It’s crazy to think that we are already coming to the end of February, which also means coming to the end of Black History Month. It’s actually been a great month for my reading, because I’ve been introduced to a lot of black authors that I’ve never heard of before. On the other hand, I also took the opportunity to revisit a few favorites. One of those favorites that I have been dying to write about for a Throwback Thursday is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.
Before I get started, I do have to address the fact that Giovanni’s Room is not about race at all—it is entirely centered around the theme of sexuality and the shame that surrounds it. What is very interesting about this novel is also the fact that Baldwin’s two main characters are white. At first this was questioned by many people, but I find it to be absolutely genius on his part. You can do a quick search of Baldwin’s writing that surrounds race relations (my personal favorite is “A Letter to My Nephew”) and you will quickly realize it was not because it was he was afraid to speak on the topic. Very plainly, Baldwin had a vision for what he wanted to make of this novel and he embodied those characters with ease to do so.
The thing about Baldwin is that it seems as though his sexuality was just as important to him as his race. His sexuality could have caused him to be rejected by the black community as well, yet he brought it into conversation anyway. Maybe not in regard to his own relationships, because I understand the desire to keep things private, but through his writing. Years later, Giovanni’s Room has come to influence countless writers by paving the way for Queer literature. I chose to focus our attention on Giovanni’s Room because Baldwin was able to become a sort-of father figure to people of all different races.
Not only this, but he challenged his own career and potential by choosing to to write on matters outside of race (and hear me out here). Giovanni’s Room was actually rejected by Knopf because they wanted to do more writing surrounding the concept of the black experience. He could have benefitted his career by focusing his writing on that concept alone, but instead he chose to let all of the pieces of his identity flow from his hands and into his writing. Please don’t take this as my minimizing any writers for focusing on racism because I think it is of the utmost importance it be discussed, but I applaud Baldwin for expanding his scope to whatever he wanted it to be.
Sometimes, doing the things you truly want to do can also be the hardest thing you can do. You have to make sacrifices and fight for the things you want, but Baldwin proves that these things that make up who you are do not also define your limits. Giovanni’s Room was initially rejected but has remained relevant nearly seventy years after its initial publication and will continue to fascinate its readers for many more to come.
Also, in an effort not to go this entire article without once mentioning the plot, I will simply say this: Giovanni’s Room is about two men in Paris who fall in love. One is American, one is Italian, both have things keeping them from pursuing the relationship they wish they could. The only place they can be their true selves are in Giovanni’s room, but what happens when the real world begins to slip through the cracks in the door?
Come back next week for another TBT and in the meantime, feel free to check out Giovanni’s Room and “A Letter to my Nephew” before Black History Month comes to an end; although reading them after the end of February is fine too—to each their own!