kemp-delisser Links Experiences to James Baldwin


khristian kemp-delisser discusses James Baldwin’s work and forming his queer identity.

On Thursday, January 26, Assistant Dean and Director of LGBTQ Initiatives at Colgate khristian kemp-delisser gave a talk at the Heretics’ Club lunch series titled “Go Tell It on the Mountains: Black and Gay Gospel of James Baldwin.” James Baldwin was a novelist and playwright who wrote about racial and sexual issues in the mid-20th century, especially pertaining to black life in America. His works include “Giovanni’s Room,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “The Fire Next Time,” among others. 

As a man who is black and gay, kemp-delisser shared brief reflections and narratives concerning his time in college in order to bring insight to students while connecting his experiences to those brought forth by Baldwin. kemp-delisser communicates with many Colgate students who question the campus climate in regards to the LGBTQ community. One overarching question concerning these students is how they can exist in a place that they believe does not include them.

kemp-delisser received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and Textual Studies from Syracuse University. While in school, he found support from a close friend who was also gay. According to kemp-delisser, his friend was unapologetic about his queer identity and his contempt for the whiteness, which was the majority of the student body. Using gender pronouns that proclaimed his identity and embracing himself as a whole made him queer. kemp-delisser’s friend created space where people could live honestly and freely, where they could show their flame. According to kemp-delisser, he provided the possibility of living with contradictions, finding solace in Walt Whitman’s famous quote, “I contain multitudes.”

kemp-delisser connected his personal experiences and the importance of embracing honesty to a quote from Baldwin:  

“You write in order to change the world. If you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

Next, kemp-delisser played a short interview given by Baldwin in which he argued that homosexuality, like race, is not a matter of law. With LGBTQ rights laws changing, people do not necessarily change their attitudes. According to baldwin, attitude, after all, is a problem of the (dis)ability to love and to understand other humans. Homophobia is not a matter of law, but a matter of heart.

“No one has the right to try to tell another human being who he/she can/should love. Love is what you find it. You don’t know where it will carry you … A man can fall in love with a man and a woman can fall in love with a woman, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. It’s not about the law. It’s not about the church. And if you lie about it, you lie about everything,” Baldwin said.

kemp-delisser then went on to talk about disidentification, an important tool through which queer blackness survives in the world. As shown on a powerpoint slide, kemp delisser argued that disidentification allows one’s identity to remain “in-flux, thus imbuing actions with multiple meanings” (Ferguson, 2004). Munoz (1995) described it as a form of mimicry of colonial power that simultaneously demonstrates a mastery of the colonizer’s symbols while also putting those symbols to use for purposes they were never intended to serve.

When asked specifically about the theme of minority reaction and action in response to stimuli encountered within society, kemp-delisser had the following response.

“It’s mostly a closed-door situation. Last week, I attended a conference, where there was a workshop called ‘Black Joy.’ It was a caucus of black people speaking about their joy behind closed doors. That is what ‘Black Joy’ is. The door is closed – we talked in private because it takes risk to be openly joyful. It’s like the term ‘kitchen.’ Kitchen is the private place where you literally spend time with your loved ones, make food and nurture yourself. It is within your home, still private and personal … I don’t know whether I answered your question, but as for action and reaction … that’s all that we do,” kemp-delisser said.

kemp-delisser was then asked to comment on the apparent distance, systemic inequalities and lack of diversity at Colgate, whether he believed these were issues unique to Colgate and if so what factors led to this climate.

“Well, there are two rates of changes. One is the lightning speed. The other is the glacial speed. We, institutions of higher education, are at the glacial speed. We are mostly reactionary; we react when things happen. We make exceptions when needed, but we don’t proactively make changes,” kemp-delisser said.