Gender, Sexuality, and Race

February 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

Dwight McBride’s critical essay, Straight Black Studies: On African American Studies, James Baldwin, and Black Queer Studies, is a key contribution to the study of gender and sexuality in literature. In his essay, McBride identifies the absence of the component of sexuality within the scope of African American studies that predated the work of James Baldwin. He similarly criticizes the predisposition of scholarship to portray the African American experience with simplicity. McBride theorizes that that complexity of sexuality represented in James Baldwin’s texts – paired with Baldwin being an openly homosexual, black writer – challenged the ‘dominant, respectable, sanitized narratives of the African American literary tradition and what it can include’[1], and thus paved way to new discourse regarding the complexity of the African American experience, with the inclusion of sexuality as a key element. McBride identifies James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room as the initial text to challenge African American discourse, but further examples relating to the key ideas found in McBride’s essay – specifically the difficulty in reconciling homosexuality and blackness – can also be found in Baldwin’s later novel, Another Country.

Another Country is rife with explicit depictions of the complexities of race and sexuality, and portrays how all the nuances of the two interlace with each other. This complexity is evocative of McBride’s explorations regarding the work of Baldwin and representations of the African American experience. In the novel, black musician Rufus commits suicide as a result of the internal conflict of both his African American and homosexual identities. Before Rufus jumps into the water he notes that ‘he was black and the water was black,’[2] indicating that his race was weighing heavily on his mind during the last moments of his life, having a direct impact on his decision to kill himself. This line mirrors the line before it, which reads ‘it was cold and the water would be cold’.[3] The similarity of these two lines highlights that the one thought led to another. And that the latter line is separate to the text before and after it, existing in its own paragraph, emphasizing this point, indicating the significance of the second line. This displays that Rufus identifies his race as the conclusion regarding his feelings of despair. The text also indicates that Rufus’s sexuality is another key component to his dissatisfaction, inciting his decision in taking his life. As Rufus proceeds to climb the bridge to jump, his inner monologue reads;

The wind tore at him, at his head and shoulders, while something in him screamed, why? why? He thought of Eric. His straining arms threatened to break. I can’t make it this way. He thought of Ida. He whispered, I’m sorry, Leona, and then the wind took him, he felt himself going over[4]

Here Rufus’s thought of Eric – an openly gay man, who is also a previous lover of his- causes his arms to ‘threaten to break’. This is a metaphor for the weight that the idea of Eric bears on him. The following line – ‘I can’t make it this way’ – implies that he cannot live the homosexual life that he associates with Eric. Rufus’s final words before he falls are an apology to Leona, suggesting that her abuse at the hands of him were a result of the same issues leading him to jump; internal conflict regarding his sexuality. That thoughts about his respective sexual and romantic relationships with both a man and a woman are the sum of his thoughts as he jumps to his death further suggests that his sexuality is a prime cause of his suicide. These depictions, paired with his rumination regarding his race in his final moments, suggest a complex melding of these two components. His relationship with his racial identity is influenced by his sexual preferences. The interlacing of these two components is reflective of McBride’s suggestion that Baldwin ‘reminds us that whenever we are speaking of race, we are always already speaking about gender, sexuality, and class’.[5]

Not only is Rufus’s discontentment, followed by his suicide, an example of the complex relationship between his two key identities when weaved together, but it also further reflects the notion that during this period these identities were viewed as distinct from each other. Rufus’s difficulty to reconcile the two is due to homosexuality not being outwardly recognized as existing within the black experience in a pre-Baldwin period, but instead existing as an unspoken, underlying component. After Rufus’s death, Rufus’s sister, Ida, says to Vivaldo ‘he [Eric] wanted a roll in the hay with my brother […] he wanted to make him as sick as he is’.[6] This exemplifies the discord regarding blackness and homosexuality. Ida takes issue with Eric’s homosexuality whereas the white characters around Eric do not. She cannot conceive of Rufus also being homosexual. As with this example, the result of Rufus’s suicide casts a shadow on the rest of the text, allowing further conversations and self-aware experiences regarding the complex relations of race and sexuality to saturate the novel.

[1] Dwight McBride, ‘Straight Black Studies: On African American Studies, James Baldwin, and Black Queer Studies’, in Black Queer Studies : A Critical Anthology, ed. by Mae Henderson, E. Patrick Johnson, and E. Patrick Patrick Johnson (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 68-89 (p. 92).

[2] James Baldwin, Another Country (London: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 87.

[3] Baldwin, Another Country, p. 86.

[4] Baldwin, Another Country, p. 87.

[5] McBride, ‘Straight Black Studies’, p. 87.

[6] Baldwin, Another Country, p. 323.

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