Tuesday, April 5, 2011
“I starved in Paris for a while, but I learned something. For one thing I fell in love.”
So James Baldwin is quoted in Randall Kenan’s biography (Chelsea House), and it’s there that I started thinking about Baldwin’s relationship to his novel, “Giovanni’s Room.”
The beautiful symmetry of the idea of starving being balanced by falling in love is amazingly simple yet fully expressive of the experience. Love fills you up in a way that nothing else can…not even French food.
“Giovanni’s Room” was a revelation in 1957—it was written by an African American man; was set in Paris and about the love affair between two men...not African American men. Editors, activists, anyone who could catch his ear warned Baldwin against publishing the novel. It would ruin his career…they said. Writing for magazines; activism in the Civil Rights Movement; career as a novelist—all threatened according to naysayers.
In some ways that response is not surprising in the context of the brutality evidenced in that historical moment: The US military had to be used to escort young Black kids to whites-only schools. Fourteen-year old Emmett Till was murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi because he was suspected of speaking to a white woman. Demonstrators found themselves assaulted by bone-cracking fire hoses. Realtors and neighborhood associations conspired to keep neighborhoods white. Every ugly impulse that had remained unspoken was now howling across the country.
Underlying much of the anxiety, treachery and betrayal of human rights was/is acute erotophobia. The Puritan roots of US culture are insidiously destructive; they helped keep women in the kitchen, to make birth control almost unattainable, keep victims silent about sexual abuse, prevent sex education in schools…and on and on. All this while women were increasingly objectified as if that would contain and control the danger of sexual desire.
The convoluted nature of this culture’s relationship to sexuality and how it was visited on Black slaves makes it understandable that African Americans did not want to hear a story about sexual desire and certainly not between two men.
But as Baldwin said: he fell in love. It was with Lucien, a charming, handsome Swiss nascent painter, eight years his junior who he met in a sketchy Parisian bar frequented by what he called “ambivalent men.” It was the full feeling of love that Baldwin was working his way toward expressing.
“Giovanni’s Room” is not a happy-forever-after tale but the core of the story is the inexorability of love. It is a love that has the certainty of the tides which must be recognized. This is what people were afraid of in the 1950s as they warned Baldwin not to publish his book. This is what people are afraid of today when they pass laws decreeing who can be family to whom. Or when they bash queer people on the street.
Things have changed and yet they haven’t.
But Baldwin published the book and it’s still in print more than 50 years later. Giving credence to one of my favorite rallying cries from the early Gay Pride marches: An army of lovers can not fail!