“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
– James Baldwin
During Pride month, JAMS celebrates the contributions of LGBTQIA+ persons. This June, we should take time to remember and reflect upon the pioneering work of James Baldwin. James Baldwin was a gay Black American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet and social critic during the middle of the last century. He is probably best remembered for his essays, 10 of which appear in the collection Notes of a Native Son, in which he insightfully explored issues of race, class and sexuality in the United States. He also authored the groundbreaking 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, which explored homosexual and bisexual relationships. Although he died in 1987, there is renewed interest in his works, which formed the basis for the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro and the 2018 film If Beale Street Could Talk.
Although Baldwin was critical of religion, he spoke with a prophetic voice about the moral necessity of seeking social justice. He knew the other civil rights leaders well and participated in the 1963 March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. He saw the same need for justice whether discrimination was rooted in prejudice about race, class or sexuality.
Baldwin suffered discrimination due to both his race and sexuality. He understood that bias has more than one cause. However, bias has a singular result—discrimination against a fellow human, which is immoral and wrong. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this. In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he taught us that “[i]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and that “[w]e are . . . tied in a single garment of destiny.” William Shakespeare understood this. In his play “The Merchant of Venice,” when Shylock tries to convince the Venetian Christians of his humanity, he doesn’t argue the correctness or superiority of Judaism. He points to the humanity he shares with Christians.
The struggle we are engaged in is not a struggle for gay rights or LGBTQIA+ rights. It is a struggle for human rights. We have a right to have our identities acknowledged and respected. Our nation’s founders taught us that our rights do not come from government. Our rights come from a higher power. The founders largely guaranteed these rights only for wealthy white men, but they also acknowledged that this country could become a “more perfect union.” How far have we come in the struggle for acceptance and respect? Very far. What remains to be done? Much. LBGTQIA+ persons still need full equality under the law. We have come this far, but there are still miles to go. We did not come this far to only come this far.
As we celebrate Pride this June, let’s remember and honor James Baldwin for his contributions to the continuing struggle for social justice for LGBTQIA+ persons.