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With the deluge of international support for the Black Lives Matter movement following the abhorrent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, James Baldwin is enjoying a renaissance in popular culture since the 1950s, when most critics opine him to have been at the pinnacle of his writing genius. ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, the 2016 BAFTA-winning film adaptation of Baldwin’s incomplete memoir ‘Remember this House’, featured prominently in Netflix’s Black Lives Matter collection and was similarly broadcast by the BBC. Baldwin was a key activist in the Civil Rights Movement; he was a notable figure at the March on Washington (although disinvited to speak) and lectured extensively on racial equality during the 1960s.
It is absolutely right that Baldwin is being given this contemporary focus once again. Given the current events, it is only natural that the focus of his legacy is on his position as a historical, high-profile Black individual. Yet Baldwin is often overlooked for his open bisexuality. Just as Baldwin is gaining increased recognition as an icon of the Black community, Baldwin equally deserves recognition as an early, leading figure of the Gay Liberation Movement; he was one of only two salient (alongside with Bayard Rustin) openly LGBT, Black activists in the Civil Rights Movement. James Baldwin deserves to be remembered for all facets of his luminous, complex personality and, as Black LGBTQ+ voices continue to be sidelined, it is important to appreciate his intersectional identity.
More than the sum of his parts, Baldwin’s second work of prose, ‘Giovanni’s Room’, written three years after the rampant success of his first novel, ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ is radical in itself for its transgressing of racial barriers. Baldwin, eager to defy the constraints imposed upon him by societal pre-judgment of his subject matter as a Black writer, elected to write about the experiences of two white men; this was eight years before legal segregation was ended in the US by President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act. His refusal to be gatekept by a racist publishing industry is nothing short of revolutionary and attests to Baldwin’s augmented status in a world now acknowledging historical injustices and revisionisms.
Yet, ‘Giovanni’s Room’ is, in my view, seminal for its approach to the same-sex attraction between its two leading characters. Writing two decades before homosexuality was dropped by the American Psychological Association as a mental disorder, Baldwin dared to portray a relationship which, although by no means idealised, offered a same-sex love with the same parity as the normative, heterosexual relationships of the day. However, critics have consistently underplayed the significance of the main character’s sexualities. The scholar Ian Young has described the pervading sense of sexuality as ‘uncomfortable’. Much of this critical analysis follows from the author’s dismissal of its relevance: once remarking the novel ‘was not so much about homosexuality, it is what happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody’.
Nevertheless, regardless of whether Baldwin wished for the book to be defined by its radical portrayal of homosexuality, it is an integral and formative part of the novel. The lead character, David, fails to find love with either gender but not as a result of the inferiority of homosexual love, but the inferiority of all love, with homosexual and heterosexual love equally unavailable to the novel’s narrator. Paradoxically, the equality of unattainable love that Baldwin unintentionally alludes to in his own thoughts about the book, eschewing homosexuality as a theme, attests to equality between the heterosexual and homosexual that places ‘Giovanni’s Room’ decades ahead of its time.
Take the work’s setting of Paris. Paris, the perennial city of love, is the essence of prurient, upstanding relations and an eternal motif of romance, and epitomises love as orthodoxy. In primarily setting the novel in such a place, Baldwin accords the same-sex love of his two central characters with the classic symbols of heterosexual romance, rather than portraying homosexual relations as licentious, depraved, and beyond the boundaries of 1950s morality. Baldwin’s choice of setting places same-sex love within the heterosexual paradigm – once again stylistically creating equality between the two respective forms of attraction. Again, in not presenting heterosexuality and homosexuality as palpably different, ‘Giovanni’s Room’ foregrounds the modern view of homosexuality, yet to gain common currency in the 1950s.
Even the murder at the end of the novel and the subsequent morbid conclusion does not convey the supposed innate immorality of homosexual relations. If the novel is, as Baldwin opined, about the incapability of love, then such an ending is a reflection of this and not homosexuality. Indeed, take Baldwin’s words about homosexuality as telling, ‘love him, and let him love you’. If the book were not a positive presentation of homosexuality, love would not be just as simple.
Moreover, whether Baldwin intended to or not, ‘Giovanni’s Room’ presents homosexuality far ahead of its time through an equal representation between the respective sexualities. Whether negative or positive, such an expression of equality is seminal for the 1950s. This bold portrayal has frequently been underappreciated, thanks to the author’s own interpretations and ensuing critical commentary in light of the former. Baldwin deserves to be remembered as an incredible Black writer during an era of rampant racism, but also as an unabashed Black bisexual man, who wrote frankly about homosexuality at a time of great prejudice.
As his status rises in the light of the historical reassessment inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, his intersectional identity as a Black bisexual man must not be forgotten. James Baldwin is a literary legend with an eminent place in the American canon and should continue to be recognised as a man of numerous facets.