Celebrating James Baldwin’s Radical Beauty

Heralded as a cultural prophet in life and death, James Baldwin and his legacy have transcended reality and spiraled into myth. The Black American writer was many things: aesthete, flaneur, playwright, essayist. Disciples cling to his words as gospel, mining text for magic until its author is absorbed by our exaltation and buried within our interpretations. In the face of such deification, how does one conceive a faithful portrait of a man as enigmatic as Baldwin?

Cultural critic Hilton Als has made significant efforts to humanize and memorialize the pathbreaking writer, most recently in an art-essay hybrid book, God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin. The project is born out of a 2019 exhibition curated by Als for David Zwirner gallery in New York and includes reproductions of some of the featured artworks, alongside brief essays about Baldwin by Als, critic Teju Cole, filmmaker Barry Jenkins, and novelist Jamaica Kincaid, among others. While the compendium considers how Baldwin saw himself — particularly in the context of art, music, and film — it most effectively elucidates how contemporary artists see themselves in and through his work.

God Made My Face also succeeds in reminding us that Baldwin was beautiful — an identifier he longed for. Baldwin wrestled with deep-rooted, intergenerational insecurities over his lifetime and wrote vividly about the harsh degradation he endured from his stepfather, who lambasted him with insults during childhood, calling him “the ugliest boy he had ever seen.” It feels valuable for the book to be centered around extolling Baldwin’s beauty, which he contended with so devastatingly in his writing.

Our introduction to Baldwin’s visage is immediate: A crisp portrait photographed by Richard Avedon, his high school classmate and later collaborator, adorns the cover of the book. In an essay reproduced here on their collaboration Nothing Personal, a 1964 book pairing Baldwin’s writing with Avedon’s sleek images, Als culls personal memories about its influence on his psyche as a queer boy and burgeoning critic. The publication introduced feelings of lust and brought him to a formative realization: “Art was a different and in many ways more profound evocation of the truth of the times.”

The book’s meatiest essays entangle its authors with Baldwin’s teachings. Darryl Pinckney’s “On James Baldwin” traces his relationship to Baldwin from his own childhood to their first, discomfiting meeting, and finally Baldwin’s funeral. In a straightforward, amusing essay, “For Baldwin,” Jamaica Kincaid reveals that she learned to write and understand form by reading Baldwin after their chance meeting when she was 19. If God Made My Face envisions a conceptual portrait of Baldwin, it is in academic Stephen Best’s essay, “Baldwin Listens to Himself,” that his features start to become clear. Best digs into Baldwin’s self-perception and apprehensions, asking: “For the adult Baldwin, reflecting on himself as a child, what dissonant, threatening, perilous sonicity is he listening for?”

Baldwin’s writing was metamorphic, informed by these anxieties, by race, class, and sexuality — dubbed “sissy poetics” by Best (by way of Marlon Ross’s “sissy sensorium”), and molded by figures like novelist Henry James or blues singer Bessie Smith, who helped Baldwin reconcile his preoccupations about Blackness while abroad. His pen was lyrical and theatric, influenced also by an upbringing in the church and stint as a child preacher. Als, Pinckney, and actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste call upon the familiar language of the pulpit in their essays on interacting with Baldwin’s oeuvre.

Black Christian iconography also appears in the book via an oil-on-canvas church scene titled “Rehearsal” (1952) by modernist painter Beauford Delaney. These conceptual throughlines deliberated on in Baldwin’s writing form the foundation on which Als curated this collection of artworks. Other pieces address ideas and locales Baldwin spent a lifetime contemplating: queerness, in Alvin Baltrop’s silver gelatin prints of the New York City piers’ gay cruising scenes; all-consuming celebrity, in a portrait of a young Michael Jackson by Anthony Barboza; race, in Glenn Ligon’s paintings subverting coloring books from the 1960s and ’70s featuring Black iconoclasts like Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman. God Made My Face lacks an essay that directly addresses the art within its pages, an unfortunate omission that at times renders its imagery detached. Stills from Kara Walker’s film “8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America” (2005) would benefit from the added context that, according to Als in a Paris Review article on the 2019 exhibition, her vision aligns closely with Baldwin’s unrealized aspirations as an experimental filmmaker.

As for his actual likeness, we see Baldwin depicted on the original covers of his beloved Notes of a Native Son (1955), in illustrations by John Bachardy and George McCalman, in sculptures by Larry Wolhander, and in paintings by Marlene Dumas. Most evocative is “Dark Rapture (James Baldwin)” (1941), a lush, kaleidoscopic nude of a teenage Baldwin by Delaney, one of his mentors. Als introduces the book by musing about the work’s sitting process and fictionalizing what he imagines of this first meeting, the christening of a relationship that proved mutually transformative.

Ultimately, God Made My Face succeeds most as a sweet tribute to Baldwin’s beauty, and in understanding the ways that he was shaped by artists and, in turn, has molded generations in his wake. The book’s writings reveal more about the essayists than the titular subject himself, but it is in those moments, rather than those when it attempts to biography the late author, that it sings. The general consensus among the book’s contributors, it seems, is that Baldwin was doing something far more intricate and intimate than writing with his work. It’s an invitation, it’s musicality, it’s visualization. Baldwin left behind plenty for us to parse, from cultural criticism to fiction and personal essays. It is near-impossible for us to truly know the writer, despite this inheritance of written words, but God Made My Face helps bring him into deeper focus.

God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin (2024) edited by Hilton Als (with texts by Als, Stephen Best, Daphne A. Brooks, Teju Cole, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Barry Jenkins, Jamaica Kincaid, David Leeming, and Darryl Pinckney) is published by Dancing Foxes Press and the Brooklyn Museum.

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