Love and Compassion amid Many Adversities: On Black, Queer Archival Practices
Wigbertson Julian Isenia
(University of Amsterdam)
Often recall a James Baldwin quote from 1961. Wondering how Black artists in the United States reconcile their social obligations with their artistic responsibilities, Nat Hentoff asked him “To what extent do you find this true in your own writing?” (Baldwin et al. 205). Baldwin replied with the now-familiar words, “[T]o be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all the time” (Baldwin et al. 205). Baldwin speaks about the indifference of most white people of that day, of the realisation that one may not be a match for the institutional violence one encounters and of the anger at one’s own inability to deal with white indifference. Perhaps he speaks too of sheer hopelessness.
However, we must also read Baldwin’s subsequent words, which are not as well-known and are less often quoted. He also says that there is:
A great temptation to simplify the issues, under the illusion that if you simplify them enough, people will recognize them. I think this illusion is very dangerous because, in fact, it isn’t the way it works. A complex thing can’t be made simple. You simply have to try to deal with it in all its complexity and hope to get that complexity across. (Baldwin et al. 205)
He suggests that we embrace the full and sometimes contradictory nature of our emotions. Perhaps our reactions to the hardships we face can express themselves in more than anger, defiance, shame and guilt.
I am interested in the relationship between and among these emotions and Black, queer archival practises: our struggles, desires and, as I discuss in this contribution, love and compassion amid—and indeed, despite—countless adversities. Examining this relationship can reveal how we could funnel that rage in order to, in the words of Cornel West, “remain in that boat with the tension, with the hostility, because there was also love, care, loyalty and solidarity” (in hooks and West 129). This love, bell hooks reminds us, goes beyond the romantic interpretation of the term by understanding it as a mutual fulfilment of needs and “the giving and receiving [of] critical feedback” (hooks and West 129). I refer to the translation process necessary to transform one’s experiences for a wider audience as a practice of love and compassion, and how this process, as proposed by Baldwin, can equip our practice with valuable tools.
As an archivist, activist and scholar, I have always found Baldwin’s remarks poignant. I wonder: If we assume that a particular critical stance and consciousness will inevitably and readily put us in a state of rage, what possibilities are there for love and compassion for ourselves and others? How can we show loving affection to partners, lovers and colleagues while studying colonial, ethnographic and racist archives, as I do? And what about the love, compassion and care for archival objects in archives where writers, authorities and religious leaders seek to erase certain sexual, gender and racial minorities or condemn them as not conforming to the norm?
These questions came to me at the symposium on which this anthology is based as we discussed defiance and anger, shame and guilt and during our dialogue on love and compassion on the final day, which I moderated. Just as I question the issue of anger and rebellion and its intertwining with love and compassion, I also question other emotions: How can we feel love and compassion when shame and guilt are present? How do we deal with this mixture of emotions?
“Do not take this personally, honey”
To answer these questions, I focus on the Black, queer archival practises of Surinamese Homosexuals (SUHO), an LGBTQIA+ group founded in Amsterdam in 1979, and their accounts of James Baldwin. SUHO emerged after Suriname became independent in 1975 and many Surinamese people migrated to the Netherlands. The group’s publication, the SUHO Newspaper, discusses Baldwin twice.
A columnist named Thijs [surname unknown] mentions Baldwin in the opening article of the “Boeler Mati Book Reviews” column in 1982. Thijs, an otherwise untraceable name for a researcher, writes about Baldwin’s book Giovani’s Room (1956). The name of the column itself refers to sexual practices in Suriname: a man having sex with men (boeler) and a woman having sex with women (mati). Both may also have relations with the opposite gender. These sexual practices are at odds with more “Western” sexual identities, such as lesbian, gay and bisexual, which are seen as stable, unchanging and an intrinsic part of subjecthood (Wekker, Politics of Passion). In this regular column, Thijs considers books associated with the theme of homosexuality, and although they commonly concern Suriname as well, this book was chosen because it “cleverly elaborates the theme of the man who is afraid to come out of the closet about his homosexual orientation” (Thijs 24, my translation). I relate the decision to review Baldwin’s book to how SUHO members in the magazine discuss sexuality as practice as distinct from sexuality as identity and to their desire to use the magazine to achieve their activist goal of creating a more comprehensive knowledge and acceptance of homosexuality among their members. Baldwin’s themes in the book, such as the disclosure of one’s feelings, the protagonist’s inner struggle and a love that cannot last appeal to Thijs in their detailed articulation of complex desires and feelings, even if sometimes left unspoken by the protagonist; the reader gets glimpses into the protagonist’s dreams and longings. Thijs sees this expression of complex emotions as an essential good we should all aspire to.
The second consideration in the SUHO Newspaper is a brief reflection on Baldwin’s two public lectures in Amsterdam in 1981. Egmond Codfried, a member of the magazine’s editorial board, observed that both lectures were “white affairs”, and he wondered: “When will my people mingle with the artistic nightlife?” (Codfried 5, my translation). Though the Netherlands had become progressively multicultural with postcolonial migration, Codfried saw no evidence of this at middle-class sociocultural events. It was simply invisible. Perhaps these artistic and cultural events would have enabled the Surinamese people to further articulate their plight, which for Codfried was the fight against racism and homophobia. He remarks on “the vehemence and authority with which Baldwin lashes out at ‘them’ and ‘you’”, referring to the predominantly white majority population and audience, and which is “in form and content (…) the only answer to the centuries-long dictatorship of minorities” (Codfried 5, my translation). Codfried makes a connection and a translation between American “nauseating white supremacy” and the Dutch colonial and postcolonial situation (Codfried 5, my translation). Through Baldwin, Codfried thus draws associations with the Dutch postcolonial context, as Thijs does in his review of the novel. For them, these connections can serve as inspiration to improve how we live together. Codfried describes postcolonial migrations from the ‘periphery’ to the Dutch ‘metropolis’: “The hen that lays golden eggs has come to the roost to claim her share. Is it immoral to exclude this hen?” (Codfried 5, my translation). Notwithstanding the gendered metaphorical description of the postcolonial migrant who, Codfried says, made possible the golden fruits that the Dutch eventually reaped (an allusion to the Golden Age), he criticises how the ‘Dutch’ received the postcolonial migrant in the former metropolis. In Codfried’s account, Baldwin softened the blow at the end of his retort by adding: “Do not take it personally, honey”(Codfried 5, my translation)—as if to reassure the audience that they must analyse and combat racial prejudice, not only on a personal level but, above all, on an institutional level. The anger and resentment of a few should not stop us from creating a loving world. Adding the word “honey” can be read simultaneously as sarcastic, provocative, reassuring or even confrontational. Codfried reports that Baldwin did offend some of those in the audience, however, who “furiously spat out their objections” (Codfried 5, my translation).
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within”
As I think about the Black, queer archival practices of SUHO members and their connections to Baldwin, I return to Baldwin and his views on love, particularly in his 1963 work The Fire Next Time. Baldwin’s meditation on love and how love can be extended beyond romantic love to critical engagement with others is at the heart of this work: “Love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within” (The Fire Next Time 102–03). He does not interpret love as a personal feeling, but as a “state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth” (Baldwin, The Fire Next Time 103). Indeed, in The Fire Next Time Baldwin describes whiteness as a state of lovelessness that breeds racial hostility. The only way to remedy this is to restore the ability to love and be intimate without resorting to violence, to discuss intensely without taking offence.
The tricky thing about writing an essay about love is that we have an idea of love as something elusive, abstract and often romantic. But if we take up the idea of love as expressed by Baldwin and hooks, what kind of politics would it lead us to? How would love seen in this light make us analyse what we encounter in the archives? And how could we translate these conversations to our contemporary moment and turn them into something more?
In the column quoted above, Codfried reflects on the future:
Now a little about boelerij [faggotry/homosexuality]. This is a Boeler/Mati Newspaper, after all. SUHO is making history. The next generation […] will borrow the names and minutes of the first SUHO meetings out of respect and reverence. The pioneers with dentures and toupees will make the party nights unsafe. Their demeanour and stories reflect long-forgotten glory. (5, my translation)
With this in mind, Codfried expressed a wish that SUHO’s activism should be valuable for generations to come. These SUHO stories have been newly brought to the surface and examined (Colpani et al.; Isenia) and show how a process of translation between, among others, American intellectuals (Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Marlon Riggs) and LGBT people of colour in the Netherlands (Colpani and Isenia; Frank; Wekker, White Innocence; Wekker, “Matiism and Black Lesbianism”). They show the similarities and differences between groups and people on both sides of the Atlantic, the desire and love of two generations to converge through the archive, and how much remains to be done.