“No Writer’s House for James Baldwin”
This editorial has been inspired by some thoughts and writing I have been chasing following my return visit, last June, to James Baldwin’s house, Chez Baldwin, in St. Paul-de-Vence in the south of France. Baldwin wrote about his last abode in a short piece published in the Architectural Digest in August 1987, just months before he died. What struck me in that piece was the absence of his sexual identity as a black queer man, one who had boldly addressed desire and the body as inextricably intertwined with race in all of his works. More important, while it might have seemed that his reticence about his private life in a publication that produced “digest” pieces for middle-class coffee tables, was somewhat justified after all, I have been struck by deliberate omissions of that part of his life from public accounts that have been appearing ever since his passing.
Indeed, the absence of James Baldwin’s black queer persona in the public events about him, eulogies, and acknowledgments of his legacy following his death and funeral are glaring vis-à-vis the accounts by his friends and biographers that hail the author’s legendary parties and entourages of visitors, lovers, and family who often filled his house in the south of France. For example, Kendall Thomas writes in the important volume, The House that Race Built (1997), that during Baldwin’s funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City on December 8, 1987 the silence about the writer’s sexuality “cut me to the core, because I knew that while Baldwin may have left America because he was black, he left Harlem, the place he called ‘home,’ because he was gay.” He adds, “In the years since Baldwin’s death … his testimony as a witness to gay experience has become the target of a certain revisionist impeachment… [even though] we live in a world in which individual identities are constructed in and through constructs of gendered sexual difference.” Referring to what he terms the “jargon of racial authenticity,” which excludes non-normative sexualities from the discussions of national blackness, Thomas thus sees Baldwin’s black queer homelessness as a result of deliberate efforts to claim and domesticate him as a safely desexualized black writer, which attests to the exclusion of gay people of both sexes from the African American family.
I have had a very similar, and odd given that it is now the second decade of the twenty-first century or twenty-seven years since the writer’s funeral, experience recently, during the street re-naming ceremony in Harlem, on August 2, 2014, when the part of the 128th street between Fifth and Madison was officially proclaimed “James Baldwin Place.” Coming on the writer’s ninetieth birthday, the event’s numerous speeches and accolades to the “son of Harlem” and the “great African American writer” emphasized the familial and domestic claims on him, but elided his sexual persona and the tremendous work he performed internationally as someone who celebrated same-sex desire and wrote about sexuality as inextricably connected to racial, national, and religious identities.
While a couple of performers at the reading from The Fire Next Time at the National Black Theater, which followed the street event, self-identified as queer, Baldwin was safely desexualized yet again by excluding that designation from his person, by casual anecdotes, chuckling recollections, and narrowed interpretations that rendered him safely black, familiar, and disembodied. The complex, intellectually challenging, passionate, and difficult persona of the black queer writer and international intellectual was as absent in Baldwin’s posthumous representations, as what Maria Diedrich poignantly refers to in her chapter, “James A. Baldwin: Obituaries for a Black Ishmael,” as “everybody’s Jimmy” – reigned supreme. This fact begs two questions. On the one hand, what more can we expect to assemble from the remains of his life today than a mere sum of the scattered, incomplete, largely superficial, and mismatched parts? On the other, do we not have an obligation to stay as true, critical, open, and unabashed in recalling his life as he was in his works and critiques of the American scene?
It seems that the fate of the writer’s house in France provides some clues towards answering these questions. While the physical topography of Baldwin’s intimate house has been lost forever—there are few preserved images from the time he lived there and the site remains unmarked, lost to developers—like me, many readers and scholars have visited St. Paul-de-Vence in hopes of glimpsing the structure that housed the famous writer. These trips come about because those who read and study this complex writer crave material reminders of his life, especially given that so few of them are present in the United States. We, the privileged few who have managed to travel to Chez Baldwin, have been trying to envisage what in its surroundings might have fed the imagination of the author’s late years.
As Quentin Miller writes, “I had read all of his books until the bindings fell apart, but I wanted something else, some intangible feeling for where he had been.” Writing about a recent visit to the site in The Times Literary Supplement, the visit that compelled him to jump over a fence, Douglas Field expresses dismay at seeing the writer’s study and comparing it to real and imagined scenes from the writer’s life, “It was hard to reconcile this bare and derelict room with the pictures I’d seen of Baldwin sitting at a rustic table, surrounded by photographs and personal, homely objects: a painting by his old friend Beauford Delaney; an exhausted looking typewriter; a drink …; cigarette packets; and a sheaf of papers – a manuscript – but which? There was little to see in his study except for flaking plaster.” Ed Pavlich had gone to see the house days before I made my own most recent journey there, and sent me a photograph that helped me find my way onto the grounds without having to jump fences. Pavlich’s reaction to the state of Chez Baldwin was more upbeat than mine, as he thought the house sturdy and solid and only needing “lots of love.” The house of James Baldwin, which, again, has been irrevocably lost to developers by his family in the early 2000’s, whether still standing or not, and regardless of its legal ownership remains an important access point – literal and literary – to Baldwin’s legacy.
After two visits to the house, in 2000 and 2014, and obsessive re-reading of Baldwin’s house-tour-narrative in the Architectural Digest, I have realized that the only way to deal with the material on hand was to attempt to excavate, if you will, what remains of Chez Baldwin despite its gradual erasure, to write into being its material and metaphorical stories as a black queer domestic space that was key to the writer’s later works, such as his last two novels, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) and Just Above My Head (1979), the essay volume The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), and the unpublished play, The Welcome Table (1987). As Toni Morrison claims in the essay, “The Site of Memory,” writing is a form of “literary archeology,” where memory, imagination, and language all come together to create continuities in black lives past and present. Morrison emphasizes that, in contrast, the traditional task of a “trustworthy” literary critic or biographer is to trace the “events of fiction” to some “publically verifiable fact”; it is to excavate the “credibility of the sources of the imagination, not the nature of the imagination.”
Given my dual task of writing a story of my visits to James Baldwin’s house in the south of France and arguing for literature and architecture as inseparable bedfellows in my reading of his house as a transnational black queer domestic space, my goal falls somewhere in between the two approaches Morrison has delineated. Although as a critic and biographer, I appear to be merely a collector of “publically verifiable fact[s],” I still insist on the right to claim access to the “pictures” and “feelings” inspired by the on-site research of Baldwin’s house and close readings of his works. As Trinh T. Minh-ha reminds us, “writers of color … are condemned to write only autobiographical works. Living in a double exile – far from the native land and far from the mother tongue – they are thought to write by memory and to depend on a large extent on hearsay. … The autobiography can thus be said to be an bode in which … [they] take refuge.” While Baldwin fits this description to some degree as the writer rendered symbolically and literally homeless by his identity, he also expands it by demonstrating that building one’s abode in language and writing goes hand in hand with establishing domestic spaces, however temporary, that can accommodate a rare and unique subject, a black queer American who has chosen to dwell in the world. It is a great loss that his house in St. Paul-de-Vence can serve as such a space only symbolically, only as a memory and elusive material reminder of things past.
(This piece is related to my two chapters on Baldwin’s house forthcoming in The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin, ed. Michele Elam and in Spatial Perspectives: Essays on Literature and Architecture, ed. Terri Mulholland and Nicole Sierra.)
Magdalena J. Zaborowska
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA