Why is David white? The Entwinement of Race and Sexuality

We have had discussions in class on Baldwin’s decision to write this novel from the perspective of a white man. One aspect we discussed was the difficulty Baldwin would have of unpacking the weight of racial and homosexual discrimination. However, there are a lot of layers to this decision and the disapproval that came from the literary community. Since Baldwin’s earlier fiction had largely centered around “the Negro problem,” his publisher Knopf rejected Giovanni’s room because he wasn’t “writing about the same things in the same manner as [he] was before” (Jordison). Baldwin suffered a lot of criticism for writing a novel with a white protagonist living in France because it did not address the racial disparities in American society as his earlier works did. Other of Giovanni’s Room wrote that he hoped Baldwin would return to more American themes. The literary community that appreciated Go Tell it On the Mountain responded with backlash to Baldwin’s shift away from writing about homosexuality from a white perspective. However, in an interview, Baldwin said “The sexual question and the racial question have always been entwined. If Americans can mature on the level of racism, then they have to mature on the level of sexuality” (Armengol). This could also cause friction with Black homophobic writers at the time who disapproved of Baldwin connecting homosexuality with their racial identity. Yet Baldwin portrays the “othering” of gay men and their desire to find love within their community that connects to intersectional issues that Black men experience.

Additionally, the novel does not completely neglect racial issues. There was prejudice against Italians during this time that resulted in assaults and lynchings. This comes across in David’s treatment of Giovanni. Giovanni says that if David “You would not have liked me if I had stayed” and “You will have no idea of the life there, dripping and bursting and beautiful, and terrible, as you have no idea of my life now (334). David is incapable of understanding Giovanni’s background and this could contribute to the repulsion he sometimes feels towards Giovanni. I argue that just because Baldwin does not focus on the American Black experience in this novel, he is still addressing racism and should not be considered a white narrative.