By Andrea Plaid
I fell in love with the pithy brilliance of Robert Jones, Jr. (pictured below) the 21st-century way: online.
I guess that’s what happens when you grab the mic with the moniker Son of Baldwin.
Like his spiritual dad, novelist/essayist/critic/poet/activist James Baldwin, Jones brings the love, the pain, the rage, and the joy of being Black of 21st-century USA through his specific lens of a queer Black man born and reared in New York City. But Jones doesn’t regurgiate Baldwin like hip platitudes: it’s as if Jones sprung, Athena-like, from Baldwin’s head and reshaped Baldwin then-prescient ideas about the contours and everyday workings of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism (among other -isms and -phobias) for this era.
I’m not the only one who feels all like this about the guy: when I told both Latoya and Arturo, they were all like, “We love Son of Baldwin! Good choice!!” (And, according to the stats on Son of Baldwin’s Facebook page and Twitter, about 6,400 of us thinks he’s pretty choice.)
So, with my questions quivering in my virtual hand–and trying really hard to control my squee–I approached this week’s Crush.
Tell me about your background: where you were born, what neighborhood did you grow up in, what were your family and neighbors like, schooling, etc.
I was born in Manhattan, but raised in Brooklyn, NY–where I have spent the majority of my life (outside of an excursion to Charlotte, NC, from 1998–2002). I come from a family that is Southern Baptist on my father’s side (by way of Savannah, GA) and Nation of Islam on my mother side (by way of New York City).
I grew up mostly in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn in the Marlboro Housing Projects, so, as you would imagine, I know oppression QUITE intimately. I was first called a nigger, in 1977, when I was six years old. I was hanging out with friends, four or five blocks away, when Yusef Hawkins was murdered in my neighborhood in 1989.
It’s weird to think about it now, but I was chased home from school every day by white boys who hated that I went to “their schools.” And once I reached home, I was taunted and abused by black boys (and girls) who perceived me as “soft.” So I was forced to be “hard” simply as a reaction to the amount of cruelty I was experiencing. I have a few fond memories of childhood, but most of them are tainted by some form of terrorism. Nevertheless, during the most ferocious of those years, I discovered reading as a means of escape and that quickly led to writing. I think I wrote my first short story when I was 12.
I’m a bit of a late bloomer in regard to my college education. I didn’t commit to obtaining my undergraduate and graduate degrees until I was in my 30s. I received both my B.F.A. in creative writing and M.F.A. in fiction from Brooklyn College. For the latter, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham was my mentor.
Why do you love James Baldwin so much?
I am consistently floored by James Baldwin’s intelligence, honesty, and prescience. I can’t help but admire and want to emulate that painfully rare kind of brilliance. I discovered Baldwin later than most—during my first semester of undergrad. I fell in love with him immediately after reading his last essay, “Here Be Dragons.” Then I hunted for the rest of his work. It’s remarkable that Baldwin’s work continues to reveal things to me, some things I find joyous and some things I find disturbing. No matter what, though: It’s always enlightening. I wish I had the opportunity to have met him before he died.
I came to know you through your Twitter timeline after you’ve been there for a while, and then rolled on over to become a part of the Son of Baldwin Facebook community? How did you come to the Son of Baldwin name/screen presence?
I started the Son of Baldwin blog back in 2008. Mainly, I wanted a space where I could publicly discuss the issues that mattered to me as a queer African-American man. And I wanted to do so in the same way Baldwin did: intelligent, sophisticated, and provocative. The Facebook and Twitter pages grew primarily out of my need to put the blog on hiatus so that I could focus on writing my first novel, which I have been working on since 2006. Novel writing is a long, grueling, isolating process. I hope to have the current draft completed by the end of this year.
I recently discovered something about Baldwin that took be aback, a weird contradiction in No Name in the Street. On the one hand, Baldwin was very clear about the problems with patriarchal masculinity and how dangerous the whole Cowboy/John Wayne/Gary Cooper/Ronald Reagan approach to manhood was. But on the other hand, he despised effeminate queer men in the same manner that patriarchy despises them (despite being an effeminate queer man himself). Or more to the point, he threw effeminate gay men under the bus in order to forgive Eldridge Cleaver for his brutal and ruthless critique of his sexual orientation. I’ve been struggling with how to reconcile that in my readings of him. I sort of like the discomfort I feel about this complication. It makes Baldwin a bit more human for me. I’m insanely curious as to whether he realized he had this dichotomy and if his views would have evolved had he lived. I haven’t been able to pick Name back up after reading that portion of it. But I will.
I say all of that to say this is what I think Baldwin didn’t have the opportunity to address: What is a healthy way for a black man to be a man, to be masculine, in a society that defines manhood and masculinity so narrowly, rigidly, and violently, and then tells black men that they can never meet that ideal, which, of course, makes black men want to meet the rigid definition all the more? And now complicate that by adding in queer black men—whether homosexual, bisexual, or transgender. What does it mean to be a man? What SHOULD it mean? Who gets to decide? And how do we begin the enormous task of implementing healthier ways of expression given the tremendous backlash from gender police, hyper-masculine traditionalists and effemiphobes?
Besides Baldwin, who/what else influences your thoughts around issues of race, especially race and pop culture?
I SO love that you asked this question. Toni Morrison is, perhaps, a bigger influence on me than Baldwin. And bell hooks! I think she’s amazing.
I find that I’m most moved, most inspired, when reading the literary work of black women. Black woman writers, it seems to me, more than any other race or gender, get to the heart of the matter. They seem to have no need for pretense or veils or distortions. They seem to have access to a truth so eloquent and evident that it makes me cry. I want that same access. And so I am a voracious reader of black woman literary work: Morrison, Octavia Butler, Alice Walker, Kola Boof, Zora Neale Hurston, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Gloria Naylor, and others. I’m overwhelmed by what they reveal to me.
I’m also deeply inspired by the current generation of black queer, feminist, and scholarly voices: Feminist Griote, the Crunk Feminists, Darian Aaron, Darnell Moore, Derrick McMahon, Kenyon Farrow, Yolo Akili, Harriet Thugman, Debra Dickerson, and more.
Read the rest of the interview at the R’s Tumblr!