Sin in Shame

         After reading Part One of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, I was left haunted by the wisdom and counsel that the character Jacques offers to David at the bar David, clearly eaten alive by self-loathing and internalized homophobia, deplores Jacques “lifestyle,” seeing his encounters with men as shameful and loveless acts that only come and go in five dark minutes. Jacques returns with a condemning warning to David about the mask that he is putting up to preserve what he thinks is it dignity, safety, and cleanliness. He pushes David to open himself up to Giovanni, in hopes that David can find love and take one more step toward defeating his own shame.

            Jacques warns David, “… ‘you can make you time together [with Giovanni] anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better—forever—if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe’… ‘You play it safe long enough…and you’ll be trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever—like me.’” (Baldwin 267).

            Ultimately what Jacques fears is that David will delay his own reckoning with his sexuality until much later in his adult life, when he has much less time and spirit to make the most of his experiences as an openly queer man in the world. He fears that David will surrender to his shame, going on to consider his own natural desires and urges as “shameful” for years and years in order to preserve a pride that can really only be observed from the outside.

            But what I find most compelling is the way that Jacques empowers David with the agency to decide for himself what is dirty and what is clean. David sees his own queerness (and the queerness of others) as something dirty because of the shame that he attaches to it. Tt is unclean, perhaps, because it is hidden; it is that “love that cannot be named” that Baldwin writes of in his Go Tell it On the Mountain. What he sees as clean is a long relationship with a woman, likely Hella. He sees it as clean because it is not hidden; it is named and publicly admired. Jacques pushes David to recognize that he has the power to redirect and reject his shame. David has the power to name his love. He has the power to decide what is dirty, and thus worthy of shame, and what is clean.

I wonder if Baldwin, in Paris, believed these words himself. Did he see dirtiness and cleanliness as relative classifications as it came to sexuality, or did he believe something more objective depending on the queer identity?

When the Saints Go Marching In

Throughout the duration of my reading of Baldwin’s Go Tell it On The Mountain, I have been interested in how the narrative bases itself on James Baldwin’s autobiography, while also interacting Biblical symbolism in order to create a criticism of the Christian religion. I’ve been particularly in the themes of apocalypticism that run through the narratives of each major character in the text. Though the main characters (John, Elisha, Gabriel, Elizabeth, Deborah, etc.) are all seeking to grow in their faith in God, it seems as though their greatest motivation for being “saved” is just to avoid the eternal damnation they feel destined for. They do not show nearly as much interest in being with God in the afterlife as they do in fleeing Hell. This is shown through the “fire and brimstone” rhetoric that pervades the thoughts words of each character in John’s family. Shame seems to be the main motivating factor for this outlook on religion and faith.

            As this piece is based in Baldwin’s autobiography, I feel that Baldwin is making a criticism of the culture of the [Black] church, in its exploitation of human shame. We can see this through John’s redemption at the end of the text. Although John bears doubts about his religion and even hates religion because of its association with his father, he still seeks out peace in religious redemption. When John is saved and has his name written the Book of Life at the end of the narrative, he feels a sense of peace, or perhaps relief. He no longer feels that he has to run from Hell; no matter how much of a sinner he feels he is, he has escaped Hell. He gets to be in “that number” when the saints come marching into the pearly gates, but it may not be until the afterlife that he gets to fully accept and love himself.

            Still, John has doubts at the end of the work, the fear of damnation somehow still finding him taking over. He says to Elisha, “No matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember—please remember—I was saved. I was there.” (Baldwin 215). He cannot fully revel in the miracle of his salvation; he is too fearful that it might be taken away from him.

Florence is perhaps the only character who is not willing to compromise her true self for her the eternal life of her soul. We can see this through how she talks with her brother Gabriel on matters of “the heart”. She is well aware that Gabriel is a well-revered man in the church and seen as very faithful man of God, but she does not believe that intention alone will get Gabriel to march with the saints into heaven. This is why Gabriel hates Florence; he sees her as a threat to his own salvation.

Go Tell it on the Mountain tells the story of a collection of characters who find solace in religion not necessarily because they want to march with the saints into heaven’s gates, but because they want to escape the Hell that they feel their sin and shame promises them. It’s fascinating to see Baldwin’s criticism of religion jump out through these characters!

The sin is shame

In Go Tell It On the Mountain, James Baldwin mingles Scriptural references and queer-coding to portray John wrestling with his emergent sexuality. While John’s transformation is the focal point of the novel, Baldwin accomplishes a more complex portrait of how the characters relate to sexuality and religion. 

John grows up in an environment in which the body and nakedness are seen as sinful. He is ashamed of his baby photo in the living room that shows him naked (26), and he associates sex with sin and shame (10). However, Baldwin portrays many of the characters, not just John, struggling with shame about their sexuality. The church environment shames Elisha and Ella Mae for “walking disorderly” (14). Gabriel has troubled relationships with Deborah, Esther, and Elizabeth and has deep hatred and fear of his sexuality. John’s anxiety about his homosexuality being sinful is especially potent because he is raised in an environment that constantly reinforces that “sin was in the flesh” (15). When sexuality and desire are seen as sinful, disordered, and shameful, it prevents the characters from having healthy or holy relationships with themselves and one another.

Although the Bible is commonly used to hurt queer people and/or reinforce the association of the body and desire with shame, Baldwin’s choice to permeate the novel with Scriptural references serves a different purpose. Baldwin’s use of the Bible underscores the centrality of love in Christianity—not sin or shame. By foregrounding love in a novel about a suffocatingly Christian environment, Baldwin invites new uses of Scripture that break the cycle of shame about (homo)sexuality. Just beside the photo in the parlor that embarrasses John, for example, is John 3:16— “For God so loved the world…” (26). For Baldwin, use of the Bible is meant to foreground love above all. 

Language evocative of the Song of Songs intertwines John’s homosexuality with the Bible’s most beautiful love poetry. When John is on the threshing floor, he looks around for Elisha and Roy and realizes that love alone can save him from death, for “[l]ove is as strong as death, as deep as the grave” (193-194; Songs 8:6-7). It’s this realization about love that helps him through his transformation. At the end of the novel, when John and Elisha exchange a “holy kiss,” its mark on John’s face is “like a seal ineffaceable forever” (215). Their gesture of holy love again evokes the Bible’s love poetry: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death” (Songs 8:6). Baldwin inseparably entangles the novel’s queer-coding with its religious influences.

Baldwin’s use of Scripture in this novel hints that gay and Christian identities—indeed, sexuality and sanctity—do not have to be polar opposites, as John is just beginning to understand. It’s love, not shame, that will bring the characters closer to God.

A Little Post-Mortem Privacy, Please

I can’t run from the horror of how our protagonist’s story unfolds in the books “Fear” and “Flight” of Richard Wright’s Native Son. Still, beyond this initial horror, Bigger’s overwhelming (and near suffocating) fight for privacy levels to my attention’s surface. In class, we’ve been talking about how Bigger is running from what he considers “femininity,” both around and within himself. He bears a particular hatred for the women in his life (particularly and especially Black women, like Bessie, his sister Vera, and his mother) He associates his own growing “hysteria” with femininity/womanhood, and while he can [inadequately] attempt to hide this “hysteria” from those around him, he cannot run from it within himself.

There are moments in the text when Bigger feels like his inner psyche is hypervisible, like when he is driving Mary Dalton around or even, ironically, when he is around the blind Mrs. Dalton. It is this sense of hypervisibility that Bigger seems to be running from throughout the novel. He wants privacy in his mind; he wants to know that his thoughts are his own. For someone to even attempt to understand his thoughts is to attempt an invasion of his privacy. Think of Mary Dalton. On pages 80-81, Mary, drunk, comments on Bigger’s speech patterns around her, observing, “‘You know, [Bigger,] for three hours you haven’t said yes or no.’” (Wright 80).  She then laughs in amusement at what thoughts may be running through Bigger’s head. Wright writes that “[Bigger] tightened with hate. Again she was looking inside of him and he did not like it.” in this moment of social vulnerability, Bigger’s immediate response to being hypervisible, specifically to a woman, is overwhelming hatred. He takes offense to how Mary perceives him; her attempts to look “inside of him,” according to him, make her worthy of being hated and murdered. After he kills her, Wright notes Biggers thoughts, “Gee, what a fool she was, he thought, remembering how Mary had acted. Carrying on that way! Hell she made me do it! I couldn’t help it! She should’ve known better! She should’ve left me alone, Goddammit!”. Bigger treats an invasion of his mental privacy as a crim punishable by death.

There are other moments when Bigger unlocks a new level of security, secrecy, and privacy in his mind, and the thrill he gets borders on frenzied. The morning after his rape and murder of Mary Dalton, he discovers a new sense of fulfillment at the thought that he can walk around town knowing something that no one else knows. On page 105, Wright writes, “The thought of what [Bigger] had done, the awful horror of it…formed for him for the first time in his fear-ridden life a barrier of protection between him and the world he feared. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had had anything that others could not take from him.” Bigger is able to live without fear, it seems, for the first time in his young life.

Why does Bigger want privacy in his mind? Does he seek control, a space to call all his own? Is he ashamed of the goings on in his head? If so, what is he bearing in his mind that might bring about such shame? I would argue that he has intense shame attached to his own “hysteria”. He cannot handle others knowing that he has real fears and emotions, that he is emotionally impacted by his environment. Because, to him, that is to be seen as less than a man.