For me and for many of my African American peers who came of age in the 1980s, Black History Month was our 28-day celebration of Black culture, Black struggle, and ever-elusive Black progress. It was the very rare occasion when the corporate-owned media made “space” for more humane images of Black folks — a space that is needed just as badly today.
On February 24 this year, I had the opportunity to speak at a Black History Month tribute to the writer James Baldwin, sponsored by the Freedom Socialist Party in Seattle. Shown that night was The Price of the Ticket, a captivating and inspiring documentary made in 1990 about this too often forgotten Black radical. In revisiting Baldwin, I realized just how contemporary his message really is.
The Price of the Ticket opens and closes movingly with James Baldwin’s funeral services in 1987. Through previously recorded interviews and coverage of Baldwin and new interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and movement figures, it serves as a collective remembrance of his life and activism.
The film takes us back to 1924 and Baldwin’s workingclass roots in Harlem, and then shows Baldwin leaving at a young age for France in an attempt to flee the racial hostility and repressive conditions of the U.S. By the late 1950s, Baldwin had achieved literary success with a body of writings that captured the social environment and struggles of his time. But even after his embrace by the literary elite, Baldwin’s commitment to the human struggle for freedom and dignity continued to be the foundation of his writings.
This dedication drew Baldwin back to the U.S. in the early 1960s to participate in the civil rights movement. The Price of the Ticket captures the way in which his grass-roots involvement gave him a firsthand understanding of the vicious tenacity of white supremacy — and transformed him from a social critic to a radical advocate for a more global and multi-issue movement against racial injustice.
The movie also reveals the unique contribution Baldwin made to the civil rights movement as a gay African American man, who wrote about homosexual relationships as early as 1956, in the novel Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin’s openness about his sexual identity challenged other Black liberation fighters to realize that their struggle should neither encourage nor condone the alienation and repudiation of sexual minorities.
Many of them failed to meet the challenge. Baldwin’s desire to build a more multiracial and coalitional movement was often resisted both by fellow literary luminaries and by Black nationalists — notably including Eldridge Cleaver, who called into question Baldwin’s loyalty to Black people as well as his manhood.
The documentary does not elaborate on the tensions between Baldwin and Cleaver, but I find a special inspiration in Baldwin’s courage to speak out simultaneously against racism and homophobia as one whole person.
Baldwin’s willingness to bring all of himself to the movement was and remains a revolutionary act, one that is often absent from political struggles. His bravery is a rebuke to cultural nationalists and proponents of a single-issue focus who see dealing with a multiplicity of issues as undermining a “unified” struggle, when in fact it is the only way to face differences and divisions among people with a common interest and overcome them.
The film shows that Baldwin had no illusions that this road is an easy one. It illustrates how the racism of many “benevolent” white liberals within the movement often prevented Baldwin from finding solidarity in white-dominated organizations. Baldwin’s later works continue to present scathing critiques of white racism while also providing a more developed critique of the class divisions that exist amongst oppressed peoples in a profit-driven and white-supremacist society.
James Baldwin believed that we can and we must build and sustain multiracial, multi-issue, radical movements that cross cultural lines — an ideological legacy that is vital to current struggles of peoples around the world who are mutually oppressed by a thoroughly global capitalism. As reflected in The Price of the Ticket, Baldwin’s ability to connect the struggles of Blacks in the apartheid U.S. of the 1940s with the plight of the Algerians in France is a model that movements today must adopt.
At a time now when steadfast and principled leadership for liberation is gravely lacking, James Baldwin reminds us that commitment to the struggle is the price of the ticket to freedom. It is this commitment that will allow us to work together as we create a world rooted in the ideals of universal equality, justice and solidarity.
Activists, educators, and artists looking to build an inclusive movement should visit their public libraries and request The Price of the Ticket.
Gary Perry is an assistant professor of sociology at Seattle University, where he is also affiliated with Womens Studies and Global African Studies.