James Baldwin Was My Grandfather

By Kemp Baldwin (01/20/2011)

James Baldwin, the famous black homosexual author, was my grandfather.  We called him Jimmy. Although I’ve never read any of his books, I did know him after he supposedly died of cancer in 1987. By then he was a bald, white Republican with a penchant for mid-afternoon cocktails and wearing silly hats or whip cream on his head during the holidays.

No one in my family ever talks about Jimmy’s early days when he was famous, black, and gay and I can’t remember them. This raised the first red flag and made me wonder if my family was in fact a bunch of homophobic racists, since clearly fame has never frightened a Baldwin. However, as an aspiring world famous writer myself, it is nice to know that I have his talent swimming about my gene pool somewhere. It gives me the confidence to punch those keys like a monkey searching for Shakespeare when I roll out of bed at the crack of noon. I have to assume Jimmy (James) thought this would suffice because that rich chameleon decided not to leave me a scrap of inheritance – not even a signed book. Go tell that on a fucking mountain.

When Jimmy actually passed away from cancer in 2002, I started longing for information. I wanted to connect, find some closure, and untangle the mystery of his assorted histories. This was the man that begot my begetter and I knew almost nothing about him before the twilight of his life.  I missed him – the white him and the black him, despite not knowing that darker side of him. In all honesty, I’ve always felt pretty black despite being extremely white. Maybe my grandfather’s melanin reversal can explain my natural dance moves. (Is that racist? Really? How can I be racist when one of my favorite grandfathers was black.)

I dug through the family archives to no avail. Our family pictures only capture him when he was white. But thanks to the advent of the Internet, I’m able to see my grandfather in his hey day.


Looking at this picture made me cry. I’ve never I felt closer to my grandfather than I did when I saw him in the arms of Marlon Brando, who I assume was his secret lover or my grandmother, Jean.

Take another look: The resemblance is uncanny. We share a gap between our front teeth, which he sadly lost when he became white. We also wear the same sunglasses, which I know is a sign of our shared appreciation for Top Gun – Kelly McGillis and jet fighters for me and fighter pilots playing volleyball with their shirts off for Grandpa.

However, I realized, after scouring our family records, pictures, and interviewing family members at length, that my hypothesis about my brilliant homosexual black grandfather’s metamorphosis into a jovial overweight pasty white man, married with three extremely caucasian children, was flawed.  I say this because while I discovered no family record of my black grandfather, I found many photos of my father as a pale white blob of a child with Jimmy, who was also shockingly and unmistakably white at a time when he was famous for being black. There are hundreds of these pictures. Confused, I asked my father pointedly what Jimmy did for a living.  His answer seemed far-fetched to the point of being absurd, like a lie told to a child that he embellished endlessly to convince himself it was true.

According to my dad, Jimmy sold fire-trucks. He also sold wire to help with the war effort and piping to help build the interstate. He fed America with sandwiches and housed them with an inn. To my father, Jimmy was sort of super-hero salesman, but one that never made much money. Yet somehow my father’s family lived very comfortably on the Connecticut shoreline and he and his siblings went to private schools. The dots didn’t connect. 

What I have come to realize is my grandfather, James Baldwin, did not have a Kakfa-esque event one morning. He had a Kafka-esque moment every morning. Until retiring from the written word, he woke up and became black and gay so people would respect him as an artist. But he never brought his work home. He did what he had to do to provide for his family at a time when you couldn’t be the seminal gay African-American author of the century as a chubby, white Republican. Oh, how the times have changed.