A Letter to James Baldwin

David McAlmont //

To celebrate The Batty Mama's Film Feels Hopeful season Baldwin 97 (on what would have been James Baldwin's 97th birthday), singer, writer, and historian David McAlmont has written a reflective letter to the writer and activist. The images below were taken of David performing this work at The Batty Mama's James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket + UK Queer Black History Long Table Discussion on 1 August 2021.

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord
Lead me home

Dear James, 

The world is only so big, and - as ever - we are continually discombobulated by the constitutional notion of alliances in its increasingly limited space. As population increases, as authoritarianism battens down ‘its’ borders, as social media tycoons in the cyberfeudalist realm that they arm and fortify become wealthy at the expense of human civility and with the exploitation of its gullibility, Who/What are we a part of? And Who/What are we apart from?  It means that we squabble a lot, and I don’t know if that means we squabble too much, but I do know it to mean that we squabble over you. The last time I wrote to you, Raoul Peck was enjoying huge success with his cinematic framing of your legacy - a film called I Am Not Your Negro. Actually, I sent a copy of that letter to Raoul Peck. I was excited to see you in the mainstream afresh.

My letter was full of praise for the manner in which Peck had raised up your words as a monolithic commentary that forecasted what Richard Haas, the President of the US Council of Foreign Relations has called democratic backsliding. We have often discussed micro-aggressions in recent years, but you always understood - and Peck clocked this - the meta consequences of supremacist macro-aggressions. Raoul Peck even replied thanking me for my powerful missive. But there was a more powerful episode to follow. Mr Peck had declined to say anything about your sexuality in his treatment, and my friend Antoine, director of a research group called Evidence to Exist, was not happy. I didn’t think that was the point. Antoine didn’t see how it couldn’t be. It meant that one afternoon as I was singing I Am Not Your Negro’s praises in his apartment, Antoine and I got into a heated back and forth about it. We were not alone that afternoon. There were other friends present, but I seem to remember our argument filling the room and Marc deciding that it was worth posting a clip to Instagram. Antoine argued that your sexuality was central and that it should have been centred by Peck. I countered that Peck shouldn’t be scapegoated when you had declined to centralise your sexuality yourself.

You often spoke about what America was doing to “My sister, my woman, my children.” You never discussed what America was doing to your man. We agreed that that tendency was a device of your argument, positioning yourself as a composite symbolic target on whom all America’s racist firepower was trained. Otherwise, we agreed to differ. Antoine was much happier about Raoul Peck’s more recent series Exterminate All the Brutes. He espied less of a danger there of Raoul… acting as if…Well just like last time I want to report that your legacy is faring as well. It just refuses to crack it. In my local bookshop window, two Decembers ago, I was astonished to see the story I hoped to reconstruct one day. An Italian American political scientist, Nicholas Buccola, had once again done sterling service to your monumental bequest, with a book called The Fire is Upon Us. It proved invaluable to me because I had wanted to know exactly why and how that tectonic debating bout happened at the Cambridge Union on the Thursday night of February 18th 1965, just days before your friend Malcolm X was assassinated. Reading Buccola’s book I was glad that he beat me to it.

By tracking your and William F Buckley Junior’s intellectual development and coming of age he plotted a compelling route for two New Yorkers - by birth - to a seismic climax that could be termed a very American row in an English setting.  It was Buccola who clarified that you were not just arguing with a white-privileged, racist asshole - my takeaway when I saw Buckley accuse you of faking a British accent - but what the man viewed affectionately by disappearing generations of conservatives as the father of modern American conservatism. Ronald Reagan was a Buckley conservative. John McCain was a Buckley conservative. Liz Cheney is a Buckley Conservative. The Lincoln Project members are all Buckley conservatives. Though few of them would dare mention his pro-civil rights-anti-racial-egalitarian stance. I mean, let’s face it, they favour the Mount Rushmore image of Lincoln in their vlogs. Even I know that the sculptor of Mount Rushmore was Gutzon Borglum, and Gutzon Borglum was a member of the Klan.

I was so impressed with Buccola’s book that I decided to create a lecture called Clash of the Titans, casting you and Buckley as the battle titans. Preparation for that lecture led to another memorable afternoon at Antoine’s place. You see, James, we don’t always squabble over you, and this next anecdote shows how your legacy continues to steer and inform Black British Queer experience. I was about to deliver my first instalment of The Clash of the Titans and I wanted to check in with Antoine. I was supposed to teach American history, and I have an American academic living around the corner, so I arrived to talk him through my presentation. Antoine’s door is kind of always open, like a Caribbean home in which the mother always prepares a little extra for the unexpected guest, so Calvin, that afternoon’s unexpected guest, arrived and wanted to know what I was banging on about, and he responded the same way I did to Buckley, the first time I viewed the Cambridge debate, “Who is this prick?” or words to that effect. I was making a point about Buckley’s Firing Line, the longest-running public affairs show in US television history fronted by a single host, a direct outcome of the Cambridge Face off.

The point I was making involved Buckley’s institution of a weekly debate with a major world figure after you had routed him at the most prestigious, oldest continuously running debating society in the world, erstwhile host to such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, Judi Dench, Jesse Jackson, Winston Churchill, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. That prestige wasn’t lost on Buckley. You felled his reputation and you felled it hard even though he had presumed to yawn to your face, as his buddy James Mason – the actor - and a young teller for the “Nos” called Simon Schama looked on…Calvin demanded that we watch an episode of Firing Line. I pitched the Huey Newton episode, probably Huey’s finest moment on television and one of Buckley’s most catastrophic where the host attempted to sheer Khan Newton into submission.  It was an absolute crowd-pleasing holler watching Huey verbally kick Buckley square in the pants. The body language was everything: Buckley wincing, crossing his legs and seemingly leaning as far away as possible from Huey, proud, Black, muscular, Afro-maned, manspreading… smoking and laughing at Buckley’s expense. Buckley’s racism clearly couldn’t compute that he was presuming to be dismissive of a Black Panther with a PhD. Our love for Huey deepened that afternoon. And we saw Buckley. We saw him as in I see you. I see you… You saw him too, and your truth made light work of his puffed up, partridge pomposity.

The thing is, James, I am writing to you this time because I have been asked by Evidence to Exist and Batty Mama to introduce The Price of the Ticket. Antoine again. He curveballed me! So, David. If you were singing a song at a James Baldwin event, what would it be? Precious Lord, I said. I know your peculiar recording from that Paris session for A Lover’s Question. I saw Summer of Soul the following day featuring a transcendent interpretation by Mahalia and Mavis. It was a sign! Antoine also urged me to speak to the conundrum of selling what is the legacy of an American writer to a British audience. Indeed, the question often arises, don’t we have a Baldwin of our own? The answer is yes, and that Baldwin is you.

To expect that there might be a British Baldwin delimits your hard fought and won purview, as if the hundreds of texts you gorged at the New York libraries in your formative years were all American in origin, as if America was the only land you knew, as if you were not awarded the Legion d’Honneur - France’s highest honour instituted by Napoleon - by Francois Mitterand in 1986, as if an American President HAD handed you the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as if you never lived and wrote in Turkey and Switzerland, as if you had not discarded the fundamental privilege of being an American by choosing to live elsewhere because America would make you a killer and you had to go elsewhere so that you could live. As if you had not stood sunburnt in line at the customs shed in Dakar…To seek a British Baldwin is to undermine the characters of talented Black queer Britons as if we have nothing new or vital to say, which will never be the case. Do we need a British Mandela, a British Chevalier St George, A British Alexandre Dumas, a British Obama, a British Thomas E Dorsey? We do have a British Steve McQueen.

I had a conversation with a filmmaker, Campbell X, a few years ago. They explained how Black minority status in the western world is offset by the Black majority worldwide. Another Black Briton, a poet called Keith Jay, spoke about how often the intra-Black diversity gets obscured by the existence of a minority classification. But I think to question the relevance of an American’s thought to Black British existence is way off. I write that because I think acknowledgement of our western minority status is to surrender to a supremacist construct that might lead us to exclude even you from our diasporic actuality. I know that your ancestors were trafficked from Africa to the Caribbean and thence to the United States. My mother’s people were too. I lodge with a naturalised American immigrant. He is a Black queer man. Antoine is a Black queer man from Chicago. I was born in Croydon to Nigerian and Guyanese parents. Yesterday I visited a Black queer son born to Jamaican parents in East Lancashire. A few weekends ago a Black British queer photographer with Jamaican parents introduced me to a young Black queer Briton with Nigerian parents who is beginning a PhD in African LGBT studies.

I would deny none of these people your voice. And even if I did, that voice might find them the way your voice found me. There is nothing that I can do about my history with you. It began with somebody leaving a copy of Giovanni’s Room on a classroom desk in Guyana in the late 1970s. I was intrigued by the summary, took it home and read it. The next day, nobody claimed it. Years later, here I am introducing the film about you that changed my life when I first saw it at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1987 because your homosexual novel of 1956 had come for me twenty-three years earlier in Georgetown, Guyana in 1979, a year before I became an understudy for the character David in a Georgetown Theatre Guild production of The Amen Corner…In fact, it is only in my numerous visits to your country of origin that I have been distracted from your voice the most. Without Guyana and without Britain my access to you may well have been considerably hindered.

So happy 97th birthday, James. I’ll write to you again in a year when…

… my way groweth drear
Precious Lord, linger near
When my light is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my ha-and lest I fa-all
Take my hand, precious Lor-ord
Lead me on