From Harlem to Istanbul
“Perhaps only someone who is outside of the States realizes that it’s im-
possible to get out,” James Baldwin’s voice-over proclaims in a short film
by the Turkish director and photographer Sedat Pakay, James Baldwin: From
Another Place (1973). Pakay’s little-known cinematic gem records the writer’s
movements through the city of Istanbul over a three-day period in May 1970
and frames Baldwin’s assertion with seductive photography of private inte-
riors, city streets, and a boat ride on the Bosphorus. Like no other existing
documentary, the black-and-white film captures the profound paradox of
Baldwin’s transatlantic vantage point by showing how he both belongs and
remains an outsider in the teeming half-European, half-Asian Turkish me-
tropolis. Baldwin’s work has occupied an oddly similar position in Ameri-
can literary history and African American studies, as it has been woven
in and out of the sometimes overlapping and sometimes discrete canons:
American, black, and queer. Like Pakay’s camera, this project attempts to
bring the conflicting and often contradictory depictions of Baldwin’s per-
son and writings together.
In eerie ways and from an unlikely location, Pakay’s compelling portrait
of the black gay writer in Istanbul echoes the paradoxes of how African
Americans were represented in the United States from the middle of the
twentieth century onward. Caught between the hypervisibility of racist and
oversexualized heterosexist images of African American bodies pervading
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