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What Does Literature Feel Like?

Reading the Sensual in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room

Ronnel Keith Berry et Michael Thomas


Dans The Fire Next Time, l’écrivain afro-américain James Baldwin décrit le sensuel comme le fait de « respecter et tirer joie de la force de la vie, de la vie elle-même et d’être présent dans tout ce que l’on fait, de l’effort d’aimer à la rupture du pain » (1998c 311, notre traduction). La sensualité baldwinienne se détache de son interprétation hédoniste, exprimant plutôt une forme de savoir et une pratique de vivre dans l’ouverture d’esprit à l'autre et à la complexité de notre humanité. Dans ses essais et ses romans, Baldwin travaille à l’intersection du « sens de la réalité » de ses lecteurs, ou expérience vécue du monde, et du « système de réalité », la structure sociologique dans laquelle ils sont positionné(e)s. Dans cet article, nous lisons Giovanni’s Room (1956) comme un texte permettant d’identifier les techniques de Baldwin pour évoquer le sensuel, et expérimenter ses effets sur les individus et le(s) système(s) de réalité de l’après-guerre. Ces techniques relient la persona littéraire de Baldwin et ses transformations à la forme et au contenu de ses essais, fournissant ainsi un cadre pour analyser la tension entre l’amour hétéronormatif et le désir queer vécu par David dans le roman. À partir de cette analyse, nous articulons une théorie baldwinienne du « sensuel » comme site d’intervention contre le racisme et l’homophobie générés par notre système contemporain de réalité et comme source de techniques pour changer notre sens de cette réalité afin de rendre possible des transformations systémiques.

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1When faced with a work of great literature, readers often respond with the sense that the work moves them. The author’s words and narrative style have shifted their perspectives in ways that they struggle to put into words by the text’s end. As teachers and interpreters of literature, we are tasked with guiding readers through this process by bringing their intuitions about the text in dialogue with the author’s motivations and attention to the literary practices at play. This process is especially important for the work of James Baldwin, who writes with a moral force that demands that readers bear witness to aspects of their experience that they have been enculturated to deny. One such experience is the experience of racialization which, Baldwin believes, “operates to hide the graver question of the self” (1998a 136). In his essays, Baldwin’s technique of witnessing is a form of prophetic speech used to call attention to the effects of racist structures of society, which asks us to respond by learning to bear witness ourselves by learning to identify these structures in our daily lives and communicate the need for social transformation to others (Miller; Thomas). In his novels, Baldwin details the ways in which his characters describe the world, drawing our attention to the forms of engagement and evasion at work in their experience, which models forms diagnosed in his cultural analysis. This form of critical self-reflection is animated by his principle that “[t]he questions which one asks oneself, begin, at least, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others” (Baldwin, 1998a 136). The call for transformation occurs in the tension generated by the contradictions of what we feel and exclude from experience, which drive us towards their resolution.

  • 1 In this paper, we capitalize Black and White to indicate their status as social identities that fun (...)

2Readers of Baldwin’s work often feel this need, but the direction of their witnessing varies. In White readers in particular, the response to Baldwin’s work often evokes a sense of moral guilt and responsibility which, while necessary, fails to move them towards actions that would directly alter the social structures that make them complicit in the effects of anti-Black racism.1 For many Black readers, Baldwin’s words echo as a call to a pessimistic view towards racism in the United States (Coates; Wilderson), a call for democratic transformation (Glaude; Drabinski), or a radical rejection of the American project. These divergent readings demand a return to Baldwin’s own principles of literary style to view his works in light of their social context and their relationship with his own process of personal and political transformation. Particularly in his early works, Baldwin is engaged in a process of self-disclosure in which he attempts to shake off the crutches of racism and Americanism that restrict the possibilities for human life to post-World War II nationalistic ideals surrounding nationality, race, gender and sex.

3Baldwin’s rhetoric is grounded in a theory of the sensual as a site for interventions against the racism and homophobia generated by our system of reality and as a source of techniques for altering our sense to make systemic transformations possible. For Baldwin, our sense of reality, the feeling that our claims about the world are justified and moral, is formed in relation with our system of reality, the organization of society and our position in it. Whiteness, as a racial process, generates a sense of reality which reifies Black-White positionality, socially, politically and economically. In his 1965 debate with William Buckley, Baldwin argues:

A white South African, or a Mississippi sharecropper, or a Mississippi sheriff, or a Frenchman driven out of Algeria all have, at bottom, a system of reality which compels them—for example in the case of the French exiled from Algeria—to defend French reasons for having ruled Algeria. The Mississippi or the Alabama sheriff who really does believe when he’s facing the Negro boy or girl, that this woman, this man, this child must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity. (1965)

4This European or western sense of reality operates epistemically, in this instance, to a priori invalidate critiques of its system of reality. Oppressed people seem irrational or insane from the White perspective, which presumes the justice of a system that, in their perspective, has incorporated oppressed peoples into society as a part of a larger civilizational progress. This sense relies on a system of beliefs and practices necessitating the valorization of the ideal of Whiteness over all others. Baldwin invokes the sensual in his writings to destabilize this sense of reality so that we can identify our methods of evading the troubling features of our lived experience for the comfort of ideals that protect us by isolating us from the sense that we are ever truly in contact with others. His witnessing aims to move us towards collective action through reckoning with the tragedy of life and the contingency of our social systems so that we might form relations that allow us to face these truths of existence together rather than live in silent fear of their effects. Reading the sensual in Baldwin’s work prepares us to take up the task of remaking the world by learning to face what our systems ask us to hide.

5In this article, we read Giovanni’s Room as a critique of post-World War II American Whiteness as a hegemonic ideal of the human, which conveys the latent belief that White people are paragons of social and democratic virtue that non-White groups should adopt. In the novel, Baldwin demonstrates the failures of Whiteness in David’s flight to heteronormative masculinity in response to the tension he experiences when faced with his queer desires. David rejects his same-sex desires, we argue, to maintain his White identity, which demands that he deny the reality of his feelings and the havoc that denial has on his various lovers. Throughout the novel, Baldwin uses “the sensual” as a site for experimenting with Whiteness’s effects on postwar system(s) of reality. In his descriptions of David’s encounters, Baldwin focuses on shifts in experience, conversations with others, and the feelings evoked by David’s reflections to mark how the post-World War II American sense of reality denies meaningful relationships with others to escape the knowledge of what he calls the “extreme, inescapable states” of our humanity: birth, suffering, love, and death. This critique presents readers with a model for interrogating their relationship to sensuality consistent with Baldwin’s position that if we ignore these states, we forgo the knowledge of our personal and collective responsibility for each other’s lives.

  • 2 We use the term ideology to mean a set of ideals and norms that form a hegemonic narrative of a soc (...)

6In Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin wrestles with the impacts that American ideology imposes on the self-development of American people both at the individual and national level.2 For him, American ideology carries psychological constraints that inhibit the ability of Americans to develop their private lives. More than a set of beliefs, ideology functions as a set of constraints on action, reinforced through violence, which demand that Americans abandon their desires to preserve a system of reality that values “Whiteness” as the dominant frame of societal influence. Baldwin captures this psychological constraint in the tension that characterizes these works. We are asked to feel the contradictions through moments of shifting perception that David experiences in his reflections, conversations, and encounters with others. These moments model the instability of the US White sense of reality when confronted with the pressures of its system, highlighting the individualizing (in)humanity of its ideals (Halewood) and the need to embrace the sensual as a mode of experiencing reality through sociality with others.

The “White Problem” of Giovanni’s Room

  • 3 Our use of “social identity” follow’s Linda Martín Alcoff’s analysis of Whiteness as a social ident (...)
  • 4 Baldwin uses the term “private life” as a shorthand for individuals’ relation with their subjective (...)

7During a talk at Harvard University Baldwin reacted to a White student’s earnest inquiry on the “Negro problem,” responding, “It’s not the Negro problem. It’s the white problem. I’m only black, because you think you’re white” (quoted in Leeming). This relationship between images of Black and White people generates what Baldwin calls “the white problem,” “a terrible paradox [in which] those who believe that they could control and define Black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves” (Baldwin, 1998e 180). Whiteness, for Baldwin, is a social identity through which White people experience themselves as the embodiment of a set of hegemonic values: individualism, clearly defined gender roles, heteronormative sexuality, and a Protestant work ethic.3 These values undergird a White supremacist system of reality, generating a sense of reality that presents the White person to themselves as an embodiment of benevolent social dominance. The price of this sense and system of reality is an alienated experience, which generates a conflict between an individual’s public life and private life.4

8In Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin presents a literary critique of American Whiteness, which targets the process of self-alienation brought on by post-World War II ideals of nation, freedom and democracy. Yet since its publication, the novel has traditionally been interpreted as being about homosexuality and silent about race due to its all-White characters and setting in Paris, France. In fact, upon submitting the novel for publication, Baldwin met resistance because of its positive portrayals of homosexual love at a time when same-sex attraction was connoted with amorality. In “James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room: Expatriation, ‘Racial Drag,’ and Homosexual Panic,” Mae G. Henderson comes close to unearthing the importance of race in Giovanni’s Room, offering insights into the connection between the novel and Whiteness, through the concept of “racial drag”: “[in the novel], geographical expatriation combines with the literary act of racial expatriation—or what I call ‘racial drag’—to create a space for the exploration of the homosexual dilemma within and beyond the social and geographic contours of post-World War II America” (298). Henderson describes the novel as a geographical and racial expatriation or a “literary masquerade” (298). Henderson’s observation, however, insinuates that race is secondary to the homosexual dilemma in the novel; that Blackness is an “absent presence” disguised in “racial drag” or “whiteface.” Baldwin’s own words seem to back this claim. Indeed, Baldwin argues that the decision came out of the psychological weight of the problem, which tested the limitations of his literary talents at the time:

Giovanni came out of something I had to face. I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other weight, the “Negro Problem.” The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it. I might do it differently today, but then, to have a black presence in the book at that moment, and in Paris, would have been quite beyond my powers. (1989 239)

  • 5 In the Kinsey Reports of 1948 and, later, 1953, Alfred Kinsey and other scientists “explored the my (...)
  • 6 This response accounts for Baldwin’s perception that King and others in the Civil Rights Movement d (...)

9Baldwin’s inability to handle both arises from a contradiction in the United States’ system of reality at the time, which disarticulated the connections between Blackness, Whiteness, race, and sexuality. At this time homosexuality was framed as America’s “White problem,” and literary and cultural norms meant that (Black and White) writers turned to Blackness primarily to investigate effects of racism. Sexuality was treated as a “white problem,” particularly when it came to homosexuality.5 This bifurcation between Whiteness/sexuality and Blackness/racism manifests itself in responses to Baldwin and his work by Black activists of the time, particularly in activist and writer Eldridge Cleaver’s response to the book and Civil Rights leaders’ response to Baldwin’s sexuality and fame.6 This context shows that the issue is not a need to pass as White, but to begin with an interrogation of Whiteness as a social identity prior to writing about Blackness.

  • 7 This interpretation implies that Baldwin’s relationship to David is not one of drag or dawning whit (...)

10If there is no room for race in Giovanni’s Room, it is because race permeates the structures where the analysis of sexuality takes place. The above history indicates that the association of Whiteness and sexuality leaves no room for an exploration of Blackness on the level of the marketing of the novel, its reception, and the racial and sexual politics of the period. There is no room in the American system of reality for Baldwin to make sense of his experience of the interaction of race and sexuality. Thus, his omission of Black characters is a personal decision more than a political one, which reflects his epistemic need to deal with the internalization of racism, which he describes in Nobody Knows My Name. In its famous opening essay, “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American,” Baldwin states that he expatriated himself from the United States to escape the psychological terror of being reduced to his race, becoming “merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro Writer” (1998a 137). In this moment, he is interested in how being American connects both White and Black expatriates in Europe, who find themselves isolated from the sociological context that justifies the White supremacist system of reality in the United States. By focusing on “Americanness,” Baldwin indicates the need to wrestle with the effects of the system of national identity on his sense of racial identity. By not addressing racial Blackness directly, Baldwin is able to reveal Whiteness as a social identity which lies at the heart of American identity. Returning to Henderson’s analysis, we can say that expatriation is not a proxy for deracialization, but an intentional confrontation with Whiteness as a framework for understanding national, gender, and sexual identity. Baldwin expatriates himself physically and intellectually to give himself the room to interrogate sexuality without the psychological tension of addressing interracial dynamics simultaneously.7

11This confrontation with Whiteness provides the central point of tension in Giovanni’s Room, as David, who links Baldwin to the White American sense of reality, struggles for his identity against the internalized forms of domination that structure life in the United States. The novel follows the American David in 1950s Paris, after he flees New York to escape the memory of a same-sex liaison he had during his teenage years. In its opening scene, we find David staring out of a window, holding a drink, at the threshold of a night leading to “the most terrible morning of [his] life” (1998d 221). Faced before this abyss, David attempts to reorient himself by abstracting away from his body to its imaginary Whiteness:

I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of the window pane. My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past. (Baldwin, 1998d 221)

12In his moment of despair, David ironically presents himself through the American myth of White conqueror, mocking his sense of power over himself and others while simultaneously acknowledging that he has sent a man to his death through a maddening denial of love. Baldwin posited that the typified American is White and male, “someone who is kind of a cross between the Teuton and the Celt” (1998d 218). For him, these bodies contain “the national self-image […] which suggests hard work and good clean fun and chastity and piety and success” (1998d 218). The “you” in David’s statement uses direct address to signal the readers’ own relation to this national mythology, incorporating them in David’s self-analysis to experience the melodrama of his self-effacement. At the same time, it signals a complicity in the history of death and destruction that has followed the organization of a White supremacist system of reality that denies its dominance as it exercises it. The dread which hangs over the scene emanates from David’s sense of guilt and responsibility, which fails to cohere with his sense of himself as powerful and free. It marks the self-abnegation of Whiteness as a conquering force, which alienates itself from its violent behavior to preserve a sense of morality contrary to reality. Here, the ominous setting gives way to an inner monologue tracing the fateful events that have led to this crossroads. The scenes carry a wandering sense of regret and detached disillusionment, punctuated by the self-negating conclusion that, “nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom” and “the great difficulty is to say Yes to life” (1998d 222). David’s existential rigor mortis arises from the nihilism of Whiteness as a form of negation of the other and simultaneous negation of the self.

13David’s physical displacement from the US to France, like Baldwin’s own, has only highlighted the effects of this system on his senses. He, like Baldwin, fled to France to escape the external pressures of American morality. “I wanted to find myself,” David narrates, “an interesting phrase […] which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced” (1998d 236). The nagging feeling that David senses arises from his inability to relocate himself within the normative systems that grounds his sense of self as possibility. In Europe, he misplaces what Baldwin calls his “crutch” of masculinity and heterosexuality that would defend him against the fear of his homosexual desires (135). Under these conditions, David, like Baldwin, must face that “the question of who [he was] had at last become a personal question, and the answer was to be found in [him]” (135). Baldwin and David’s parallel experience bridges the world of the novel with Baldwin’s own context, an initial connection between fiction and reality that moves historically to the context of the reader. All begin the journey together through David’s perspective and diverge on their respective quests for identity in the process.

14To answer the question of who he is, David must shed the habits that have sheltered him from the reality of his same-sex desires and govern his values. In losing himself, David has lost his innocence, which he has used to protect himself from experiencing who he really is. David’s flight to innocence mirrors White America’s flight to innocence, a flight to shield themselves from their experience through willful ignorance and a sense of moral purity. Moving further into the narrative, Baldwin dramatizes the methods that David uses to run from his experiences, demonstrating how the larger the “bulldog in [his] backyard” becomes, the more it grows out of David’s control. In time, “the bulldog” becomes inescapably connected to his sense of self and distorts his sense of the sensual.

Evading the Sensual

15The tension in Giovanni’s Room, manifested from David’s failure to make sense of reality, is the result of a series of evasions of experience that disconnect him from sensuality. For Baldwin, the novel is not about homosexuality at all, “It’s about what happens to you if you can’t love anybody” (Baldwin, 1987). The relationships in the novel collapse due to the failure of David and others to connect with one another. As a result, Baldwin argues, “[they] have no way of learning humility […] no way of learning that other people suffer and no way of learning how to use [their] suffering and [others’] to get from one place to another” (Baldwin, 1987). This inability to learn from others is one of two senses in which Baldwin discusses “White innocence,” his term for a sense of reality characterized by an insensitivity to the effects of one’s system of reality on others. In a second sense, White innocence is characterized by the sense that one is not responsible for actions that their system of reality inflicts on others. Baldwin treats these two aspects of innocence, the epistemic and moral, as the grounds for the condemnation of the current form of the American system of reality:

I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it […]. But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. (Baldwin, 1998c 292)

  • 8 This description of the “Whiteness” of White innocence often appears as an essentialist characteriz (...)

16In Baldwinian terms, White innocence “protect[s] [one] against reality, or experience, or change, and [succeeds] in placing beyond the reach of corruption values [one] prefers not to examine” (1998b 98). To be clear, innocence is not a construct of Whiteness but, rather, an effect which transcends modes of “prepubescent or prelapsarian [conditionality]” (Elam 10), acting, rather, as a hiding place where one “won’t be hurt, in which [one] won’t have to think about [oneself] and in which [one] won’t have to change [or] be responsible for [one’s] neighbor” (Baldwin, 1987). White innocence accounts for America’s unwillingness to confront its past and present crimes, “protecting beliefs about the character of American society from the countervailing evidence of American history” (Balfour 374). In effect, White innocence is a cornerstone of a commitment to White identity, which further disassociates Whiteness from other systems of reality and forms of sensibility at work in sensible life.8

17Within the novel, Baldwin dramatizes David’s exercise of “white innocence,” through self-abnegating speech, displacement of his violence on others, and social paranoia. The world appears to David as a collection of characters in his autobiography who exist to confirm himself to himself. This narcissistic disposition disconnects him from reality, which Baldwin theorizes as the slow disassociation of one’s sense of reality from their relationships with other people. As he writes in The Fire Next Time:

The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves. (1998c 312)

  • 9 Baldwin’s notion of White innocence runs close to the analysis of White Ignorance developed in the (...)

18Baldwin’s language here performs the twists and turns of phrase witnessed in David’s stumble through his national narrative as well as his public self-perception attempts to escape reality, experience and change by asserting heteronormative sexuality between himself and his same-sex desires. His attempts at self-definition fail precisely because they have no ground in his past or present beyond a set of “historical and public attitudes” that have disconnected him from sensing reality through a life of failed experiences. By following David’s path of destruction, Baldwin highlights how White innocence traps him within an amoral relationship to his experience that guides him to the demoralized opening of the novel.9 In the process of denying himself and those around him genuine expressions of self, or what Baldwin calls the sensual, David becomes an unwilling accomplice to his own action, a bad faith relationship to himself that leads to his downfall.

19David’s rejection of sensuality appears in his abstract, disinterested form of self-explanation and “white lies” he uses to frame his experiences. David describes his relationship with his fiancée Hella, for example, as shallow and emotionally abstemious: “I liked [Hella], I thought she would be fun to have fun with. That was how it began, that was all it meant to me […]” (1998d 222). This superficial description of his relationship is analogous to his superficial rationale for his presence in the queer community at Guillaume’s bar where he meets Giovanni:

This bar was practically in my quartier and I had many times had breakfast in the nearby working man’s café to which all the nightbirds of the neighborhood retired when the bars closed. Sometimes I was with Hella, sometimes I was alone. And I had been in this bar, too, two or three times; once very drunk. I had been accused of causing a minor sensation by flirting with a soldier. My memory of that night was, happily, very dim, and I took the attitude that no matter how drunk I may have been I could not possibly have done such a thing. But my face was known and I had the feeling that people were taking bets about me. Or, it was as though they were the elders of some strange and austere holy order and were watching me in order to discover by means of signs I made but which only they could read, whether or not I had a true vocation. (Baldwin, 1998d 31)

20David rationalizes his presence at Guillaume’s bar, alongside his Belgian friend Jacques—whom he knows desires him sexually—by suggesting that the close proximity of the bar—“the bar was […] in my quartier”—explicates his presence, while at the same time offering an imprecise amount of time he has frequented the bar: “two, or three times.” This suggests an inherent inconsistency associated with his belief system (heteronormative) and his actions (non-heteronormative). Yet, this contradiction is further highlighted when David implies that he “may” have flirted with a soldier, a situation that is simply dismissed with voluntary ignorance: “I took the attitude that […] I could not possibly have done such a thing.” David’s reactionary dismissiveness denies the objective accounts of others and subjectively distances him from the danger of the gaze of “the elders of some strange and austere holy order” who question his “true [sexual] vocation” and, therefore, threaten the safety his heteronormativity identity accords him. This scene effectively establishes the contradictions which later define David’s actions and interpersonal relationships with the other characters in the novel. David’s “thankfully dim” recollection of his embarrassing moments illustrates the need for him to absolve himself from his feelings through the active production of ignorance to preserve his innocence. However, his fear of being seen exposes him to himself, although he refuses to acknowledge it. We experience this break through David’s direct address, attempting to convince us as he attempts to convince himself of his identity through the willful obfuscation of his own memory. These moments of rupture between David’s self-narrative, actions, and feeling create a violent uncertainty that haunts the novel and disfigures David’s experience. Baldwin’s language generates a sense of distortion at each moment that David anticipates an accurate vision of his sensual response to his reality in himself or in the public addressed in his narration. Later, David’s sense of his own monstrosity places monstrous faces on Giovanni, Hella, and the others he harms in his quest to maintain his purity. Baldwin captures this process of disfiguration by narrating the disorienting experiences that emerge as David’s ugliness transfers itself to the space he inhabits and the faces and bodies of those he touches without touching.

21These tensions are crucial to tracing the transformations that characterize David’s relationship to Giovanni. David’s feelings betray him to the reader when he encounters Giovanni at the bar. As David orders a drink from Giovanni, whom he describes as “insolent and dark and leonine.” He feels himself lured to him, “as though his station were a promontory and we were the sea” (241). The shift to simile contrasts with the deception at work in his literal descriptions, illustrating the felt pull to homosexual love despite his self-denial. David loses his innocence when he inadvertently signals his attraction to Giovanni and, “blush[es] and realize[s] by a faint merriment on Giovanni’s face as he served us that [Giovanni] had seen it” (242). Baldwin narrates the sensual connection to Giovanni as a felt connection that can’t be contained by his façade. The reality of his feelings betrays his closeted self-representation as his fear of being seen gives way to a sense of promise and pleasure. David’s façade reemerges when Jacques notices that David is attracted to Giovanni and suggests that David invite him to accompany them for a drink. David, immediately, refuses on the grounds that he is “queer for girls,” in an attempt to protect his innocence (244). Jacques, in response, bears subtle witness to David by responding, “I was not suggesting that you jeopardize, even for a moment, that […] immaculate manhood which is your pride and joy” (244). Understanding that his presence inhibits their interaction, Jacques leaves the couple, allowing David’s feelings to do the work. Once alone, David admits that “I was quite happy to be talking with [Giovanni] and this realization made me shy. And I felt menaced since Jacques was no longer at my side” (245). This sense of menace is the feeling of panic which emerges when David loses the security of a figure that justifies his presence at the bar. David, who believes himself to be heterosexual, feels alone in a web of homosexual relations recognizable to the bar’s queer patrons. His self-narrative gives way to his feelings, expressed in physical and literary expression, which, when registered by others, disrupt his sense of reality and expose him to himself through their reactions. As Giovanni leaves him for a moment, David notices the crowd there watching. “They knew that they had witnessed a beginning,” he says, “and they would not cease to watch until they saw the end […] the tables had been turned, now I was in the zoo, and they were watching” (251). Here, David betrays the fact that he’d observed the bar’s patrons as a visitor when he had been a resident the whole time.

22Thus, David finds himself in an alternative system of reality in which his expatriation from his country and its system of reality simultaneously distances him from his own sense of reality and identity. Within this space, he is confronted with the potential joys and dangers of taking responsibility for his desires, which, coupled with his own fear of himself, are exposed to him through his own feelings and confirmed by the bar’s patrons. At this stage, Baldwin gives his prophetic voice to the characters in order to foreshadow David’s fate. First, he speaks as one of les fous to offer a moment of Cassandran prophecy, “Il est dangereux, tu sais,” he says, “And for a boy like you—he is very dangerous” (252). David dismisses them violently with a French, “Va te faire foutre” (252), reasserting his heteronormative personality. In a second moment, Jacques, who returns shortly after, follows the tragic proclamation with Tiresean wisdom. He remarks to David that the bar’s patrons are happy with how well he and Giovanni have hit it off, offering, “I trust there has been no confusion?” (253). David, reacting defensively responds that there’s been no confusion, warning, “Don’t you get getting confused either” (253). Jacques responds by noting that the confusion he means is not the patrons’ but David’s own, warning, “Confusion is a luxury which only the very, very young can possibly afford and you are not that young anymore” (253). Here, Jacques acts as a mouthpiece for Baldwin, warning David about the responsibility he bears for his feelings and the budding relationship, which is so intense that it radiates through the bar. The play on “confusion” in this instance moves between subject positions indicating David’s projection of his desires on the bar patrons as a mechanism to deny his private feelings publicly. The questions of the public are ultimately questions of self, which David’s Whiteness guides him to violently deny. His system of reality denies the sense of reality of others, like the sheriff and sharecropper mentioned above.

23This violence manifests itself sensually when David rejects Giovanni’s love. Upon deciding to leave Giovanni, David’s perspectives of space, time, and beauty shift, altering his experience of the places and people he claims to love. His reflections on the end of his relationship show the disfiguring effects of the rejection of intimacy Giovanni’s face:

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. In the beginning, our life together held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity, and pride. Giovanni’s face, which I had memorized so many mornings, noons, and nights, hardened before my eyes, began to give in secret places, began to crack. The light in the eyes became a glitter; the wide and beautiful brow began to suggest the skull beneath. The sensual lips turned inward, busy with the sorrow overflowing from his heart. It became a stranger’s face—or it made me so guilty to look on him that I wished it were a stranger’s face. Not all my memorizing had prepared me for the metamorphosis which my memorizing had helped to bring about. (1998d 281)

24David’s self-destructive feelings transpose themselves onto Giovanni, making him into a crumbling representation that bears the marks of the strain of David’s violent ambivalence. Baldwin’s language moves from the idyllic articulation of love that characterized their relationship to its disfiguration through the emergence of fear and panic that he denied from the beginning of their time together. When faced with the reality of love, David’s fears transform the beauty of Giovanni and their relationship to ugliness which has to be mapped on to Giovanni’s body to enable their separation while maintaining David’s innocence.

25Baldwin’s presentation of David’s experience demonstrates the alternative epistemology he attempts to generate through his literary work. David’s narcissistic worldview, which Baldwin associates with post-World War II Whiteness, proceeds from the idea that individuals define reality based on their own self-understanding and actions in the world. However, as Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman notes, David’s identity is “relational, contextual, processual, and contingent” (Abdur-Rahman, 2015 165) upon social markers of otherness and normality. This reading is consistent with Baldwin’s relational concept of identity, through which knowledge of reality is found in our desires and our perceptions, which take place in an intersubjective world. David’s failure to guard his self-presentation against his desires demonstrates that the real exists prior to one’s own self-conception and, often, takes place in systems of reality that know us better than we know ourselves. The latter fact is what guides Baldwin to provide moments of tragic wisdom through the eyes of characters in the queer community, who show David that the ultimate lie is the idea that he is a member of a system of reality that aims to exclude his desires and his happiness. The shifts in David’s perception indicate the distortions required to maintain White innocence, which alters the shape of one’s experience in line with the panic that emerges when reality refuses to be ignored. The monstrosity in these moments is consistent with the level of fear David experiences, which Baldwin associates with the attempt to remain innocent of the reality of finitude found in birth, love, suffering, and death.

26Baldwin redresses the false reality that White innocence needs to function by countering it with what he calls “the sensual,” an aesthetic connection with material reality that ignorance denies in favor of an abstract sense of self-understanding. Baldwin emphasizes aesthetic feeling as the level at which the seemingly innocent lies we tell manifest themselves in our experience of others. David requires this anaesthetic denial of feeling to maintain his innocence as he commits acts of real violence against the self and others. The sensual appears aesthetically in the feelings that arise physically in relation to Giovanni and those expressed by others at the bar that witness David’s ambivalence, though he himself cannot see it. The aesthetic, emphasizing private and public feelings, is a field of sensual relationships that gives the lie to the abstractions used to paper over it.

27Baldwin’s concept of the sensual involves an understanding of the individual as a relational person, who develops their identity in community with others. The relations of domination that structure the American sense of reality force individuals to disconnect themselves from others for the preservation of an ideal, “White” self that fears the repercussions of being found out. The flight to innocence is thus epistemic and ethical. It denies knowledge of the self in order to reject responsibility for one’s feelings, relationships, and the implications of their actions in a world of others. For David, this fear of being found out, which is present in his relationship with Giovanni, replicates the panic that arises in his first homosexual encounter, which led to his displacement from his sexuality and country. In the following section, we illustrate that David is not equipped to fulfil the promise that the affection of his friend Joey offers. David chooses an abstemious life for the safety he believes he will receive from a heteronormative life, even if that life is a lie. Yet, the promise of a heterosexual relationship falls short, because David cannot connect with his female partners beyond how they vindicate his status as a White, heterosexual, American man. In David’s relationships with men, on the other hand, he is challenged to face who he is beyond unapplicable norms, to navigate the mystery of love and what Baldwin calls the sensual. This is what Giovanni represents for David. These are the stakes: a life of sensuality or safety.

Reading the Sensual

28In Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin poses an ethical challenge to the reader. White innocence is a means of whitewashing historical and contemporary conditions in order to preserve one’s sense of self as moral. Baldwinian sensual knowledge, in contrast, calls for the witness to face reality, and the character of the society that Black and White Americans share. David’s narration, given through recollection of the past, positions him to see himself through his actions and face the guilt he feels for the pain he has inflicted on others. In addition, it provides Baldwin an opportunity to dramatize the effects of White ignorance on experience as a flight from reality in the pursuit of a pure perspective, which turns to ugliness when one fails to keep up the façade. Baldwin’s dramatization of this process through David’s experience, and the richness of his reflections on the sensual transformation of his experience, provide a model for how we as readers can read the sensual to resolidify our connection with reality.

29First, Baldwinian sensual knowledge is grounded in an understanding of reality as bound by “extreme states” of the human condition: “birth, suffering, love, and death” (Baldwin, 1962). White innocence attempts to avoid encountering these states through a mythology that valorizes the nuclear family and economic prosperity as havens that protect individuals from suffering and death. Baldwin believes that this process of alienation from the human condition is a coping mechanism that all societies must undergo to further their structural development:

The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic. (1962)

30David’s sense of panic, which characterizes Giovanni’s Room, flows from his realization that he has no place within the system of reality that has been given to him. In his relationship with Giovanni, David feels menaced when his nonconformity to his own heterosexual norms is witnessed by others, making them real to himself despite his feigned ignorance of them. The sense of menace is generated by the fears surrounding homosexuality instituted by homophobic images, laws, social practices, and violence. Baldwin uses David’s first homosexual encounter with his friend Joey to dramatize the extreme swing from playfully romantic love to violence and harassment generated by the system of reality of the United States, which follows him to Europe. For Baldwin, David’s encounter opens him to a full experience of love, which he theorizes as a relationship which animates our presence with others with a sense of intimate connection characterized by joy and pain. David recalls:

I laughed and grabbed his head as I had done God knows how many times before, when I was playing with him or when he had annoyed me. But this time when I touched him something happened in him and in me which made this touch different from any touch either of us had ever known. And he did not resist, as he usually did, but lay where I had pulled him, against my chest. And I realized that my heart was beating in an awful way and that Joey was trembling against me and the light in the room was very bright and hot […] Joey raised his head as I lowered mine and we kissed, as it were, by accident. Then, for the first time in my life, I was really aware of another person’s body, of another person’s smell […] I feel in myself now a faint, a dreadful stirring of what so overwhelmingly stirred in me then, great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst. But out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy; we gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love. (Baldwin, 1998d 224-225)

31Baldwin’s juxtaposition of “intolerable pain” and “joy” foreshadows the fear underlying his relationship with Giovanni and evokes the tragic sense of life which characterizes his work. “The vision of life expressed in Baldwin’s works,” Robert Tomlinson acknowledges, “is essentially a tragic one, the same contained in two key elements of the Aristotelian definition of the genre, anagnorisis and pathos, the latter not a brutish, animal suffering, but suffering consciously paid as the price of self-knowledge” (138). In Baldwin’s tragic framework, learning through suffering (pathe mathos) is not a principle that governs a world ordered by fate. For Baldwin, suffering and pain are sites of evaluation where we learn about the dynamics of human experience, its possibilities and limitations. The “beat[ing] [of the heart] in an awful way” and the “trembl[ing]” of the body are physical manifestations of the internal “dreadful stirring,” that “great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful” that engulfs the senses and pushes the boundaries of the characters’ self-awareness and perspectives on their environment. David’s declaration that “a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love” refers to a commitment to confronting challenges produced through and around their kinship. The two teenagers discover and, thus, become cognizant of an unknown part of themselves through what Baldwin calls “the act of love.” In the privacy of Joey’s room, David begins to understand the sensual, in stark contrast with the girls David chases, admitting that if any of them had acknowledged his advances, “the ocean would not have been deep enough to drown our shame and terror” (Baldwin, 1998d 224). To highlight the sensuality of this experience, Baldwin emphasizes touch as the site where we encounter others as intimately related to ourselves. David and Joey’s sexual touch flows from a deeper sense of intimacy that only emerges once the boundary from friends to lovers is crossed.

32Touch, intimacy, and love are, for Baldwin, the essential elements of human relationship beyond its sexual manifestations to relationships of care and sociality. In Baldwinian terms, the sensual expresses a form of knowing, deeply rooted in the experiential, exceeding sexual phantasms to offer “a way of being and action,” which does not divorce the “concept of love from the experience of loving” (Butorac 714). “The word ‘sensual,’ Baldwin writes, “is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread” (1998c 311). The sensual is, therefore, a practice of finding oneself in lived relationships with others. Sensuality and felt reality counter the way Whiteness cuts itself off from feeling reality, choosing alienating structures over experiential bonds.

33Interestingly, David is sensual in this latter sense, which allows Baldwin to demonstrate the forms of intimacy which fail the test of love. A key moment is David’s description of sex with Sue, another American expat that he sleeps with after receiving news that Hella will be returning to Paris from Spain. Upon receiving the letter, David reacts in a “grotesque spirit of celebration” as his decision about his relationships has seemingly been made for him (Baldwin, 1998d 296). Yet, in thinking of Giovanni’s reaction, he panics, and his fear drives him to Montparnasse to “find a girl, any girl at all” (297). The pursuit of casual sex in this instance is contrasted with the fact that David finds himself with someone he knows, taking advantage of a bond of intimacy. He is aware of this contradiction and realizes that he is “doing something very cruel” and that she is aware of it (299). In this instance, Baldwin uses Sue’s dialog to indicate her awareness of the situation. She rebuffs his first attempt to invite himself to her place for a drink by noting that she has nothing in the apartment. When she agrees, it’s on the condition that he buy something since, “that way […] I’ll be sure to get something out of the deal” (300). Like the encounters in Giovanni’s bar, David is told that the other is aware of his ambiguous intentions, though he continues to act on false knowledge. This knowledge manifests itself consciously as they begin to kiss in her apartment. “It was a gesture of great despair,” he recalls, “and I knew that she was giving herself, not to me, but to that lover who would never come” (301). The sex is worse. David “approach[es] Sue as though she were a job of work” (302). He feels he is “doing something awful to her” and “it [becomes] a matter of [his] honor not to let this fact become too obvious” (302). In contrast with his encounter with Joey, we see touch used instrumentally and falsely, an intimate relationship between bodies that is semi-coerced and abusive. For Baldwin, there is an ethics to touching underlined by the fact that, in physical contact, we encounter other bodies as other people in their materiality. David’s encounter with Sue indicates that to be sensual is not only to be present, but to respect the presence of the other and our relationship with them. Sensuality requires responsibility.

  • 10 Hella and Giovanni may play the role of masochists in response to David’s sadism.

34For Baldwin, there is an ethical dimension to this connection insofar as he believes that presence requires responsibility for our relationships, which is denied by White innocence. For Baldwin, love and sensuality demand maturity. Maturity appears in the work of Lewis Gordon as a state of responsibility that involves “an attunement to norms of evidence and living in a world with others (2022 168; 2005). Gordon opposes maturity to license, a form of freedom in bad faith in which individuals assume impunity for their actions. In Giovanni’s Room, David plays the role of a sadist who treats the judgements of the White system of reality as “ossified reality […] the way the world is” (Gordon, 2000 76). In doing so, he denies both his freedom and the contingency of the system of reality by taking a solipsistic view of the world in which his vantage point is the only subjective perspective that can be valued (77).10 In denying the reality of the perspectives of others (and his own), David denies his own reality as an intersubjective world with others, placing him in bad faith (78). Interestingly, without the presence of non-White people, David’s subjective Whiteness operates through a form of domination consistent with White supremacy, which denies the reality of gendered and racialized others by lying to themselves about the sociality of the reality they inhabit (85). This connection between freedom, bad faith, and impunity illuminates how White innocence, as a form of (un)knowing, generates immaturity through the process of denying the evidence of the senses and, in doing so, presenting oneself as a god who is free to act out their sovereign desires upon others. Baldwin’s narrative illustrates how innocence, as a form of immaturity, establishes itself in experiences shaped by imaginative Whiteness, using David as a test case for the possibility of maturity as a practice of freedom through love.

35David’s flight into bad faith also begins in his relationship with Joey as the sun rises to reveal the boys’ naked bodies and a sweeping tide of fear, shame and homophobic panic:

I was suddenly afraid. Perhaps it was because [Joey] looked so innocent lying there, with such perfect trust; perhaps it was because he was so much smaller than me; my own body suddenly seemed gross and crushing and the desire which was rising in me seemed monstrous. But, above all, I was suddenly afraid. It was borne in on me: But Joey is a boy. I saw suddenly the power in his thighs, in his arms, and in his loosely curled fists. The power and the promise and the mystery of that body made me suddenly afraid. That body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood. Precisely, I wanted to know that mystery and feel that power and have that promise fulfilled through me. The sweat on my back grew cold. I was ashamed. The very bed, in its sweet disorder, testified to vileness. I wondered what Joey’s mother would say when she saw the sheets. Then I thought of my father, who had no one in the world but me, my mother having died when I was little. A cavern opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words. I thought I saw my future in that cavern. I was afraid. I could have cried, cried for shame and terror, cried for not understanding how this could have happened to me, how this could have happened in me. And I made my decision. (Baldwin, 1998d 225-226)

36Baldwin juxtaposes a sensual exploration of same-sex love—melodically expressed as a “great thirsty heat […] and tenderness so painful”—with the homophobic panic that arises shortly after, to locate the moment David begins his flight from those desires. David is unable to “rejoice” in his affection and desire for Joey as he returns to his original sense of reality, which paints him as a little boy. This reconfiguration of Joey’s body and affection forces David to become aware of his position on the spectrum of heteronormativity and his potential rejection from it as expressed in utterances such as: “a black opening of a cavern,” “dirty words,” “shame” and “terror.” In truth, David fears that he will lose the respect bestowed upon him by his Whiteness and suffer the loss of his “manhood.” David calls his sexuality “monstrous” as he realizes Joey’s social positionality: male. David’s gay panic destroys his later relationship with Giovanni, and Giovanni knows it. As they break for the final time, he chastises David, “You smiled at me the way you smiled at everyone, you told me what you told everyone – and you tell nothing but lies […]. And do you think I did not know when you made love to me, you were making love to no one? No one! Or everyone – but not me, certainly” (333). David lies with his words and his body as he flees into a system of reality that promises the illusion of control, while relieving him from the responsibility of his decisions.

37Although sexuality appears to be at the forefront of the novel, Baldwin explains that it is primarily a novel about love, humility, and responsibility:

[Giovanni’s Room is] not about homosexuality at all. It’s about what happens to you if you can’t love anybody […] if you can’t love anybody, you’re dangerous because you have no way of learning humility. You have no way of learning that other people suffer and no way of learning how to use your suffering and theirs to get from one place to another. In short, you fail even responsibility which is to love each other. (Baldwin, 1987)

38David’s insistent denial of his sexuality impedes the process of love by failing to attend to the knowledge that he gains through contact with them. In Joey’s arms, David feels the promise of joy and pain that love brings, both essential aspects of the human condition. With Giovanni, this promise is renewed, but destroyed again by David’s pseudo-commitment to Hella. On top of Sue, he experiences sex in the absence of love as a performance required to preserve his heterosexual mask. Reunited with Hella, David’s life again becomes “a prison” as he experiences the “remarkable process” of “love turning to hatred” (1998d 350). In a passage that mirrors the distortion of Giovanni and his room, Baldwin describes the same putrefaction of David’s relationship to Hella:

It seemed to happen all at once […]. I trace it to something as fleeting as the tip of her breast lightly touching my forearm as she leaned over me to serve my supper. I felt my flesh recoil. Her underclothes, drying in the bathroom, which I had often thought of as smelling even rather improbably sweet and as being washed much too often, now began to seem unaesthetic and unclean. […] I sometimes watched her naked body move and wished that it were harder and firmer, I was fantastically intimidated by her breasts, and when I entered her I began to feel that I would never get out alive. (350)

39Here again with Hella, David’s senses turn against him as he realizes he cannot do the work of “let[ting] [her] be a woman,” which is her rationale for wanting to marry him (353). Hella, like David, is trapped in a need to feel properly placed in the system of reality to escape the anxiety of their senses. They both expatriate themselves to find themselves: David to Paris, Hella to Spain for the majority of the novel. In failing to recognize one another’s suffering in the relationship, they fail to act on their own pain and guide themselves in new directions. Hella only leaves when forced. They suffer the tragedy of their immaturity, failing to see that the lives that they want are not with each other and require them to take stock of their desires and find others who can fulfill them. Baldwin uses David’s reflections as a vehicle for the distortions and realizations that come to us in the process of hiding from ourselves to make clear that we must attend to our senses: the appearance of our experiences, the feeling of a body, and our sense of ourselves, to learn the responsibility of touching and being touched by others.


40Giovanni’s Room presents the reader with an experience of confrontation. The self-reflective narration poses the existential challenge of seeing beyond the forms of self-deception that disconnect them from a sensual encounter with reality. David’s self-reflection forces him to face aspects of his experiences that are hidden from him in the moment but elucidated through recollection. This process of detailing the elements of experience is central to Baldwin’s technique of witnessing, “the transformation of experience to art” (Glaude 37, 40). In his essays, Baldwin produces rich descriptions of the sensual details of his experiences to bring our attention to the stupefaction of our sense of self and others generated by the forms of domination that shape our societies. In Giovanni’s Room, this conflict manifests itself in the form of White ignorance, through which David falls back on an adherence to a White, patriarchal, heteronormative identity to deny the reality of his feelings in favor of a false narrative of who he ought to be. Giovanni’s Room points our attention to the fact that the forces that divide us are not purely a matter of political debate. They are experienced in our daily lives as we struggle within a world shaped by the demand to submit ourselves to idealized perspectives of our societies that deny their reality. In this regard, the sensual is crucial for Baldwin as a source of knowledge that makes the contradictions that we embody self-evident. He calls us to bear witness to the evidence of things unseen so that we recognize how we have been trained not to believe what lies before our very eyes.

41In a 1986 interview with Clayton Riley, Baldwin argues for literature as a method of transforming reality by giving language to the forces that menace us. He writes:

[Literature] is one of the ways we have of confronting reality with the intention of changing it. Someone once told me years and years ago when I was in terrible trouble. He said, “describe it.” It didn’t make sense to me at first. He said, “describe it. If you can describe it, you can get past it.” I think literature in short is that. If I can describe it and you recognize it, you can get past it. You can alter reality. It’s one of the ways human beings have of confronting and altering reality. (1997 136)

42Baldwin’s practice of witnessing emerges from his own need to describe the forces that have shaped him and, in doing so, create material that allows others to shape and alter reality. In the writer’s endeavor to circumvent the social shrouds that define us, literature possesses the potential to redress social ails, like racism, by describing its reality in such a way that renders human conditionality tangible and, thus intelligible. It is, therefore, the hope of the writer to describe the inner workings of a given society, so that that society may overcome the shrouds “it fear[s] [it] cannot live without and know[s] [it] cannot live within” (1998c 341). In Giovanni’s Room, David’s narration contains moments of self-denial, distancing, descriptions of sensual contact, and prophetic conversations, which show us the methods David has used to disassociate reality from his sense of self. These methods demonstrate how Whiteness functions as a practical form of active ignorance, rather than a static identity or personal essence. At its heart, Whiteness rejects relationality for a sense of dominant individualism and moral superiority. For Baldwin, the ability to act in good faith requires David, and the novel’s readers, to learn to reject these practices and embrace reality through engaging with the sensual as a practice of knowing through feeling (love) that exposes and takes off our masks.

43The ability to act on what one comes to know in this process requires an acceptance of finitude and humility. For Baldwin, “You accept life as it is. You see it as it is before you can change it. In order to change myself, I have to admit that I am not six feet tall, I’m not blue-eyed. I’ve got to accept limitations before I can discover my possibilities” (1972 24). David’s failure to act on his own “limitations,” meaning his reality, are at the core of the trauma that he and others experience over the course of the novel. He fails in the sense that his life refuses to conform itself to the principles of his system of reality, which forces him into violent, self-destructive patterns that ruin the lives of others as well as his own. A successful moral life is lived in maturity, which rejects the myth of innocence and accepts the reality of our responsibility for confronting the suffering produced by our systems and ourselves.

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1 In this paper, we capitalize Black and White to indicate their status as social identities that function as collective nouns for identifying groups of people. Rather than an endorsement of Blackness or Whiteness as racially essentialized identities, we treat race as a social construction with real effects on the lives and experiences of people relative to their positionalities. This position will be clarified with regard to Whiteness throughout the paper. In addition, the observations mentioned are drawn from experience as teachers and researchers who have discussed Baldwin’s work and its reception with international audiences. The noted responses are consistent with theorizations of Whiteness as a social identity, which, we should add, is not restricted to people who present as White.

2 We use the term ideology to mean a set of ideals and norms that form a hegemonic narrative of a society’s identity. In the case of American ideology, the “American Dream” is one among many dominant ideal narratives used to organize the political desires and sociological understanding of its citizens. Contemporary authors, who take up Baldwin’s project of witnessing, have referred to this narrative as “the dream” (Coates) and “the lie” (Glaude, chapter 1) to mark both its abstract nature and its falsehood.

3 Our use of “social identity” follow’s Linda Martín Alcoff’s analysis of Whiteness as a social identity, a term which indicates how Whiteness is experienced and embodied through processes of group formation based upon a set of meanings, material benefits, and practices ascribed to being “White” (46). Whiteness is empirical insofar as historians can trace the development of White identity through history and Whiteness is a salient category for understanding sociological and political patterns that correlate with White people as an identity group (14, 76-77). The meaning of Whiteness appears in its association with the imaginary, “a collective rather than individual background layer of understanding that both enables and constrains our ability to produce new ideas and responses” (79). This layer of the imaginary involves forms of group interest, mythic narratives, and historical truths that shape the perceptions of societies in terms of what it means to be White. The myths of American exceptionalism and White Exceptionalism link themselves at this level where the myth of a just United States relies on the erasure of the oppression and exploitation that has taken place throughout the nation’s history. Finally, Whiteness manifests itself in forms of subjectivity that operate on the basis of habits generated by cultural patterns associated with Whiteness in opposition to other group identities.

4 Baldwin uses the term “private life” as a shorthand for individuals’ relation with their subjective desires, other persons, and their environment. Writing on Martin Luther King Jr.’s progress in Atlanta, Baldwin observes: “When I say ‘private life’ I am not referring to those juicy tidbits, those meaningless details, which clutter up the gossip columns and muddy everybody’s mind and obliterate the humanity of the subject as well as the reader. I wanted to ask how it felt to be standing where [King] stood, how he bore it, what complex of miracles had prepared him for it” (Baldwin, 1985 246-40).

5 In the Kinsey Reports of 1948 and, later, 1953, Alfred Kinsey and other scientists “explored the myth of a puritanical America.” The Kinsey crew interviewed over “18,000 white adults,” reporting that “over a third of the men [said] that they had achieved orgasm via a homosexual act.” Although national conversations on sexual diversity began to take hold in public debates, many still considered homosexuality a White issue, and unfortunately the Kinsey Report’s overwhelming presence of White subjects did not help (Isserman and Kazin 152).

6 This response accounts for Baldwin’s perception that King and others in the Civil Rights Movement distrusted him due to his sexuality and alignment with the more radical politics of SNCC and the Black Power Movement (Glaude 112-113).

7 This interpretation implies that Baldwin’s relationship to David is not one of drag or dawning whiteface to explore his sexuality. Baldwin presents our experience of others as ultimately, a reflection of how we see them through our own systems of reality. The things that they illuminate to us are often about ourselves. This dynamic means that Baldwin does not place himself in David’s place. Rather, he forms David in his knowledge of Whiteness and Americanness to explore how that character comes to fail to see himself and, in the failing, illuminate something about those who follow his story. As we’ll see below, the sensual connection between people follows this process of self-reorientation. One has to see and be oneself to encounter others as they are. It also aligns with Baldwin’s work in theater; his relationship to his characters is more director than actor.

8 This description of the “Whiteness” of White innocence often appears as an essentialist characterization of White people. However, following Baldwin, this essay attempts to explain the unfolding of Whiteness as a form of sensibility, or way of feeling oneself in the world, based on a collection of epistemic, ethical, and political commitments that conform with a White supremacist value structure. It is an identity as long as one identifies with it.

9 Baldwin’s notion of White innocence runs close to the analysis of White Ignorance developed in the work of Africana philosopher Charles Mills. For Mills, the coexistence of White supremacist domination with the operations of the Social Contract generates an epistemology of ignorance, “a moral cognitive distortion” linked to race that legitimizes concepts of equality and justice in contexts organized around exploitation and domination (1997 95). In the form of White Ignorance, one “takes for granted the appropriateness of concepts legitimizing the racial order, privileging them as the master race and relegating nonwhites to subpersonhood” by derace[ing] the polity, denying its actual racial structuring” (1997 95). White Ignorance is a function of Whiteness as a social identity; it is a “social-causal” phenomenon in which racialized forms of ignorance are established as dominant forms of knowing (2017 21). It involves not only “ignorance of facts with moral implications but moral non-knowings, incorrect judgments about the rights and wrongs of moral situations themselves” (22). Empirically, White Ignorance is produced through the advancement of Eurocentric systems of reality that racialize space, time, and human bodies into categories of superiority and inferiority that justify European (White) domination and guide perceptions and intuitions that ground moral judgements (for example, civilized and savage). In its contemporary form, White Ignorance manifests itself in colorblind discourses that deracialize the distinction by emphasizing a common human history that erases how forms of exploitation, domination, and violence have shaped the past and continue to shape the present (28). Baldwin’s practice of witnessing is an attack on White Ignorance that aims to counter the effects of the erasure of racial violence from history, the suppression or withholding of testimony by the victims of violence through the fear of future violence, and the marginalization of Black knowledge production, acts which are performed to insure White group interests (Mills, 2017 35). Witnessing and its emphasis on the sensual, thus, form an alternative epistemology that aims to provide a non-idealized (Whitely) sense of reality that can ground attacks on the system.

10 Hella and Giovanni may play the role of masochists in response to David’s sadism.

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Ronnel Keith Berry et Michael Thomas, « Reading the Sensual in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Ronnel Keith Berry

Université Paris Cité

Michael Thomas

University of Amsterdam/Humboldt Foundation, Freie Universität Berlin

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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