Live! Tonight! New York City!

I’ll be doing a brief reading tonight at the 2A Upstairs Lounge in the East Village, as part of a delightfully motley panel:

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I’m not sure what to expect, but it should be more exciting than most academic panels that don’t include Eve Sedgwick sparking a nerd-riot with “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” Bob Rosen, author of the best-selling John Lennon bio Nowhere Man and the history/insider-account Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography, gave me a generous shout-out on his blog (and also called me, channeling the voice of Charles Keating, a “permissive professor dedicated to a position of complete moral anarchy.” Don’t tell David Horowitz.), so let me repay the favor by noting that I’m wrapping up Beaver Street right now, and it adds a lot to my understanding of how the biz worked in the 80s–Rosen wrote for, edited, and even posed (just once!) for a slew of smut mags beginning in the 1980s, and let me just say, there are some things you just won’t learn in the paper trails left in archives. It’s a smart, engaging read–my book might have more footnotes, but ain’t no denying, Bob’s is more fun. He’ll be reading tonight too, so come check it out!

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Saul Landau and Queer Legal History: A Tribute

Saul Landau passed away this week from bladder cancer, at the age of 77. He is primarily remembered as “a determinedly leftist documentary filmmaker and writer,” with a “prolific career that spanned nearly 50 years,” during which he “wrote 14 books, directed or produced 10 film and television documentaries, and worked as an investigative journalist.” Personal testimonies at the Nation and Huffington Post commemorate him in glowing terms; it sounds as if he was a genuinely good and generous person. 

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I didn’t know Landau, though for many years interviewing him was on my to-do list. I now profoundly regret not having followed through, and I’d like to pay tribute by offering an angle that seems wholly absent from his various obituaries: his minor, but noteworthy, role in queer legal history.

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“Since this book was written by a Negro”: Banning James Baldwin in Georgia

Well, this is a little humbling: spend enough time digging through archives, and you can’t help but create your own; organize it as best you can, and some things will fall through the cracks.

Like this striking document, which I found in the Georgia State Archives in 2003 or 2004, and have apparently never made much use of, until I pulled it out to share with a friend (and then use in a class exercise in reading primary sources):

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from the Georgia State Literature Commission Administrative Files, box 3, folder: Wesberry, Georgia State Archives, RG 266-1-1

 (If it’s too small to read, clicking will expand it)

It seems I made a passing reference to it in an article about racialized censorship in Memphis; in my book, the omniscient Google Books tells me, I note efforts in New Orleans to ban Another Country, but not this. My guess is the document simply slipped past me—and to be fair to myself, I have endless boxes (and more recently, digital images) of this stuff, so these things do happen. But still, this deserves more attention–plus, James Baldwin is almost assuredly my favorite author, full stop, so it’s a pleasure to have an excuse to post about him.

James Pickett Wesberry, who wrote this letter, was head of the Georgia State Literature Commission and a Baptist minister who saw his job as a holy mission; dig through his papers at Mercer University and you’ll see plenty of speeches like this, calling smut “an enemy worse than communism.”

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James Pickett Wesberry Papers, box 10, folder 49, Mercer University Special Collections

He may have been a fanatic, but he wasn’t a fool; by 1964 a formal legal ban on a reputable novel like Another Country might withstand court review in the Georgia state system, but as soon as it was appealed to the federal level it was virtually certain to be reversed, so working “quietly” and informally with distributors (read: cajoling and threatening them) proved much more effective. While this couldn’t entirely purge the novel from the state, it could drastically scale back its public visibility.

Apparently, Baldwin’s racial identity alone upset the Literature Commission more than the book’s content per se. But I think it’s plausible to suggest both the book’s interracial sexual themes and its queer ones were at play here. The minutes of the commission reflect persistent homophobia (in 1957, for instance, the commission had dismissed complaints against Playboy but recommended prosecution of the homophile magazine ONE), and Wesberry maintained warm relationships with racist governors Herman Talmadge and, later, Lester Maddox. So a queer “Negro” posed a perceived threat to the heteronormative white supremacist status quo. Indeed, the commission’s minutes for Oct. 14, 1963 feature fellow member Hubert Dyar calling Another Country “the book that had bothered him most recently.”

I don’t know the subsequent fate of Another Country in Georgia (nor, clearly, was it the only state to target this or other Baldwin books). And it is rather interesting that Wesberry is writing this letter because the editor of the Baptist Young People’s Union Quarterly had  recommended the book. That certainly wouldn’t happen in later years, after the Southern Baptist Convention was taken over by hardline conservatives in the late 70s (as detailed in Daniel Williams’s God’s Own Party: the Making of the Christian Right).

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oh, *hell* yes

Since I missed my chance to use this document years ago, upon re-discovering it, I thought I’d put it online in the hopes that it might be of interest to others. Organizations like the Georgia State Literature Commission remain fascinating and overlooked institutions that—importantly for historians—often left rich paper trails. This is just the tip of the iceberg—I found the GSLC’s papers amazing to dig through back in the day, and did make use of them elsewhere in Perversion for Profit. Of course, I and anyone else who writes about the group are indebted to Gregory Lisby’s fantastic 2000 article about it. Google Scholar suggests the piece is woefully under-cited, but it deserves to be read (final aside: as does so much else that’s published in state historical journals—here’s another article, by Kirk Hutson, that I’ll heartily rep for)–as does his (non-paywalled) entry on it for the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Finally, this is a reminder of the various threats faced by the courageous, amazing Baldwin. Censorship was hardly the most pressing danger for him in a racist, homophobic society where physical menace remained a daily lived reality, but this sort of cultural erasure certainly added to his struggle. I’m not actually sure whether there’s a comprehensive recounting of the censorship efforts his works faced in any of the various biographies and studies of him (by all means, please let me know if there is!), but here’s one small reminder of their prevalence—and, of course, ultimately, their utter failure and futility.

 

(Postscript, Nov. 11, 2013: just came across this fascinating post about Another Country‘s travails when it reached Australian customs, wanted to add it here as recommended reading!)

Newark on film: Dinner with an Assassin (2005)

If you ever want to guarantee that I will love your movie, start it off with a shot like this:

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Writer/director/all-around-entrepreneur Bobby Guions won so much goodwill with this scene that when Dinner with an Assassin later took a turn (or numerous turns) for the ridiculous, I didn’t care, I was on this movie’s side. The Divine Hotel Riviera is a Newark landmark, built in 1922. As the wonderful NewarkHistory.com tells us, Philip Roth’s parents spent their honeymoon there, and after the Depression facilitated a slide into decrepitude, it was later bought (and renamed) by Father Divine, the African American preacher, in 1950. So already in one shot Guions invokes multiple layers of Newark history, and beautifully at that.

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