Gay Will Never Be the New Black: What James Baldwin Taught Me About My White Privilege

I'd never even heard the name James Baldwin until my first semester at Union Theological Seminary. As a white, middle-class American, I was the product of a predominantly white, middle-class education that didn't assign The Fire Next Time and Giovanni's Room, two of Baldwin's masterpieces, alongside 1984 and The Scarlet Letter. It wasn't until I moved to New York and took a class on Baldwin's life and writings that I was transformed by the black, same-gender-loving, 20th-century author's honesty and candor.

Baldwin grew up on New York's Fifth Avenue — not the Fifth Avenue of Saks and the Social Register but the Fifth Avenue of 1930s Harlem, where black Americans like Ellison's invisible man were kept at a safe, 60-block distance from fearful, prejudiced whites. The child preacher turned writer experienced racism and homophobia firsthand and possessed an unflinching eye for the injustices of American life. Unlike many authors I have read before, Baldwin was filled with love, courage and an unrelenting imagination. It was precisely because of his abiding care for his country that Baldwin retained the right to critique her so harshly. He had faith that the United States could be better, not only for him but for all people.


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