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Hitting the Jackpot

I was in high school English class, and we were focusing on the prose & poetry of African-American authors. I was somewhat nonplussed. Yes, there was a mild appreciation of how my teachers were putting this into the curriculum, something that isn't done everywhere. It was nice to have a balance of John Steinbeck one week, followed by Lorraine Hansberry the next. A nice parade of black voices were to follow: Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes and Mark Mathabane, to name a few.

One day (I forget whether it was because we were about to focus on him, or if I simply flipped ahead a few pages in our reading), I happened upon a brief bio of James Baldwin. Of this, I took notice. It is said that gay men can tell if another person is gay, just by appearance. The curious notion of "gaydar" is one founded, like most things, in some sliver of truth. I saw the picture of Baldwin, the slim build, the smile, the twinkling eyes and thought, 'This man is gay.'

Memory fails as to whether the bio for Baldwin verified his homosexuality, or if I researched it soon after (though "research" back in the early 1990s involved more than Google, so it's probably the bio that mentioned it). Regardless, I was heartened. Shocked, even. Here was a man, deceased only a few years previous, who was publicly identified as being attracted to men. It struck a chord, for obvious reasons.

Being bi-racial (part black, part white) was never something on my mind very much growing up. I had black family and white family, and socialized with them all. I had white friends, black friends, Asian friends, etc. There was the occasional reminder of race, like when I went to use a water fountain and another kid (a white kid) blurted out, "You wait your turn, nigger!" And -- for whatever reason -- fellow black kids would take any opportunity to remind me that I was "black."

But being gay was quite another issue. From day one, being bi-racial (or black, per the One-drop rule) was an obvious part of life. There was no getting around it, no reason to try and hide it. Homosexuality, on the other hand, could be hidden. At least, if you tried. Of course, it shouldn't be hidden, but sometimes society, or a situation, makes it seem like the only option. While I'd never wished not to be bi-racial, there were definitely times, in my youth, I'd wished not to be gay.

Seeing Baldwin's bio was a revelation. Sitting at my desk in that high school English class came one of the first occasions where I knew that someone could not only be like me, sexually, but also have it mentioned publicly, in almost a passing, nonchalant sort of way, and their literary work was there for us to read, uncensored. It was surprising, it was comforting, it was reassuring, and it was emboldening.

Over the years I read more about James Baldwin, about his life, his struggles, his voice (both literal and literary) and his love. He, like many gay men before and after him, fell in love with another man who was unattainable. Baldwin's emotions ran high for Lucien Happersberger. But that was the late 1940s. Another time, perhaps, things might have gone differently, but Lucien went and married a woman, and Baldwin was devastated. For some of us, that is a scenario all-too relatable.

In an interview, Baldwin's early life was laid-out before him, as he had been "black, impoverished, homosexual." The interviewer went on, "You must have said to yourself, 'Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?'" Baldwin smiled and responded, "No, I thought I hit the jackpot," with only a whiff of sarcasm. It is that attitude, apparent through his interviews and through his work, that was part of what helped make it okay for me to become comfortable in my own skin.

As we enter the early days of Black History Month '17, the person who comes to my mind most when I think about what such a month could mean to me, personally, is Mr. James Baldwin. Black, gay and open about both, he set a standard for what it means to be a double-minority in this world. I'm so glad I read that little bio of his that day in English class. It opened-up a whole new vein of acceptance, not from others, but from myself.


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