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.
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?