Daniel Sanchez on “James Baldwin: Racial Tensions and American Masculinity and Abroad”
In 1948, at the age of twenty four, James Baldwin left New York City for Paris in the hopes of escaping both the constrictive codes of masculinity that had come to define “manhood” in the United States and the deeply-felt racism that pervaded his experiences as an African American growing up in New York. These two aspects of Baldwin’s life, race and sexuality, provide the foundations on which his philosophy as an expatriate is built, and his early years found him traveling across France, Switzerland, Israel, Turkey, and Senegal. These travels widened Baldwin’s diasporic view of his own race and would later inform his contemplation of “the relationship between African Americans to a transnational community of the dispossessed,” which he later explored in his collection of published essays, No Name in the Streets (Schwarz and Kaplan 46). However, due to his ambiguous sexual identity, Baldwin felt at odds even within the African American community, and a large part of his first year in Paris was spent bringing “‘young French boyfriends’ [back] to his room as a way of breaking free from the morality of the church” with which he spent a number of years working as a preacher before his self-imposed exile (Schwarz and Kaplan 163). Ironically, the perceived freedoms granted by Baldwin’s newfound sexual liberation in Europe were nearly sacrificed when, within the first year of his departure from the United States, he attempted to end his life by hanging himself from a water pipe in a French hotel room. After being falsely imprisoned and detained for eight days by the French authorities, Baldwin was forced to confront the idea that, in fleeing from one country’s racism and homophobia, he had entered another where classism and xenophobia held indistinguishable shackles. The crippling despair that subsequently washed over Baldwin lead to his attempted suicide, but the act’s failure resulted in a “vision change” that would bring his writing on race, country, and home to a new level of clarity (Schwarz and Kaplan 163).
Understandably, the idea of a private and sequestered room in which one could find sanctuary and “discover the self away from the threats of society” is a recurring motif throughout many of Baldwin’s works, but it is perhaps most poignantly utilized in his second novel, Giovanni’s Room (Schwarz and Kaplan 162). In Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin eschews the racial complexities of African Americans abroad in favor of exploring the issues of homosexuality and masculinity and their (often inextricable) link to one’s national identity. By crafting a sexually-conflicted Caucasian American man to act as his protagonist in a Paris setting, Baldwin is able to convey his own experience as a young African American man who finds no “home” on either side of the ocean. While race played a major role in Baldwin’s own departure from the United States, Giovanni’s Room‘s David flees as an attempt to “find” himself, admitting that such a declaration “betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced” (Baldwin 21). In telling a story of expatriation with themes similar to many of the issues with which Baldwin struggled in his own life (albeit with the subjects of race and masculinity each acting in place of the other), Giovanni’s Room stands as a testament to the idea that descrimination, suffering, and hope often survive the journey across racial and national borders.
Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York: Vintage International, 2013 .
Schwarz, Bill, and Cora Kaplan. James Baldwin: America and Beyond. University of Michigan Press, 2011.
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