In Book One Chapter 1 (page 43, but my edition has a different pagination), Rufus remembers Eric and thinks that “perhaps he had allowed Eric to make love to him in order to despise him more completely” (43) On the next page, Rufus compares his relationship with Eric to his relationship with Leona: “And he had used against her [Leona] the very epithets he had used against Eric, and in the very same way, with the same roaring in his head and the same intolerable pressure in his chest” (44).
What is similar (or different) about Rufus’ relationships with Eric and Leona? What accounts for the “roaring in his head” and “intolerable pressure in his chest,” and how does this description relate to what ultimately happens to Rufus?
Rufus’ relationship with Eric is not flushed out to the same extent as his relationship with Leona, so Baldwin’s form is functioning to define these relationships. Baldwin goes into great detail about Rufus and Leona’s relationship and the life they lead together. This confirms their degree of togetherness. However, Baldwin chose to give us much less detail about Rufus and Eric’s relationship. We don’t actually know very much about their dynamic or even what labels they used to define what they had. I think that Baldwin made this choice in order to convey a certain distance or uncertainty that existed between the two men and maybe how they did not give themselves fully to the relationship.
Pairing the quotes on pages 43 and 44, we see that anger is fundamental to these relationships. Both Eric and Leona are white and from the deep South. Their identities represent a history of racialized violence. And maybe this history and their whiteness is the single reason that he chose to be with each of them because if he can dominate these two white people through language, like epithets, he gets back some of the power that has been stolen from him.
I think the main similarity, but also difference, between these relationships is that Rufus doesn’t really necessarily want to be a part of either of them. With Eric, it seems like he “allowed Eric to make love to him in order to despise him more completely” (45) as a way to try and convince himself that this isn’t what he wanted, even if it secretly was. As we mentioned in class today, we can compare Rufus to Gide in Baldwin’s essay The Male Prison in Nobody Knows My Name. Rufus seems to have the same sense of internalized homophobia; he hasn’t accepted who he is, so he uses Eric to try and rid himself of the part of his identity he doesn’t like. However, with Leona, it isn’t what he wants, but he doesn’t have to try and convince himself that it isn’t really what he wants. As is pointed out on page 46, “He had despised Eric’s manhood by treating him as a woman… and he had used against [Leona] the very epithets he had used against Eric, and in the very same way”. Therefore, Rufus seems to feel as if he doesn’t truly belong in a relationship with either one.
This lack of belonging on either side probably relates to what ultimately happens to Rufus. Also as we discussed in class today, the city can be described as having a violent and dominating force over the identities of the people living within it, which includes Rufus. This city is owned by the white man, and in a way, allow’s for Rufus’s violence. Not only does he feel a disconnect between him and the white men who own and control the city, but he also feels a disconnect from both Eric and Leona, and the respective homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Therefore, he doesn’t seem to feel as though he can truly connect with the African American community either, on account of his sexuality. As a result, Rufus is left all alone in this huge city, yet has nowhere to go, and no group that he feels like he truly belongs to, which evidently has a major impact on the end of Rufus’s life.
Both Leona and Eric serve as a symbol for Rufus of the oppression he has faced at the hands of white people. He sees having such violent sex with Leona particularly as a way to exact revenge on her people and all that she represents. Living in a society bent on taking away black man’s power and humanity by making them into sexual predators, Baldwin uses Rufus to show a black man’s attempt to reclaim his masculinity. The novel does not allow the reader to demonize Rufus because it forces us to contemplate the racial rage behind his actions with lines such as “nothing could have stopped him, not the white G-d himself nor a lynch mob arriving on wings” and “Under his breath he cursed the milk-white bitch and groaned and rode his weapon between her thighs” (Baldwin 22).
I agree that both Eric and Leona for Rufus represent Rufus’ oppression at the hands of white people. For Leona and Eric both, Rufus feels the need to assert his masculinity that he feels has been denied him because of the oppression he faces.
At the same time, his relationship with Eric causes him to have doubt as to his own masculinity to the point where he says he tried to see Eric as a woman. He claims he lat Eric make love to him to despise him further, but I think this is really Rufus trying to find a justification for the loathing he feels towards himself for desiring Eric. He associates non-heterosexuality with another means for the white man to strip away his masculinity. He even frequently calls people who rub him the wrong way “cocksuckers” as a means of degrading them and as a self-defense mechanism.
Rufus struggles with issues regarding his race and sexual identity to the point where he feels he cannot live in the world anymore. He truly feels that there is no place for him. His relationships with Leona and Eric both contribute to these feelings. He feels powerless, so he takes it out on both Leona and Eric because they represent the affects that oppression at the hands of white people have had on him. On top of that, his relationship with Eric adds fuel to the fire, as he believes it strips him of the masculinity he has left.
This was the part where I really started to feel bad for Rufus. More than anything, I noted that Rufus’ story really isn’t that uncommon but he didn’t have the language nor community to really understand that and it ultimately consumed him. It makes me feel really sad that he didn’t understand his experience as a black, (queer?) male and it really messed with him. Even before looking into his queer identity, being black is just so complex and comes with certain experiences that must be tied to large structures in order to understand them fully. I’m wondering if Rufus ever went through negative racial experiences that he interpreted to be attacks on himself and not on his blackness- I know that the two cannot be disassociated from each other but I think that realizing that certain attacks on your identities are just at your identities shifts the blame from within to the other person. This part is also so essential for healing especially for people of color and queer folks. I just really wonder if words could have saved Rufus.
I believe the relationships are different in the sense that there are social hierarchies in place that affect the way Rufus views himself. In regards to his relationship with Eric Rufus appears to be more ashamed of it. Intersectionality emerges as Rufus battles with sexuality; the “roaring in his head” and “intolerable pressure in his chest,” in my opinion are bodily reactions that expressed his veiled desire he had for Eric. Though, one cannot deny that the vulnerability he feels is a result of the inevitable power dynamics occurring due to the fact that Eric is a white male. Gilberto and I plan to unravel some of these complexities in our presentation. On the other hand, his relationship with Leona allows him to inflict his own patriarchal influence and consciousness on the relationship due to the fact that he is a male. However, this idea is dispelled as seen in the bar incident with Jane. The incident with the bar emphasizes the “unspoken rule” in protecting the virtue of white women from the dangerous Black male.
I feel like to answer questions of similarity between Rufus’s love/hate for Leona and Eric, we need to get more background for Eric and Rufus. Eric and Rufus’s relationship reminds me of the archetype / stereotype / cultural reality of relationships between white gay men who are relatively comfortable with their sexuality, and Black men who may have internalized homophobia that is very much the product of an anti-Black world. I’m thinking back to Eric’s relationship with Le’Roy too, and I think this is worth exploring further.
I think what is very interesting here is that Baldwin forefronts the racial component of Rufus’ relationships – he gives us insight into two relationships, one heterosexual and one homosexual. In both of these relationships, Rufus ‘admits’ that he behaves exactly the same, and treats them both in similar manners. We are therefore left to focus not on what differentiates these individuals, but what common thread they share – in this case, they are both white. I think his similar treatment of both Eric and Leona makes Baldwin’s statement extremely powerful, and evidently based upon race alone (and not gender or sexuality). I am still not entirely sure how to interpret the “pressure in his chest”, but I agree with a few of the previous posts about this representing his internalized oppression and subsequent anger.