America continues to find itself in the midst of social and political upheaval. The era of Jim Crow and racial persecution are reminders of a not too distant past. The young generation of today will have their own causes to fight and believe in and some of them will resemble the monumental effort behind the push for racial equality that culminated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. James Baldwin (1924-1987) served as an unofficial historian, transforming what he witnessed into the books he left us with that examine the ills of society and human nature. Race and sexuality have been the focus of several of his works based in part of his own ethnic makeup and homosexuality. In the classic Giovanni’s Room, he addressed the inner conflict faced by those who struggle with bisexuality. In this book, he once again touches on that topic and love in general while supplementing the main topics with the complicated and tragic concept of human nature.
The story begins in Harlem, New York as we are introduced to a musician named Rufus Scott. He has just met a recent transplant to New York City from Georgia named Leona. Sparks fly between the two and Rufus invites her to an after party at the apartment of a friend. It is there that they come intimate and that encounter sets into motion a chain of events that affects nearly every single character in the book. Rufus’ best friend in Vivaldo, a young Italian from Brooklyn. He is involved with an older woman named Jane, who has a drinking problem but somehow manages to function and continue painting. At first, Rufus and Leona are on the path to love but reality quickly sets in. You see, Rufus is a Black American and Leona, a white woman from the South. And this is before laws against interracial marriage were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Their trials and tribulations are heartbreaking and Rufus struggles with Leona and himself all the way to the end. Incredibly, the two of them only take up a third of book, the rest is devoted to Rufus’ friends and former flame, who all converge to add unexpected twist and turns to each other’s lives.
Readers beware, this book is not for the faint at heart. The language at times is crass and the speech blunt. But Baldwin did not write this for an afternoon special, this is an unfiltered look into the relationships between friends and lovers of both sexes. Rufus’ younger sister Ida, eventually falls for his friend Vivaldo and in some way, they become a reincarnation of Rufus and Leona with a few notable exceptions. Ida becomes part of the inner circle of Richard and Clarissa “Cass” Silenski, Steve Ellis, and Eric Jones, the wildcard of the group who will remind readers of the character David in Giovanni’s Room. Those familiar with Baldwin’s life will recall that he not only died in France but spent a considerable amount of time in his life there and in Istanbul, Turkey. Paris is a part of the book and the place in which we learn more about Eric Jones, the “prodigal son” who returns to the United States even more uncertain of his understanding of what love truly is. His partner in France, Yves, is scheduled to arrive in the United States a few weeks after he arrives but before he does, Eric impacts the story in a major way which will never be forgotten by any of the characters. Incredibly, despite all that happens in the book, the story still belongs to Rufus who none of us can forget for too long as we make it through the book. And I do believe that at some parts of the book are based off of Baldwin’s life experiences or at the least, the characters composites of people he did know.
Where the book truly shines is in its examination of infidelity and the struggle that plagued interracial couples. Monogamy proves to be difficult for the characters in the book but we are reminded that they are human beings and humans do fail and make mistakes. But if we look past the shocking revelations, we can see the characters making a valiant effort to show us how and why we sometimes do the things that we do. And for those readers who have a spouse of love interest of a different background, the story of Rufus and Leona followed by Ida and Vivaldo will touch you directly as you find yourself able to relate to some of the challenges they face. Times have certainly changed since Baldwin finished this classic in 1961, but what is paramount, is that it takes a large amount of courage, sacrifice and understanding when one is involved in an interracial relationship. But love can and does prevail, and Baldwin does a great job of showing us the complicated ways in which we are able to make it last. I have always understood that it is far easier to hate someone than it is to love them. Loving another person is truly one of the hardest things we ever have to in life. But the reward is both fulfilling and to those who are the recipients of our affection.
Baldwin truly shines here, and the book is one of his greats. This is New York City and the story of a group of friends, bonded by tragedy and nearly separated by love, sex and the demons that come with all parts of life. And when you have finished this incredible story, you will have more of an appreciation for one of the greatest writers America has ever produced.
Every year that I age, I have noticed that I have a growing appreciation for classic literature and the works of other authors that are no longer with us. James Baldwin (1924-1987) is near the top of my list of authors whose books are critical to American history and the current day state of affairs in the United States. The Harlem native who took his last breath in France, stands out as a commentator on race in America. His observations which he then put into words, were sharp, analytical and deeply profound. Baldwin lived what could only be described as an eventful but complicated life. He was a Black American and homosexual in a time in which both were considered to be crimes of the highest nature. America had yet to see the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and homosexuality was still considered a crime against nature in many states. Baldwin was both and carried himself with an aura of confidence and intellect that has remained impressive many years after his death. In this short but intriguing book, Baldwin comments on race in America based off of his experience and encounters with White Americans and even Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. He never joined the nation but his account of his meeting with Muhammad is one of the highlights of the book. Racial discrimination is never an easy topic to discuss and many of us would prefer to discuss more pleasant issues. But Baldwin was a master of taking a explosive topic and relaying it to the reader in a way that forces one to do deep soul-searching if they are not African-American and reevaluate their own existence if they are.
Too often, it is assumed that books about racial inequality are attacks against White Americans. That is not Baldwin’s goal. In fact, Baldwin’s social circle was very diverse, consisting of White Americans, Black Americans, Europeans and Turkish individuals among others. In fact, in the book there is a part in which he feels conflicted about his White friends and his own social situation in America. His experience is not meant to demean or drive a wedge between friends but highlights the inner conflict that can engulf anyone. The key to appreciating Baldwin’s work is to remember that it was written in a time period that is much different from 2017. Jim Crow, voter suppression, poverty and class based war made life deplorable for minorities and poor White Americans. And before the courage of the Loving family, interracial marriage was illegal throughout the country. Every great movement needs voices like Baldwin, to remind of us where we come from and what we need to do in order to move forward. It is a shame that today, his voice has been largely forgotten by a generation that has no connection of one of the greatest writers in American history.
I truly wish Baldwin had completed more books before his death. His mind was uncanny and we are fortunate to have the works that he left behind. This book is not just for Black or White Americans, but for anyone who wishes to examined and understand America’s unpleasant history with racial equality. History is not always pleasant but the darkness in it, helps us not to make the same mistakes again but to try a different path that works and exemplifies what progress truly is. Baldwin does it again with another classic.
James Baldwin once remarked that the story of Black America was America’s story and believe that it was impossible to separate the two. Nearly all of this nation’s major events are in some way related to the plight of America’s minorities. The country that is the land of immigrants becomes more of a melting pot with each passing week. The recent documentary “13th” highlighted the system of mass incarceration that has resulted in America having the largest prison population of anywhere in the world and millions of young Black and Hispanic men and women being placed behind bars for extended sentences based on convictions for trivial crimes. At the heart of the African-American experience is the precarious state of the immediate family structure and the constant discord that exist.
Those familiar with Baldwin’s story will recognize that his life serves as some of the basis for the book. In fact, for most authors, personal experiences sometimes provide the best material. In this story, we dive deep inside a blended family with a large closet of secrets and a son trying to figure out his place within this family. As the novel begins, we are introduced to the Grimes family who are making their way to the local storefront church for the day’s service. The parents are Elizabeth and Gabriel who have a family of four consisting of John the protagonist, Roy who takes after Gabriel and Sarah and Ruth, the two sisters who have strictly supporting roles in the story. In fact, Ruth is baby and has no dialogue. It is John’s fourteenth birthday and he finds himself at a crossroads in his life as he tries to understand the path which he will take as he continues to mature. As the story continues, we come to learn that Gabriel harbors an unusual resentment towards John and is frustrated over Roy’s increasingly rebel behavior and inability to accept the faith. Faced with four mouths to feed, Gabriel is absent most of the time working to provide for his family. He drinks heavy and is physically abusive. Elizabeth does not work and takes care of the children all day. Gabriel’s sister Florence stops by and after her arrival the once contained feelings of animosity between brother and sister come rising to the surface. One day, Roy is knifed in a fight on the west side of Manhattan. During the argument that ensues between the adults, Gabriel strikes Elizabeth and his actions set off a chain of events. And at that point, we are told the background stories on each of the major characters. What we learn is that many dark secrets surround the family, centering around Gabriel, the Reverend who is a man of the faith. The revelation about his true connection to John is the crux of the book and critical to understanding Gabriel’s tragic character.
The lives of Gabriel, Florence and Elizabeth are further impacted by several deceased characters. Esther, Frank, Royal, Richard and Deborah fill in the blanks to the story and explain the present day situations that exist. Deborah and Esther in particular linger over the entire story and threaten Gabriel’s very existence. Their appearances in the book and the events that follow underscore the importance of a stable home and the presence of a father in the home. I firmly believe that Baldwin was making a very pointed statement about the issue. Gabriel’s position as a reverend also has a clear intention regarding the topic of religion which is a main theme in the book. As we read we are required to examine our own religions beliefs and how they influence our actions or non-actions. The African-American community remains strongly devout in Christianity and the Bible is viewed as the most important book to have in a household. In fact, in my own home, the Bible was openly displayed and any interference with it was subject to a tongue lashing or sometimes worse. Today in 2016, much is still the same in many homes and shows no signs of slowing down. But a critical question we have to ask is does religion help or sometimes hinder? And just how did it affect the characters in the book either positively or negatively?
The darker moments in the book give rise to a part of the story that could easily be overlooked. The era of Jim Crow and often violent racial discrimination forced millions of Black Americans to relocate throughout the country as they scattered to leave the south. However, even in the north and other parts of the union, poverty and hatred continued to haunt recent emigrants . The fears and uncertainty are displayed in Richard’s character and his fate. Baldwin pulls no punches in showcasing the disparity which plagued countless numbers of homes during that era and resulted in a system of dysfunction that permanently broke the Black family structure. And in the book we witness the characters struggle to keep the family together and in unison. But when it seems that all is lost, the protagonist John becomes the hope of the family and the light at the end of the tunnel. Elizabeth, Elisa and Florence serve as his guardian angels intent on preventing him from becoming another Gabriel and continuing the cycle that doomed prior generations. John realizes his potential, the truth about Gabriel and his demons and comes to terms with the fact that he will have to go tell it on the mountain.
The late James Baldwin (1924-1987), remains one of America’s most gifted authors. He is also remembered as an icon of the civil rights movement who was fiercely outspoken against the injustices committed against African-Americans. Similar to Bayard Rustin, his homosexuality resulted in a life long inner turmoil in a quest to find true love and happiness. When he died in France in December, 1987, he left this world as a bachelor and without children. It could be argued that his children are the writings he left behind that examined society, human nature and emotions. One of these stories is Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin’s masterpiece about the complexities of the human heart and the burden of living with repressed sexuality.
The story begins with David, an American citizen living in France. In America remain his father who is a widower. He is a native of San Francisco but has made Paris his new home. His girlfriend Hella, is away on vacation in Spain to reevaluate her feelings toward him and contemplate their future together. David is free to spend his nights on the streets of Paris and often is accompanied by his closest friend Jacques. They frequent a local bar owned by a character named Guillaume. It is on one of their visits to the bar that David meets the young man who becomes the focal point of the story, Giovanni, a recent immigrant from Italy who is now employed as a bartender. A brief conversation between the two blossoms and before long the dynamics of their relationship change revealing the alternative lifestyle of all of the male characters at the bar. But what transpires between David, Giovanni and Hella, highlights the dangerous and infinitely complex nature of love.
Baldwin confronts the concept of sexuality examining it under a microscope which forces the reader to look in the mirror as we see the lives of David and Giovanni change profoundly throughout the novel. And Giovanni’s fate at the end of the novel shows the ability of love, hate and rage to possess a person equally at the same time. David’s predicament will seem incredulous to some and his actions deplorable. But as Hella and Giovanni both wonder about him, does he truly love anyone or even himself? And even as the book closes, we still don’t know for sure. But what we do know is that love has the ability to create lives, sustain them and ultimately tear them apart. It has often been said that it is better to have loved than to have never loved at all. Would Giovanni or Hella agree? Or would they say a life without love is more satisfactory? Baldwin leaves it up to the reader to debate.
The novel is set in 1956, a time in which homosexual relationships were not only highly taboo and also criminal in many countries. David struggles with himself and his role in the lives of Hella and Giovanni and his battle within is one that is waged by men and women throughout the world unsure of their own sexuality. His actions and the effects of his omissions upon those closest to him, bring the issue of truth to the surface. The truth often hurts regardless of how it is told. For David, Giovanni and Hella, it is beyond sobering. And as a result of the truth, none of their lives are ever the same again. And herein lies one of the most powerful effects of the feeling of true love.
The book is short, roughly around 168 pages, but contained within it, is a fascinating story revolving around everyday struggles of people from all walks of life. And the novel shows the seemingly never ending ingenious of Baldwin as a writer. And although the story is set in France (Baldwin’s favorite European destination), it could have easily taken place in other major cities across the world. The characters could be of any ethnicity but the feelings on display by the characters in the book are exemplified in all cultures. And once you have finished the book, you will see the importance of Giovanni’s room.
On May 24, 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy met with a group composed of authors and civil rights icons at his Central Park South apartment. Among those in attendance were Lorraine Hansberry and her friend and fellow author, James Baldwin (1924-1987). The meeting quickly became volatile as the activists accused the Kennedy administration of dragging its feet on civil rights legislation. Their frustrations at the rampant discrimination in the United States and the inability of the government to take action, boiled over and Kennedy found himself in a hornet’s nest of raw emotion. The meeting left a permanent mark in his memory but in time he would become a vocal advocate for equal rights for all American regardless of race, creed or gender. His resurgence as the candidate of the poor and the downtrodden became the basis for his 1968 president campaign that ended tragically with his assassination in Los Angeles on June 5 ,1968. Baldwin outlived Kennedy by nineteen years and today both are remember for their efforts to transform the American conscious and way of thinking. In recent years, his work has been rediscovered and studied for its messages that were accurate then and are accurate now. Baldwin’s public stance of many topics was blunt and non-confusing. He did not mince his words and his delivery was direct and always mean to stir thought. But for all of his public actions, his private life is a story on its own that shows the author in a completely different light. His friend for many years, David Leeming, wrote this biography of his late friend to show the world who the real James Baldwin was. And what he has composed is a definitive account of the life of the late author.
The story of Baldwin’s life reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. As a Black American born during the Jim Crow era and an openly homosexual, he was in unique position to observe the world classified under two groups of individuals openly persecuted in American society. The New York native struggled to find himself and his journey in life took him back and forth across the ocean to Europe where he would find a second him in France. And it was in France that he took his last breath after succumbing to the effects of a protracted battle with lung cancer. During a visit to Istanbul, Turkey in 1968, he met Leeming and the two formed a friendship that lasted for the rest of his life. Leeming was present when Baldwin passed and had also become close to Baldwin’s brother David who is featured throughout the book.
Homosexuality was a topic that Baldwin had no fear of addressing. His classic Giovanni’s Room tackles the taboo subject and did so at at time when such topics were only discussed in secrecy. However the book breaches a subject to which millions of people can relate as they face the same struggle daily. And when he wrote the all-time classic Go Tell It On The Mountain, he took us deep inside a blended family with a long history that continues to affect present day affairs. The book’s protagonist John, is forced to navigate this world as he finds his true calling in life. The reality of his works is that his own personal experiences helped shape his literary accomplishments. The same can be said about other authors such as Lorraine Hansberry, John Steinbeck Ernesto Che Guevara, M.D. Baldwin’s personal life and his orientation proved to be his most difficult challenges and throughout the book we are witnesses to his enduring struggle to find true love. In an ironic twist, the author who loved his people and his country, never found that love at home but instead traveled the world in search of it and himself.
Baldwin has been gone for nearly thirty years but I believe that in the next few years, his voice will become heard again as America continues to deal with discrimination. The cause in which he enlisted is far from over but his voice remains to guide us along the way. After reading this book, I felt inspired by his courage and gifts to us and ashamed for not having known more about him prior to this. For some he may come across as a radical too outspoken but for others, he is an icon and a voice of truth when most did not want to hear it. David Leeming has done a great service to his friend with this excellent biography with one of America’s greatest writers.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” – James Baldwin