B.O.S.S. Impactful, Illustrative Insight #00000000016
“The cathedral at Chartres, I have said, says something to the people of this village which it cannot say to me; but it is important to understand that this cathedral says something to me which it cannot say to them. Perhaps they are struck by the power of the spires, the glory of the windows; but they have known God, after all, longer than I have known him, and in a different way, and I am terrified by the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt, down which heretics were hurled to death, and by the obscene, inescapable gargoyles jutting out of the stone and seeming to say that God and the devil can never be divorced.”
James Baldwin (Stranger in the Village, 1953)
And if God and the devil can never be separated, so too is it difficult to even begin to parse through the identities churning within one’s self. With hope, we look to:
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
And reading it is going to be cool for the following reasons:
It would be hard to come up with a 20th century author more dedicated to unpacking the American experience than Baldwin. With his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, he provided both a window into growing up in 1930s Harlem as well as a powerful account of the role of religion as a force — both for good and for bad — in African American lives. 1968’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone still resonates as an examination of a man working through the depths of his many selves — that of an artist, of a bisexual man, of a minority in the all white entertainment industry. Yet it was Another Country, a gritty story exploring the internal dynamics of interracial relationships that touched the nation’s nerve, drawing obscenity charges and helping grow Baldwin’s FBI file (supposedly 1,884 pages long).
While often first thought of as a novelist, Baldwin was also a highly accomplished essayist and an eloquent public speaker — both qualities being important foundations for his role as a civil rights activist in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The essay collection Notes of a Native Son and the recent film I Am Not Your Negro are both excellent places to start to explore this side of Baldwin.
Adding yet another layer is Baldwin’s sexual orientation and its cause of tensions with both the literary community and the civil rights community. While the themes of homosexuality and bisexuality are present in many of his works, it is the 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room that addressed these topics with great focus and sentiment, helping to bring them more into the public light. Originally a work that “publisher’s row . . . refused to touch,” it is now a classic of American literature.
Giovanni’s Room is a short one, so let’s shoot for a single meet-up, likely in the August/September time frame. We’ll being doing podcasts on Baldwin in July, August, and September.
With hearts, with fists, pounding,
B.O.S.S. Department of Difficult Truths
Post-script: In order to examine Baldwin’s many mediums, we’ll also be checking out the title essay from Notes of a Native Son and the short Sonny’s Blues from the collection Going to Meet the Man.