'God Made My Face' - James Baldwin tribute book honors the writer in essays and art

  • by Cornelius Washington
  • Monday May 27, 2024
Share this Post:
'God Made My Face' - James Baldwin tribute book honors the writer in essays and art

"God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin" is a delicious assemblage of interviews, essays and works of art by talented and learned intellectuals and artists. The book is so lovingly done, leaving one not only breathless, but also avid to learn more about not only Baldwin's art, but him as a person, lamenting his untimely death in 1987 at the age of 63.

James Arthur Baldwin is, quite simply, immortal. Born in Harlem, New York City, he is the original Black, queer voice of note. The eldest of nine children, he learned responsibility very early. He also learned about oppression. His extremely strict stepfather was a terrorizing figure within the home.

To appease everyone around him, James became a Pentecostal preacher in his teens. He also discovered writing, thanks to his French teacher and mentor, Countee Cullen, a major figure of The Harlem Renaissance. At De Witt Clinton High School, James edited the school's literary newspaper, Magpie (meeting and working with soon-to-be photography icon, Richard Avedon). As James slowly began to embrace his homosexuality, he took menial jobs to support his family and played guitar in Greenwich Village cafes at night and writing, always writing.

A first edition of James Baldwin's 'Notes of a Native Sun'  

In 1948, at the age of 24, Baldwin left the U.S. to live in Paris, to escape constant beatings, due to racism and homophobia. He soon found stardom for his essays, plays, novels and personality, keeping a premium on his Blackness and queerdom, which was, at the time, unheard of.

He made the planet deal with it. Gender, religion, politics, fame, and social order were completely displaced and simultaneously revealed by his work.

His second novel, "Giovanni's Room," is his most romantic and insightful work, and is considered a platinum standard for many writers. His religious upbringing informs his sense of meter, phrasing, and presentation.

He participated in The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s when he returned to America. All of the important members of the movement (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers) were, on the surface, his friends, but the homophobia of America cast shadows on their relationships.

However, Baldwin quickly became a very powerful voice for Black people worldwide and a very passionate social critic who traveled, lectured and, most importantly, rocked the talk show circuit by being essentially the first openly gay Black celebrity and intellectual. No one had prepared the planet for that.

George McCalman's 'Baldwin in Harlem,' 2023. Pen-and-ink on paper  

Through his rigor, discipline and focus, Baldwin became a world citizen, and that sustained him, making him one of the most notable Black creatives, being the recipient of The Guggenheim and Ford Foundation fellowships.

He also won The George Polk Award for Journalism and finally accepted into France's Legion of Honor, the most prestigious order that the country bestowed.

Fundamentally human
The pattern that emerges from "God Made My Face" (published by Dancing Foxes Press with the Brooklyn Museum) shows that one must be perceived on one's own terms, an idea that is quintessentially American and fundamentally human, which seems to be denied to people who are Black, let alone queer.

He is revealed by all of this book's contributors to be so many things simultaneously: seer, sage, martyr, father, "brother with an a," "sister with an a," writer, fugitive, coward, and platinum standard.

The many contributors get in where they fit in. Hilton Als sees Baldwin as his polestar. Richard Avedon frames him as a friend and a great literary figure. The beautiful subject in the cover photo borders between a sad commentary figure and a mug shot.

Writer David Leeming, a heterosexual white man, became Baldwin's assistant and is still in "artistic love" with him. As Baldwin's protegé, he saw the most talented, beautiful, and iconoclastic figures of the 20th century merely being themselves; tuxedo-clad but barefoot Marlon Brando, going out to an elegant soiree; Miles Davis, in the kitchen cooking soul food and being on-set of a film with walking special effect, Charlie Chaplin.

Larry Wolhandler's 'Bust of James Baldwin,' 1975. Bronze  

The dignified Black actress, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, defecting in reverse from London to the U.S. in order to take advantage of opportunities to become a better actress, talks of performing in one of his plays, with the exquisite complexities of doing so with such a fresh technical quality from exploring and exposing the Black experience.

The art included within the book is impressive, including works by Marlene Dumas, Don Bachardy, George McCalman and many others, which leads to my one critique of the book: the physical object quality. It's too small and deprives the reader of design, taste and respect worthy of Mr. Baldwin. Other than that, the book is truly a must-have, must-read discussed and celebrated love letter to a great artist. Indeed, Mr. Baldwin gives good face and his face card never declines.

'God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin,' Dancing Foxes Press. $39.95 www.dfpress.org

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife.
Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!