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literature

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African-American Literature: Gay Male  
 
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James Baldwin

James Baldwin emerged on the American literary scene almost a generation after the collapse of the Harlem Renaissance. His entry marks a nodal point in the development of the African-American gay male literary tradition. An outsider in every sense of the term, Baldwin was poor, black, gay, and extraordinarily gifted. He launched from his marginal location an articulate and sustained attack on the dominant cultural fictions of race and sexuality.

Intellectually daring and fiercely eloquent, he became one of the most celebrated writers of his time. Although he occupies an important place in African-American as well as gay American literatures, the significance of his life and work in the specific context of the black gay male literary tradition is immeasurable. He continues to be its defining figure.

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"The Preservation of Innocence" (1949), an essay that Baldwin published in Zero, a Moroccan journal, within months after his arrival in Paris, is an early signal of his personal willingness to engage the topic of homosexuality in a public forum. "Outing," a short story he published in 1951, is his first tentative attempt to approach the topic in fiction; the story is a gracefully subtle portrayal of adolescent homosexual awakening.

In his first major work of fiction, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Baldwin explores the adolescent consciousness on a more elaborate scale, and here he presents the youthful protagonist's emerging homosexual awareness as a subtle but integral part of his quest for personal identity.

By the mid-1950s Baldwin had earned his reputation as an important African-American writer; his readers and critics had come to expect in his works incisive analyses of the black experience. But in 1956 he disappointed a good many of them by publishing Giovanni's Room, a novel with an all-white cast that poignantly documented the consequences of internalized homophobia through its young protagonist's unwillingness to accept his gayness.

For a young black writer to publish such an openly gay narrative in the mid-1950s was an enormously risky endeavor: The political climate in the United States was hardly ready for such honesty, and there was a very real possibility that the publication of such a novel might permanently damage his career. That Baldwin took such a risk is a testament to his immense personal courage and artistic integrity.

He survived the controversy generated by Giovanni's Room and, in that process, earned his preeminent place in the gay American literary tradition. More important, its publication liberated Baldwin from the closet and enabled him to treat gay and bisexual themes even more vigorously and explicitly in three of his subsequent major works of fiction: Another Country (1962), Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), and Just Above My Head (1979). And through such works he helped create the necessary space for a new generation of talented young black gay writers who followed him.

Contemporary African-American Gay Male Writers

Even though Baldwin's influence on the current generation of African-American gay writers is a vital and enduring one, a number of other cultural factors have also helped nurture the new artists. The civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the Stonewall Riots, the predominantly white-led and often racially insensitive gay liberation movement, and the emergence of a confident black gay and lesbian middle-class gave impetus to the growth of political activism among black gay men and lesbians during the 1970s and 1980s.

The new personal and political consciousness led to the establishment of many black gay and lesbian organizations, to the publication of several specialized journals (though many were short-lived), and to the articulation of a specifically black gay and lesbian cultural agenda.

These developments inevitably affected black gay literary creativity. Initially black gay artists, rejected by straight- as well as gay-owned presses, published their works largely in black gay journals and in privately printed chapbooks. This practice still continues on a significant scale. However, given the recent phenomenon of many publishers' relative openness to gay material in general, some black gay writers, at least since the mid-1980s, have been reasonably successful in placing their manuscripts with major trade publishers and, on rare occasions, even with prestigious university presses.

Further, the growing interest of nonblack gay readers in black gay texts--as the commercial success of recent works by Essex Hemphill and Assoto Saint clearly suggests--has given additional stimulus to the production, publication, and circulation of black gay literature.

The literary styles of the post-Baldwin generation of black gay writers differ widely; they range from the innovative science fiction of Samuel Delany to the rich magic-realist narratives of Randall Kenan; from the revisionist Southern gothicism of Melvin Dixon to the campy elegance of Larry Duplechan; from the densely allusive academic poetry of Carl Phillips to the aggressive agit-prop lyrics of Essex Hemphill.

They engage a variety of themes as well: from the more private concerns of identity, love, family, and relationships to the larger political issues of racist violence and homophobic repression.

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