What is Homosociality?

Quick note: I apologize if none of this makes sense. I’m trying to explain a theory that Sedgwick wrote two whole books about, so I may have failed dramatically. 

In class on Monday, I mentioned that I noticed an intertwining of queer coding and religious imagery in Part 1 of Go Tell It On The Mountain. I’d like to expand on this observation considering our extensive in class discussions of the topic. Specifically, we discussed the “holy kiss” between Gabriel and Elisha (Baldwin 53). On a related note, we discussed the fact that Bigger Thomas masturbates alongside his male friend, an action which is only “ok” because the object of desire is, allegedly, a woman (Mary Dalton). All of these scenes invoke homosociality, a word which is actually a technical term in queer theory. 

I hear people use the word “homosocial” quite a bit. Many people assume the word merely refers to same-sex socialization, describing a space that is exclusively male or exclusively female. In academia, though, homosociality is a term popularized by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a literary scholar of queer theory and feminism. Attention to homosociality notes the intense male-male (or female-female) desire which is “at once compulsory and the most prohibited of social bonds” (Epistemology of the Closet 187). In wikipedia’s words, homosociality “connote[s] a form of male bonding often accompanied by a fear or hatred of homosexuality.” It is “a form of male bonding with a characteristic triangular structure. In this triangle, men have intense but nonsexual bonds with other men, and women serve as the conduits through which those bonds are expressed.” According to Sedgwick, same-sex spaces are structured around anti-queerness, using their hegemony to exclude and deny queer people. For example, players on a basketball team often grope and spank each other. Such behavior is socially obligated to some extent as a form of camaraderie and validation (e.g. “compulsory” same-sex desire). Yet such behavior is only “ok” as long as it is not explicitly “gay.” The basketball team itself will go to extreme lengths to exclude and bully queer men precisely to ensure that the team’s own manifestation of same-sex affection is not perceived as queer. They grope each other because they’re not gay, a paradoxical phenomenon. 

This definition of homosociality is in line with how we have been using it in class. After all, Baldwin pays special attention to the ways that same-sex religious spaces in Go Tell It On The Mountain are “gay” but also “not gay.” Men and women may kiss each other, as long as it is a “holy kiss” between straight men/women. Elisha and John can wrestle, as long as they do so in a (heterosexual) “manly” way. When Elisha and John wrestle in the back room of the Church, Baldwin writes, “Elisha let fall the stiff gay mop and rushed at John” (53). The paragraph is filled with phrases like “stiff,” “thrust,” and Elisha’s “damp fists, joined at the small of John’s back” (Baldwin 50). The language of the scene emphasizes that which, in almost any other context, would be queer. This same analysis can be applied to Bigger in the movie theatre, when he does a “gay thing” (masturbating with a man) because he is “not gay.” This, in essence, is homosociality: same-sex spaces that demand same-sex desire while categorically denying the rights of a person who desires the same-sex.

The Humanity of Florence

One of the major critiques of Native Son in our class discussions centered on the objectification of women in the text. Bessie and Mary were brutalized and and dehumanized by Bigger, and in a way by Wright. I wondered then how Baldwin would shape the women characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Would his female characters have more dignity? To what extent would female characters be at the forefront of the text? I decided to examine the passages with Florence to answer this question. (Of course, my answer now will be limited given that I have not finished the book.) 

Florence describes growing up in a home with her mother and Gabriel as difficult for a myriad of reasons, but mostly because everything she wanted was handed over to Gabriel simply because of his gender. Her mother gave him everything of value: nicer clothes, better food, and “the education that Florence desired more than he” (68). In this scene, Baldwin makes sure to include the structural inequalities affecting women, but especially black women, at this time: they were often undervalued and given second priority. Florence, though, within this cultural and structural oppression, enacts more agency than any woman in Native Son. Florence is a narrator in this text, with the ability to tell her own story and develop a more nuanced perspective about the family relationship. She also leaves her mother and brother and moves north. Her physical movement away from this environment where she is undervalued shows that she values herself and prioritizes her wellbeing, a choice that Bessie and Mary never have the chance to make. 

Florence moves north, but she does not escape her oppression. Her relationship with Frank is a combination of her trying to exercise power and her being treated as less than once again. When Frank would come home drunk, Florence felt some semblance of power: “Then he, so ultimately master, was mastered. And holding him in her arms while, finally, he slept she thought with the sensations of luxury and power: ‘But there’s lots of good in Frank. I just got to be patient and he’ll come along all right'” (79). Florence believes that she can change Frank for the better, that she can guide him towards a more virtuous life. But at the same time she realizes he would never change, and recalls a time when Frank refused to stop his sexual advances even when she asked him not to. Florence is a character consistently dealing with the oppressive behaviors of men, but also a character who is trying to find power where she can. 

Florence is more human to me than Bessie or Mary because she actively struggles against the norms of society, even though she still falls prey to them at times. She is not merely a prop, but a narrator of her own story and actor within it. She questions the common attitudes towards gender and religion, while still dealing with internal need to conform when she attempts to bleach her skin and make Frank into something he is not.

No Escape

Just as John cannot seem to escape the endless accumulation of dust in his house, in his church, or on his body, I couldn’t escape the initially unclear motif of dust within Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. I initially thought this dust might signify John’s interminable dread and shame with regard to his position in the church. However, upon further investigation, this notion is complicated when viewed in a Biblical context. 

Baldwin relies heavily on religious language and imagery, and its parallels and subversions illustrate John’s existential crisis. Dust appears everywhere: “in the walls and the floorboards…beneath the sink where roaches spawned…in the wall against which they hung…in every corner, angle, crevice of the monstrous stove and lived behind it in delirious communion with the corrupted wall”; dust even “veils [the] doubtful glory” of the windows, which might otherwise offer a reprieve of “gold or silver” (19). The dust of John’s home reflects the dust that he feels spoils his interior. He feels dirty, vile, and even wonders if he resembles Satan presumably because of his emerging sexuality.

“The Temple of the Fire Baptized” has caused John an inescapable self-loathing and contempt for his body. John is so affected by this intrusion that he is nearly suffocated by the dirt that surrounds him. The dust “rose, clogging his nose and sticking to his sweaty skin,” it “fill[s] his mouth” and threatens to “bury” him (24). He is submerged in the dust of his own self-hatred and internal dissonance; a feeling I believe Baldwin knew all too well. John harbors an extreme self-consciousness and feels the need to atone for the pronounced evil inherent in his body, yet “so much labor brought so little reward” (24). He is horrified that this filth will remain forever and come to dictate consequences afterlife. The same church that taught him to hate his sexuality and body is the church of which is to decide his fate, a toxic entanglement of which John feels he will never elude. 

In the Old Testament of the Bible, God creates man from the dust of the ground and envisions a return to this origin: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust, you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). John sees the origin and fate of humanity as a reminder that he is sub-human, and must bend to the will of God. He is stifled by this notion of nothingness, coming from and returning to, the nothingness of dust. Yet this dust transcends the junction of before birth and of after death, it characterizes John’s very life. He is not permitted the freedom to escape the reminder of the beginning of his already-determined end, he is smothered within the confines of life. Dust, for John, will not solely exist before and after his life on Earth, it instead must destroy him from within.