Hilton Als on James Baldwin, Beauford Delaney, and Queer Connection
“Baldwin’s career became a cautionary tale for me, a warning as well as an inspiration.”
The following is excerpted from God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin, a 2023 book edited by curator, author, and educator Hilton Als. On December 9, celebrate the publication and Baldwin’s far-reaching legacy at a symposium featuring Als, Glenn Ligon, and a host of other artists, writers, and art historians. The day culminates with a performance by bassist, vocalist, and songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello and her band of The Gospel of James Baldwin, a tribute that at once evokes a church service, celebration, and call to action.
This excerpt contains graphic language.
I think it’s important to remember how you feel when you are alone as yourself. I don’t mean the person who is part of the modern condition, alone with his or her or their thoughts, but the artist alone, that person whose deepest preoccupations, or should I say engagements, are with those twilight hours of the mind when the body doesn’t exist and the scars that the family inflict on their difference are not the point of the day, the thing to avoid or put makeup on, to drink away or excuse. I mean the person who is alone with their queerness and who despite the facts still hoped they wouldn’t eventually be left alone with it.
Imagine what it must have seemed like for Beauford Delaney (1901–1975), the great American painter, when Emile Capouya (1925–2005), that literary butch trade and a friend to everyone, it seems, telephoned and said, “I have this friend, James Baldwin. We go to DeWitt Clinton High School together. He edits the school magazine with this other cat, Richard Avedon, a smart one who loves art, wants to be an artist.” And, on hearing the word friend, imagine Beauford saying, “Yes, have him come on over,” and putting his phone down and wondering who Emile’s friend might be, what he might think of this man from Tennessee living in this strange world of downtown Manhattan and painting more or less in obscurity—wondering in the back of his mind if this friend of Emile’s might be his friend, too? Was he queer? Emile did not say, and in any case, in those days one did not say. And in any case, what if he was? Beauford had been hurt by any number of men physically and emotionally because of his queerness, and it was something he learned to hide from the world, the large flower of himself. Hide it under paint.
Beauford Delaney (American, 1901–1979). Untitled (Fang Sculpture, Crow and Fruit), 1945. Oil on canvas, 25 × 30 in. (63.5 × 76.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum; Brooklyn Museum Fund for African American Art in honor of Arnold Lehman, A. Augustus Healy Fund and Ella C. Woodward Memorial Fund, 2014.73. © Beauford Delaney. (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)
What did his face reveal about his journey from the South to New York to be an artist? Sometimes his mind did not see his face quite right. His mind veered off in other directions that didn’t appear quite real to the world. Sometimes there were voices, other times there were colors, and sometimes it told him to do strange things like walk. He walked all over the city trying to find his face. He couldn’t find it in mirrors, when he looked in mirrors. But when the world tells you you have no value as yourself, you do not look into mirrors. On the day Emile called him, he was relatively calm. He could smell the paint and see his home for what it was instead of something fantastical that might gobble him up whole. How many hours did he spend street haunting in New York, in the night glare of those streets in downtown Manhattan where sometimes one saw a sailor but rarely family; family you found in artists’ colonies, where sometimes there were artists, like Georgia O’Keeffe and Elizabeth Bishop, who became his friends, but what could offset one’s queer loneliness? To find someone like one’s self? And what did that mean, one’s self? Who was that self? Experience told him that it was someone who was despised, and so, sometimes, you put a little booze over that fact or pretended that being alone was better than feeling the misfortune of love. Yet there were joys, too, as when someone picked a flower and handed it to him on the street for a penny, or in the deep blackness found in a curb at night. Love. Imagine that. Imagine it keeping him safe and warm somewhere listening to Mabel Mercer records—Mabel on Cole Porter, say—or Bessie Smith on the road, suitcase in hand, or, better yet, walking ahead of someone with suitcase in hand, looking for a room for love in a world that said there was no rest to be had anywhere because of what he looked like and what he smelt like. And how could those sheets ironed and bleached to perfection contain his act of love?
Where Beauford came from—what Flannery O’Connor called the Christ-haunted South, a segregated world—love was not even a possibility, it was all wrong. His eyes resting on a boy’s chin, and in the humid summers, on boys at the Tennessee River, unmindful of his loneliness as they ducked and dove into the muddy river that had swallowed its share of death, too. But he was in New York now, Emile had just called, and he tried to stay focused on the paint because he tended to get excited when there was the possibility of friendship. Friendship protected him from his own mind, sometimes. The mind that heard things. The mind that longed for friendship and made images born out of loneliness and memory. In his paintings, there was the memory of home mixed in with depictions of Black families he observed in New Jersey. But the thing he didn’t know how to paint, except for sometimes when a sailor would sit for him, was longing. He felt it all the time, but he didn’t know how to paint it, to put it on canvas in the way that, for instance, Toulouse-Lautrec, with his dramatically crippled and shortened legs, put down his longing to have a stronger, straighter, more acceptable form when he painted those beautiful dancers at the Moulin Rouge. In that work and so many other paintings, there was longing, close and faraway, and how do you paint that? Perhaps, if Beauford had a friend, he would long for him in the best possible way, and he could paint that for history’s sake.
Baldwin tried to break through lovelessness with Beauford.
As he put the finishing touches on a work, the doorbell rang, and there was Emile’s friend. Skinny and bug-eyed, he had a face. The boy smiled—he was a boy but a smart one, capable of assessing the situation, and saw loneliness in others and articulated it because he had words Beauford didn’t have. That was clear from the first. Through that gap in his front teeth, words hissed out like breath, simply yet intricately: “Hi, I’m Emile’s friend. Are you the artist?” By saying so, this kid—Jimmy was his name—said that he too was an artist and that he was there to learn from Beauford. And Beauford could feel that Jimmy was an artist, as the boy agreed to sit for him on their first date, as it were. He began to paint him, leaving the genitals out—he could not face that, for to face that would be to face what he wanted. What a strange, strong child, dying to be seen. Later, Beauford learned that Jimmy’s father had said he was ugly, another example of male foolishness and the wounding impulse—but in a forest, amid a riot of color and a density of so-called exotica, a kind of Henri Rousseau in a gay ghetto setting. And Beauford wondered and wanted so much as he painted, and the boy did not turn away from him. Could this be the end of loneliness for them both, this sitting? Could they fold racism and hurt into each other’s skin and in doing so find not so much freedom but a lessening of their burden, a relative lightness that allowed them to be spirits resting at last, resting and dancing and seeing the world in each other in a universe that, when it saw them coming, for the most part looked away.
I am older now than Beauford was when I imagined that hope for him—a hope based on Delaney’s paintings, certainly, but also on what Baldwin left behind, including that extraordinary voice, of course, that swoops circles and lands on ideas like happiness and pain materialized in a series of words like no others. Here’s what Baldwin wrote about his first master (there would be others, such as Henry James and Fyodor Dostoyevsky): “Beauford was the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place, he would have been recognized as my Master and I as his Pupil. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken but I never saw him bow.”
How does the Black f***** not get broken in this cold and inhospitable world, a world where a hand is sometimes offered but rarely tender? A place where protégés and mentors are not possible without such a relationship being made into “that” kind of relationship by the hateful, the small-minded, the bigoted? Baldwin tried to break through lovelessness with Beauford. I hear he posed nude on that first afternoon together. See me. This is me. Love me. This is you. No teacher is fully a teacher without learning from the student, and I think that serious readers of Baldwin strip themselves bare for him because he’s already taken off his clothes and sat naked before us. Many times. Many.
My first memories of him amount to a museum of images: I am fourteen, and I have been given James Baldwin’s second collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), by his friend and my mentor, the writer Owen Dodson, who was one of the more ebullient survivors of the last gasp of the Harlem Renaissance. The dust jacket of the book featured a photograph of Baldwin wearing a white T-shirt and standing in a pile of rubble in a vacant lot. It was this photograph that compelled me to read the book. I had never seen an image of a Black boy like me—Baldwin looked as if he could have been posing in my old neighborhood East New York—gracing anything as impressive as a collection of essays. In fact, shortly after Owen gave me the book, I began to pretend that the photograph of Baldwin was of me, or the writer I meant to be, and that the book’s contents were my spiritual autobiography, a record of the life I longed to lead. I was living in a small apartment in Crown Heights, along with my mother, my older sister, my younger brother, and the wearying fear that I would never escape from it. Baldwin, though, had grown up in circumstances not so different from my own, and he had gone on to become one of the most eminent writers America had ever produced. In the book, there was Baldwin in Paris attending a conference at the Sorbonne, Baldwin in Sweden interviewing Ingmar Bergman, Baldwin grappling with the exigencies of the life of the writer. And there was Baldwin realizing that no matter how hard he had tried to separate himself from that Black boy picking his way through the rubble of Harlem, he would always be regarded by some as a “n*****.”
I didn’t believe—I knew that I wasn’t a n*****, and knew, too, that no one was unless you believed what America had to say about its own people, so I rejected that word when Baldwin used it, but I understood it when it came to Baldwin’s understanding of what it meant to be viewed with contempt by friends and family whenever your differences—which took the form of reading and writing and hanging out with boys who called one another “girlfriend”—declared themselves. In reading Baldwin then, I was listening to my secret voice, the voice of someone who wasn’t afraid to describe who he was and where he’d come from and what he’d seen. Those are the voices you’ll find in this book, one in which each author’s intense and intensely personal relationship to the great American author says as much about what he left them with—which is to say, a greater understanding of themselves and their artistry—as about what it took to become James Baldwin in the first place.
In my early days with Baldwin, I was amazed by how he was also able to convey, in his labyrinthine, emotional prose, the persistent guilt that I felt before my family—the family I would need to leave to become myself. And what compounded the guilt was the vague suspicion that in leaving them behind, I would be leaving my Blackness behind as well, to join the white world—a world that more often than not hurt and baffled my mother and siblings. Baldwin understood these things because he’d survived them.
During the following year, I spent many hours in the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, hunched over bound volumes of old magazines featuring stories about Baldwin. I was struck in some photographs by his enormous eyes, like dark poppies in bloom, raised in mock or serious consternation, and in others by his enormous grin with the “liar’s space” between the two front teeth. And then there were the interviews, during which he spoke with great candor and wit:
JOURNALIST: When you were starting out as a writer, you were Black, impoverished, and homosexual. You must have said to yourself, “Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?”
BALDWIN: No, I thought I had hit the jackpot. It was so outrageous, you had to find a way to use it.
When I was older and had become a writer myself, my feelings about Baldwin grew ambivalent. I have never been comfortable being identified as a Black writer, particularly when that description comes from a white audience, which knows nothing of the limitations imposed by the term. Nor have I ever been comfortable with the presumed fraternity of Black writers, academics, and intellectuals: I have spent my entire life trying to come to grips with my feelings for my own family and have little interest in being adopted by another—one with its own provincialism, competitiveness, and misapprehensions. Baldwin, at one point in his life, felt the same. In 1959, when he was thirty-five, he wrote from his self-imposed exile in Europe that he had left America because he wanted to prevent himself from becoming merely “a Negro writer.” He went on to become the greatest Negro writer of his generation. Perhaps none of us escape the whipping post we’ve carved our names on. But Baldwin’s career became a cautionary tale for me, a warning as well as an inspiration.
It’s 1968. Baldwin, America’s leading Black literary star, is on The Dick Cavett Show, and Cavett is trying to ask him if we should feel equal measures of hope and despair about race relations in America. As Cavett stumbles over how to phrase the question, Baldwin smiles his magnificent smile and says that, to tell the truth, he doesn’t have much hope. His point is: What’s going to happen to this country if it can’t cope with the language of race, let alone race itself? Being correct doesn’t inspire art or the tension that contributes to the making of art.
One thing I learned from Baldwin, as a writer, was to use singing—the sound of singing—as prose.
Baldwin had always been a preacher of one sort or another, and preaching imminent earthly damnation to liberal white folks became increasingly irresistible. Even as early as 1960, Baldwin, standing in front of William Styron’s fireplace in Connecticut, told his host, “Baby, we are going to burn your motherfucking houses down.” By 1968, Baldwin was finding impersonating a Black writer more seductive than being an artist. That year, he went to Hollywood to write a screen adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The producer, Marvin Worth, recalls, “White liberals were thrilled to have him come into their Beverly Hills houses and beat them up, say they were shit. He was a star who played on white masochism.”
Fame can do terrible things to people. It means that you’re not living in the quiet and solitude that, as a writer, you need in order to develop. I remember William Styron said that there was a weird schizoid element that he saw happening in Baldwin, between the writer who was living for his work and being isolated and the one who felt that he had to be a spokesperson. I think that Baldwin martyred himself for lots of people, and it meant that his writing became polemical. The less internal life that he was allowed, the more polemical he became.
Baldwin’s great biographer and friend David Leeming told me that many of the civil-rights leaders didn’t want to be associated with Baldwin because he was so openly gay; it seems to have been why the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington pointedly ignored him. Maybe, in the end, some aspects of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and Medgar Evers appeared in Baldwin’s fantastic eyes as versions of his withholding and judgmental preacher father; we exist, but our parents are never far behind.
By the time the Black Power movement had started to ebb, Baldwin was adrift not only politically but aesthetically. Throughout the 1970s, Styron and Norman Mailer were working on ambitious books like Sophie’s Choice and The Executioner’s Song, Thomas Pynchon was breaking new ground with Gravity’s Rainbow, and a prolific new generation of Black women—Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker—was claiming the public’s imagination. Baldwin’s fastidious thought process and his baroque sentences suddenly seemed hopelessly outdated, at once self-aggrandizing and ingratiating. Nevertheless, up until his death in 1987 at the age of sixty-three, Baldwin continued to harbor the hope that he would be embraced as an important literary figure by the army of his desire: the Black men who had forsaken him.
Baldwin was very real to me, all the time, largely because of my relationship to Owen, who was, I think, the second Black person to go to the Yale School of Drama and who was the first director to stage Baldwin’s first professionally produced play, 1954’s The Amen Corner. By the time I knew him, Owen lived alone, just as Beauford lived alone when he met Baldwin. I wonder if Owen had the same hopes for me that Beauford had for “his” Jimmy. Owen was as theatrical as a play. When he was upset with Black people, he’d say, “Negroes!” And he’d shout it from the middle of his apartment. One thing he shouted about was the memory of Baldwin and his boyfriend living with him during The Amen Corner. The two of them used to have these playwright-director rows, and Baldwin, because he had nowhere to live, was eating Owen out of house and home.
Years passed, and I got to meet and know Owen in Manhattan at his place on West Fifty-First Street. There, he had the most beautiful library. It was sorted by author, and he had first editions of everything. You’d pick up a book, let’s say Truman Capote’s first book of short stories, and it’d say, “Dear Owen, it pleases me that you love the book. Love, Truman. Hope to see you soon.” Or, “Dear Owen, it was a ten-day marvel. Love, Jimmy”; he had the first edition of Notes of a Native Son (1955). As it was for Amiri Baraka, it was the first time I’d ever seen a man of color on the cover of a book. The second-most influential book cover at that time was that of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), and when I turned the book around, I saw that Morrison looked like the people I was related to. But reading Baldwin, of course, changed everything because I realized you could write in—there’s no other way to put it really—a kind of high-f*****y style.
What I learned then as a gay person was how to survive in gay bars, so the language had to be very precise—sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly. The thing that was systematic about the writing was the emotion throughout. That didn’t necessarily mean that the idea was going to be consistent. Baldwin wrote in arias of feeling and thought, and when he’d get bored with one idea, he’d go on to another. This took me years of reading to understand. I was so taken by his certainty of feeling—it was the thing that really made me see that it was possible to live a life that had value in literature. One thing I learned from Baldwin, as a writer, was to use singing—the sound of singing—as prose. To make prose sound like an aria, to bring a chorus in, to take actual lyrics and expand on them.
Baldwin was a showgirl, too, and if you listen to his high-f*****y style in texts like The Fire Next Time (1963)—“Well, I was utterly drained and exhausted,” he says at one point to describe a religious experience, for instance—you’re hearing him wave big fans of rhetoric in spangled air, trying to claim your attention in a whole and beautiful body he wanted others to dream about and want as much as they wanted other people.
Hilton Als is an award-winning journalist, critic, and curator. He has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1994. He has received numerous awards for his work, including most recently a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism (2017). Other honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship (2000), the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism (2002–3), and Yale’s Windham-Campbell Literature Prize (2016).