Callaloo 23.1 (2000) 313-327
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Expatriation, Homosexual Panic, and Man's Estate
Mae G. Henderson
Part 2: Plum Nelly: New Essays in Black Queer Studies
In James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956), geographical expatriation and literary masquerade, or "racial expatriation," combine to provide a space for the articulation of the homosexual dilemma within the context of postwar American culture. In some respects, Baldwin's own geographical expatriation found its literary counterpart in what might be regarded as the racial expatriation of his characters. Baldwin's flight to Paris and his all-white novel must be regarded as attempts to open the space of black literary expression to subjects and experiences not deemed appropriate for black writers in the 1940s and 1950s.
Written during Baldwin's early years in Europe, Giovanni's Room, then, becomes the textual analogue to the author's personal expatriation. The absence of black characters in the novel obviously defied the contemporary prevailing tacit assumption of the American critical establishment, in some ways confirmed by Baldwin's precursor and self-proclaimed "spiritual father," Richard Wright, that black authors must write about what was euphemistically referred to as "the Negro problem." Giovanni's Room signified, for its author, a liberation from what had been construed, if not always assumed, as the traditional burden of the Negro writer. If the "construction of whiteness" freed the author to explore the complexities of gender, national, and sexual identity, uncomplicated by the issue of racialized blackness, then actual geographical expatriation freed Baldwin to interrogate the complexities of his own identity as writer, as American, and as homosexual, outside the sexually and politically repressive climate of postwar America. In his second novel, Baldwin sets out to explore the complex personal, social, sexual, and cultural dimensions of identity uncomplicated by the extra-literary preoccupation with "the Negro problem." In the novel, however, race is present, but blackness is erased. Baldwin focuses on the paradoxical and self-contradictory issues of subjectivity: What it is to be a (white) American and an expatriate; what it is to be a homosexual and a man.
It seems fairly evident that in 1956, a period of conservative sexual and political mores in postwar America, Baldwin's novelistic construction of whiteness constituted a strategic decision to compel--for artistic, if not, strictly speaking, personal reasons--a certain self-distancing in relation to a second, thinly-veiled, autobiographical novel. Yet and still, Baldwin's intensely ambivalent identification with his character, expressing the emotional tone of his experiences in Paris, is attested by the epigraph from Walt Whitman, that most irreverent and profane of American poets, distinguished both by his celebration of America as well as his open avowal of homoeroticism. In his epigraph, "I am the man, I suffered, I was there," Baldwin intimates what remained throughout his work his truest theme, and that is the role of witnessing and suffering as profoundly constitutive of identity. Notably, for his character portrayals, Baldwin draws on the habits and lifestyles of members of the American colony who were habitués at the gay bars and cafes in 1950s Paris. [End Page 313]
Giovanni's Room, Baldwin's novel of expatriation and homosexuality, thus, explores the homosexual dilemma as one of expatriation, or exile--from nation, from culture, from body. Baldwin created a protagonist who could project the image of the quintessential American, or, as the French call him, Monsieur l'American, demonstrating the author's preoccupation with the relation between identity and culture and, more specifically, the cultural constructions of nationality and masculinity.
In 1949, Baldwin's controversial article attacking Richard Wright, "Everybody's Protest Novel," had appeared in Zero magazine; in that same year, the magazine published "Preservation of Innocence," an essay that is less frequently cited, but equally important. In some respects, these essays are clearly analogues, one addressing the issue of the representation of gender and race, and the other, the representation of gender and sexuality. In the former, Baldwin was concerned about the perpetuation of dehumanizing images of black masculinity, images reducing the black man to Harriet...