Giovanni’s Room explores queerness as a foreign concept in a foreign land. Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room while living in Paris. In “Take Me to the Water” he states, “My journey, or my flight, had not been to Paris, but simply away from America” (376). Baldwin simply wanted to be in a place where he would be relieved from his life in America. Although I believe that Giovanni’s Room could have been written in America, it is quite fitting that he writes the novel in a country that is foreign to Baldwin, just as David’s concept of his queerness is foreign to him. David states, “My flight may, indeed, have begun that summer–which does not tell me where to find the germ of the dilemma which resolved itself, that summer, into flight. Of course, it is somewhere before me, locked in that reflection I am watching in the window as the night comes down outside. It is trapped in the room with me, always has been, and always will be, and it is yet more foreign to me than those foreign hills outside” (227). This idea of seeking out a foreign concept of life in order to escape or redefine the sense of self has allowed me to think about how the American identity is also sort of foreign to black people. Baldwin doesn’t feel a sense of belonging in America so he seeks out clarity in another country with language barriers and no money. In Take Me to the Water he also states, “Still, my flight, had been dictated by my hope that I could find myself in a place where I would be treated more humanely than my society had treated me at home, where my risks would be more personal and my fate less austerely sealed” (377). While Giovanni’s Room is a novel about David’s struggle to accept his queerness, I think that the novel can be used to explore how Baldwin’s sense of identity functioned when he was not in a state of crisis. Maybe he was able to write about his sexuality because he was not burdened with the task of tackling his race first. My theory is that Giovanni’s Room is just as much an allegory for Baldwin’s veiling of his blackness in Europe as it is about David’s veiling of his sexuality.
The contrast of hate and love has been a constant theme in Baldwin’s work. In “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King”, Baldwin writes, “… Martin Luther King really loves the people he represents and has-therefore– no hidden, interior need to hate the white people who oppose him…” (639). This is a powerful statement. A cycle of racism is really a cycle of bigotry. Eliminating hatred from the cycle simultaneously eliminates racism. Martin Luther King and James Baldwin both preach a gospel of love because both understood that accepting the white man’s description of a black man, is the biggest mistake. It only results in hatred for oneself, which is expressed by hatred for others. This does nothing but continue the cycle of bigotry and racism.
An understanding of true identity is needed (on both sides) in order to get over the disease of hatred. Whites need to have an understanding that they are not superior, and blacks need to see that they are not inferior. This takes the white community opening their eyes to the truth of America, and the role they play. Often, the message stops here, but Martin Luther King addresses the black community as well. He states, “We can’t keep on blaming the white man. There are many things we must do for ourselves” (Baldwin 644). This cycle of racism and bigotry is a two way street, and MLK sees that the black community has an important role in the matter as well. Blacks must replace the hatred in their hearts with love. When true love is found for oneself and one’s community, hatred thrown does not have the same effect. It is seen that what the white community is selling is not something necessary to buy. Internal freedom is received, and hatred for the ones feeding the lies is no longer necessary. It is seen that the hatred thrown is not a reflection of the receiver, but of the giver. When true love for one’s identity is found, true change can come forth.
At its heart, Giovanni’s Room is a story about the search for one’s identity by going on a journey to another country. David flees America to discover himself in Paris, Hella leaves David in Paris to go to Spain to contemplate her feelings for him, and Giovanni leaves his small village after his newborn child dies to start a new life for himself in Paris. All three main characters believe they will learn about themselves by fleeing from their home to another country, but all three end up worse off than they were in the beginning of the novel. Hella loses David’s love, David cannot bear the feelings of his sexuality, and Giovanni is sentenced to death. The quest to Paris to obtain love or peace, then, is ultimately flawed, and I believe that has something to do with the divide between American identity and European identity.
Throughout the novel, David is referred to as Giovanni’s “American friend” or simply “the American,” but Giovanni is never referred to as “the Italian” by anyone in Paris. Both are outsiders in the city, yet it is only David who is referred to as one because he is distinctly American. There is a disconnect between American and European culture that cannot be resolved despite David’s best efforts and I think that this disconnect also ties to David’s views of his sexuality, and even Hella’s view of hers. Giovanni is very open about loving other men and about his life in general. But David and Hella cannot shake traditional gender roles out of their lives in Paris. Hella wants a family and a house, and for a long time it seems like David wants the same thing; but David is gay, and thus cannot make Hella his wife in good conscience. However, it does seem like David genuinely desires a family life with steady income and some stability, and this also seems to be an Americanized lifestyle to David. Thus, he associates Europe with his queer identity and America with a straight identity that he wishes he could have, but cannot.
This is why when he comes to Paris, David is viewed as such an outsider; he appears to be merely visiting this life where he can be true to his own sexuality. Reality for him is where he is viewed as straight by everyone he knows, mainly his father and Hella. Giovanni sees David for who he actually is, even when David cannot, because he is not blinded by an American sense of purpose. Giovanni is an outsider in Paris, but never feels like one because he is not just visiting Paris to escape his former life. For a while, when he is loving David, Giovanni feels as if he is at home. But when Hella comes to Paris, thus bringing David back into an American mindset, Giovanni is made an outsider again, as he has no place in David’s traditional American future.
The different ideas of sexuality, country, and identity in Giovanni’s Room are very complex, and I do not want to generalize by saying Europe is a place where Giovanni and David can be openly gay and America is not. But Baldwin seems to believe that being an American in Paris exacerbates one’s own sense of their outsider status, thus making his sexual identity even harder to comprehend.
“Other(ed) American in Paris: Henry James, James Baldwin, and the Subversion of Identity” by Eric Savoy addresses a provocative subject matter particularly on the subject of identity. On page 338, Savoy notes, “If knowledge of self – self as implicated, situated subject, but simultaneously as ‘other’ and therefore as resisting agent – is the goal of Henry James and James Baldwin, then ‘identity’ is a dangerous word to describe that goal. Whereas Baldwin and James construct their examinations of self in terms of contraries and doubleness, ‘identity’ posits sameness: the sameness of a person at all times or in all circumstances.” In “Go Tell It on the Mountain” the topic of identity and knowing one’s self are focal points in understanding the characters of each novel. However, the analysis of the word “identity” makes one delve deeper into the appropriateness of the word in its use of defining the characters.
According to Savoy, if the understanding is that identity is found in a person’s sameness, John has none. John is an outsider in almost every environment he exists in and as a result, he cannot have a sameness or an identity with others in the novel. John, although a son and a brother, is not the same as his other siblings at home. John is not the son of Gabriel and is treated differently, but he feels the pressure to act differently than his siblings. Whether it is the difference between his baby picture and his siblings’ or the hatred he sees in his father’s eyes when he looks at him, he knows he is not the same. At church, John outwardly lives up to his father’s name and tries hard to forge an identity centered around the dedicated work of the son of a preacher. However, internally, John is far from that salvation. John struggles with seeing the light. Between the hypocrisy he sees in the teaching of the Lord versus his father’s actions or God’s role as an executioner and nothing else, John is not “at home” in the church. Although physically with his family and fellow churchgoers, John is not in unison or in sameness with them as even after he is “saved” he cannot find the spirit in his soul that he awaited to bring him closer to God one day. Finally, John could not find a home accepting of his sexuality. John’s first sin of masturbation was inspired by the thought of older boys in the bathroom. His family’s religion taught him that homosexuality was a clear sin. It was introduced and promoted as a reason for which God would strike him. This again left him with a void of identity. Savoy’s piece outlines Baldwin and James’ frustration with the American failure to recognize otherness. John’s life is a manifestation of that reality.