Homosexuality: An Analysis of James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
Introduction to James Baldwin
Ask any "PK"; they'll tell you that, on top of the four odds that were stacked against him as a child, James Baldwin had one additional card piled up against him. As for the first four: 1) he was born a black child in Harlem, New York, in 1924, not a time nor a place renowned for an abundance of opportunities for a bright young man; 2) he was the illegitimate child of a dirt poor domestic worker; 3) he was the oldest of 9 children; 4) when he was three, his mom married a hard, cruel, and brutally strict father who fancied himself a storefront preacher. And the "PK" card - the preacher kid role - getting out of the way of his dad's fists was one thing, but living up to expectations of the congregation, and the community, has its own unique challenges, its prejudices, its moments when a PK wants to rage, "I'm just like any other kid - get off my back with that 'minister's son' oratory."
At the age of 14, for about three years, James too was a preacher, following (trembling?) in his father's footsteps, but at 17, he gave up the pulpit, left home, and went to work on the New Jersey railroad. He was 19 when his dad died in a mental institution, but by that time, James, who had been a voracious reader for five years, had set his sights on a life of letters. "Those three years in the pulpit," he would later recall, "I didn't realize it then; that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty."
James began writing full time in 1943, reviewing books and writing essays in The New Leader, The Nation, Commentary, and Partisan Review. And shortly thereafter, James met well-known author Richard Wright in Greenwich Village; Wright helped James achieve a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1948 - to provide financial support while James finished his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. James finished the novel in Paris, where he had relocated in 1948 to free himself from the ugly reality of racism in America, from fresh and painful memories of a friend's suicide, and to lighten the load of his own provocative sexual preferences.
Giovanni's Room - the critiques and reviews
After starting off with the bang of a firecracker on the Fourth of July with Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) - a book based on James' experiences as a young black teenage preacher, which was widely praised by critics - along came two books with tabooed themes of homosexuality and interracial relationships, Notes of a Native Son, and Giovanni's Room. To literary critics and many of his readers, these books were shockers. It was like one more card stacked up on James: he was born poor, illegitimate, black, in Harlem, a PK to a vicious father - and now the gay issue enters in, at a time when "gay" still meant festive and happy. Seemingly James' leap from the frying pan into the fire was a literary gamble. He was roundly criticized and probably unjustly judged (again, there were no "Gay Pride" parades in the mid-Fifties, and no talk of legalizing "gay marriage"); and yet, not all critics chastised him.
Granville Hicks, writing in the New York Times Review of Books (October, 1956), describes the novel's theme as "delicate enough to make strong demands on all of Mr. Baldwin's resourcefulness and subtlety." In reporting that "much of the novel is laid in scenes of squalor, with a background of characters...grotesque and repulsive," still, "even as one is dismayed by Mr. Baldwin's materials," Hicks wrote, "one rejoices in the skill with which he renders them. Nor is there any suspicion that he is working with these materials merely for the sake of shocking the reader." Hicks notes that James' theme is not merely homosexuality or interracial issues: it moreover is about "the rareness and difficulty of love, and, in his rather startling way, he does a great deal with it."
Critical perspective surrounding the time of publication of Giovanni's Room
First, some sociopolitical events which occurred during James' formative years: in 1943, the year his step-father died, and he turned nineteen, 30 blacks were killed in race riots in Detroit; also, riots in Harlem were occurring around that same time. In 1954, two years prior to the novel being published, was the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which basically made segregation in schools illegal. In response to Brown v. Board of Education, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus - in 1956 and 1957 - created a racial crisis and defied the U.S. Supreme Court, by closing schools in Little Rock and re-opening them as private, segregated schools. Thus, he showed his contempt for court-ordered de-segregation of public schools; President Eisenhower had sent paratroopers to try to contain violence in Little Rock, as the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement were in motion. In 1959, the U.S. Postmaster General Summerfield banned Lady Chatterley's Lover from the mails (on grounds it was "obscenity"), so one can see that black author James Baldwin publishing a book about homosexuality would certainly raise eyebrows, even among blacks. In 1960, the first Civil Rights Bill is passed in the U.S. Congress, and in 1961, the "Freedom Riders" began their bus tour of the south to protest segregated schools, busses, restaurants, and other public facilities. James was most certainly aware, while in Paris, of all that was going on in his United States society back home.
James Baldwin and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements
James was not cut out for protest writing, at least not right away in his career as a novelist. And even though he had relocated to Paris, where a second "expatriate" group of American writers and artists had gathered (the first group had gathered between the two great wars, including Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald), he never really abandoned his American identity - and yet, he was criticized by liberal white critics - such as Irving Howe - who expected that every successful black author should follow the literary protestation style of Richard Wright, without doubt the dominant black writer in postwar America. "The program which the young Baldwin set for himself - a program of aesthetic autonomy and faithfulness to private experience, as against ideological noise and blunt stereotype - was almost impossible for the Negro Writer to realize" (Howe, 1979). Ralph Ellison, who wrote Invisible Man in 1952, was the only other hugely successful black author during the 1950s; and in an Ellison essay - "The Literature of the Negro in the United States," which appears in part to respond to white critics' attacks on James Baldwin's sexually illustrative works - was to say that the proliferation of literature directed "toward strictly racial themes" indicates a period of heightened racial oppression.
And so it's clear that James, beyond his awe-inspiring talent for essay and story-telling was, if not universally loved and respected by the African-American community, at the very least a trailblazer within the black artists' community - and as such was a fair target for more militant blacks. Clearly, the tone of James' work was the antithesis of Richard Wright's tone, which had a distinct flavor of misogyny; and even more dramatically, James was "synthesizing race and gay consciousness during some of the most politically volatile decades of the twentieth century" (Shin, 1998).
And if there was a dramatic juxtaposition between James' views and those of Richard Wright, the gap between James and the Black Power movement - notably Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers - was even more pronounced. "That Baldwin even imagined the homosexual as the instrument of social change was no mean feat," Andrew Shin writes in the journal African-American Review, "given that homosexuality was still being censured both by mainstream cultural and by black nationalists who equated blackness with heterosexual virility." Indeed, Cleaver was noted, among other things such as his brilliant Soul on Ice book, for saying that he raped black women as a kind of preamble to raping white women. And Cleaver, in response to James' homosexuality, referred to it as a "racial death-wish" typical of black bourgeoisie who reject the color of their skin. Cleaver saw James' gayness as "betrayal, because Baldwin presented a public image of the black man as castrated, the black man as woman" (Shin). And even today's hip-hop musicians, like Cleaver and the Panthers, have a misogynistic swagger that suggests rather powerfully, in their lyrics and their music videos, that it is their privilege to dominate women ("*****es" is a very common word in rap and hip hop music circles).
And later, in the Sixties, though Baldwin wrote the brilliant and acclaimed The Fire Next Time, showing an incisive and breath-taking understanding of the black-white wars ahead, and came back from Paris to participate in -…