Why the Voice of James Baldwin Prevails

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”– James Baldwin

Upon first reading James Baldwin, I was immediately struck by the vibrancy of his writing, his poignant portrayal of racial injustice and his ability to create deeply complex and authentic characters. As a revolutionary writer and activist, born in the Harlem in 1924, his novels tackle issues of race, class, sexuality and gender, redrawing literary and socio-political boundaries. Maintaining a significant role in the civil rights movement, he was closely associated to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, attending civil rights marches and making powerful speeches on the injustices and prejudices facing African Americans. His novels reflect this, delving deep into racial issues, exposing America’s ingrained racist attitudes and practises.

During the quarantine, I found myself becoming increasingly enchanted by his writing, though particularly by two of his seminal novels, Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962). These novels feel immensely relevant in today’s political climate, as the Black Lives Matter movement gains increasing support. Submerging ourselves in black literature, to educate, empathise and evolve, is vital and necessary if we are to abolish the systematic racism which infiltrates every facet of society.

Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin’s second novel, recounts the tormented love affair between the American narrator, David, and Giovanni, an Italian bartender. David is overwhelmed by feelings of shame and self-denial as he embarks on their relationship, unable to shed the homophobic attitudes he has assimilated from society’s narrow perception of sexuality. Baldwin depicts the love between David and Giovanni as natural and wholesome, contrasting with the collective consciousness of the American society; whereby homoerotic love was considered deviant and unorthodox behaviour. It is unsurprising, therefore, that David’s self-denial and shame endures throughout the entire novel, forcing himself to flee from Giovanni, and ultimately never allowing himself to freely and openly love him. The persistence of homophobia in 1960s America was so unyielding that it left many, including David, to believe that the only way to lead a fulfilling life was to succumb to the American “ideal” of a heterosexual marriage and a white picket fence. 

Giovanni’s Room is the only of Baldwin’s novels in which all the characters are white. Whilst this was ostensibly met with criticism from his fellow black writers, dismayed and baffled by this decision, the absence of any black characters allowed Baldwin to say even more about white American culture. He believed that how America dealt with racism was how it dealt with homophobia, the two were inextricably linked, stating that “the sexual question and the racial question have always been entwined; you know. If Americans can mature on the level of racism, then they have to mature on the level of sexuality.”

Another Country, Baldwin’s third novel, is an exploration of love and loss amongst a group of liberal friends in the 1960s. It ultimately depicts the agonising struggle to form an identity amid a deeply prejudiced and xenophobic society. Baldwin exposes the interior life of America, with the characters desperately searching for liberation, only to find they are ultimately bound by the societal categories which define them. It begins from the perspective of Rufus, a black jazz musician, hopelessly walking through the streets of New York, homeless and unable to find his way in an oppressive, Eurocentric society. We soon learn of his relationship with a white Southerner named Leona, whom he reminisces about. However, it is subsequently revealed that Rufus, unable to see beyond her white skin and white history, traps her in a cycle of domestic abuse, becoming the object of his scorn, contempt and humiliation.

Baldwin does not romanticise interracial relationships, but rather suggests only their fragile possibility. Unable to fully understand one another’s position in society, he presents an inexorable dissonance between the lovers. It is through the depiction of Rufus and Leona’s virulent affair that Baldwin exposes the complexities of interracial relationships, as their failure to form a healthy connection taints the novel’s subsequent relationships. Baldwin builds upon the sexual themes in Giovanni’s Room, being the master of turbulent love affairs, as we see some of the character’s struggle to come to terms with their sexuality. We see them desperately clinging to one another, attempting, though often failing, to form enduring, meaningful connections. As the novel’s gaze is constantly shifting, this allows the reader to see through the eyes of each individual character, experiencing a diverse range of cultural and economic backgrounds. However, there is one common unity: their inability to forgive and understand one another and oneself.

It is a novel of immense suffering, illustrating the irrevocable agony caused by racial injustice. At the background runs an undercurrent of violence and doom, with the pangs of poverty and prejudice permeating throughout its pages. Rufus’s presence resonates throughout the entire novel, as we discover how his life and circumstances have a profound effect on the rest of the characters. One of the most striking moments in the novel is when Ida, Rufus’ sister, explains to Cass, his friend, just how little she understands about what it means to be black in America.

In an almost heartfelt soliloquy, she condemns the prevalence of white supremacy, and how limited her freedom is because of the colour of her skin, stating “they keep you here because you’re black, while they go around jerking themselves off with all the jazz about the land of the free and the home of the brave.” She condemns her white friends, claiming they turn a blind eye to racism, dismissing its presence and rebuffing the blame, being a prejudice they do not directly experience. Ida’s resentment for the prolonged oppression of her black community is potent and tenacious, emulating the collective anger felt by African Americans throughout the country, declaring, “I wish I could turn myself into one big fist and grind this miserable country to powder.”

Whilst Baldwin’s novels encapsulate the tones and atmospheres of America in the 1960s, these realities do not remain in the past. Though the civil rights movement led to the ease of segregation and lawful discrimination, it is clear that America’s ingrained racist attitudes are far from defunct. The voice of James Baldwin, one of hope and salvation, is just as important as it ever was, as the struggle for justice continues.

Words by Sylvia O’Hara

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