In his 1985 editorial in Critical Enquiry, “Writing “Race” and the Difference it Makes,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. states:
Race, as a meaningful criterion within the biological sciences, has long been recognized to be a fiction. When we speak of “the white race” or “the black race,” “the Jewish race” or ‘the Aryan race.” we speak in biological misnomers […]”(4)
He goes on to refer to categories based on skin colour as “pseudoscientific,” and to describe them as “arbitrary constructs, not reports of reality”(6). He does not, however, deny the strength that has accrued to such constructs, nor how commonly such ideas have been held, nor that they had, up to the time of writing, continued to be used as excuses for killing (ibid.). James Baldwin attested to the artificial nature of these constructs in his conversation with Nikki Giovanni: “People invent categories in order to feel safe. White people invented black people to give white people identity”(88); and Audre Lorde put it thus: “[…] that we must identify ourselves (because if we don’t, someone else will to our detriment) is a human problem” (Hammond 10). Taxonomy is a process of exclusion rather than inclusion, and Baldwin was well aware of the problems that white Americans’ self-taxonomising had created for those excluded, as the encounters between the races showed in his 1953 novel Go Tell It On The Mountain.
Such is the strength of issues of race, particularly in Baldwin’s debut novel, that in critiquing his second novel, which appears to have no black characters, academics such as Aliyyah I. Abur-Rahman and Josep M. Armengol have attempted to ‘re-race’ this novel, or to “[recover] the underlying racial antagonisms” in it (Abur-Rahman 478). To Abur-Rahman, Giovanni’s Room is a “risky attempt at racial transcendence.” (479) Both critics point to the protagonist David’s first homoerotic encounter with the ‘brown’ boy Joey, Abur-Rahman going so far as to call it “cross-racial”(481), and assume that all differences of national identity or complexion in the novel stand for the difference between black and white. Armengol prefaces his article with Baldwin’s own words from 1989, “[t]he sexual question and the racial question have always been entwined.” In this article I will challenge these critics’ views, and will suggest that Baldwin did not intend that entwining to be considered as inextricable, nor that issues of race and sexuality in his works could not be considered discretely*. Further, I will suggest that there is another more pressing theme in Giovanni’s Room, that of alienation and its effect on identity.
Baldwin was of course not the first African-American author to attempt to write ‘raceless’ fiction, or rather to cross the colour-line, as ‘raceless’ fiction seems to default inevitably to ‘white’. Caryl Phillips gives as examples Paul Laurence Dunbar, presumably for his 1898 novel The Uncalled, and Ann Petry’s mid-twentieth-century novel Country Place which do just that (viii). He also cites William Gardener Smith’s Anger at Innocence, although this does have the theme of prejudice against Hispanic-Americans. Credence can be given to Giovanni’s Room’s being Baldwin’s attempt to exercise a universal talent and the freedom to write about anything or anybody he pleased (Phillips vii), and to write a candidate-work for the American literary canon that would “seem to transcend value judgments of the moment, speaking irresistibly to the human condition”(Gates 2). However, the novel’s first paragraph very bluntly refers to the protagonist’s Anglo-Nordic-American features, putting it squarely into the default position. This is not necessarily a setting up of race as a primary concern, however, as Abur-Rahman would have it (480), but more probably an unsubtle ‘establishing shot’, necessary because without it a reader, being familiar with Baldwin’s previous novel, might have assumed another African-American protagonist and an autobiographical novel. The opening clear identification of a white ‘voice’ is what gives critics such as Abur-Rahman and Armengol their first step in assuming that all stereotypical white-American prejudices are brought along as a package. However, Baldwin’s second paragraph establishes the mise-en-scène in France, and thus introduces the first step away from America and things American, a process which continues throughout the novel.
Race is, of course, the important American aspect that Abur-Rahman and Armengol attempt to reinsert. In their ‘re-racing’ – or “race-ing” (Armengol 673) – of Giovanni’s Room, “race is deflected onto sexuality with the result that whiteness is transvalued as heterosexuality, just as homosexuality becomes associated with blackness, both literally and metaphorically” (ibid.). Thus homophobia becomes a coded reference to racism. This would be more convincing if, by inversion, racism in Baldwin’s writings could be seen as a coded reference to homophobia; although homosexuality is a sub-theme in Go Tell It on the Mountain, Gabriel Grimes being spat at in the street does not stand for his white abuser’s supposed hatred of homosexuality (164). It would also be more convincing, given how central to the African-American experience racism was and is, if Giovanni’s Room were more specifically about homosexuality; however, Baldwin says that it is not:
[…] Giovanni’s Room is not really about homosexuality. It’s the vehicle through which the book moves. Go Tell It on the Mountain, for example, is not about a church and Giovanni is not really about homosexuality. It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody. Which is more interesting than the question of homosexuality. (Baldwin & Goldstein)
Rather than supporting Abur-Rahman and Armengol, this tends to support the hypothesis of this article, i.e. that we are dealing with alienation – the “what happens” for the protagonist David.
Even their emphasis on Joey’s being “brown” (Giovanni’s Room 14) can be questioned; it may be a relative rather than a racial description, as it is delivered with no greater flourish than “sweaty,” “beautiful,” and “smaller” (ibid.). Thus it is not necessarily emphasised. When David says “my body seemed gross and crushing” (ibid.), it is against himself that his loathing is turned, not against Joey, and it is he himself who is “both pollutant and contagion” (Abur-Rahman 481) rather than the smaller and more beautiful boy. His later bullying of the younger boy has no overt racial component, and seems more like senseless adolescent spitefulness than anything else (Giovanni’s Room 15). Armengol insists nonetheless that David’s boyfriends, Joey and Giovanni, are “racialized as black”(679), and Abur-Rahman refers specifically to Giovanni as “darker-skinned” than David (482). However, Giovanni at his most abject is revealed as “dead white” (Giovanni’s Room 316), his skin-colour therefore equated to David’s. Armengol again declares, with added emphases:
Terrified of “losing his manhood,” he describes Joey’s body as “the black opening of a cavern,” insisting that “a cavern opened in my mind, black. . . full of dirty words” […] Significantly, then, David establishes a literal association between homosexuality and blackness, which stands for the anus and the racialized body, both of which, in turn, he connects to “dirty words.” Obviously, David’s unconscious association derives from his specific racial, religious, and gender background, which defines interracial homosexuality as doubly immoral, shameful, and dirty. (680)
Phillips puts this hyperbolic interpretation down to an “over-reading” of the text (2017 email).
Internalised homophobia is definitely in David’s character, however, whether he has absorbed it from his white American culture, along with the “dirty words”, or there is something almost ‘essential’ in him in which loathing and craving – both “No!” and “Yes”(64) – are inextricable. If it alienates him from normative American culture, he seems prepared to accept that some degree of overt homosexual behaviour happens in the Bohemian milieu of Paris, at arm’s length as it is from the USA. But equally David expresses unease at the grotesqueness of the culture and the denizens of “Jacques’ favourite bar” that he describes in such detail (29-30). It is these denizens who, rather than hinting at unmentionable “dirty words”, liberally apply slurs to each other – folle (‘queen’), môme (‘girl’, applied facetiously to a boyfriend), and salop[e] (‘bitch’) (30, 54, 104). David moves amongst them, but thereby holds himself apart from them. In this milieu he is content to be known as “monsieur l’americain” (53), though Giovanni scolds him as a “vrai americain” and praises him as “not an American at all” (85); however, David sees his compatriots in the American Express Office as single entity, everybody sounding
[…] unless I listened hard, as though they had just arrived from Nebraska. At home I could have seen the clothes they were wearing, but here I only saw bags, cameras, belts and hats, all, clearly, from the same department store. At home I would have had some sense of the individual womanhood of the woman I faced: here the most ferociously accomplished seemed to be involved in some ice-cold or sun-dried travesty of sex, and even grandmothers seemed to have had no traffic with the flesh. And what distinguished the men was that they seemed incapable of age; they smelled of soap, which seemed indeed to be their preservative against the dangers and exigencies of any more intimate odor. (86)
He stands outside this crowd, feeling atypical, and they seem to him to be devoid of anything individual or carnal.
To his father, from whom David is separated by virtue of despising him (20) more than simply by geographical distance, and who seems more anxious than he that he should come “home,” he is still “as American as pork and beans” (87); but this estrangement from his father keeps David apart from another aspect of American culture – money, either hard-earned or on deposit. He has money in an account, but his father is reluctant to send it (26) and he to ask for it (109) even though Giovanni has lost his source of income. Up till then, in the domestic microcosm of the ‘room’, Giovanni had been the provider and David the housewife, though only in half-hearted play, gaining no satisfaction from it (84-85); thus David is alienated from both normative masculine and feminine domestic roles.
The clearest advocacy for that normativity does not come from America, but from his expatriate Italian caretaker in the South of France – neither Armengol nor Abur-Rahman equate her nationality with race – who declares that men like David need women to tell them the truth, that it is not good for them to be alone, that a woman and babies are a necessity for happiness (67-69). Yet David’s only response is to clean the house, just as he cleaned Giovanni’s room, and think of his ex-lover’s approaching execution. Hella, whom he had met in France, admits to a longing for that norm:
‘You know, I’m not really the emancipated girl I try to be at all. I guess I just want a man to come home to me every night. I want to be able to sleep with a man without being afraid he’s going to knock me up. Hell, I want to be knocked up, I want to start having babies. In a way, it’s really all I’m good for.’ (117-118)
This revelation precipitates David’s decision to announce to his father that he wants to marry her, but its repetition is no antidote to his guilt at having deserted Giovanni (151-152). Allowing her discovery of him in the company of sailors seems like the realisation of a wish to obliterate any remnant of adherence to the American heterosexual norm (153).
David’s final and fundamental alienation is from love itself. The word hardly occurs in the book. He resists saying it aloud to anyone, even indirectly in a foreign language, only replying to Giovanni’s “Je t’aime” with “Je le sais”(105). He expresses love for Hella and Giovanni only in the narrative (107, 114), and seems untouched by Jacques’ plea “‘Love him […] and let him love you’”(57). The novel’s final metaphor is the fragments of the blue envelope that had contained the details of Giovanni’s execution blowing back towards David; he is carrying nothing away intact, nothing lasting from his relationships and acquaintances, and yet he cannot, at the last, entirely escape from them. In terms of identity, his longing to fulfill the words of the Apostle Paul about becoming a man (158) has come to nothing, and the novel has been a narrative about the diminishing of identity. It is difficult to see that as having to do with race; Baldwin, an eloquent spokesman for African-Americans, needed no coding to write on a black theme, having done so in Go Tell It on the Mountain, and doing so again in his later work. The argument that he has done so, covertly, in Giovanni’s Room does not seem convincing. David’s whiteness, his other-than-black-ness, fades to irrelevance; he puts nothing in place of all the things that he is not, consciously creates nothing beyond his failed straight-male façade; if his identity can be said to be stable at all, it is only because it is ultimately nihilistic.
*A caveat does need to be offered. Abur-Rahman’s and Armengol’s arguments can be successfully challenged, but the danger of relying too heavily on Gates’s statement that skin colour is a pseudoscientific distinction, and forgetting his reminder of the violence done in the name of such distinctions, risks a tendency, as Audre Lorde puts it, “to try to disprove the reality of the Black experience” overall (Hammond 10).
Abur-Rahman, Aliyyah I. ““Simply a Menaced Boy”: Analogizing
Color, Undoing Dominance in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s
Room.” African American Review, vol.41 No.3, 2007,
pp.477-486. www .jstor.org /stable/40027408.
Armengol, Josep M. “In the Dark Room: Homosexuality and/as
Blackness in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.” Signs, vol.37
No.3, 2012, pp.671-693. www .jstor.org /stable/10.1086/662699.
Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. Penguin Modern Classics, 2001.
—. Go Tell It on the Mountain. Penguin, 1991
Baldwin, James, and Nikki Giovanni. A Dialogue. Lippincott, 1975.
Baldwin, James, and Richard Goldstein. “James Baldwin on being
Gay in America.” Village Voice online, 22nd June 2018.
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Writing “Race” and the Difference it Makes.”
Critical Enquiry, vol.12 No.1, 1985, pp.1-20.
www .jstor.org /stable/1343459.
Hammond, Karla M. “Audre Lorde: Interview.” Denver Quarterly,
vol.16 No.1, 1981, pp.10-27. Scanned copy received from Linda
Phillips, Caryl. Introduction. Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin,
Penguin Modern Classics, 2001, pp.-xi.
—. Untitled, private email received by Paul Thompson on