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Critical Essay by Andrew Shin and Barbara Judson
SOURCE: "Beneath the Black Aesthetic: James Baldwin's Primer of Black American Masculinity," in African American Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 247-61.
In the following essay, Shin and Judson analyze the change in Baldwin's presentation of homosexuality between Giovanni's Room and Just Above My Head.
It has become commonplace to suggest the similarities in the histories of the black and feminist consciousness movements of the 1960s and '70s, especially the critical blindnesses that threatened to undermine the very solidarity crucial to political identity.1 The conspicuous elision of women from black nationalism's struggle to achieve political recognition for its people was matched by feminism's inability to countenance the interests of ethnic women in its vision of cultural renovation. Just as the Black Panthers lorded it over their women, middle-class white feminists failed to recognize the different needs of women of color—especially Black women—who served in their very households as domestic help. Although leading white feminists might have entertained the political possibilities of a gender-based alliance between white women and women of color, insofar as they understood black female activism as part of the broader struggle for racial liberation, they tacitly committed black women to a marginal role in an essentially masculinist enterprise. While ostensibly struggling against racial oppression, black nationalism cultivated an overt sexism; meanwhile feminism, in its battle with gender oppression, perpetuated an indifferent racism. Indeed, if all the men were black, then all the women were white.2
How interesting, then, that James Baldwin's voice has been both silenced and lost—silenced by the sexual politics of an emergent black left, lost because critics like Irving Howe decried Baldwin's putative aestheticism in favor of Richard Wright's militancy. But from our perspective, Baldwin's is a voice ahead of its time, one that explicitly addresses the implication of race and gender and, even more, attempts to articulate a gay ethic well before "gay" entered common parlance and certainly before the work of writers and scholars like Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Michael Lynch, Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick, and Lee Edelman legitimated "queer theory" as a critical discourse. Baldwin's position is especially interesting because he synthesizes race and gay consciousness during some of the most politically volatile decades of the twentieth century. Moreover, Baldwin's career strongly suggests the influence of feminism on his gay aesthetic, the insights of which he subsequently recontextualized in the struggle for black liberation.
African American literature from approximately 1940 to the mid-1970s was primarily a masculinist enterprise dominated by Richard Wright's protest novel and Ralph Ellison's literary pluralism. Along with Alice Walker's re-discovery of Zora Neale Hurston and the pastoral tradition, the last two decades have witnessed an explosion of writing by black women and the recuperation of a black female literary history that dramatizes a specifically urban sensibility suggested by the novels of, among others, Nella Larsen, Ann Petry, and, of course, Toni Morrison. In the process, Baldwin's novels have been relegated to the archives of the unread, cast aside in favor of the lapidary, famously polemical essays. The novels, however, despite their poor critical reception, are interesting because they rarely capitulate to the urge for a simplified rhetoric that characterizes the essays of the early 1970s, persistently retaining the unresolved tension and complexity of a writer—a gay black writer no less—divided between his role as a popular spokesman for the race and his role as an artist whose imaginative life encompasses aesthetic standards that may alienate a popular audience. The novel form partially liberated Baldwin from the pressures that he felt as an essayist answerable to frequently hostile audiences, both black and white. Baldwin's work, moreover, suggests a cultural space where the trend in black literary history to polarize itself along gender lines might be reversed.3 Ours, then, is an especially compelling moment in both literary and social history to reassess Baldwin's importance in matters of black liberation.
Baldwin's famous rejoinder to Norman Mailer's manifesto of hipster culture, "The White Negro," specifically addresses the sexual mythology that obtains to black men living in America: "I think that I know something about the American masculinity which most men of my generation do not know because they have not been menaced by it in the way that I have been" (Price 290). Here, Baldwin suggests the straitjacket of black virility that he struggled to liberate himself from throughout his career. A legacy of the antebellum South, celebrated by 1920s primitivism and consumer culture, this cultural mythology was perpetuated in the 1960s by the radical black left and white liberals like Mailer and Norman Podhoretz. Baldwin, who challenged this orthodoxy, became the whipping boy of a cultural establishment that understood the black man as, in Baldwin's words, "a kind of walking phallic symbol" (Price 290). Thus the question "What does it mean to be a man in America?" became Baldwin's donnée, inflecting virtually all of his literary production.4
Baldwin resisted an uncritical embrace of black nationalism, developing instead a vision of the homosexual as the chief instrument of cultural renovation. Indeed, bodily pleasure between men functions as a paradigm for the body politic—two men lying together spoon-fashion becomes an image of the just society. The black man as fetishized phallus gives way to an image of wholeness, of reintegrated bodies and of community. David Leeming, Baldwin's friend and recent biographer, suggests that much of Baldwin's early work can be characterized in terms of a family romance, as elaborating a search for an absent, idealized father (Leeming 3), as though the restored authority and centrality of the father could redress the history of slavery, an institution enabled by the codification of illegitimacy, defining black children as bastards. Indeed, for Baldwin, personal and familial redemption is political; but the rhetoric of family and the inherited view of a body politic organized around paternal privilege and masculine autonomy give way to the more egalitarian ideal of brotherhood—of a society founded upon the love between men. Baldwin thus redefines the discourse of family grounded in biology and posits alternative social structures in its place.5
Throughout Baldwin's oeuvre, the ideal of brotherhood displaces the idea of redemption through the restored centrality of the father: Horizontal equity supplants verticality. Brotherhood in this instance, however, is not exclusive but all-encompassing, suggesting egalitarian relations between men and women as well. Cora Kaplan, for one, distinguishes Baldwin's fictional treatment of sexuality, the family, and women as much more sympathetic to women than Wright's or Ellison's, but still qualifies her judgment: "Although Baldwin is one of the first and major analysts of the intimate relationship between dominant notions of masculinity and oppression within the Black family, his view of women as somehow inevitably confined to heterosexual relations is one of the historical limitations of his writing" (185). But Kaplan here raises issues that Baldwin tacitly engages, to the degree that he emphasizes the historical limitations of heterosexual relationships for women. Additionally, it should go without saying that homosexual relationships, whether gay or lesbian, are vulnerable to hierarchy.6
Baldwin begins his enterprise of reimagining the body politic in the largely autobiographical Go Tell It On the Mountain (1952) and extends it in Another Country (1962) and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), works in which homosexuality acquires an increasingly striking political dimension, but he elaborates his position most clearly through the change in his disposition toward homosexuality from Giovanni's Room (1956) to Just Above My Head (1978), the two works we will consider in depth. Baldwin dramatizes this shift in orientation iconographically by displacing the autonomous, middle-class, white-male body with the erotic, feminized, black-male body. Giovanni's Room invokes the expatriate experiences of a white man to make the case for the homosexual as hero, a possibility foreclosed by the construction of black American masculinity. But in Just Above My Head, Baldwin confronts the taboo of black homosexuality on his home ground.
Baldwin had good reason to be alienated from the contemporary literary scene. With the publication of Native Son (1940), Richard Wright was unquestionably the dominant black writer in postwar America, and he became the cynosure of an intense debate over the question of what it meant to be a black writer. Although Wright initially assumed the role of mentor to Baldwin and helped him win several prestigious fellowships, Baldwin quickly differentiated himself from the protest tradition with which Wright was associated. For Baldwin, the idea of protest necessitated an overly narrow conception of the black writer, restricting him to a racial category that preempted the exploration of a more expansive and imaginative notion of human potential. In other words, to be a protest writer both limited artistic expression and perpetuated the very stereotypes that the genre aimed to dismantle. Ironically, as Baldwin's career progressed, his greatest distinction lay in the almost universal praise bestowed on his skill as an essayist; on the other hand, he was repeatedly castigated for producing literature that was overly didactic and propagandistic, a literature that could not elevate itself to the level of the imagination. Indeed, the prophetic strain in Baldwin came increasingly to assume the stridency of protest as he became caught up in the Civil Rights Movement, but, importantly, his voice persistently challenges the sexism that was a prominent element of Wright's.
Liberal white critics like Irving Howe championed Wright, suggesting that the lived experience of blacks, as if by default, could only express itself oppositionally: "The program which the young Baldwin set for himself—a program of aesthetic autonomy and faithfulness to private experience, as against ideological noise and blunt stereotype—was almost impossible for the Negro writer to realize" ("James Baldwin" 97). In Howe's view, if one were black, to write was to protest. Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man (1952) rewrites Native Son and is the only mid-century novel by an African American to enjoy a stature comparable to Wright's, responded to Howe by suggesting that Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, exemplifies the limitations of the protest novel, precisely to the extent that Bigger Thomas is utterly incapable of imagining a character as complex and enigmatic as his creator Richard Wright.7 Wright himself offers perhaps the most interesting interpretation of the literary debates that he inspired. In his famous essay "The Literature of the Negro in the United States," Wright argues that the proliferation of a literature directed "toward strictly racial themes" bespeaks a period of heightened racial oppression; conversely, a turn toward a literature that "assumes the common themes and burdens of literary expression which are the heritage of all men" (149-50) presumes an amelioration of racism in society. Accordingly, Native Son might be interpreted as the legacy of an economically depressed but politically charged decade that witnessed the expanding influence of Marxism and the dissemination of an oppositional populism, a philosophy that Wright himself embraced; on the other hand, Baldwin and Ellison speak for the 1950s, a decade that basked in postwar euphoria and witnessed the inception of the Civil Rights Movement, which offered the promise of significant racial progress as realized in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
These literary debates aside, Wright left a far more insidious legacy of misogyny, which the radical black left embraced during the 1960s. That Baldwin even imagined the homosexual as the instrument of social change was no mean feat, given that homosexuality was still being censured both by mainstream culture and by black nationalists who equated blackness with heterosexual virility. Eldridge Cleaver, for one, who was famous for suggesting that he raped black women as a preamble to raping white women, characterizes Baldwin's homosexuality as a "racial death-wish" typical of the black bourgeoisie (103), who have rejected their blackness, their African heritage: "The cross they have to bear is that, already bending over and touching their toes for the white man, the fruit of their miscegenation is not the little half-white offspring of their dreams …" (102). Although Cleaver felt he had been racially oppressed, he embraced the hierarchy of traditional heterosexuality, convinced that it was his privilege to dominate women. Hence Baldwin's homosexuality struck him as a betrayal, because Baldwin presented a public image of the black man as castrated, the black man as woman. Cleaver saw no brave new world in Baldwin's vision, only the resurrected old world in which black men were lynched, their manhood desecrated.
Cleaver's homophobic observations were fueled by Norman Mailer's "The White Negro," which in a late Romantic gesture primitivized the Negro as a source of authenticity in an overly refined Western world. Likewise, LeRoi Jones, one of the most important figures of the Black Arts Movement, repudiated his early bohemianism, as exemplified by his plays The Baptism (1964) and The Toilet (1964), to join in the general condemnation of Baldwin's sexual politics, though later, Jones, in his 1987 eulogy for Baldwin, identified Baldwin's play Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964) as the inception of the Black Arts Movement. Thus, Baldwin occupied a complex position in the politics and culture of the sixties: An outspoken advocate of civil rights, he was nevertheless viewed as a subversive and fractious element by many of its leaders. Though Mailer cast him as the embodiment of virility by virtue of his color, he was, paradoxically, vilified by fellow blacks for not being black (read masculine) enough. And although Baldwin could assert his cultural authority over Mailer—"I could have pulled rank on him precisely because I was black and knew more about that periphery he so helplessly maligns in 'The White Negro' than he could ever hope to know" (Price 290)—he was himself characterized as a "Pussy Cat" by Cleaver (104).8
For his part, Baldwin tried to resist the erosion of his cultural authority by reinventing himself in the language of the new vanguard—in the very terms of the black left which composed jeremiads against a view it regarded as outmoded. Two essays published a decade apart witness Baldwin's shift from a vision of a unitary culture to a more separatist stance. The philippic The Fire Next Time (1963) argues the interconnected destinies of black and white America, resisting the separatist philosophy of Malcolm X. Elijah Muhammad, and the Nation of Islam, and locates the possibility of black salvation in cooperation: "… we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white" (Price 375-76).9 But the character of the Civil Rights Movement had changed, from the unassailable working-class dignity of Rosa Parks in 1955 to the hyperbole of the Black Panthers in 1968. A decade later, cast as a political Uncle Tom and facing tribal excommunication, a somewhat resigned Baldwin sounded a different note in No Name in the Street (1972), as protest displaced compassion as the agent of social change: "It must be remembered that in those great days I was considered to be an 'integrationist'—this was never, quite, my own idea of myself…. I was, in some way, in those years, without entirely realizing it, the Great Black Hope of the Great White Father … not only were no white people needed; they posed, en bloc, the very obstacle to black self-knowledge and had to be considered a menace" (Price 497-99). But the mantle of apologist and ideologue ill-suited Baldwin, and, in spite of his burgeoning militancy, by 1973, as Henry Louis Gates suggests, Baldwin was considered passé.10 Significantly, even as Baldwin was succumbing to the rhetoric of black nationalism as an essayist during this period, his novels assumed greater and greater risks in their exploration of black homosexuality.
Although Baldwin rejected the aggressive virility of both the white liberal intelligentsia and the radical black vanguard, he did celebrate the male body, not as a juggernaut of power but as a sensorium of comfort—the body as harbor and refuge, recapitulating the infant's relation to the mother, enjoying an amorphous, passive sexuality, a luxuriant dependency, played out, however, between men, Baldwin's emphasis on the pleasures of nurturance as opposed to mastery was anathema to black radicals who feared and despised such imagery as a return to childish dependence, a soft-pedaling of agency and activism. But Baldwin repudiates masculine autonomy as the instrument of a repressive social order by reveling in the sensate, celebrating the messiness of bodily odor and fluid—a convergence of bodies that opposes the formulations of white liberalism and black radicalism. He does not invoke the cult of the primitive as a reservoir of primal energy capable of bursting through social restraint; instead, he marshals love as the glue of a just society. The exchange of odors between men cuts across racial, class, and sexual lines.
The amorphous body figures Baldwin's vision of social progress founded upon the unrestricted expression of human sexuality, a view that contrasts with Booker T. Washington's program of racial uplift based on industrial and agricultural education for young blacks, which is linked to the discrete, clean body. Up From Slavery is replete with Washington's injunctions regarding the importance of personal hygiene and the utility of the clean body—cleanliness as a kind of currency. Indeed, Washington discovers that his passage through life, from his early employment as a houseboy to his admission to Hampton, is greatly facilitated by his embracing of the habits of his white employers and teachers, foremost among them the attributes of cleanliness and routine:
Life at Hampton was a constant revelation to me; was constantly taking me into a new world. The matter of having meals at regular hours, of eating on a tablecloth, using a napkin, the use of the bathtub and of the toothbrush, as well as the use of sheets upon the bed were all new to me. I sometimes feel that almost the most valuable lesson I got at the Hampton Institute was in the use and value of the bath. (59-60)11
Washington accordingly emphasizes the values of this "new world" upon returning to Malden to teach at the colored school:
In addition to the usual routine of teaching, I taught the pupils to comb their hair and to keep their hands and faces clean, as well as their clothing. I gave special attention to teaching them the proper use of the tooth-brush and the bath. In all my teaching I have watched carefully the influence of the tooth-brush, and I am convinced that there are few single agencies of civilization that are more far-reaching. (69)
Although his philosophy of the toothbrush is moving, it was unfortunately tied to the whole ethos of the houseboy and the structure of racial oppression that thinkers like Du Bois decried. Radical blacks did not view self-management of the body as crucial to political agency, but as the program of Uncle Tom.12 Washington here invokes the middle-class values delineated by the white male body, which was constructed throughout the course of the French Revolution and which elaborated the republican ideals that claimed the right to liberty, equality, and fraternity for every man. But while Washington imagined his program of racial uplift through the symbolism of the white male body, he was unable or unwilling to acknowledge that, in the early twentieth century, the black community did not have access to the attendant rights of citizenship, a state of affairs that arguably persists to this day, even after the vaunted gains of the Civil Rights Movement. Where Washington offered an image of the hyper-regulated body as an ideal, Baldwin suggested that this ideal capitulated to an oppressive social order, offering in its stead the indiscreet body of funky armpits, drunkenness, and sexual arousal, expressions of the feminized, bohemian body that achieved greater and greater political significance in the context of the Civil Rights Movement in which Baldwin became increasingly involved.
Baldwin's early novel Giovanni's Room dramatizes the consequences of self-deception through the experiences of a young expatriate American who is unable to come to terms with his sexuality. The novel opens with a proleptic image of the end—David, alone in an empty house in the south of France, staring at his reflection in a window pane, through which we learn, interestingly, that he is white, the son of an affluent father. That Baldwin ventriloquizes his story through a white protagonist is instructive, as though Baldwin wishes to distance himself from the autobiographical elements of the novel. Robert Bone suggests that, when Baldwin "attempts a novel of homosexual love, with an all-white cast of characters and a European setting, he simply transposes the moral topography of Harlem to the streets of Paris" (38). Bone's observation, however, elides how this "moral topography" is inflected by race.13 That David's experiences are largely expatriate underlines the untenability of black homosexuality as a lifestyle in America. David is socially unmarked by virtue of his color, a privilege that Baldwin himself enjoyed to a much greater degree in France than in America, but David's experiences in Paris nonetheless reinforce the web of self-deception that characterizes his life in America.
At its broadest reach, Giovanni's Room asks: What does it mean to be a man? This is the burden from which David takes refuge in flight but cannot escape, and it dominates his reflections on two formative experiences: a homoerotic childhood friendship that he terminates in deference to an internalized cultural homophobia, and his relationship with his parents marked by a sense of filial debt. Through the metaphor of a "cavern" (Giovanni's 15), Baldwin brilliantly condenses David's story as a dead-end, the cul-de-sac in which we find him at the end of the novel. The cavern of innuendo and rumor refers to the discourse of mortification in which the homosexual is pilloried, but it also symbolizes an intensity of pleasure so acute as to culminate in self-dissolution.
In suppressing his homoerotic impulses, however, David finds no solace in a more conventional heterosexuality, figured here through the activities of a philandering father and the memories of a mother who, Medusa-like, haunt David's dreams: "… she figured in my nightmares, blind with worms, her hair as dry as metal and brittle as a twig, straining to press me against her body; that body so putrescent, so sickening soft, that it opened, as I clawed and cried, into a breach so enormous as to swallow me alive" (17). Here, in contrast to the discrete male body, Baldwin presents the maternal body as monstrous, as an amorphous, enveloping softness that devours rather than nurtures. For David, compulsory heterosexuality is not the ground of phallic power but, as with all male infants, is potentially castrating, an orientation that defines his future relationships with women. David's fear of castration occurs, however, not through the process of heterosexual desire and the feelings of inadequacy generated in the presence of the powerful paternal phallus, but through a fear of a demonic female sexuality—the "cavern" transformed into a carnivorous "breach." In this scenario, the dream symbolizes a kind of wish-fulfillment in which David desires not to possess but to inhabit the eroticized female body and experience its dissolution, an untenable subject position in a homophobic culture. Here, Baldwin dramatizes the vexed identity of a man unable to countenance a sexual identity elaborated through the symbolism of the female body, when it is the very condition he desires.14
The novel subsequently situates David in various contexts which become vehicles for the exploration of identity: David's attempt to find himself becomes a search to discover a social space that will accommodate his sexual ambivalence. From the family dynamics of his household, David projects various potential futures for himself, all of them limiting: Taking little comfort in his aunt's ideal of masculine responsibility, an ideal of oppressive duty typically imagined in the context of marriage, he is nevertheless imprisoned by the social codes militating against the expression of his homosexual impulses. Faced with this double bind, a prisoner of both society and his own nature, repulsed both by social convention and by his own errant desires, David takes refuge, as he suggests, in "constant motion" (31), journeying to France, where he meets Giovanni.
Through an American acquaintance, Belgian-born Jacques, David readily gets caught up in the bohemian subculture of Paris, which, for him, revolves around Guillaume's bar, where Giovanni bartends, drinking and smoking into the early hours. Eventually, David finds himself living in Giovanni's room, where the cavern becomes literalized. The room is both the new world of avowed homosexuality as well as, sadly, the closet. As David suggests, "I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea. Time flowed past indifferently above us; hours and days had no meaning…. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea change there" (99, 112). Removed from the demands of the world, the room becomes a "garden of Eden" (35), but also a prison. Baldwin believes in an ethic of love, and briefly this room provides a space for the efflorescence of desire, but precisely because it is a world apart, cut off from social and political demands, this aesthetic space becomes cloying, suffocating. With its closed and whited out windows and its "courtyard malevolently press[ing], encroaching day by day" (112), this is a room without a view; and the novel goes on to imply that love cannot be enacted meaningfully except in a social and political context.
David's sea-change is not a conversion to a homosexual identity; instead, the sea-change acquires ironic overtones. Despite Giovanni's overtures of love, David cannot imagine a life together with him, taking flight instead in his fiction of an imminent marriage with his fiancée Hella and the occasional liaison with a woman. For Giovanni, David's repudiation of their love is a symptom of a more generalized fear of intimacy expressed as a loathing of disorder and the uncleanliness of one body in contact with another body: "'You never have loved anyone, I am sure you never will! You love your purity, you love your mirror…. You want to be clean … you do not want to stink, not even for five minutes …'" (186-87). David's rejection of Giovanni's love leads to Giovanni's demise as, desperate and indigent, Giovanni returns to the sordid world of Guillaume's bar. Giovanni's love, in contrast to David's, is uncompromising, and in a fit of rage after having been sexually manipulated by Guillaume, Giovanni murders Guillaume, for which he is sentenced to death. Giovanni's imminent execution merely realizes the fate that David has projected for himself all along—"… I look at my body, which is under sentence of death" (223)—and which still awaits him, as the image of the torn execution notice blown back upon him at the end of the novel suggests. For a critic like Charlotte Alexander, the reflection that David sees at the end of his "lean, hard, and cold" body "trapped in [his] mirror" (223) attests to the rigor mortis of an emotionally and physically crippling narcissism. But David's narcissism is merely the symptom of a more deeply rooted political anomie—the incapacity of a self to imagine a socio-political context in which it might express itself. What Alexander types as narcissism we might read as heterosexism. David has internalized heterosexual norms based on the discrete, masterful, masculine body that he cannot eject. The messiness of intimate exchange is tantamount in his mind to the femininity he finds repulsive—because it is the very condition he unconsciously desires but cannot express—as well as the darkness of socially stigmatized homosexuality.15
Ultimately, David's existentialist quest—to find himself—fails, not because, confined by walls and mirrors, he has been unable to extricate himself from the malaise that plagues him at the beginning of the novel, but because, read in the light of Baldwin's subsequent career, the novel suggests that this quest is futile in the first place. Baldwin believes that Paris—a world of intellectual fertility and sexual outlawry emblematized by Sartre's lionization of Genet—is a milieu more tolerant of homosexuality than he can find in black America or the white liberal America of Norman Mailer. But the Paris of existentialism, of Camus and Sartre, in which the individual takes responsibility for constructing the rules of his own life, ironically defeats Baldwin's purpose, precisely because of its emphasis on the individual, its alienation from politics and collective action. David is unable to construct a gay identity for himself because this Paris is too aesthetic and its mandarin pleasures eventually degenerate into the grotesque lust of old fairies like Guillaume. In this context, Giovanni's room, both a haven from and a symbol of society's oppressive strictures, comes to sum up the impotence of the aesthetic ideal. In Giovanni's Room, homosexual relations cannot epitomize the new society because Baldwin cannot realize this vision apart from political commitment: Politics allows the gay man to rationalize his desires, and, in turn, his non-mainstream sexuality enables him to articulate a more egalitarian form of political protest. Ironically, Baldwin finds that his ability to mobilize the power of love depends upon the politics of American life, and he returns to this scene in Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, with mixed results, and again in Just Above My Head, which we read as the culmination of his career.
Just Above My Head contextualizes Baldwin's exploration of black masculinity in the most volatile decade of the Civil Rights Movement, a decade that witnessed the rage of Watts, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Moynihan Report, and the inception of the Black Panthers. Baldwin invokes the sphere of intimate relations to dramatize the pernicious mythology of black virility perpetuated by black nationalism, suggesting instead the power of brotherhood, an orientation rooted in the novel's very conception.16 As Barbara, a character in Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, explains, "We felt that it [a scene in a play] made a connection—between a private love story—and—a—well, between a private sorrow and a public, a revolutionary situation" (296)—and, likewise, the relationship between Arthur and his older brother Hall, the two protagonists of Just Above My Head.
The novel begins with news of Arthur's death, as his utopian quest for a more sexually tolerant society comes to a violent end in the bathroom of a London pub, which becomes the occasion for Hall's meditation on the meaning of Arthur's life. In the process Hall attempts to come to terms with his own identity as a black man in America. Arthur's quest is thus realized through Hall, who reminisces, "Your life can now be written anew on the empty slate of his…. I saw myself in Arthur" (Just 89). The novel becomes a kind of elegy in which Hall, too, becomes a blues singer, trying to redeem his brother's life from the squalor of his murder in a men's toilet. In a powerful image of the claustrophobic nature of the closet Arthur is described lying prone, while with the last remnants of consciousness he imagines the ceiling descending ominously upon him. Hall realizes that there never was a place for Arthur in society, and his elegy is an attempt to make such a space.
Early on, the novel introduces the interactions among members of the Miller and Montana families, whose stories dramatize the impotence of black religion, which is portrayed as otherworldly, indifferent to civic duty. Through the Miller family Baldwin examines the dark underside of the black church, traditionally conceived as the heart of black communities and an integral element of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the source of forms of indigenous black expression. As Hall suggests, "Somebody was jiving the public, and I knew it had to be … [Julia's] father and mother, who surely did not look holy to me" (69). Julia, who is called to preach when she is seven years old, is the cynosure of the Miller family, but she is merely the instrument of a dominating father—"the zoot-suited stud of studs" (70)—whose familial authority has its analogue in the institutional power of the church. Julia is possessed of a beauty and voice that is coopted by a system of hieratic privilege: "… as a child and as a preacher, she had not belonged to herself, nor had the remotest idea who she was. She had then been at the mercy of a force she had had no way of understanding" (524). Julia's precociously charismatic style enthralls parishioners everywhere, and her father exploits this talent to make money—she is ultimately raped by him, symbolizing her assimilation to his despotic power.
For Julia's mother Amy, religious enthusiasm assumes the form of sexual display: "Julia's mother put up the better show, though her hats were flaunting, and her skirts were tight … she always wore high heels—just to make sure you didn't miss those legs" (69). Baldwin here presents the church as incapable of organizing and using the energy of sexual desire to work for social and political change. Instead, this specifically feminine charisma is dissipated, channeled into the minutiae of sexual conquest, visual display, and vain enthusiasm, as witnessed by the erotic spectacle Amy makes in church: "When she got happy," Hall reports, "she would stroke her breasts" (69-70). Baldwin is not denigrating or ridiculing women; rather, he is dramatizing the tragic waste of Amy's spiritual energy, which, in the absence of a worthy political object to give it direction, ends by devouring her, consuming her from within—hence her death from breast cancer. In the Miller family, Amy's sphere of influence is limited to her ability to please her husband; thus, she is inevitably pitted against the charms of the daughter, who desires unconsciously to displace Amy in her husband's affections. Through Amy and Julia's fates Baldwin suggests that in the absence of political organization—like the Civil Rights Movement—female sexuality exhausts itself in invidious competition and aesthetic gesture. Baldwin does not aim to trivialize women in his depiction of Amy and Julia but rather to criticize the social structures that disempower them.
The relationship between Hall and Arthur Montana supplants the patriarchal incest of Joel and Julia Miller, a relationship based on coercion, violence, and rivalry. The boys take their cue from their father Paul, a jazz pianist who, unlike Julia's father, refuses to play the role of mentor, deeming it too authoritarian, allowing Arthur instead to cultivate his own voice in gospel music and the blues. Arthur develops into a fine singer and with his friends Crunch, Peanut, and Red tours the South, a trip that is also an excursion back in time; significantly, it is the site of Arthur's first fulfilling homosexual experience as well. From Tennessee to Atlanta and Birmingham, Baldwin presents a series of erotic images that rewrite the cultural mythology of the South, a mythology responsible for Peanut's lynching on a subsequent trip. Here, Baldwin challenges the sexual iconography that white Southerners consciously vilify and unconsciously imagine, offering in its place the tableau of two black men embracing: "They curled into each other, spoon fashion. Arthur cradled by Crunch" (207). This image of two musicians side by side offers a utopian vision of gay sexuality that challenges the figurations of a dystopic homophobia, destabilizing the culture's oppressive imagining of a fetishized black phallus. Through these images, Baldwin generates an alternative vernacular of black American masculinity.
This grammar rewrites the heterosexual assumptions of black music as it is traditionally conceived. In the transitional Another Country, Baldwin attempted to evoke the bohemian world through a sequence of riffs and montages, fractured forms that express the brilliance and movement of improvisation. The late-night world of jazz clubs, endless talk, and sexuality—this is the milieu that Baldwin depicts, but he debunks the popular representations of bohemian élan, extending his public argument with Mailer here through the novel from instead of the polemical essay. Baldwin contends that white liberals' celebration of jazz as a form of oppositional cultural power has in effect robbed black bohemianism of its vanguard potential, holding it hostage to the misguided hero-worship of white consumer culture. Positions like Mailer's construct the black musician as stud, making his artistic authority a function of his sexual potency, a rhetorical move that epitomizes unconscious liberal racism. For Baldwin, the black musician is the intellectual, the restless experimenter who takes apart dominant musical forms and recasts them; the sexual lionizing of the black musician merely appropriates him for white consumption, and, Baldwin warns, if black musicians embrace this myth, they will be destroyed by it, as demonstrated by the case of Rufus Scott, the tragic character at the center of Another Country.17
Understood in terms of mourning, blues and jazz typically express the desire of a masculine subject for a lost feminine object.18 Just Above My Head revises this formulation by interspersing scenes of gospel performances with explicitly homoerotic tableaux, highlighted by Arthur and Crunch's harmonious antiphony in Birmingham, their voices witnessing their love and desire for one another, a sexual longing that will be consummated shortly thereafter. Mourning is the psychosexual process that connects an individual to the past, insofar as the ego is constituted by a history of its losses—through linguistic substitution, the introjection of lost objects. Yet here Arthur, the itinerant bluesman who sings of love and loss, transforms the traumatic history of African Americans into a prophecy of the future, and his voice becomes the oracle of a new world. Hall recognizes Arthur as the instrument of a religious tradition that makes itself felt in social protest: "He sang, he had to sing, as though music could really accomplish the miracle of making the walls come tumbling down. He sang: as Julia abandoned her ministry, Arthur began to discover his" (219). In this view the blues singer embodies political and cultural agency, the opportunity to change society through participating in a vision that can raise the political consciousness of an audience.
But although Arthur enjoys the refuge of a shared space with Crunch and, later, with Jimmy, Julia's jazz pianist younger brother, the walls do not so much come tumbling down as implode upon him. Arthur's song may be his confession, but it is left to his brother Hall to redeem Arthur by passing on his story. Arthur's legacy remains in the memories of his friends and brother, who, at the end of the novel, imagines Arthur's voice raised in song and understands that redemption lies in interconnectedness, in living relationships, and in the memories of loved ones: "… ain't nothing up the road but us, man" (559).
Although Arthur's quest for a homosexual utopia fails, Baldwin suggests that feminist self-determination is a crucial step toward achieving it. For her part Julia is finally able to recreate herself through Crunch's intervention and, by journeying to Africa, realizes her story is part of a larger history. Julia's trip to Africa offers a kind of secular redemption for the religious hypocrisy that she unwittingly contributed to as a child, as she discovers there a larger family, symbolized by the family of an African diplomat, a father figure who, in her words, is "really black, black in a way [she'd] never encountered" (526) and the only male who "understood something" (528). Africa provides a form of sustenance that the religious life never did, but although Africa enables Julia to understand something about herself, Baldwin suggests that pan-Africanism is not really a viable solution for the problems of American blacks. As Julia realizes, "A black girl in Africa, who wasn't born in Africa, and who has never seen Africa, is a very strange creature for herself, and for everyone who meets her … they don't know who they are meeting. You don't know who they are meeting either" (529). Baldwin here debunks the notion of an authentic blackness, as Julia realizes she has very little in common with the villagers she meets in Africa. Instead, she realizes that her future lies in America, for it is her home, however racially divided, she comes to recognize the need for a new vocabulary that will accommodate a culture of refugees, rather than merely reproduce the language of the fathers.19
By virtue of their experiences as sexual outlaws, Julia shares such a language with Arthur: "… she was, also, the only person in the world, now, who spoke his language. They knew the same things. And his jealousy had evaporated" (263). Here, love and the recognition of mutual need displace sexual competition over Crunch's affections. Later, Julia, the single woman, and Hall, the devoted husband, enact this love, as Hall realizes, "We looked like lovers … in truth, at last, we were" (534). This is not a sexual relationship, but an agreement to "'watch over those [they] love'" (534), an assumption of responsibility to others untainted by the coercive rhetoric of family: They are lovers, not fathers or mothers. The remaining members of the Miller and Montana families who come together at the welcome table—including Jimmy, Arthur's last lover—constitute a group bound by love rather than simply by blood or filial duty. But this idyllic community does not come without a cost: Crunch goes mad, Peanut is lynched, and Red becomes a junkie—all three the victims of a society that insists on casting black men as icons of virility. Arthur's violent death is especially poignant, for the bathroom of the London pub in which he dies symbolizes the world of odors and bodily exchange that Arthur embraces, as well as the squalor to which the homosexual is relegated. That he dies in such a context extends the example of Giovanni, who is ultimately executed as a consequence of his unflagging commitment to a homosexual lifestyle. Giovanni's death, however, changes nothing for the larger society; Arthur's sacrifice, on the other hand, makes possible a new order of relations based on equality rather than on the hierarchy of the paternal family. Whereas Giovanni's Room dramatizes a protagonist who is imprisoned by his sense of obligation to a model of heterosexual life, in Just Above My Head, Arthur is the agent who ultimately reintegrates family and community through his fight for civil rights. And for Arthur, social protest assumes the form of an unfettered expression of his sexuality. Just Above My Head thus dramatizes a family album that displaces the terms of Giovanni's Room.
This culturally constructed family, moreover, signifies the resolution of loss through the work of mourning—not however, through the reinstatement of positive parental images, but through the introjection of the lost brother, a process that displaces patriarchal authority in favor of a more horizontal structure of relations. The picture of the extended family with which Just Above My Head concludes is the social manifestation of transformed consciousnesses: The rehabilitation of Julia's psychic health begins with her trip to Africa, but culminates with her turn toward America, a reconstitution of a shattered ego that takes place in republican America, not in the land of the primordial father; so too, Hall comes more fully to understand his identity as a black man in America, for him realized through the memory of his brother's tragic life. Julia and Hall project a society informed by the lost object that dominates their consciousnesses, a culture figured through the metaphor of the contingent, feminized black body that Baldwin most poignantly depicts in Just Above My Head.
Arthur's legacy lives on in Hall and Julia, for whom life in 1960s America as a black man or woman demands that you watch over the people you love. This statement is as close to political commitment as Baldwin gets in this novel: On the one hand, it sounds cliché—a simple expression of fealty to one's family; but coming at the end of the novel, this homily acquires a political resonance, allowing Hall and Julia to articulate the beginnings of their commitment to Black liberation, and thus to the people they love.
1. See, for example, Showalter 347-69.
2. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton recognized the political possibilities of an alliance between black men and all women, a solidarity undermined by republican advocacy of black male suffrage. See hooks, Ain't I 3-4; and Hodes 59-74. For a cogent critique of the assumptions of contemporary black and white feminism, see McDowell, "New Directions" 186-99.
3. McDowell suggests the polarization of black American writers along gender lines as a struggle over discursive space. See "Reading" 75-97.
4. For an interesting discussion of the centrality of the black phallus in the sexual politics of black male writers and critics, and of its subversion in the work of black female writers and critics, see duCille 559-73.
5. Since the publication of Daniel Moynihan's report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965), many scholars have elaborated both the potential and limitations of the family metaphor to conceptualize social and literary experience. Houston A. Baker, Jr., specifically invokes the idea of a family romance to describe the relationship between contemporary writers and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, tacitly endorsing the importance of the absent father (Modernism). Hortense Spillers suggests that the very inadmissibility of white paternal origin perpetuates the transmission of human flesh as property ("Mama's Baby"). Anna Wilson discusses the ways that Audre Lorde's reconceptualization of family in Zami both challenges and reproduces conventional social structures ("Audre Lorde"). See also McDowell, "Family Matters."
6. For an extended discussion of Baldwin's treatment of women, see Harris.
7. We do not discuss this debate in great detail, as it has already inspired much spilled ink. Nevertheless, it establishes an important context for an understanding of Baldwin's work. See Baldwin, "Everybody's Protest Novel" and "Many Thousands Gone" (Price 27-34, 65-78); Howe, "Black Boys"; and Ellison. See also "Liberalism and the Negro: A Round-Table Discussion."
8. Mailer, although perhaps the most prominent, was not alone in primitivizing black males. See Podhoretz. For a critique of Mailer and the sexual politics of these black revolutionaries, see Dickstein 154-82.
9. Baldwin ultimately returns to this idea in an essay published two years before his death, assimilating gender to his vision of a racially unified culture: "But we are all androgynous, not because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white" ("Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood," Playboy Jan. 1985; rpt. "Here Be Dragons," Price 690).
10. See Gates 53.
11. Compare the lessons that Washington learns here with Zora Neale Hurston's observations of rural Negro life in "Characteristics of Negro Expression"—among other things, angularity, asymmetry, the will to adorn, and the jook. Although Hurston's representation of "the folk" has been questioned as a white pastoral fantasy—for example by Richard Wright and Hazel Carby-her observations here nevertheless offer an interesting contrast to Washington's cooptation by white middle-class values defined by the clean, hyper-regulated body and household. See Hurston 49-68. Wright, himself, in "The Literature of the Negro in the United States," distinguishes between "The Narcissistic Level"—borrowed forms of culture that middle-class African Americans try to make their own—and "The Forms of Things Unknown"—the native expressions developed from the experiences of migratory, working-class blacks. And it is Wright's conceptualization of "The Forms of Things Unknown" that provides the ideological justification for the Black Arts Movement as it is elaborated by thinkers like Amiri Baraka, Stephen Henderson, and Larry Neal.
12. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the ill-fated, Philadelphia-based back-to-Africa group MOVE actively resisted all forms of self-management.
13. In his essay, Bone subjects Giovanni's Room and Another Country to a scathing review, singling out Baldwin's elevation of the homosexual as redeemer for special censure. For a more sympathetic reading of Giovanni's Room and its ambivalences, see Adams. For a densely theoretical (read poststructuralist) approach that discusses Baldwin's work in the context of a more general theorization of the homosexual underpinnings of writing—what the author calls "homographesis," synecdoche as master trope—see Edelman.
14. Baldwin's metaphors anticipate the tropes that Leo Bersani invokes in his discussion of homosexuality and that Neil Hertz examines in his analysis of accounts of the 1848 Paris uprising. For Bersani, the homosexual, like the woman, desires to be penetrated, a position tantamount to self-dissolution that Bersani finds problematic ("Is the Rectum a Grave?"). Even more problematic, in the era of AIDS, is the persistent literalization of rectal penetration and death. Baldwin, however, through the metaphor of the "cavern" suggests a more ambivalent orientation toward penetration and dissolution. Hertz invokes Freud's Medusa in a brilliant analysis of the iconography of the 1848 Paris uprising, mapping the psychological/political fear of radical change in terms of a fear of castration (The End of the Line 161-91). The specular power of David's dead mother, both through the photograph and the nightmarish iconography of the body, likewise attests to David's fear of castration, but here without the overt political dimensions.
15. Alexander ("The 'Stink' of Reality") argues that David's distaste for uncleanliness dramatizes his fear of physical and emotional intimacy, a trait characteristic of the narcissistic personality. Although insightful, Alexander's discussion is somewhat limited because it does not address a political context, a dimension that is central to this essay.
16. Baldwin suggests that the novel originated in a dream of his about a ceiling descending just above his head, a dream that converged with his brother David's dream about the two of them sitting on a porch presciently observing the lives of all their friends (see Leeming 345). The novel, which takes its title from a traditional gospel song—a song that Ida sings repeatedly throughout Another Country—thematizes the relationship between two brothers, Hall and Arthur Montana.
17. Baldwin responded to early critics of Another Country by suggesting that he wanted to write the way jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Ray Charles sound. In "Hip, and the Long Front of Color," Andrew Ross offers a useful discussion of postwar intellectuals' response to popular culture, specifically in the context of black music and the culture industry. See also Jones and Hebdige. In Another Country, Ida Scott's relationship to Steve Ellis reproduces the relationship between black music and the culture industry in the 1920s. But arguably, Ida "changes the joke and slips the yoke" by exploiting Ellis's sexual attraction to her in promoting her career.
18. Compare this with Adomo's famous observation: "The aim of jazz is the mechanical reproduction of a regressive moment, a castration symbolism. 'Give up your masculinity, let yourself be castrated,' the eunuchlike sound of the jazz band both mocks and proclaims, 'and you will be rewarded, accepted into a fraternity which shares the mystery of impotence with you, a mystery revealed at the moment of the initiation rite'" (129).
19. Baldwin most clearly elaborates his resistance to the allure of pan-Africanism as a potential solution for the problems of black Americans in "Princes and Powers," Price 41-63.
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――――――. Just Above My Head. 1978. New York: Dell, 1990.
――――――. The Price of the Ticket. New York: St. Martin's/Marek, 1985.
――――――. Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone. New York: Dial, 1968.
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――――――. "Reading Family Matters." Changing Our Own Words. Ed. Cheryl Wall. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989. 75-97.
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