’s collection includes novels, pamphlets and newspapers, including all the copies of Gay News, which ran for 11 years.

BBC News Shrewsbury book collector gifts LGBT ‘legacy’

Sapphic Link Love #10

Elizabeth A Lynn, ‘Watchtower’ (1979) #20BooksOfSummer

Ryke wakes after the battle is over, to find Tornor Keep has been overrun by the forces of a Southern conqueror, Col Istor. As one of the few surviving warriors, his life is spared so that he can assist with the transition to Istor’s rule, his obedience secured only by the conqueror’s promise not to harm the old lord’s heir, Errel. Ryke agrees to the terms and is horrified when Errel is forced to act as the Keep’s jester.

Just as it seems that resistance is hopeless, a pair of sinister messengers arrive, bringing an offer of truce from another keep. Ryke is surprised when Errel proposes asking for their help to escape, but all is not as it seems, and Errel knows more than Ryke can imagine. So begins a journey South to meet the dancers of Vanmina, a journey that challenges everything Ryke thinks he knows about the world. But before too long they will have to return to the North and face Col Istor again.

Watchtower is the first book in Elizabeth A. Lynn’s acclaimed trilogy, The Chronicles of Tornor, and it won the World Fantasy Award in 1980.  Lynn is one of many well-regarded women writers who were publishing science fiction and fantasy before the 2000s, but whose work is now rather neglected and in danger of being forgotten. Considering the way that women writers have been treated by SFF, it seems sadly appropriate that Watchtower is partly set in a ruthlessly patriarchal society where women are not truly “seen”.

I really loved Lynn’s short stories in The Girl Who Loved the Moon, so I was looking forward to starting on The Chronicles of Tornor. Watchtower is superbly written, at least on a level with Le Guin’s Earthsea in terms of quality. It has a compelling story and interesting main characters. It even has queer characters and a lesbian couple, although this is not too surprising when you realise that Lynn wrote A Different Light, one of the first science fiction novels to feature openly queer characters, and after which a famous gay bookshop was named.

I’m not a fan of high fantasy, but I did enjoy Watchtower and will read the rest of the trilogy. If I have any criticisms, I thought the middle section dragged a bit and Ryke does have to “hold the stupid ball” a lot for the plot to work.

Just a note, there are some depictions of rape during war towards the end. It’s not too much, or too graphic, but just be aware if you’re thinking of reading this and it’s something you’d prefer not to come cross unexpectedly.

Recommended if you like high fantasy or want to explore the writing of women fantasy and SF authors from the 1970s and 1980s (who are not Ursula Le Guin).  

20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge

Mary Dorcey, ‘Kindling’ (1982) #20BooksOfSummer

Kindling is the first collection of poetry published by Irish feminist poet, Mary Dorcey. It’s a short book which you can easily read in an afternoon.

Some of the poems do feel very much of their time, rooted in second wave lesbian feminist politics and culture. They fall into two (linked) groups, poems that challenge the oppression of women under patriarchy (‘the vicious bigotry of all the Pope’s boys’), and poems that explore relationships between women, especially as lovers, friends and mothers and daughters.

There are poems about the position of women in Ireland (‘coming Home’, pornography (‘Photographs’), women’s incarceration in prison (‘Night Protest’) and mental institutions (‘Rope’), and conflicts within feminism (‘Colonised Minds’). ‘In a Dublin Nursing Home’ a lesbian couple have to pretend to be relatives, an experience I’ve heard older lesbians and gay men describe.

They are ambitious, powerful poems, but overall, I preferred reading the more ambivalent, and perhaps messier poems about relationships between women, such as ‘Full Circle’, ‘The Quarrel’, ‘Night’ and ‘Friendship’. These are poems about the unruliness of desire and it’s rather consoling to see that ‘lesbian drama’ hasn’t changed that much in thirty years.

I will definitely look up more of Dorcey’s poetry and will be interested to see how she’s developed since 1982.  

You stretch your hand
to mine
and some ember of the me
that I was to you,
rekindles
and and in silence,
recovers the power
of speech.

‘After Long Silence’

Must read: ‘You saw me covered in blood on a bus. But do you get outraged about all homophobia?’

If you’re on social media, I’m sure you saw the photograph of the two women who experienced a homophobic/misogynist hate crime in London being circulated last week. One of the women, Chris, has written a brilliant, deeply intersectional, piece in the Guardian, challenging the media discourse that centres white, cisgender “victims” and demanding that we care about all forms of homophobia and oppression. What a way to turn an awful experience, and an unwanted platform, into something powerful.

A refrain I’ve heard ad nauseum is “I can’t believe this happened – it’s 2019”. I disagree. This attack and the ensuing media circus are par for the course in 2019. In both my native United States and here in the United Kingdom, it always has been and still is open season on the bodies of (in no specific order) people of colour, indigenous people, transgender people, disabled people, queer people, poor people, women and migrants. I have evaded much of the violence and oppression imposed on so many others by our capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal system because of the privileges I enjoy by dint of my race, health, education, and conventional gender presentation. That has nothing to do with the merit of my character.

You saw me covered in blood on a bus. But do you get outraged about all homophobia?

Sapphic Link Love #9

Dyke Camp

Dyke camp could also be an oversized basketball vest that hangs low over the armpit and reveals sideboob, or a stacked heel that adds to your height. A dyke camp vision is greedy: it asks for more not in the sense of adding endless details like camp might, but in making things bigger, blowing things up. Dyke camp is simultaneously self-conscious of and delighted by its own visibility.

Dyke camp doesn’t care what others think. It is not particularly interested in being palatable for or even attended to by straight people. As with camp, it’s more like blaring the Batsignal. Dyke camp is showy gestures, a certain hunch of the shoulder, a crooked grin, a beckoning hand, exaggeration, over-amplification, studied disinterest in clothes and very keen interest in everything else. A walk that looks like a dance.

The Outline, Notes on Dyke Camp

The Novels of Joseph Hansen

Michael Nava has published a thoughtful article in LARB about the author Joseph Hansen Gay Noir Pioneer

I recommend reading the Dave Brandsetter mystery novels if you can get your hands on them. They feature an openly gay detective and offer a fascinating window onto the lives of gay men and, to some extent, lesbians in the 1960s and 70s. Hansen also has a really interesting writing style.

Sapphic Link Love #8

Queer Bible, U.A. Fanthorpe

LGBTQ Nation, Meet the Harlem Renaissance dancer who made sure lesbian history wasn’t forgotten

Queer Bible, Natalie Barney

Autostraddle, All Bones and Blood and Breath: Remembering Barbara Hammer

Quill and Quire, The 88-year-old creator of mystery’s first lesbian detective reflects on the character’s return

Lambda Literary, review of My Butch Career by Esther Newton

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Poppy Jenkins by Clare Ashton

A Trip to Gay’s the Word

Photograph of 5 books in a pile, with titles by Sarah Schulman, Jane Traies, Jill Dawson and Amy Bloom

A pile of lesbian books!

We were in London briefly last weekend, me for a work conference and my partner, lucky thing, to see the new production of All About Eve starring Gillian Anderson and Lilly James. But of course we still found time to visit Gay’s the Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, where I treated myself to a few books that I’ve had my eye on for a while.

Sarah Schulman is one of my favourite lesbian writers and I bought her two most recent books. Maggie Terry (2018) is a crime thriller about lesbian PI with addiction issues, while The Cosmopolitans (2016) is a historical novel about the friendship between a black gay man and a middle-aged white woman in the 1950s.

I’ve heard good things about The Crime Writer (2016) by Jill Dawson and White Houses (2018) by Amy Bloom. The first has Patricia Highsmith moving to a cottage in Suffolk to try and finish a novel while also carrying out an unhappy affair, only to find herself the protagonist in a thriller. The second is a love story about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist, Lorena Hickok.

Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories (2018) is a collection of personal accounts from older lesbians edited by Jane Traies and looks absolutely fascinating.

I could have spent a lot more, but thought I’d better stop there. So much for not buying any more books until I’ve made a dent in my TBR pile!

40 Years of Gay’s the Word

Great article from Dazed about the 40th birthday of London’s fabulous LGBT bookshop Gay’s the Word

It’s a special place and we always pay a visit whenever we’re in London.

14/03/2019 – Updated the picture after a trip at the weekend!

Sapphic Link Love #7

The Guardian, Pioneering Bollywood lesbian romance opens in India 

Duke University Press, Esther Newton, My Butch Career, A Memoir 

The Guardian, ‘It has made me want to live’: Public support for lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall over banned book revealed 

The Paris Review, Hunting for a lesbian canon 

Catapult Magazine, ‘I should hate forever to be a burden to you’: Lessons in love from Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West 

Lit Hub, The overlooked eroticism of Mary Oliver 

Sapphic Link Love #6

Ransom Centre Magazine, The Ransom Center will digitize the papers of British author Radclyffe Hall and partner, artist Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge

Autostraddle, Revisiting “Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist” in a World Needing Her More Than Ever

Terri Windling, Hen Wives, Spinsters and Lolly Willows 

iNews, The lesbian ‘blood sisters’ who cared for gay men when doctors were too scared to 

Glasgow’s LGBT book success

What a lovely story.

Glasgow’s LGBT book shop a ‘wonderful success’

The owners of an LGBT book shop in Glasgow say they could not have imagined how successful it has been.

Category Is Books, on the city’s Allison Street, opened three months ago and is Scotland’s first LGBT bookshop in more than 20 years