After finishing Giovanni’s Room, I found myself wondering why Baldwin wrote such a devastatingly sad novel. In another blog post, I argued that Baldwin is documenting what life was like as a political statement, to gesture towards what should be. I think, though, that my analysis was missing a key component. In the letter to his nephew, Baldwin positions himself in the American story—an aspect of his identity that supplies the idealist framework that I was just starting to uncover in my analysis of Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin allows himself to believe in the possibility of an ideal America because it supplies a goalpost to strive towards. The profound sadness of his work, then, is not a rebuke of this ideal, but rather a sign that the work is not done. His ideas link up with Langston Hughes and strongly reject the rhetoric of “Make America Great Again” used in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and term.
Baldwin tells his nephew about where America has been and where it will go: “Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become” (302). Baldwin praises individuals for their contributions in making America a country of equality and justice, but there is still work to be done. Perhaps, because he can only point to individuals in the past, he is hoping for more structural change in the future. It is slightly disappointing that Baldwin only mentions “great men” who have begun to shape America into its ideals. His blind spots when it comes to women are evident. But his project allows for his own views to grow: “what America must become” is a sentiment that leaves room for radical change and growth. This particular sentence reminded me of the poem “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes. He, too, suggests that America has not yet lived up to its own ideals:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Hughes describes how the poor, Black, and indigenous peoples in the U.S. really made America. His story already contradicts the story of white people that dominates the history books. He also looks to the future. America “never has been yet,” but it “must be.” Baldwin shares this same idealism. He believes in a world where humans no longer have to “sacrifice all the beauty of our lives” (Down at the Cross, 339) because of arbitrary labels and factions. I do not think that the relevant part of this idea, though, is whether or not a world like this is possible. The American ideal has a function even if it is not attainable. By imagining a world of equality, love, vulnerability, justice and more, Baldwin and Hughes motivate Americans to work tirelessly on the the continual project that is America.