The ‘American’ View of Homosexuality

In Giovanni’s Room, the character David is an American man living and navigating European society. There are many different places in the novel where the contrasts between Europe and America are clear and one of them is in the context of David’s masculinity and his conflict with homosexuality. 

From the beginning of the novel, it is clear that David struggles with his sexuality. David has his first homosexual relationship with a boy named Joey and immediately after their sexual encounter, it is evident that David goes through an emotional crisis about his identity and the expectations that society has placed on him that affects that. David states that after him and Joey spent their night together that he lost his “manhood.” He states “But Joey is a boy” (Baldwin 226). The power of Joey’s masculinity “made [David] suddenly afraid. [Joey’s] body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which [he] would be tortured….in which [he] would lose his manhood (Baldwin 226). Later on on that same page, David’s shame and guilt even resorts to his thinking of his father and what he would think of David had he known about his relationship with Joey and his relationship with his sexuality and that again brings him more fear and shame. 

I think that due to the American societal standards that stereotypes annd stigamtizes homosexuality, same-sex relationships, and their relationship with masculinity or femininty, David begins to internalize his masculinity and what that means to him. And for David, his “American” view of masculinity does not exist with a man whether that be Joey or Giovanni. Therefore, in attempt to maintain his manhood and his masculinity, David resorts to his heterosexual relationship with Hella and a denial of his true love and desire for Giovanni. 

I also think that David’s relationship with his father has a lot to do with his acceptance or rather lack of acceptance of his sexuality. In contexts like after having slept with Joey and after his relations with Giovanni, David feels the shame and fear of losing his manhood and often thinks of his father and when he does, it represses his feelings even more. Overall, David’s relationships that he has in France with Jacques, Guillame, and Giovanni are very complex and interesting and when looking at them in depth and in contrast to how the European characters in the novel dealt with their sexualities and homosexuality (or at least through the eyes of David), there are many apparent differences. Furthermore, although I only touched on it in this response, David’s father and his masculinity has definitely influenced David’s idea of masculinity and because it reflects the traditional American masculinity and enforces heterosexuality rather than homosexuality, David clearly feels as though he must conform to those expectations rather than exploring his sexuality with men.

Race and Sexual Orientation in Baldwin’s Literature

When I first read Giovanni’s Room, a book written by the Black Civil Rights activist James Baldwin, I saw nothing wrong with the fact that the main character of the book, David, was white. Race in this publication is not something pertinent to the narrative, but there is something, still, about both— race and homosexuality— that underscores a common tribulation at the time of its publication: social prejudice and the alienation that targets these already marginalized groups. Baldwin writes in such a striking manner that emphasizes the shame and guilt that follows both groups, knowing quite well that, much like race, homosexuality is not something that can be removed through cleansing. There is a quite interesting and recurring symbol of salt that travels from the middle of the book to its last page showing how social and personal perceptions can damage the inner being. In the third chapter of the second book, David is trying to empathize with Giovanni’s situation after he loses his job concluding “He had been bruised, so to speak, so badly that the eyes of strangers lacerated him like salt” (Baldwin, 314). The villainy of Giovanni for actions did not commit was visible in his expression, almost palpable. In the end, Balwin comes back to this metaphor once again to express the feelings of David himself, “that nakedness which I must hold sacred, though it is never as vile, which must be scoured perpetually with the salt of my life” (Baldwin, 380). Here, David is trying to mourn Giovanni’s death by guillotine, finding the sharp edges of this simple, but destructive, mineral a comparable analogy for the memory of his past. While salt can tear your skin from the outside, similar to social and individual shame, it is still not something capable of removing what is on the inside. Salt and shame will not make you any less black in the same way as it will not make you any less gay. Josep M. Armengol writes an article about Giovanni’s Room exploring the issues of Homosexuality and Race and points out that Baldwin’s publishers, “rejected Giovanni’s Room due to its explicit homosexual content, warning the writer that such a book ‘would ruin his reputation . . . and he was advised to burn the manuscript’” (Armengol, 671), but I think if his publishers would have truly understood the message behind the book, they would have dissented to the idea that this is not something that can be so easily suppressed.

The ‘Closet’ and Shame

While reading part 1 of Giovanni’s room, I couldn’t help but focus on the shame that is surrounding the story. Right from the start of the book, we read about David and the first man he had ever been with, Joey. The relationship was short-lived and again, filled with shame. On page 9, it states ‘ I could have cried, cried for shame and terror, cried for not understanding how this could have happened to me.’ I am currently taking a class called ‘Perspective on Gender’, in which we constantly talk about shame. We recently watched a movie about the AIDs epidemic and how there was so much shame surrounding the diagnosis. Obviously, this is not necessarily the exact same way that Baldwin is attempting to express the shame of homosexuality. For a long time, HIV/AIDS was viewed as the ‘gay’ diseases and was rarely talked about through media since people just thought that only one specific group of people would die. It was not until activist began to speak up, began to come together as one that the shame began to lift and in its place was an understanding. I believe that this is why it is so important for Baldwin to write about his shame.

Baldwin became a light in a dark tunnel for so many. He writes about how the shame can destroy relationships and people on the inside. The character of David becomes even more of an outcast to himself, which causes a rift to grow even bigger between him and his father. So much so that acting out becomes an outlet for all of David’s pent up emotions. The shame continues into Davids adult life since those feeling from childhood are never addressed. We see it in David’s time i the army, as well as with Giovanni. I believe that David asks Hella to marry him because of his shame. He could never be with a man before he first understand the clarity of who he is. Near the end of part 1, on page 64, Baldwin write ‘With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed. Yes.‘ Yet, we all know even with that line, Bladwin’s shame is still there in his mind, body, and soul even when wanting it.

Fathers and Sons

In The Male Prison and Going to Meet the Man, along with other more autobiographical works from Baldwin, the role of fathers in their sons’ masculinity stood out to me. As Baldwin has clearly shown, masculinity is clearly tied to sexuality, but most of my thoughts cover more general impressions of masculinity. I have no wish of invoking Freud or any other sex-linked psychologies, nor do I have a homosexual man’s insight into father-son relationships, but I’ve been avoiding the topic for long enough. 

I don’t know what a good father is. It very well may be true that relative to other fathers, mine is incredible. I do not see it that way. As loving as things may be now, my memory of that crucial fatherly guidance at a young age is sadly lacking. I remember tests and judgements. And my father once explained it to me like this: it is his job to make sure I am ready. That I am prepared enough, strong enough, and good enough in both a moral and general capacity. The phrase that strikes me most clearly is: “You are not a man until I say so.” I think it’s important to point out the good intentions here. My father wanted to make sure I was a good person. That seems pretty noble. He wanted me to be independent, honorable, intelligent, and compassionate. I aspire to be those things. It is fascinating and somewhat sad that we became so at-odds over the same goal. But that is my experience with masculinity, the keyword being enough. There seems to be a threshold, for literally everything from wit to sexual-performance. I learned very early on that every tiny thing, whether it was done with love or not, was a test. From everyone. Which means that everything can be failed. The price of failing those tests was not getting the respect, and much more importantly, the care that I needed. I say respect because that’s what I thought I had to earn in order to get help. I don’t know how universal that sentiment is, but a lot of my experiences with guys are in line with it. If we fail, we aren’t worthy of help, and therefore the only reliable source of support is yourself. And if you don’t trust yourself, because you keep failing, then you have nothing. I believe that is why a lot of men are so obstinate. There is a certain, albeit toxic, pride in passing those tests, even if they’re ultimately meaningless. At times it feels like that pride is all we have. It is a false pride, not a pride in yourself but a pride in your existence. Because a lot of us don’t like ourselves. And we’re wired, trained even, to ask for nothing, which means that if you don’t learn to ask, you drown or you take. I was fortunate enough to start learning, but only after my fair share of the aforementioned. 

I see a lot of that pride in Baldwin’s characters, and in his essays. It manifests as a refusal to accept, as self-hatred, anger, arrogance, or confidence. And once it’s learned it’s very hard to move past, because that is the way I think. That is the way I process the world and my place in it. So when Baldwin writes, “Since he clearly could not forgive himself for his anomaly” (234) in regards to Andre Gida, I see pride, refusing to shake a societal pressure because to do so would be to fail as he was taught. Of course, Baldwin’s treatment of Gida is opinion, as is my treatment of the topic. I’ve touched on a lot of the self-hatred and particularly the hatred that emerges as a result of being at odds with one’s identity and one’s expectations. I feel no need to reiterate those points, only to add that Jesse’s need for sexual release tied to violence and racism in Going to Meet the Man is one of the most grotesque and appalling manifestations of this pride (a head’s up would’ve been nice). Regardless, Baldwin concludes in agreement, describing the “male prison” as one born of isolation, built by “a most petulant and unmasculine pride” (235). I do this. A lot of my friends do this. We are isolated, too proud, afraid, or both, to ask for some meaningful company or conversation. We find our ways around it. Some are healthier than others, but for all the healthy practices in the world, I find myself repeatedly and illogically alone. In my experience, most of us just want to be held, though that does not help the overarching societal approach to masculinity. 

As a final note, none of this is meant to justify at all, least of all the longstanding societal restrictions, double-standards, and challenges facing women, and every other group for that matter. I simply wished to provide an insight, and possibly get a bit off my chest. Genuineness was requested of me and I hope I have provided.

The Deafening Silence of Sex and Sexuality

Having recently read History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 in “Perspectives on Gender” with Professor Sara Marcus while beginning Giovanni’s Room in this class at the same time, I found these texts to be undeniably connected to one another. In History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault discusses the “repressive hypothesis” – an expression of the relationship between power and sex over time. Specifically, it holds that human beings have shifted from a time when they could speak freely about sex and sexuality to a period where these same things are not to be talked about or enjoyed. Foucault, however, rejects the repressive hypothesis, arguing that this very rise of repression had instead an effect opposite to silence. While acknowledging there were restrictions placed on discourse surrounding sex, Foucault contends that these same restrictions led to an “incitement to speak about [sex], and to do so more and more; a determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail” (18). 

With this being said, I see Giovanni’s Room as a piece that further complicates the relationship between power and sex that Foucault explores; I believe Baldwin’s work serves as evidence both in favor of and against Foucault’s analysis of the repressive hypothesis. On one hand, the theme of shame surrounding sex and nakedness that persists in Part 1 of Giovanni’s Room offers truth to the repressive hypothesis. This becomes evident as David recalls his relationship with his father: “What passed between us as masculine candor exhausted and appalled me. Fathers ought to avoid utter nakedness before their sons” (232). David is deeply uncomfortable by his father’s breaking from the silence surrounding sex and sexuality. David’s response to his father’s openness about these subjects can thus be read as an enforcement of the repressive hypothesis. Additionally, in describing his first encounters with Giovanni at the bar, David admits, “I was glad. I was only sorry that Jacques had been a witness. He made me ashamed. I hated him because he had now seen all that he had waited to see” (254). With the idea that a witness spreads the word to others, David again expresses disdain and fear for the discursive references to sex and sexuality Jacques might make about David. These feelings are exacerbated by the fact that this is a queer relationship and therefore subject to intensified scrutiny. 

Given the autobiographical nature of Baldwin’s work, these moments can be seen as a reflection of his personal sentiments. Yet despite the intense feelings of shame and desire for silence surrounding sex and sexuality that David expresses, in a Foucault-ian reading of this, he (David/Baldwin) also gives voice to these matters and brings them out of the shadow of silence. Through David’s relationship with both his father and Giovanni, Baldwin makes possible the very discussion regarding sex, pleasure, and queer love he tried to avoid. Admittedly, I was at first quite unconvinced by Foucault’s criticism of the repressive hypothesis. However, in reading Giovanni’s Room thus far, maybe he was on to something…

Malcolm X: A Black Segregationist

Malcolm X was a very influential, amicable, and talented speaker. So much so that the FBI and police force tracked his every move. What I was not aware of was that Malcolm X was also against integration. He saw integration and interracial marriage as unnecessary and wicked. I had never grown up with this perspective, I had always been taught that segregation was bad and the only solution on the table was integration. Today, we can see some of the fears that Malcolm X had in mind with regard to integration. On a trip to the South with a class I took at Notre Dame, we visited a couple of HBCUs with formally thriving communities that surrounded the institutions prior to integration. Movie theaters, grocery stores, and businesses all around: today, they can all be seen vacant, out of business, or run down completely. Malcolm X had the theory that this would be a possibility. Black business owners would not be able to thrive with so much competition against much larger white-owned businesses, and black businesses would go out of business. Malcolm X wanted separate and equal opportunities for everyone, but it seems that this would be much more challenging than the post-integration period. Of course, many black businesses exist today, but many were brought down because of the economic hardships of integration. Racial issues today can be intertwined with America’s capitalistic goals and can have horrendous outcomes in the future. While I still stand with the idea that integration would be the right solution to eliminate the “separate, but equal” mentality, I have come to understand some of the repercussions of this naive perspective. To be clear, I do not believe segregation should be upheld, but the United States has a moral obligation to offer some form of reparation for this type of disinvestment of Black Americans and revitalize the communities that were crushed during the 60s and 70s. We must remember that some Black-owned businesses were thriving in their time, consider the Tulsa massacred community which was referred to as the Black Wall Street before the complete destruction and great loss of lives and property.

The Ostracized Person Lives the Same Life

When trying to understand the issues that we continue to read about in our readings, I have come to the conclusion that all of the issues in society stem from the lack of respect for the human person. In America, we live in a society that values the baring fruits of the capitalistic economic system that cycles through the poorest of the poor and most marginalized in order to squeeze out the most value for their work. This has always been the way in which it was done since colonizers arrived in the Americas. They violently took the land from Native Americans, placed Africans in shackles, transported them to a new continent, and forced them to work, and, when that was no longer acceptable, they continued to underpay immigrants, people of color, and anyone living under the poverty line and leave them with inhumane conditions. Slavery did not end just because it was not allowed, it evolved into a new system where it became acceptable once more. USA Today estimates that 27 million people are experiencing Modern Day Slavery, more than any time in history, and the United Nations has published reports demonstrating how Modern Day Slavery continues to exist around the world with the deprivation of human rights. It is impossible to find one solution for all of these problems, but there must be something we can do. Immigrants, people of color, and all those living in poverty are being consumed in the horrors of what was once abolished and people don’t seem to understand that these are reflections of what happened prior to the mid-1800s. The United States has a responsibility to end what it started and truly abolish the heinous crimes against people, especially because we all benefit from the outcomes of these terrors. We are tainted with blood on our hands.

Malcolm X: Fighting for Change

In high school, I was always confused as to why Malcolm X was never included in our textbook readings. We learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, but Malcolm X went unmentioned. In college, I began to investigate more about the Black Panther Party and the influence of Malcolm X. Many people consider them perpetrators of violence, and others a voice for much-needed change. As a member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X gave a speech specifying the role of the NOI as a movement for change. He spoke on the goals of the social group where you can hear a direct tone of voice in a speech between 1925 and 1965 in which he demanded the construction of a hospital in Harlem after a white administrator of the NAACP halted the operation. He argued, “If you’re going to have a funeral in Harlem make sure you have a funeral downtown too, two funerals at the same time.” (The Wisdom of Malcolm X). The death of a black man must be equalized with the death of a white man. Much of this rhetoric used may seem violent to some with the purpose of stirring the pot, but it is also a demonstration of what the group holds to be true and essential. You can see how Malcolm X was not afraid of confrontation and the use of physical force to create this aforementioned change. Malcolm X was not one to mess with, to put it lightly. He had his army on the ready with the necessary artillery to fight back. This methodology may seem too extreme for a high school student to comprehend, but you must also understand the times in which he was living. As a black man, he had to suffer through the inequalities of the segregation period and endure some of the most hostile treatment from his white counterparts. Black men and women were experiencing some of the most violent treatments. Lynching, police brutality, and blatant discrimination were normalized by the society of the time and Malcolm X believed that peaceful protests would not suffice. We can still see some of the remnants of his call for justice today, but, in schools, we are led to believe that the only contributors to this change were peaceful protests. This was not the case. Unfortunately, Malcolm X did not live to see his own contributions to the movement becoming one of many assassinated victims of the white-powered opposition.

The Personification of Art

The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is not an over-exaggeration, especially when comparing it to a painting. Beauford Delaney’s Self Portrait shows an expression of fear, shock, and awareness in a single glance. Any quick synopsis of the masterpiece will highlight this feature, for instance, Dr. Thomas B. Cole summarizes this detail in his 2013 Art for Jama article saying “The left eyebrow is raised in an expression of alarm, but the lens of the right eye is a ghostly white” (Cole TB). This image on its own can say a lot about the times Delaney was alive. Segregation in the United States was normal and violence of homosexuality was rampant. Similar to James Baldwin, as Dr. Cole summarizes, Delaney finds comfort in moving to Europe, specifically Paris, where he is able to find some form of respect for his race and sexual orientation. This need to leave behind his home shows the grief Delaney had for his country and the cruelty he faced throughout his life. The portrait of himself shows with heavy bags under his eyes, a sign of a mature man, in this case, a person who has seen the awful ways of life in America and the complete disregard for life, especially that of Black and Homosexual communities. His left eye, “ghostly white,” gives an impression of a corpse, someone who has been deemed by society as insufficient and given less worth. These grave circumstances may be what have led him to go mad, Deleney passed away in an asylum in France after coming across psychological issues (Smithsonian). A portrait like this can represent many things, and it is important to take a moment and look further into the artwork to find the connections between artists and the issues they confront in their lives.

Bigger’s Case: Rape vs. Sexual Assault

I have previously written about the disgusting actions of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son, but I also think it is important to give my greater opinions on the importance of language in this novel. In class, we have discussed the differences between rape and sexual assault. Many in class believe that Bigger raped Mary in the first part of the novel, but I have been led to believe by the narrator that he was a case of sexual assault before Bigger accidentally killed Mary. I believe that there is great importance in how we characterize these crimes because there is a larger emphasis on language in the novel. In the trial, Bigger’s lawyer, Attorney Max, tries to plead guilty in hopes of reducing the sentence of capital punishment to life in prison. Bigger expresses his fears of dying in an emotional dive into his thoughts. In pleading guilty, Max argues that the crimes Bigger committed were insane which the plaintiff tries to debate with fear that Max was trying to characterize Bigger as a mentally unfit man, therefore allowing the defendant to be admitted into a psychiatric institution. Max’s poor choice of words brought the whole trial into a spiral, but he was only attempting to plead guilty and not classify Bigger as “insane.” In this case, words truly matter and they continue to have a strong attachment to this novel. I do want to clarify that Bigger did the unthinkable, especially when considering the horrors against Bessie and for that, he must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law (although I am very much against the death penalty, I still think Bigger should be sentenced to life in prison for his actions). It is obvious the trial was strictly directed at the killing of Mary and not Bessie, this novel tries to show how the Black life was devastatingly undervalued and expresses the bias in the justice system. Biases we are still confronting today.