“They had taught him what it meant to be a man”

In “Going to Meet the Man” and Giovanni’s Room, the father figures of the main characters undertake the responsibility of showing their sons what it means to be a man. In “Going to Meet the Man,” the narrator recounts the way Jesse remembers his father and his father’s friends, saying, “They were his models…and they had taught him what it meant to be a man” (939). Jesse’s memory of a lynching in his childhood shows exactly how his father taught him his understanding of manhood. Rather than simply allowing Jesse to tag along to the murder, Jesse’s father ensures that the murder becomes formative for his young son’s conception of manhood, hoisting Jesse up on his shoulders to witness the murder and repeating that Jesse was “never gonna forget this picnic” (949). In Jesse’s father’s mind, manhood was intimately related to white supremacy and power.

Similarly, in Giovanni’s Room, David’s father attempts to impose his conception of manhood on his son. In the heat of a drunken argument with his sister, David’s father says, “All I want for David is that he grow up to be a man. And when I say a man, Ellen, I don’t mean a Sunday school teacher” (231). Through this line, David’s father seems to imply that a man is not a beacon of purity; prior to this conversation, David’s father was “interfering” with a woman, one of his nightly activities. Ellen responds, saying, “A man is not the same thing as a bull.” In other words, his depiction of man is lacks humanity and love.

Strikingly, these two descriptions of manhood precede opposite reactions by the main characters. As the murder ends in “Going to Meet the Man,” Jesse describes loving his father more than ever (949). However, after David hears Ellen and his father’s conversation, he recounts despising his father and hating Ellen (231). Yet, despite these polar opposite reactions, each of the principal characters adopts their father’s understanding of manhood, showing that the father’s example either influences this opinion of manhood or serves as an example their sons are fated to repeat. Jesse associates manhood with power—just as his father has sex with his mother only on the eve of this expression of white power, Jesse cannot achieve an erection and fulfill his manly duty of making love to his wife unless he too thinks about power and domination over others. 

More surprisingly, David also adopts the mistaken depiction of manhood presented his father. Unwilling to fully love Giovanni, David has loveless intercourse that he does not allow to mean anything. Though not to the same extent as his father, David is a bull in the sense that his affairs are loveless and meaningless. Just as David’s father runs around with women without looking for commitment, David is unwilling to commit to a relationship filled with real love. In each of these texts, the father figures show their son’s that manhood does not entail love—the Sunday school teacher, in David’s father opinion, shows too much love and not enough manhood and the white supremacist can only love in a limited way. Though each of the characters responds differently to this message, David and Jesse ultimately repeat the loveless lives of their fathers, reinforcing the ineptitude of a live without love.

One In One Out

“Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know, but that seems to have made so little difference. Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know, but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the voice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both.”(239)

This passage clearly illustrated Baldwin’s ability to offer insights into biblical stories in his own unique and authentic voice. These thoughts come after Jaques makes the statement that “Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden.” In the case of many of the characters in this story, including James Baldwin’s own life, there is a moment where innocence was lost. Similar to the story of Adam and Eve, the realization and knowledge of their nakedness suggested sin and led to their ejection from the Garden of Eden. This theme was continued in Baldwin’s writing – the realization or knowledge of one’s homosexual nature rids them of innocence. It suggests evil forces are in play and leads to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. By definition, Eden is paradise, free from the devil, and serves as protection for all those who remain in it. Showing any traits of homosexuality, especially for Baldwin and particularly at the time this book was written, meant serious punishment. Baldwin’s religious upbringing taught him that homosexuality was a sin and that he would face God’s banishment for those thoughts. Additionally, the outside world provided a similar condemnation as those who were openly gay faced a violent homophobic society as well.

Whether there is a religious belief in the Garden of Eden or not, it is regarded as a sanctuary where only conformists to the rules are allowed to enter and stay. To declare oneself as gay means to self banish from the Garden. The idea of willingly abandoning that Garden of Eden—the “paradise” that comes from still being able to hide under normative sexuality—takes incredible courage. Baldwin’s struggles are alive and well in our society today.  In his latest music video, the artist Lil Naz X, seems to have put this concept on full display. His ostentatious imagery depicting, in essence, his embrace of his expulsion from the Garden is what has caused an enormous amount of attention of both supporters and critics. This struggle with separation is something that Jacques seems to pick on David about. David’s queer identity leaves him in a state of limbo. Manhood, in traditional society, is directly tied to one’s ability to be straight, manifested through a relationship with a woman. In a scene where Jacques and David are at a bar, and Jacques is trying to get the attention of Giovanni, he says, “I was not suggesting that you jeopardize, even for a moment, that’ – ‘he paused’ – that immaculate manhood which is your pride and joy.”(244) Jacques says this in response to David’s admittance that he is attracted to women. David’s struggle with his sexuality is important because we can see him battle – it is almost as if he has one foot in and one out of the Garden. He is not wholly ex-communicated from the Garden as he can go back home to Hella and be in a normative relationship. However, he is not entirely in because he has an attraction to men, an attraction he does not want to fully admit, as seen by his treatment of Joey and all his second-guessing with Giovanni. The concept of the Garden of Eden usually brings comfort and aspirational behaviors. However, for many who are true to themselves, it can be a place one must demonstrate incredible strength and courage to bypass.