No question the narrative of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is a tragedy; David falls victim to the cruel hands of time, heartbreak, and isolation as a result of his preservation of his pride and his performance in the Male Prison/Panopticon. On his troubling journey toward self-realization, David has a major hand in the psychological and emotional damaging of both Giovanni and Hella. I found the conclusion of Giovanni’s Room to be incredibly powerful, and I felt that the work could be read as a cautionary tale of sorts.
I would hope that the text is not misconstrued as a denunciation of Americans’ willing exploration of their true identities, or their breaking from their social performance under the surveillance of the panopticon. I don’t think that Baldwin is suggesting that American’s should live in blissful ignorance lest they die by their own curiosities (a sentiment that Hella would fully endorse, given her “Americans should never come to Europe” monologue). I do, however, think that Baldwin is warning us a slower, but much more final death. Giovanni’s Room, to me, serves as a cautionary tale against one’s reversion into social comfort, ignorance, and complacency at the expense of one’s truth.
The slow destruction of each of David’s close relationships speaks to this slow death about which Baldwin warns us. When David decides to throw himself into her to escape his feelings toward Giovanni (though I do believe that David did also really love Hella), he leaves a vital part of himself to die. David reverts into the comfort of his performance in the panopticon, smothering the side of himself that he found in his life with Giovanni so that he might buy more time for the side of him that stays with Hella. But both sides die, all the same in the end. David is left all alone, the love of his life dead and the woman he loved broken and gone. Baldwin warns us of the silent danger social performance in the panopticon…seems no matter what, we die in jail.
In section 2 of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” Baldwin writes about the false accusation and suicide of John’s father, Richard. In my opinion, the writing of Richard’s imprisonment and death are very rushed. I feel that there are many missing details that Baldwin failes to provide. We quickly go from Johns arrest, to his trial, and to his suicide, with barely any time to process it all. I believe this was strategic. False accusations of black men have been a common occurrence throughout history, and these stories are often overlooked. Many truths are unknown and the ones that are known often lack detail. I believe Baldwin rushes through Richard’s story to mimic the way these types of stories are ignored in real life. These false accusations are often seen as just things that happened, and not things that highly impact lives. Baldwin allows us to see the impacts that are often ignored and see the lack of attention given to these problems.
In the book, Richard gets arrested for “robbing a white man’s store” (Baldwin 163). When he states that he was not there, the storekeeper replies, “You black bastard…you’re all the same” (Baldwin 166). Richard is eventually found inncoent, yet commits suicide after being released. The storyline of Richard’s arrest and death is common and has repeated itself throughout history.
For one, I see parallelism between Richard’s story and the Trenton 6. In 1948, six black boys are falsely charged for the robbing and killing of a white storekeeper. The only description given of the men is that they were black males. Apparently, that was enough information to arrest 20 black males and charge 6 with the crime. Even with alibis, all were convicted and sentenced to death. However, with push back, four were acquitted and 2 were held guilty. Collis English, one of the ones sentenced to prison, dies of a heart attack at age 27.
In both instances, a white man is robbed and black men are falsely accused of it. In addition, all these men are arrested with no evidence even though they claim that they were not present. The action of categorizing black men, and automatically declaring them guilty is also heavy in both instances. Lastly, English dies in prison and so does Richard. English dies in a physical prison, while Richard dies in a prison of the mind. Overall, the impact false imprisonment has on the lives of black males is large and it needs to change. I believe this is what Baldwin wants to get across.