“Let’s Not Be Stupid Together”: The American Delusion

Thomas Chatterton Williams’ column “Equal in Paris? On Baldwin and Hebdo” discusses the illusive perception of French (and, likely, greater Europe) as a non-racial/“equal” society. Williams connects his experience living in France for five years as a Black American with James Baldwin’s time in Paris. He notes that, just as its history is vastly different from that of the US, France’s handling of its own structural racism, islamophobia, and xenophobia is strikingly unlike the US’. French #JeSuisCharlie culture seems to be misguidedly and idealistically post-racial; there is an awareness of the structural inequities, but it is overshadowed by the desire to speak and criticize without an attention toward sensitivity. Bigotry is just accepted as free-speech, and perceived liberty through free-speech is framed as more important than actual social justice. In my opinion, the romanization of this seemingly-liberated free-speech culture does of the work of enforcing the illusion (into which Americans and non-Americans can buy) that Europe is a more culturally “equal” society…the same illusion that likely inspired Baldwin to travel there in his time.

            While it is certainly true that the United States and the Americas have their own work to do to establish equity in societies founded on land bought with the lives and culture of indigenous peoples and Black people…America is not the only nation that must work toward social redemption. But how did the opposite become the myth? I’ve had a number of discussions with my peers on this matter. On social media, individuals from outside the United States often offer up [totally warranted] critiques of the United States’ history of antiBlackness/racism. These critiques are typically rooted in a hope for a better American and a better world, which is ultimately wonderful! However, a good number of them also reek of a sort of arrogant and destructive nationalism that does not do much good. Pointing to the United States as the “unequal” nation is what solidifies the delusion/myth that other countries are “equal”. It is as if American is the only nation tainted with a history that is beyond redemption…

So do we just buy into the delusion and move to Paris? Or is the “American in Paris”/American-in-Paradise-vibe just rooted in a desire to turn a blind eye to reality?

Outside the Garden

This week, I’m struck by imagery of the Garden of Eden in our class texts. In Part I of Giovanni’s Room, as David is worrying about Giovanni’s sentence, Jacques comments to David, “Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden.” David reflects that people “have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword,” a reference to Adam and Eve being banished from the garden (239). I’m trying to think through a couple different ways of interpreting this motif, so I’d love to hear any of your insights if you’ve noticed this theme as well. 

On one level, it’s easy to connect this Bible story of being banished from the garden simply to Baldwin’s religious upbringing and/or David’s internalized homophobia, in which homosexuality is a sin. In particular, the Fall is associated with shame about the naked body, and especially queer shame in this context, so it would make sense that references to Eden in Giovanni’s Room are meant to evoke a backdrop of religious homophobia.

I also wonder if this idea of leaving the garden could connect to the literal geography of David’s and Baldwin’s lives. Both Baldwin and his character are in exile in France. For Baldwin, a Black, queer man, America has never been an Eden; and David is running from his identity. Leaving America for France is a sort of journey out of the garden. David reflects that “life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it” (239). He connects leaving the garden to losing innocence—a pain he must either remember or deny. Both he and Baldwin are faced with living “outside the garden,” working out how to move through a world that does not protect those with non-normative identities. In this light, Paris seems to be a neutral space outside the garden for both Baldwin and David to negotiate their identities.

Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention Lil Nas X’s reclamation of Garden of Eden imagery in “Call Me By Your Name.” Lil Nas X gives us an unapologetically queer reread of the Eden myth in the imagery and lyrics. I’m curious if the rest of Giovanni’s Room will offer any hints of David and/or Baldwin similarly reclaiming the Garden of Eden in some way.