Life & Culture

Living in the Time of Dark: An Essay by Nakhane

As part of our LGBT History Month series, and coinciding with the re-release of his album You Will Not Die, the South African-born actor and musician pens a powerful piece about sainthood and the great writer James Baldwin

This article is part of a series on that coincides with LGBT History Month, shining a light on different facets of queer culture. Head here for more.

In Éric Rohmer’s 1969 film My Night at Maud’s, two of the principal characters are having a conversation. Jean-Louis, the protagonist, is asked: “Do you want to be a saint?” “Not at all,” he replied.

Éric Rohmer is possibly my favourite filmmaker, and his films always seem like an excavation of his characters’ souls: What are their intentions? Why are they in this particular situation? Why are other characters behaving as they are around them? This is even more highlighted in his film series Six Moral Tales. Saints and sinners, angels and demons, gods and devils, left and right, pedestals and the gutter; these binaries are done away with and the viewer is left to deduce who or what the character is on their own. This looseness and aversion to high-contrast moralising (even though one could argue that the films are somewhat moralistic) can be frustrating to an audience that demands rigid depictions of good and bad.

James Baldwin was not a saint. I doubt that he ever deemed himself one, either. That may seem a little jolting, but I’ve got a little bone to pick. I’ve spent most of my time as an artist speaking about James Baldwin in hagiographic language. My feelings were true, but after seeing an illustration of James Baldwin as a saint with an halo, I was shaken: James Baldwin has so much for us to glean from his words (his fiction, essays, speeches and interviews), but in all these words there’s something not said.

If you watch many of his interviews he rarely mentions his sexuality. When he does speak about sexuality at all, it’s rarely specific, and it definitely never is about his own sexuality. Online, I have only seen two interviews of his where he acknowledges his queerness, and they’re both conducted in the 80s. One is where he speaks about writing Giovanni’s Room so early in his career, and it goes as follows:

Interviewer: You published Giovanni’s Room very early on in your–

James Baldwin: –I finished the book in ’55

Interviewer: And that... to deal with homosexuality was–

James Baldwin: –Yes...

Interviewer: ...difficult, and you were already dealing with... black writer. What made you decide to do that?

James Baldwin: Well, um, one could say that I didn’t have an awful lot of a choice. It was something... Giovanni’s Room comes out of something that, um, tormented and frightened me. The question of my own sexuality...

Interviewer: Did you also feel you wanted to get it on the record, your own homosexuality, early?

James Baldwin: ...I don’t know if I wanted to get it on the record, but I wanted to confront it. I’m very glad that that was done because it simplified my life in another way. It meant that I had no secrets, that no one could blackmail me. You didn’t tell me. I told you.

It’s interesting, of course, that he tells us in a novel. Not in an interview on television, or in one of his essays. It’s fiction that he uses. That’s one mask. The other mask is that the characters in Giovanni’s Room are white. That’s even more distance from the Jimmy that the public knows and loves. So yes, he’s told us. But his telling is so coded and obfuscatory that one can’t help but be suspicious of its weight.

But then take a step back and think a bit. The book was published in 1956(!), that it was even finally published was miraculous enough. There were more pressing matters. We can’t forget intersectionality, but history has shown us, repeatedly, that race trumps sexuality.

In times of darkness we need beacons of light. We need saints. We need people who seem able to defeat what is defeating the rest of us.

Aspiration: in both its showing of hope and its more poetic definition of words being spoken with an exhalation of air, almost a sigh.

Rest and relief: this is what these people give us. But because they give us so much we scrub them clean of any human funk and lift them above all other human beings. I can’t imagine anything more frightening or erroneous. Artists belong down here on earth with us. They’re as fallible as any of us.

Now let’s jump to the 80s, and we have writers who are not only writing about same-sex love, sex, lust and more; but they are visible. You know what their desires are, and you know that they’re black, and you know that they’re fighting both wars. And maybe, as James Baldwin says in that interview, they were not given a choice. That kind of radical visibility was a life-or-death matter, literally. The AIDS epidemic was so severe and ugly that it had no interest in your coded language. It demanded the truth. People’s lives depended on it.

But as veiled as Baldwin was, without him, we do not have the audacity of Marlon Riggs, Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill, Simon Nkoli, Bev Ditsie, to name a few. And without the audacity of those characters we do not have the important visibility, questioning, queering, radicalism of what we have today. It’s work. It’s challenged and undermined daily by bigots, but we have examples of bravery from history. We have people who looked like us who not only persevered, but in the end, won. They won because their work lives on in us. Not just intellectually, but in our lives.  

So we must remain visible, and our work must be unspeakably queer, black, trans, femme, butch, and whatever we learn along the way. As long as we remember that none of us is a saint.

Nakhane’s album You Will Not Die: Deluxe Edition is out today.