Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has also appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Guernica, Slate, and Tin House, among other publications. She is a board member of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts. (September 2018)
James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man defies conventional expectations for both children’s and adult’s literature, functioning, ultimately, as a liminal work that straddles the borders of both genres. In its lack of linear narrative, refusal to conform to standard English, and the sometimes wild, distorted art that accompanies it, Little Man, Little Man seems distinctly Modernist in sensibility for all that it still appears, at first glance, to be an ordinary children’s book. Clearer, however, is that it represents the artistic culmination of Baldwin and Cazac’s multilayered relationship, a collaboration that resulted, in Baldwin’s words, in a literary-artistic “celebration of the self-esteem of black children.” This statement doubtless resonated darkly for Baldwin, who had told a French journalist in 1974 that “I never had a childhood. I was born dead.”
I understand the betrayal of a flag that James Baldwin describes—this way that you can live in a country and have the profoundest sense that it wishes you did not live there, that it even wishes, perhaps, you lived in the undiscovered country, where no one lives at all. I know it as a person of color, as a woman, as someone who grew up in another country, and, above all, as a transgender person in a moment when I am told—casually, by a leaked memo, which says that the Trump administration wants to create a legal definition of sex as “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth”—that our government believes people like me should not exist.
“When you write my epitaph,” Elizabeth Bishop famously told the poet Robert Lowell in 1974, “you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” But being lonely and being alone are not the same, and Bishop recognized from a young age that there was something special, even salvific, about the latter. “There is a peculiar quality about being alone, an atmosphere that no sounds or persons can ever give,” she wrote in her 1929 essay, “… in being alone, the mind finds its Sea, the wide, quiet plane with different lights in the sky and different, more secret sounds.” I understood this sentiment well, the special beauty of the blue hours when you are, by choice, alone, and the candle of your self burns in a way it never quite can when you are with someone else.