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Archive for the ‘icons’ Category

They’d gotten off on the wrong foot, and if Cam found out, there would be hell to pay. Ada needed this young man to know she wasn’t like other whites, the ones who touted their Confederate ancestors or acted like Jim Crow was still in force. She could have used the example of Miss Ruthie to explain away her cautious behavior, but it seemed like too elaborate a story, offered too late. Or she could have told him about the early days of integration at Central, but she had done so little—just interrupted one bullying incident.

So instead, she said, “I . . . I’ve read Mr. Baldwin,” just before he reached the library door. Cam had brought the novel Giovanni’s Room home from her trip to Washington, D.C. for the March. “It’s about two men who have an affair,” Cam had explained excitedly. “One white and one black.” The volume had made the rounds in their gay circle before ending up, tattered and well-read, on a high shelf in the bedroom closet.

“He’s a fine writer,” Ada said.

“One of the best,” Mr. Browne said, with a thin smile that suggested he might not hold a grudge.

In this excerpt from my historical novel, The Ada Decades, Ada Shook, a white school librarian in Charlotte, N.C. in 1970, has a run-in with a new teacher, Robert Browne – one of only two black faculty members in the school – about a book order. She worries that some of his choices, including books by Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. DuBois, and James Baldwin, will play badly with the conservative white parents in the school. Mr. Browne calls her on it, and she retracts her concern – but then wants him to know she’s not like “other whites.” A closeted lesbian, she’s read James Baldwin’s novel about an affair between two men in Paris.

 

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Baldwin on the streets of Harlem/AP photo

The work of James Baldwin (1924-1987) figures prominently in this chapter of my book; it becomes the subject of attempted censorship by parents at Ada’s school. I won’t give away what happens, but things get tense at the fictional Central Charlotte Junior High.

I re-read a lot of Baldwin’s nonfiction work as my novel was unfolding, especially Nobody Knows My Name, and I took one of the epigraphs for the book from him: “Love is a growing up.” I felt that so aptly summarized what I had learned about long-term relationships. There’s the tender romance in the early stages of “girl meets girl,” but a relationship over the long haul is so much more than that. It’s about working through problems and plowing through bad times as well as celebrating the joyous moments. I call The Ada Decades a love story for that reason – it’s about two women enduring together and building a life over time, despite the odds.

And more about Baldwin, whose writing is rightfully enjoying a revival: Efforts are underway to save the house in St.-Paul-de-Vence, France, where he lived for the last seventeen years of his life, and turn it into a retreat for writers and artists. As Shannon Cain wrote with regret in July 2016, “There exists no trace of James Baldwin in the village … His half-demolished house bears no plaque… Here in the place he considered home, it appears that this great American literary and civil rights icon has disappeared from history.”

If you haven’t seen the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, please run out and do so. I’ve seen it twice, and I will undoubtedly watch it again. James Baldwin has been gone for thirty years, but his wisdom speaks directly to this moment in American history.

Today is The Ada Decades’s official pub date, and it’s now available everywhere! Pick up a copy at your favorite bookseller.

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Gladys Bentley

For your reading pleasure, Buzzfeed brings you “17 Badass Historical LGBT Women Who Absolutely Gave No Fucks.” I love Gladys Bentley! Who is your favorite on this list?

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Grand Rapids, Minn.

Judy Garland home
2727 US Highway 169 South

This house in Grand Rapids was the first home of Frances Gumm/Judy Garland (1922-1969), the singer/actor/gay icon whose death has occasionally been credited with setting the flame that ignited the Stonewall Rebellion. Garland‘s father was reportedly gay, as was her second husband, director Vincente Minnelli, and there have been rumors about her own bisexuality.

The Gumms owned the New Grand Theater on Pokagama Avenue in Grand Rapids in the 1920s. Baby Gumm gave her first public performance there at age 2, singing “Jingle Bells” with her two older sisters. When she was 4, her parents moved the family to California to pursue their show business ambitions – and also apparently to escape the rumors of Frank Gumm’s sexual inclinations.

Judy’s best-loved role is undoubtedly as Dorothy Gale in the classic 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz. Every June since 1975, Grand Rapids has celebrated its most famous resident with a Judy Garland Festival, complete with bands and floats. In 1989, the 50th anniversary of the movie, the town dedicated its very own Yellow Brick Road, a pathway of 5,000 bricks, about one-fifth of which have been engraved with personal messages (at an average cost of about 50 dollars).

The Gumm house has been restored to look like it would have in the 1920s, and is open to the public, with family items and photographs and Wizard of Oz memorabilia on display.

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