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Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Over the past century, the topic that revolves around race and gender had been an issue that received a lot of ridicule and criticism from the general public. Although the present generation is very open to this kind of issue, it took years, even decades, to calm this situation. But even today, there is still a large portion of the world that doesn’t approve to this kind of change. Even those who were the issue them selves, find it hard to adapt to the changes inside their system, especially when their society isn’t ready to understand them; the so-called identity crisis can be too hard to handle this time around.

Being a black and a homosexual at the same time isn’t that easy to handle because it could destroy your life if you aren’t careful, especially half a century ago. There is a famous line that says that it takes a lot of courage to stand up for what you believe in, and in my opinion, James Baldwin demonstrated more than just courage when he decided to write and publish his novels, exposing a lot of his flaws and vulnerabilities in the process. But I am in no position to call them flaws since those attributes made him so special that even these flaws can be referred to be his greatest assets.

His works allows you to look at race and sexuality like an open minded and rational person. You will see these topics in a different angle. Lets try to find Baldwin inside some of his works and try to understand the concept he wanted to impart regarding the topic of race, sexuality and gender. Inside the novel entitled Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin’s second novel, we will meet David, a young American who left his homeland to live in Paris. This novel is a narrative story, all from David’s point of view. In the first meeting with this man, we will get an impression that there is wrong about him and the way he stares out of the window.

This is where emptiness lives. As David starts to tell about his life as a young American boy, he lets us know about his mother dying at a very young age, and him being raised by his father and aunt. His dad was very sensitive when it comes to being a man. He never let his son to be close to him. For him, being hurt in an accident doesn’t require you to cry. He wants his son to be a man, a manly man, not a Sunday school teacher. From here, we can see the role of his father in shaping David’s concept of a being a blue-blooded male.

But against all of his father’s wishes, David discovered a different part of him that would change his life forever. Who would have thought that an innocent summer day would end up to be the day of David’s first sexual encounter, not to mention he did it with a male friend, Joey (Zaborowska 2003). But he was so scared and ashamed after that that he deserted Joey, even though he felt a strong emotion for his friend. He knew back then that there must be terribly wrong about him. He was very confused that he started dating girls and hanging out with new people; he even started to drink just to prove that what he had done was a mistake.

This was when he started to deceive his self. Somewhere along the road, David decided to leave for Paris. He was tired of imitating his father’s manly behavior. He tried to run from the problem he is refusing to acknowledge. Then he met Hella, a fellow American who, like him self, is also searching for a meaning in life. He tried so hard to fulfill what was expected of him as man and an American, and decided to propose to this girl who he found to be fascinating and exciting (Zaborowska 2003). By making his circumstances as “normal” as possible, he believed it would make him normal as well.

But the truth is it was his way of securing his manly self. He asked her so that he could tie his self to being a man and man alone. His plan didn’t worked though. Hella was also struggling with her own personal problem. She left for Spain to think over the proposal, and he was left in France, all alone. This was when Giovanni made his first appearance. He is handsome and Italian and even though David refuses to admit it, he is very attracted to this young, dark man. After a while he ended up in Giovanni’s bedroom where he stayed for several weeks.

That he was having a homosexual affair was tearing David apart, and he despises Giovanni as much as he loves him. David was certain that the beast, which Giovanni awakened in him, would never go to sleep; but he was also certain that one day he would leave him (Zaborowska 2003). When he found joy in Giovanni’s room, it quickly became clear that it cannot last, and that love does not always conquer all, and that it actually stands no chance against fear and self-delusion. He was fighting a constant battle against something he can’t remove or ignore.

Whenever he leaves Giovanni, he always felt unsatisfied. He doesn’t belong anywhere, not amongst heterosexual or homosexual. Everywhere he’s a stranger. I truly believe that David knew deep down inside what needed to be done to finally become happy, but he also knew that this was a decision he could not live with. If there were such a thing as a pill to make him be the man his father wanted him to be, David would have taken it in a heartbeat. He wished to be apart of the American dream where he worked to support his good lady and their four delightful children as they lived happily ever after.

Unfortunately, he did not fit into this dream, and that was something he refused to neither realize nor accept. We have to remember that homosexuality was not common and acceptable in the US in the 50s. James Baldwin wrote this book with a purpose, and that purpose was to direct attention to the despair of oppressing a big part of you, trying to live by the norms accepted at that time. Baldwin, him self, was a gay man, and undoubtedly knew what he was talking about. He meant that the worst crime in the world was being inauthentic, in other words not being true to your self.

After his weeks with Giovanni, David received a letter from Hella, the girl who left him to find her self in Spain. She was now returning to Paris to accept his proposal. This forces the young American to choose; the convenience of choosing a girl or the happiness he has with Giovanni. He wanted to be an ordinary husband to Hella, a good and descent son to his father. But deep down all he wanted was to be with Giovanni. He was torn in different directions, but decided to take what he thinks was the easiest way, to marry a woman. Of course, this decision was bound to end in a failure.

Once again David defied his feelings by doing what he thinks was right. When David came to see Giovanni for the last time, the young Italian said some very honest and true words: You want to be clean. You think you came here covered with soap and you think will go out covered with soap- and you do not want to stink. David wanted to leave Giovanni because Giovanni makes him stink. David wanted to despise Giovanni because Giovanni was not afraid of the stink of love. It’s not before he found himself in the south of France with his wife to be, that he realized the mistake he made.

Then it’s too late. Giovanni was committed for a murder and was facing the guillotine. In the end, all that was left with David was his agony. What would have happened if it were the man he chose, and not the woman? We will never know but I think that he would never be content with the decision. Like what I’ve said earlier, he doesn’t belong anywhere. He is living inside a no man’s land. The US is no longer a home for him, if it ever was like home. Giovanni made him feel at home in his room for a short while, but this too became a frightening place.

For him to feel at home, he has to feel home in his body first. If not, he will always be a nomad, always on search of happiness without daring to reach for it. An interesting point in the book is that David never articulates an explicit declaration of being homosexual. Even though in the end he made it quite clear that he’s aware of his gender. This might be the author’s way of intensifying David’s fraud identity. He never even mentions the word homosexuality trough out the whole novel. All the signs are there, and everyone can see it except David himself.

Or, at least that is what he tried to do. It’s hard for us to imagine what it would be like to be in David’s shoes and it’s very easy to judge. We can ask us why he didn’t just accept his homosexuality and get on with it, but that question will never be answered. David was raised with the opinion that man and woman-relationships were the only way, and his foundation was built on that belief. On the other hand, we will notice that Baldwin’s protagonist here in Giovanni’s Room is a white. How can we relate that to the issue of race?

In some extent we can do that by looking at a different angle but it wouldn’t be convincing enough so we will look at Baldwin’s other work. James Baldwin wrote Stranger in the Village, and he wrote about his experience living in a small Swiss village and how he was able to evaluate the American society and its issues of race (Garrett 1999). Baldwin specifically focused on African American racial issues. Baldwin makes arguments about how race is treated much different in Europe; he also argued how there are still a lot of problems with American society that need to be changed.

I agree with Baldwin’s thoughts however this essay is outdated and isn’t completely relevant to our society today; however some of the broader ideas are. Diversity is key to why America and Americans themselves are much different then any other country. Baldwin mentioned how no other country has had such a huge impact on black men and how black men have in turn had a huge impact on us. I definitely agree with Baldwin because that’s history, we can look at textbooks to prove that.

I believe that he is saying this to show why our country was so racist and how it’s taking such a long time to settle the dispute. Again I agree but as I said earlier his thoughts aren’t relevant to our society today, we have made leaps and bounds in accepting African Americans. Before the Civil Rights Movement the black man was identified as the inferior being that deserved less then the “Whitman”. Today they are identified as equals and in some cases strong willed individuals for those who came from the ghetto and surpassed all odd against them.

There is still some relevance however, there are always going to be people out there that won’t accept an idea or person; our country is ran on freedom of speech and choice so there will always be some confrontations. All in all, one may find that some of his main characters are a bunch of confused fellow. But even the confused of souls serve the purpose of design; spiritually speaking. Oddly enough Jimmy was the epitome, or at least a constant advocate, of universal love and brotherhood.

Baldwin, in his lifetime, was able to effect a large population through his works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and plays. The eyes of not only Blacks but also Whites where wide open to the issues of the times thorough this man’s creative articulation and imagination, bring his life to the world. James. Such a reading allows “race” and sexuality to disappear from critical view; more precisely, it allows critics to cast them as mere obstructions littering the path of a surpassing transcendence, usually cast in terms of art.

And like the awakening of a true hero, they will find themselves inside the turmoil of self-doubt, asking why me? In the end, those heroes will want and crave for change. And I know one thing is certain for Baldwin, he is still a man – a hero shouting for equality.

Works Cited

Zaborowska, Magdalena J. “Giovanni’s Room. ” 13 June 2003. The Literary Encyclopedia. 9 June 2008 <http://www. litencyc. com/php/sworks. php? rec=true&UID=4964>. Garrett, Daniel. “The Inner Life and the Social World in the Work of James Baldwin. ” 1999. 8 June 2008 < http://www. identitytheory. com/books/garrett6. html>.

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