In “The Misunderstood Ghost of James Baldwin,” Ismail Muhammad analyzes how writers have taken the James Baldwin most commensurate with their own obsessions. His hook is a review of Raoul Peck’s 2016 I Am Not Your Negro:
But rather than erasing distinctions between the past and present, I Am Not Your Negro gestures toward a disjunction between Baldwin’s moment and our own. Peck’s decision to have Samuel L. Jackson narrate the movie, for example, points to an antiphonal ethos: It structures its relationship with Baldwin as a conversation that might produce new knowledge. We hear Jackson reading Baldwin’s unfinished project, as if Jackson and Peck were helping the dead writer finish a thought he couldn’t quite complete. In finishing that thought, Peck also allows a new, composite voice to come to the fore. The film asks us to ponder what we can know about our contemporary moment when we stop ventriloquizing our ancestors, and begin to speak in our own voices.
Muhammad reminds us that Baldwin, like every great writer, engaged in a struggle to kill his forebears. His essay is subtle; despite the reference to “ventriloquizing our ancestors,” he accuses no one of swallowing Baldwin’s legacy whole.
Barely getting a mention is the “gay” part of the “gay black writer” moniker. In 2017 we’re still reckoning with “Here Be Dragons,” one of the last essays Baldwin wrote, a cold-eyed mediation on the discontents of masculinity and the sociopolitical forces that shaped it:
Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated — in the main, abominably — because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.
Most of us, however, do not appear to be freaks — though we are rarely what we appear to be. We are, for the most part, visibly male or female, our social roles defined by our sexual equipment.
But we are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other — male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.
Again, these are words not often written by a writer, and only in the last few years have we begun the conversation about what constitutes masculinity.
My review of I Am Not Your Negro.