I’m going to start posting revised versions of responses that I have to write for my lovely “Multiculty” seminar. This one is a response to my first reading of James Baldwin’s novel Another Country.
I will admit upfront that I struggled to write a response this week. That’s why I would like to discuss why I struggled–sometimes I find it as fruitful to write about what I know about a book as I do to write about what didn’t work for me.
Here was my problem: It was clear to me that James Baldwin’s Another Country was saying something about race and that it was also saying something about sexuality. But I didn’t think I could manage to work with both of these very large, fraught issues in a short space. Had I tried, this would have easily turned into a 25-page term paper (and I’m just not ready to commit to a topic so early in my exploration of these novels).
So I sat down in an attempt to take Baldwin’s race and sexuality and unravel them. And that’s when the problems started in earnest.
I found myself in real trouble because Baldwin had crafted such a tight web of race relations mixed with sexuality that I could not unravel them. Now I need to slow down and define my terms briefly; these words are not easy words, even if we think they are. When I say race, I guess I mean a character’s visible biology; but when I say race, I also mean how another character interprets a character’s race (and therefore his or her ethnicity). When I say sexuality, I am really talking about two different things: sexual orientation (or sexual orientations) and how the characters in this novel are represented as sexual beings. Trying to unravel these threads of race and sexuality left me with a bigger knot than what I started with.
For example, when I tried to look at how Ida (one of the main characters in a multi-protagonist novel) is represented, I found that there was no way of looking at her as a young, African American woman without looking at her as sexual being (sometimes even a sex object). While that is actually refreshing to see in a novel, it became problematic in that Ida could look at herself as a black woman without also seeing herself as a sexual being engaged in a power exchange through her sexuality.
When she begins her relationship with Vivaldo, she is constantly fighting with him about how her race determines what kinds of sexual relationships she can have with men. Her skin colour, especially, determines what kind of relationship she can have with a white man (even if that white man is Vivaldo: relatively poor, Irish-Italian immigrant, from the wrong side of the tracks, etc.). Ida lives in this terrible self-fulfilling prophecy: she finds herself in a relationship where she is both using her sexuality to get something she wants, but she is being used as well because of her race. Or at least she thinks she is being used. I’m still not on very firm ground when it comes to understanding how Ida’s race and sexuality work together or even work against each other. Baldwin only gives us Ida’s relationships with white men and that gives me only one side of the coin.
When I try to make sense of say, Eric’s sexual relationships in terms of race (and class because class is always lurking behind the word race), I find an even more tangled web. Eric’s background is that of a rich, white Southern male; yet, Eric’s sexuality (whether this is a choice or not in terms of sexuality as a kind of ethnicity) in his Alabama environment means that he is associated with the poor, often black, underclass in the south. Eric has a relationship with one African American man in Alabama then moves to New York where he engages in another relationship with Rufus.
I find the power dynamics in Eric’s relationships very interesting in terms of race: in the south, while Eric loses social power, is he still valued higher in terms of southern society as a white, homosexual man than his black, homosexual lover? In the north, while Eric’s sexuality seems to be more accepted, in his relationship with Rufus, Eric doesn’t hold the power; yet in society, does he? I cannot quite seem to make out where Eric stands in terms of his sexual orientation (that gets even more confusing when he starts a relationship with white, upper-class Cass) and how that then is expressed in terms of his subject position within American society.
That’s the beauty of this novel, that all of the characters are slippery, all of the characters define and redefine themselves based on where they are, and who they are. I suppose the thing I love most about Another Country is the thing that made writing this response so difficult: There are no easy answers in this novel. This novel is messy. This novel is complicated. I’m not sure that the race, ethnicity and sexual knot is meant to be untangled.
This was my first taste of Baldwin, but it’s clear to me that he is a very keen story-teller, one that I will be revisiting in the future. Anyone have any advice on which Baldwin novel I should tackle next?