"Simply a Menaced Boy": Analogizing Color, Undoing Dominance in James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room

Article excerpt

The year 2007 marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of novelist, essayist, political spokesperson, philosopher James Baldwin. The significance of Baldwin's contribution to 20th-century American letters and politics cannot be overstated. It was Baldwin who spent 40 years examining and employing the intersection of race and sexuality as a conceptual framework for understanding how identity is created, consolidated, and codified in the United States. It was Baldwin who gave African Americans the words "unlivable" and "unspeakable" and "unanswerable" as the terms that most approximate (while always admitting the incapacity ever truly to describe) the experience of being a black person in the US at any point in its history. Finally, it was Baldwin who realized and persistently proclaimed that the African American, the woman, and the (so-called) sexual deviant are doomed symbols of the US cultural imagination, where the fears, fetishes, and fantasies of the straight, white, bourgeois mainstream are deposited, and that the key to all human redemption is to recognize in these figures their own innate and complicated humanity--and to let them live.

I dare say that this essay borrows its focus from Baldwin's life work--"the discovery of what it means to be an American" and the conviction that the most effective path to realizing the potential of US democracy is to undo those sinister dichotomies, those maliciously mapped boundaries, between black and white, citizen and alien, heterosexual and homosexual on which American identity so assiduously relies. Not only because Baldwin was himself "a transatlantic commuter" or because he had to flee the US to survive it, but also because in his imaginative works so many of his characters must do the same, the journey from prescriptive, predetermined identity to self-possessed and self-determined selfhood for Baldwin occurs on the internal geography of the human psyche and heart and on the spatial geography of our world. Baldwin's project was nationalist in scope and process. Believing that concepts of home and nation exert critical influence on the development of individual identity, Baldwin's life project was to locate, or if necessary to forge, a place for the black, the impoverished, the artist, the gay--the oppressed and weary "outsider"--in his own country.

In the essay, "Words of a Native Son," Baldwin declares, "We must make great effort to realize that there is no Negro problem--but simply a menaced boy. If we could do this, we could save this country, we could save the world" (Price 401). Anatomizing this claim, this essay reads Baldwin's depictions of besieged masculinity and male homoeroticism as both critique of and analogue for the position of African Americans as both racial and sexual others in the US. I take as my principal focus Giovanni's Room, recovering the underlying racial antagonisms of the putatively white characters to argue additionally that American identity is solidified, most directly experienced, but also transformed--if not reformed--through the experience of expatriation. I open my analysis of Giovanni's Room by first explicating the demands of racial protest fiction relative to depictions of personal desire in mid-20th-century African American literature. I proceed to trace the history of criticism about Giovanni's Room to reveal that label "homosexual novel" and the critical obsession with the novel's white characters have obscured many of the novels underlying critiques of the machinations of power. It is my contention, finally, that for Baldwin the experience of exile, of living as a stranger in an unfamiliar country, powerfully parallels--and analogizes--the social alienation and psychic fragmentation that African Americans and/as sexual outsiders experience at home in the United States. (1)

As a second novel, Giovanni's Room was doomed to fail. Its white characters, explicit homosexual content, and Parisian setting did not make it a suitable follow-up to Go Tell It on the Mountain, which introduced Baldwin as the most promising black novelist to arrive on the American literary scene in the mid-twentieth century. …


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