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.

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.

The Purpose of Defending Bigger

Richard Wright’s Native Son portrays the most horrific crimes of Bigger Thomas. The narration of the novel is so gruesome that I had to put down the book multiple times because of how difficult it was to continue reading what had occurred. While it is true that Bigger raped and killed his girlfriend, Bessie, it is unclear if he raped the white character Mary before accidentally killing her. The narrator makes it clear that Bigger was already afraid of bringing the highly intoxicated only daughter of the Dalton family into the house because of the racial differences between them which may lead to unimaginable conclusions. While there is an underlying suggestion that Bigger sexually assaulted Mary bringing her into her room with a moment of osculation and unnecessary groping before her blind mother comes in, that is the only extent to which the interaction went (if we are led to believe the narrator). If this is true, then we must note that this is not rape but sexual assault. In the trial, there was much debate about whether Bigger raped Mary before she died bringing Bessie as an object of evidence that Bigger is capable of such horrendous actions. While this caused a lot of controversy, I continue to believe the narrator’s retelling of the events, mainly because there is no reason to think otherwise. The narrator in any other setting had not misinterpreted the happenings of the plot as they were occurring. So then, why would a lawyer be willing to defend the atrocities of this man? I think this is the point of the novel. If you recall the interrogations of Bigger, you can see how much the legal proceedings were stacked against him. The prosecutor attempted to falsify a different narrative against Bigger: he was the perpetrator behind the killings of six other people, he was a serial killer, he raped more people, but, as we know, THIS DID NOT OCCUR. Bigger was not the mastermind behind other criminal activity, even though the detective said they had evidence and a witness behind the other offenses. I still believe the killing of Mary was an accident. Bigger did not want to get caught bringing Mary into her room, so he covered her face to minimize the noise without noticing he was suffocating her. After this first homicide, it took Bigger into a spiral. I agree that his further actions have no defense, rape is an atrocious thing, but the point of this novel is to outline the injustices against the Black man and the cruelty of the justice system put against each other.