Performing Black Queerness in the Works of James Baldwin and Danez Smith

By Maria Rovito

Race and sexuality play dominant forces in forming one’s identity, particularly the manner in which both identities intermingle with each other through the formation of one’s character. Specifically, blackness and queerness both operate similarly and differently for each individual; however, these characteristics of identity are particularly of interest in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Danez Smith’s [insert] boy. In each work, the concept of blackness is negotiated alongside one’s sexuality. For Baldwin, many of his critics argued that his homosexuality diminished his blackness, whereas for Smith, blackness and queerness are approached in personal, rather than political, terms. For both authors, blackness and queerness are performed as entangled with each other, and the concepts of race and sexuality are both markers of identity for each author as well as their respective characters.

As postmodern scholars and literary theorists define in their work, identity is not based on a singular binary of black/white or gay/straight, but rather a fragmentation and fluidity of possibilities that attempt to overcome such a jarring divide.

The Advocate, in their December 2008 issue, declared on the cover that “gay is the new black.” Historically, the Civil Rights movement gave birth to both the Black Power and the LGBT rights movement by the mid- to late-20th century. These movements began as connected with each other; for example, the Stonewall Riots were demonstrated and organized by black queer drag queens. Yet the Black Power movement and the gay liberation movement were afterwards viewed as separate from one another, which is embodied in the headline from The Advocate in 2008. However, scholars and activists disagree with this separation, and argue that identity is truly a fragmented entity which encompasses many lenses. As Elena Kiesling states:

This is not only a dangerous analogy which lacks any profound grounding, it also leads to a discourse that draws a clear boundary between two separate communities and movements—one black, one queer—placing the former clearly on the margins of a society that happily embraces the latter. What happens to the black queer experience when black is increasingly used as an antipode to queer, when black bodies are erased from queer scholarly discourse, activism, and neighborhoods while queer bodies are welcomed as a sign of progress and safety? For whom does this whiteness signify safety? (1)

This separation of blackness and queerness signals an abjection of both blackness and queerness, configuring both identities based on white, heteronormative means. As postmodern scholars and literary theorists would define in their work, identity is not based on a singular binary of black/white or gay/straight, but rather a fragmentation and fluidity of possibilities that attempt to overcome such a jarring divide.

Critics must be careful when labeling characters or authors with certain sexuality labels, such as gay, bisexual, or straight, and pay close attention to how characters and authors identify and label themselves.

Performativity, for Judith Butler, is defined as “that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains” (xii). Under these terms, one performs their gender or sexuality through language, as well as through their membership in certain discourse communities—for Baldwin and Smith, their language performs in the realm of queer and black discourse communities. In Giovanni’s Room, as well as [insert] boy, blackness is associated with queerness: “[R]ace and sexuality in Baldwin are not simply interrelated but virtually interchangeable so that homosexuality becomes, literally and metaphorically, associated with blackness at the same time that heterosexuality is…indissolubly linked to whiteness” (Armengol 674).

Both Baldwin and Smith’s work demonstrate this fluidity, and their respective works are not solely defined as “gay literature,” but rather they are members of the “queer” cannon which attempts to destabilize such rigid notions of identity.

The term “queer” began to be regularly used in the early 1990s to refer to anyone who was outside the traditional heteronormative and cis-gendered societal norms of the West.  Scholars such as Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Michael Warner instilled in academia a new theorization of identity based on queerness, called queer theory. As Cathy Cohen states:

Working from a variety of postmodernist and poststructuralist theoretical perspectives, these scholars focused on identifying and contesting the discursive and cultural markers found within both dominant and marginal identities and institutions which prescribe and reify ‘heterogendered’ understandings and behavior. (438)

Queer theory attempts to move beyond static and stable categories of identity and focus towards a more fluid and adaptable notion of both gender and sexuality expression. Based on deviance theory which categorizes the “self” and the “Other” as two disjointed identities, queer theory deconstructs binary oppositions such as normal/abnormal, queer/straight, male/female, and trans/cis. Many queer subjects find themselves on the fringes of theoretical conceptualizations of queerness:

For many of us, the label “queer” symbolizes an acknowledgment that through our existence and everyday survival we embody sustained and multisited resistance to systems (based on dominant constructions of race and gender) that seek to normalize our sexuality, exploit our labor, and constrain our visibility. At the intersection of oppression and resistance lies the radical potential of queerness to challenge and bring together all those deemed marginal and all those committed to liberatory politics. (Cohen 440)

Queerness, then, is a resistance to heteronormative ideologies and institutions which founded the Western notions of identity and expression, and attempts to deconstruct the notion of being “gay” or being “straight” as singular identities. Baldwin notes the term “homosexuality” as an artificial divide placed on individuals, and that the queer experience is a universal one. “I loved a few people and they loved me. It had nothing to do with these labels. Of course, the world has all kinds of words for us. But that’s the world’s problem” (“Go the Way Your Blood Beats”). Many queer artists, including Baldwin and Smith, have rejected the term “homosexual” or “gay” in favor of a more fluid or adaptable terminology for being queer.

Both Baldwin and Smith have commented on their identities as queer artists. Baldwin noted in an interview with the Voice that the term “gay” made him feel like a stranger:

Well, first of all I feel like a stranger in America from almost every conceivable angle except, oddly enough, as a black person. The word gay has always rubbed me the wrong way. I never understood exactly what is meant by it. I don’t want to sound distant or patronizing because I don’t really feel that. I simply feel it’s a world that has little to do with me, with where I did my growing up. I was never at home in it. Even in my early years in the Village, what I saw of that world absolutely frightened me, bewildered me. I didn’t understand the necessity of all the role playing. And in a way I still don’t. (Goldstein, “Go the Way Your Blood Beats,” The Village Voice)

Baldwin notes the term “homosexuality” as an artificial divide placed on individuals, and that the queer experience is a universal one.

For Baldwin, the concept of identity is based upon fragments of self: Baldwin’s estrangement from America is constructed on his interlocking identities of being black, queer, and American, existing in what W.E.B. DuBois calls “double consciousness. Being black, queer, male, and American might be considered as existing in a triple or quadruple consciousness, as Baldwin notes that these identities are seen as “role playing,” therefore implying that black queer masculinity is a performative act.

Smith also comments on the performative nature of black queer masculinity:

Personally, being black and gay used to mean a lot of careful code switching, hiding, social navigating, not being too afraid to throw a fist, being really funny, and maintaining an image that rendered me more silly and less sweet…I learned early that to maintain that I had to shy away from whatever made my grandfather’s mouth turn sour or what might muster up a “faggot” from someone’s mouth. But what happened to faggots, I was only able to sympathize in private for my own sake. Being black was enough, I didn’t need to be anything but that. Today, being black and gay is an armor, a gospel I love dearly. I love black queers. I love who and how we are. It’s taught me a lot of love; how it can surprise you with its leaps and failures. It’s taught me a lot about masks; where they reign and where they crumble. It feels so good to finally be me, after so many years of denying that, trying to pray what was god given away. (Iloh)

Being black, queer, and masculine, as Smith notes, are identities that because they are performative in nature, require careful code-switching, maintaining one’s personal “image,” and existing within several interlocking sets of discourse communities.

Smith, however, notes that he is able to safely and effectively exist within these communities, after years of denying membership within the queer community. For black men, existing within a space of queerness is a challenge to the traditional notion of black masculinity, and for one to exist in all three spaces, one must perform the cultural expectations regarding these roles, which constitutes the expected cultural behavior regarded as being a black, queer man.

In [insert] boy, Smith presents blackness as central to the conversation regarding sexuality; this is seen in one of his several poems regarding this duality, “Faggot or When the Front Goes Up.” He begins the poem,

feathers for muscles. jawline of pearls.

a boy made of sunflowers.

more tomboy than boy.

preferred the dress to the plastic gun.

pined for pink to grace your soft black back. (Smith 23)

González states that this boy “made of sunflowers” acts as the first visible sign of the black body: “…it is a recognition of blackness as the first identifiable physical characteristic of the black body, even before gender, class, or sexuality, which shapes the sometimes negative interactions with that body; and it is an affirmation of the tone that will dominate the emotional truths in the book…” (Pivotal Voices, Era of Transition 74).

Similarly, for David in Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, the speaker here feels distance from the adult male figures in his life, stating,

you were never your grandfather’s boy.

his first words were fist.

he cackles at bruise & burn.

you were a sweeter thing. a delicate sun.

then he called you that word enough

& you turned action figure. tumble

& punch brained. (Smith 23)

The masculine figures in the speaker’s life, such as his grandfather, negotiate the black queer speaker as feminine and ultimately, a “faggot,” as stated in Smith’s title. The concept of black youth also figures into Smith’s poetry, as noted in the title of his book, [insert] boy. As González notes, “In its racial context [the word “boy”] gestures to its use as an infantilizing address, from white men to black men, that expresses both condescension and derision.

In gay parlance it is a designation given to a younger man, typically a youth, but in relationship dynamics a ‘boy’ is the willing object of desire of an older male, sometimes referred to as a ‘daddy’” (Pivotal Voices, Era of Transition 76). In Smith, as well as Baldwin’s work, the queer black subject reckons with older, more masculine figures, particularly in queer spaces such as a gay bar. Both the speaker in Smith’s poetry, as well as David in Baldwin’s novel, must confront the performative masculinity of older male role models: the grandfather for Smith and David’s father in Giovanni’s Room.

For Smith, the setting of the urban landscape also plays into the lives of queer black youth, as Smith was an integral member of the #BlackPoetsSpeakOut on Twitter, responding to the increase of racial profiling, police brutality, and other acts of racial violence erupted in many inner cities across America. As González states:

In earlier poems Smith presents a glimpse into the devastating settings of inner-city life and the temptations made available for desperate and misguided black youth: theft, drugs, and violence. For the gay black boy, navigating the street life is also dangerous, and little solace is afforded by the disapproval of his sexuality at home and at church. Without a public space to express this part of his identity, the gay black boy must resort to the secretive world of gay encounters, usually made available through the Internet. (Pivotal Voices, Era of Transition 77)

This secretive world is seen in Smith’s poem “10 Rentboy Commandments or Then the White Guy Calls you a Nigger.” Smith begins his poem,

but not just any white guy, the one

who’s paying you

you can’t deny he owns you for at least

as long as you are still deep & black

in him.

you know

he thinks of you as a lion or AIDS

or anything scary & African. (Smith 56)

For the speaker in this poem, the white customer that he is pleasing is intrigued by and is fantasized by the speaker’s blackness, comparing him to stereotypical African American traits, such as a “lion,” “AIDS,” or “anything scary & African.” And later in the poem, “he still called you a nigger, / but so what? You still gonna get paid. / (respect or groceries?) you still gonna answer / next time he call” (Smith 56). Similarly, to David and Giovanni, the speaker here is able to exercise his queerness in a secluded space, one that is secretive and where he doesn’t have to mask his queerness. Yet, this space does not accept the speaker as a black man, as the white customer only uses the speaker’s blackness for erotic purposes, freakishly viewing him as the sexually deviant black body, such as Saartjie Baartman.

Both Baldwin and Smith’s work demonstrate this fluidity, and their respective works are not solely defined as “gay literature,” but rather they are members of the “queer” cannon which attempts to destabilize such rigid notions of identity.

For Baldwin, being queer meant dividing himself from his black masculinity. Many black critics of Giovanni’s Room when it was first published argued that he was abandoning his blackness in favor of his queer identity. For many black critics during the mid-20th century, Giovanni’s Room was Baldwin’s “coming out,” suggesting that he self-identified as a queer artist; however, this was seen as a deviation from both racial and sexual norms of the period. Not only was Baldwin’s novel radical in its portrayal of sexuality and sexual relationships, critics have argued that it is racially radical as well.  Josep Armengol states, “If many reviewers in the mainstream press described Baldwin’s new novel as sexually deviant, African American critics saw it as racially deviant as well” (671). Eldridge Cleaver, a writer and leader of the Black Panther Party, describes black male homosexuality as a “sickness”:

Many Negro homosexuals, acquiescing in this racial death-wish, are outraged and frustrated because in their sickness they are unable to have a baby by a white man. The cross they have to bear is that, already bending over and touching their toes for the white man, the fruit of their miscegenation is not the little half-white offspring of their dreams but an increase in the unwinding of their nerves—though they redouble their efforts and intake of the white man’s sperm. (qtd. in Armengol 672)

Ultimately, Cleaver argues, black male homosexual desire is a subconscious desire for the submissive white woman. Therefore, Cleaver, as well as several others, submit blackness as the ultimate masculinity, accusing Baldwin of lacking in blackness and therefore lacking in masculinity. Baldwin, and ultimately Giovanni’s Room, were considered a sexual and racial deviation, according to many Black Power members of the mid- to late- 20th century.

It was not until 1962 in Baldwin’s Another Country and then later in 1968 in his Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone that Baldwin explicitly explored black queer masculinity in his writing. As whiteness is associated with heterosexuality in Giovanni’s Room, so too is heterosexuality and heteronormativity associated with being “raceless” (Armengol 674). David, as a queer, white man, experiences a restraining of identity similar to that of a black man: the only spaces that exist for him are closeted, such as Giovanni’s small room and Guillaume’s gay bar. However, David connects himself with white colonizers:

I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of the window pane. My reflection is tall…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. (Baldwin 3)

In the beginning of the novel, David very clearly identifies with his white, heterosexual counterparts, which, for Baldwin, are clearly interconnected. For many readers, David’s male relationships within the novel are viewed as white/white relationships, with no interracial suggestion. However, David describes his first male love, Joey, as “quick and dark” (6), having “dark eyes” (7), and “curly hair darkening the pillow” (8), suggesting that Joey is, perhaps, a black man, or a person of color. This is further suggested in the same description: “Joey’s body was brown, was sweaty, the most beautiful creation I had ever seen till then” (8).

Interestingly, Giovanni is also depicted as dark, or as “blacker” (49) within the novel; this is complicated by the fact that Italians were viewed in America during the early 20th century as “black,” a categorization placed on them by the U.S. Census (Armengol 677). By the time of WWII, many Italian immigrants were classified by the U.S. as “white,” therefore implying that their social status had changed in these years (678).

David is afraid of himself and his queerness, as many critics state that homosexuality is the most visible form of whiteness, demonstrating what Cleaver calls the black, queer, unconscious desire for whiteness, in which the black queer man wishes for a white queer man to love and lust for. David describes his sexuality and his relationship to Joey as a dark cavern:

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. (Baldwin 9)

Here, David establishes queerness with blackness, with the queer black body connected to these “dirty words.” David is therefore connected to his white, masculine, queer identity; however, he desires a black queer man to have a relationship with. Baldwin’s novel, therefore, describes the interracial relationships between David and Joey, and David and Giovanni; while David is classified as the white man, both Joey and Giovanni perform as queer black men, although their race is not explicitly stated by Baldwin.

Black masculine queerness is therefore based on a complex interlocking set of identities, as the cultural performance of such identities are based on “expected norms of behavior for the purpose of social agency” (Alexander 72). “Passing” is a performative move which, as Alexander states, assumes moving away from the Other in a specified context in order to enjoy certain privileges based on this passing identity (73). Black gay men

who ‘pass’ as straight attempt to avoid the social and cultural strictures against homosexuality; or light-skinned Blacks ‘passing’ for White assume the social and cultural privileges of being White, and avoid the stigma that is sometimes socially associated with being Black. In either case, passing is a performance of suppression that is associated with the origin of the denial. (Alexander 73)

For both Baldwin and Smith, “passing” as straight in certain situations is a performative move which attempts to read bodies a certain way in particular social situations. For example, David in Giovanni’s Room attempts to pass as straight in certain situations in order to receive certain privileges within a particular performative community. As Jacques and David mingle at Guillaume’s gay bar, David comments, “Well, you may find this hard to believe, but actually, I’m sort of queer for girls myself. If that was his sister looking so good, I’d invite her to have a drink with us. I don’t spend money on men” (Baldwin 30). Attempting to pass as straight within an accepted gay space, David is performatively using his sexuality in order to come across to the other men in the bar that he is, as he portrays, straight, and not interested in men.

Assuming the social and cultural privileges of being straight and heteronormative, David attempts to “pass” as straight within Guillaume’s bar; however, the other characters with him, such as Jacques, notice how he feels comfortable with Giovanni, the bartender, and states that he might be, in fact, actually attracted to men.

The setting of a gay bar is also found in Smith’s poetry, particularly his “The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar,” where he describes meeting men in a community that is inclusive and welcoming. He writes:

this gin-heavy heaven, blessed ground to think gay & mean we.

bless the fake id & the bouncer who knew

this need to be needed, to belong, to know how

a man taste full on vodka & free of sin. i know not which god to pray to.

i look to christ, i look to every mouth on the dance floor, i order

a whiskey coke, name it the blood of my new savior. he is just. (Smith, “The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar”)

Smith comments on the distinction between “gay” and “we,” implying that the 17-year-old in the poem is a member of the queer community which accepts and comforts him, as he imagines the “gay” bar community as “we.” Similarly, for Baldwin, Smith connects the notion of queerness to religion, stating that he “know[s] not which god to pray to,” as well as “look[ing] to christ” for love and acceptance.

The speaker in this poem is also searching for a man who is “free of sin,” suggesting that being queer is not a punishable act through the scope of Christianity, but rather that denial of queerness and the conception of being gay as a sin is a man-made concept, rather than a decree that was sent by God Himself. The speaker continues:

bless that man’s mouth, the song we sway sloppy to, the beat, the bridge, the length
of his hand on my thigh & back & i know not which country i am of.
i want to live on his tongue, build a home of gospel & gayety
i want to raise a city behind his teeth for all boys of choirs & closets to refuge in.
i want my new god to look at the mecca i built him & call it damn good
or maybe i’m just tipsy & free for the first time, willing to worship anything i can taste. (Smith, “The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar”)

Similarly, for David and Giovanni in Giovanni’s Room, the speaker here does not know “which country [he] is of,” suggesting that he is perhaps an expatriate from America who does not identify with his American heritage. The gay bar, then, exists as a site where nationality does not matter, and by existing within the gay bar as a community, one is queer and queered by association.

Smith, however, notes that he is able to safely and effectively exist within these communities, after years of denying membership within the queer community.

The gay bar might also be viewed as a site where gay men are allowed to worship each other as well as worship each other’s bodies, as the speaker wants to “build a home of gospel and gayety” with the man he worships. The gay bar exists as a space where black queer men can associate and not feel isolated within their own bodies.

David and Giovanni are both isolated within Giovanni’s Room through their nationality and sexuality and find a sense of belonging through the queer community in France. Social isolation plays a dominant role in David’s life, as he is isolated from his family, Hella, and eventually Giovanni and European society. His father, at the beginning of the novel, states that he wants David to be “a man”: “And listen…all I want for David is that he grow up to be a man. And when I say a man, Ellen, I don’t mean a Sunday school teacher” (Baldwin 15).

Isolation in the novel is due to a character’s identity, particularly David’s, as he negotiates his sexuality as well as the terms surrounding his race and gender. As Valerie Rohy states,

Questions of origin and identity are central to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a text which not only participates in the tradition of the American expatriate novel exemplified by Stein and, especially, by Henry James but which does so in relation to the African American idiom of passing and the genre of the passing novel. As such, Giovanni’s Room poses questions of nationalism, nostalgia, and the constitution of racial and sexual subjects in terms that are especially resonant for contemporary identity politics. (218)

The labels that David places on himself, ultimately terms that he must grapple with, vary between straight and homosexual, which ultimately isolates him from many other characters within the novel, including Giovanni. As David reflects,

Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself…I think now that if I had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home. But again, I think I knew, at the very bottom of my heart, exactly what I was doing when I took the boat for France. (Baldwin 21)

Modern critics have argued that both David and Giovanni are bisexual, which accounts for their relationships with each other as well as women; this notion also reflects Baldwin’s sexuality and deconstructs the binary between heteronormativity and homosexuality.

However, there is a distinction regarding sexuality in terms of identity and behavior; for example, a woman who identifies as a lesbian could still have sex with men and identify as such. Critics must be careful when labeling characters or authors with certain sexuality labels, such as gay, bisexual, or straight, and pay close attention to how characters and authors identify and label themselves versus placing restrictive labels on characters or authors.

I suggest that the term “queer” satisfies David’s, Giovanni’s, and Baldwin’s sexualities; using the term “queer” as an umbrella for those who exist on a spectrum of homo/heterosexuality and non-traditional gender categories would satisfy the cultural and social categories of these individuals without labeling them in a binary such as gay/straight or normal/abnormal. As Armengol states:

By exploring the color-full associations that Baldwin establishes between whiteness and heterosexuality, on the one hand, and homosexuality and blackness, on the other…in Giovanni’s Room the discourses of race and (homo)sexuality are inseparable from each other. Moreover, Baldwin not only depicts the binary oppositions that shape the dominant sexual and racial discourse but also ends up deconstructing them from subversive and innovative perspectives. While whiteness has traditionally been opposed to blackness, and even as heterosexuality has usually been constructed in opposition to homosexuality, Giovanni’s Room undermines such false oppositions by revealing…their interrelatedness and mutual dependence (673-74)

Giovanni’s Room deconstructs the gay/straight hegemonic binary within the text, but also negotiates the white/black binary that works within the novel. Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room works as a deconstruction to such sexual hegemonies while still proclaiming the queer experience for Baldwin.

For Smith, the black body is queered in several ways, and his poetry often depicts the violence that is enacted against gay, black men. For example, in his poem “Genesissy,” Smith connects the creation of the universe with the queering of black men:

& on the eighth day, god said let there be fierce & that’s the story about the first snap, the hand’s humble attempt at thunder, a small sky troubled by attitude // & on the ninth day, God said Bitch, werk & Adam learned to duck walk, dip, pose, death drop, Eve became the fruit herself, stared lions in the eye & dared to bite // & on the tenth day, God wore a blood red sequin body suit, dropped it low, named it Sunset // & on the eleventh day God said guuuurrrrl & trees leaned in for gossip, water went wild for the tea, & the airtight with shade (24)

For both Baldwin and Smith, “passing” as straight in certain situations is a performative move which attempts to read bodies a certain way in particular social situations.

Connecting the creation of the universe with the queer discourse community, Smith effectively queers the creation of man with rhetoric of the LGBT community, such as “fierce,” “Bitch, werk,” “death drop,” “guuuurrrrl,” “shade,” and “tea.” For heterosexual readers, these terms might come across as non-effective; however, for queer readers, this rhetoric would be known and would signal that the individual using this language would be a member of the queer discourse community.

Stemming from language used by black women, the terms the author uses in this poem were first adopted by the black drag queen community, and then later adopted by the rest of the queer community, through the vehicle of drag shows, but particularly RuPaul’s Drag Race. Much like RuPaul herself, Smith cannot divide queerness with blackness, and the violence that is enacted against gay black men is further depicted in “Genesissy”:

// & on the twelfth day, Jesus wept at the mirror, mourning the day his sons would shame his sons for walking a daughter’s stride, for the way his children would learn to hate the kids // & on the thirteenth day, God barely moved, he laid around dreaming of glitter; pleased with the shine, sad so many of his children would come home covered in it, parades canceled due to rain of fist & insults & rope & bullets // & on the fourteenth day God just didn’t know what to do with himself (Smith 24)

Making visible the black, queer experience, Smith suggests that being a black gay man is an inescapable violence, that the glittery parades celebrating queerness will be met with a “rain of fist & insults & rope & bullets” For Smith, violence against queer bodies is similar and connected to violence against black bodies:

Though the poem is dedicated to two black trans woman, many queer men of color – including me – find message for themselves in that poem…Writing these poems made me question when queerness or race showed up. When I’m pulled over by the police for unexplainable reasons, it’s not because I am queer, at least not how I present my queerness. When I’m in bed with a black man, race is the farthest thing from mind. When I remember what America does to black bodies, it’s everything amplified. (Smith, qtd. in González, “Small Press Spotlight: Danez Smith”)

Shame is also connected to the queer experience, as Smith suggests that Jesus is weeping for the hate and shame that his sons enacted on their sons, because of the way they “walk[ed] a daughter’s stride,” implying that feminine traits are to be shameful of due to masculinity–therefore indicating that gender is a performative act, and being a man constitutes acting like “a man,” or else one will be ridiculed by other men due to one’s gender performance.

In both Smith and Baldwin’s works, blackness and queerness are performed both simultaneously and interchangeably with one another. For Smith, the black, queer, masculine body is faced with violence and belonging, as both of these concepts are tied to how one identifies with themselves and to what discourse community they belong to, whether it be a black community or a queer community, or both.

Similarly, the queer space has become more accepting and open before and during Smith’s time, as poets and authors can be more erotic in their work; whereas for Baldwin and other authors before the queer rights movement, writing about sexuality was seen as deviant. For Baldwin, sexuality and race are performative acts, with David identifying with his white counterparts, and existing in closed and closeted spaces as a queer man. For both authors, identity is a fragmented and fluid construct, existing within spaces that are black, queer, and masculine.


Works Cited

Alexander, Bryant Keith. Performing Black Masculinity: Race, Culture, and Queer Identity. AltaMira Press, 2006.

Armengol, Josep M. “In the Dark Room: Homosexuality and/as Blackness in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.” Signs, no. 3, 2012, p. 671. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1086/662699.

Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1956.

Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” Routledge, 1993.

Cohen, Cathy J. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ, vol. 3, no. 4, 1 May 1997, pp. 437–485.

Goldstein, Richard. “Go the Way Your Blood Beats.” The Village Voice, 26 June 1984.

González. Rigoberto. Pivotal Voices, Era of Transition: Toward a 21st Century Poetics. U of Michigan P, 2017.

—. “Small Press Spotlight: Danez Smith.” Critical Mass: The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors, National Book Critics Circle, 25 Dec. 2014,

Iloh, Candice. “Danez Smith: On His New Poetry Collection, Writing About Gay Sex, and the Power of Blackness.” Lambda Literary, Lambda Literary Foundation, 5 Oct. 2017,

Kiesling, Elena. “The Missing Colors of the Rainbow: Black Queer Resistance.” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 11, no. 3, 2017, pp. 1–22.

Rohy, Valerie. “Displacing Desire: Passing, Nostalgia, and Giovanni’s Room.” Passing and the Fictions of Identity, edited by Elaine K. Ginsberg, Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 218–232.

Smith, Danez. “The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar.” Poetry, Poetry Foundation, 2017.

—. [insert] boy. YesYes Books, 2014.