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James Baldwin: The Risks of Love

Baldwin gathers his main characters at the tarry service where Johnny is to enter into the communion of the saints. While the elders watch Johnny go into a deep trance of prayer and emotion at the altar, Baldwin interrupts the action to give chapters to Johnny’s Aunt Florence, to his father, Gabriel, and then to his mother, Elizabeth. Their thoughts travel away from the church service and back to the South of the turn of the century and World War I. They remember their own journeys to the Lord and the blighted promises of their youth. They are only one generation away from slavery. Their memories show that Baldwin’s Harlem of the Great Depression is still an insecure migrant community.

Baldwin had not yet visited the South when he was writing Go Tell It on the Mountain. Perhaps that is why this region, as Johnny’s relatives remember it, is a generalized place of sketchy interiors, frosty yards, weeping gates, anonymous fields, starry nights, unspecified taverns, and roads that lead to nowhere. However, for Baldwin’s purposes, in his novel he almost didn’t need to have been South. The contrast with the descriptions of the everyday urban environment reinforces the message that a legacy of confinement was fading for Johnny’s generation. His uptown streets are quick with sensation and possibility while the South is the landscape of the dimly remembered, although ultimately inescapable.

Memories of devastated love and transgressions yet to be atoned for make the grown-ups in Johnny’s family somewhat like lifers eyeballing a short-timer on his way to his parole hearing. Even when Baldwin shows the congregation on a boat ride and at a picnic, the sanctified church is as isolated and hierarchical as a prison. But the Bible gives the generations a common language. The longings of the present and the sorrows of the past find steady distillation in the metaphors of the gospel songs, spirituals, and hymns that either come up within each chapter or stand as epigrams for chapters. Baldwin assigns his characters a sharp theological awareness and liturgical fluency. They know the Books of Deuteronomy, Luke, or Matthew as coldly as he did. Johnny himself hasn’t much private language or kid slang. Instead, phrases borrowed from passionate seekers after the City on the Hill supply fuel for what the unquenchable fire of adolescence wants to say.

And still, on the summit of that hill he paused. He remembered the people he had seen in that city, whose eyes held no love for him. And he thought of their feet so swift and brutal, and the dark gray clothes they wore, and how when they passed they did not see him, or, if they saw him, they smirked. And how their lights, unceasing, crashed on and off above him, and how he was a stranger there. Then he remembered his father and his mother, and all the arms stretched out to hold him back, to save him from this city where, they said, his soul would find perdition.

In the end Johnny is saved. He has a fleeting vision of God. After much weeping and raging, “the Lord laid him out.”

The story Baldwin tells in The Fire Next Time (1963) of how he left the church when he was seventeen makes it tempting to regard flight from the church as the eventual outcome for Johnny, too, regardless of the note of acceptance with which Go Tell It on the Mountain ends. Johnny’s rebellion can only have been postponed, because in most development-of-a-sensibility novels individual freedom is a secular dream. Some commentators have argued that in his novel Baldwin views the church as a form of escapism, like sex and drugs, and that the novel’s religious aspects are just part of its larger culture. But where Baldwin’s portrayal of his church was once spoken of as an expression of migration’s trauma and the adaptability of urban blacks, now it is just as likely to be taken as proof of continuity with the Southern past, especially since rediscovered nineteenth-century spiritual narratives about the conversion experience have provided a literature for the history of the religion of blacks.4

Baldwin’s solemnity about the black church leading a supplicant from the bondage of sin into the blessings of sanctification hadn’t been seen in fiction by blacks for some time. The piety of African-American literature was a constraint that Harlem Renaissance writers had thrown off. Countee Cullen’s One Way to Heaven (1932) turns on the falseness of the con artist hero’s conversion. “A Christian must learn to lap water like a dog.” Zora Neale Hurston steps aside to explain the social anthropology of the raucous back-country services and the visions of heaven, “the rim bone of nothing,” that accompany the conversion of the womanizing preacher-hero in her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934). But Baldwin never cracks a smile at the expense of his church, as if to say that by his time black people had been laughed at enough on stage and in movies for being on their knees. Then, too, maybe humor did not seem sufficiently literary to Baldwin. In any case Baldwin’s realism reasserts the dignity of the African-American religious idiom. It was as though, in France, Baldwin had contracted an existential seriousness about rebellion against God.

2.

The sad conclusion of Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), finds God still on the side of the narrator, David, a white American expatriate telling, in a series of extended flashbacks, the story of his passionate affair with Giovanni, an Italian youth who had tried to survive in the after-hours economy of Paris. Baldwin’s gutsiness, considering the 1950s and the hidden risks to his name as a writer, is apparent in the premise of queer love between white characters who are not sorry in the expected way for that love. Though Giovanni commits a murder and is condemned to the guillotine, David doesn’t think that just because he fell in love with Giovanni he has sacrificed the “heavy grace of God.” Rather, he blames himself for having failed Giovanni, for abandoning him to the life in which violence between the hustling and the hustled is not unknown.

Boys are more afraid of affection than they are of lust, Baldwin has David observe at one point: an example of how, when dealing with the category “homosexuality,” Baldwin usually ends up being more concerned with masculine desire and ideas of masculinity in general. In an essay published in Zero, a small Paris magazine in 1949, Baldwin goes beyond his wintry Protestantism to declare that homosexuality was not condemned by nature so much as it was a crime in the sight of God, “man’s most intense creation.” He suggests that those who abhor it judge their own morality instead, in much the same way that in his essays on race he refused to let the subject put him on the defensive and threw the need to explain back onto whites. He ridicules American novels that unwittingly present the queer as someone who could “wear down the resistance of a normal man,” pointing out that such novels are concerned not with homosexuality but with “the ever-present danger of sexual activity between men.”

However, in a much less bold essay, published in 1954,5 Baldwin raises the themes that Giovanni’s Room elaborates on: the rigid concepts that make masculinity a prison; the woman as fact in male life and warden of doubtful reform; the sexual underworld as a trap. At the beginning of their affair Giovanni asks David why he doesn’t accommodate both sexes. But bisexuality isn’t an option for David. He is fixed instead on what he sees as the miserable social destiny that openly expressed love for a man would impose on him.

David begins his story in the south of France, where he is waiting for Giovanni’s execution and preparing to go back to the US. Hella, the girl he nearly married, is already on the high seas homeward. David regrets that he once lied to Giovanni, saying he’d never slept with a man before. He is moved to relate the history of his “self-contempt,” starting with a boy on Coney Island and the anguish after they’d been together that he had done something monstrous. Unwanted knowledge of himself sat in his mind like a “decomposing corpse.” In San Francisco, living with his father and aunt, he sank into a life of weary drinking, unhappy women, and low-level jobs. He managed his routine of ordinariness by refusing to admit what “shamed and frightened” him. In his heart, however, he knew why he left for France.

His second year in Paris, broke and aimless, he meets the dark and “leonine” Giovanni. David, good-looking and blond, sometimes gets dinner invitations from an older businessman who has introduced him to an ill-lit bar that has too “emphatic” a reputation. Giovanni enters the scene along the same lines, given work papers by the bar’s predatory patron alert to the value of a beautiful barman. David and Giovanni accept favors without being obligated or defining themselves outright, using men who would exploit them if given the chance, maybe even humiliate them in retaliation for wanting young men who have no desire for them.

Giovanni’s Room is mean to the middle-aged and even meaner to its male characters who aren’t butch. As David and Giovanni slide in an evening from being regular guys to being boys with a “vocation,” they are closely watched by “les folles,” the bar’s habituĂŠs who resent that their own youthful discoveries are long past. Baldwin presents the doomed love of Giovanni and David sympathetically, but David as a first-person narrator is also a guide to the supposedly unhappy sexual underworld. He encounters the sort of painted customers who filled Gustav von Aschenbach with foreboding.

David says in retrospect that he was unable to resist the storm of his instant connection with Giovanni, after which the metaphor of Giovanni being dangerous water develops quickly. Giovanni’s squalid maid’s room, far from the city center and smelling of an alcohol-burning stove, becomes their retreat. David feels that life there is taking place beneath the sea. He waits a month before he tells Giovanni about Hella. A late winter and an entire spring of improvised life with Giovanni brings about the dreaded change in David. The day comes when they are out walking and David is attracted to a passing youth who likes the attention. But another day, when by himself, David stares at a sailor and is intimidated by the answering sneer. Once he was a guy whose contempt put in their place guys like the one he has become.

Giovanni loses his job because of the patron’s jealousy, and increasingly David feels as though he is being dragged to the bottom of their private sea. He begins to resist Giovanni’s spell, to reject their apparent future of talks, cigarettes, walks, and cognac. The relationship of stumbling home drunk together becomes a power struggle. David accuses Giovanni of wanting to make him into a housewife because, he says, Giovanni lacks the nerve to find a real one. In the early summer David gets word of Hella’s return to Paris. He walks out of the room without telling Giovanni where he is going. Three days later he comes across Giovanni by chance and Hella doesn’t understand his rudeness to a friend who’d taken him in, so he told her, when he could no longer afford his hotel. Though David says he’d come to regard women as solid ground and Hella as a post he could moor himself to, throughout Baldwin’s novel women come off as clueless in a male world of covert signals and shaded conversations, unless they are shrewd crones keeping watch over the cash register.

  1. 4

    In a fascinating collection of essays, A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History (Beacon, 1995), Albert J. Raboteau, “an historian and believer,” says that Baldwin’s novel “offers one of the most profound depictions of the conversion experience.” Johnny has entered a “spiritual aristocracy” where he is expected to accept the guidance of his elders.

  2. 5

    The Male Prison,” reprinted in Nobody Knows My Name (1961).

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