Intersectionality In Giovanni’s Room

By Hannah Sweet

While James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is a story that follows a white queer man, race is a dominant force that is as central to Baldwin’s narrative as sexuality. In Giovanni’s Room homosexuality becomes connected to blackness in a way that heterosexuality is connected to whiteness. Both are identities that lay outside of the social norms of American society and thus many of the same structures are responsible for the groups experienced oppression. It is impossible to address homophobia in America without addressing structures and issues that perpetuate racism as well. For example, the Civil Rights movement lead to the Black Power movement as well as the LGBT rights movement in the late 20th century. The Stonewall riots were organized by black queer drag queens. Queerness and blackness are intertwined. 

Yet too often intersecting identities are viewed as separate. As a black queer man, Baldwin was forced to divide his identity as a queer person from his blackness. In fact, when Giovanni’s Room was first published black critics argued that Baldwin was abandoning his identity as a black man from his queer identity. Further, before the book was published it was rejected by Baldwin’s publisher because as the publisher explained it had few believable characters and would not fit Baldwin’s reputation as a black author. To this publisher, a story about a white queer man was a story Baldwin was not supposed to tell, an interesting comment especially in the context that white authors have exploited Black American’s experiences for years. This in many ways is a comment on racism in America itself. Baldwin’s blackness made him appear to his publisher as incapable of writing a valid story about a queer man because to the publisher being black was Baldwin’s only dimension. 

Ironically, the recognition of intersectionality in Giovanni’s Room, a concept that Baldwin’s publisher was unable to grasp, is at the core of the narrative and why the book is in fact does address race. David experiences the otherness in the same way that Baldwin experiences otherness as a black man. For example, David can not walk down the street with Giovanni as he can with Hella because of the prejudice that he would face. Further, the lack of a black character in Giovanni’s Room enables Baldwin to explain white American culture as David, the narrator is the representation of this culture. As Hilton Als explains in “‘Giovanni’s Room’ revisited” writing David as a white character is a metaphor for the distance of whiteness. Toni Morrison in the same article explains that “she and Jimmy used to talk about the little white man who sat on your shoulder while you were writing, entreating you to explain black people to white people.” White Americans are so distant from racism and blackness that Baldwin must use a white character to illustrate his experience as a black man. In many ways, David could be considered the model for white masculinity, as he repeatedly demonstrates his internalized homophobia by calling gay men fairies and at many points in the book referring to queer men as animals. Similar to how David treats queer men, David being White American Cultures is also a representation of how Americans treats black men.

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