Just Above My Head
James Baldwin, born in Harlem in 1924, became a boy preacher when he was fourteen. He left the church when he was seventeen and transformed himself into a writer of extraordinary rhetorical refinement, but there remained in his style, in his baroque sense of grievance, the atmosphere of the pulpit. In works like The Fire Next Time (1963), an exalted rhetoric rushes out, as in a sermon, to meet the bitterness of American life.
In 1948, when Baldwin was twenty-four, he was seized by what appears to have been a claustrophobia of the spirit and went to France, from which he has never really returned. Exile freed him to contemplate his homeland. Notes of a Native Son (1955), a collection of essays striking in their subtlety of language, shows a mind deeply knowledgeable about the psychological costs of racism and skeptical toward the ideological complacencies and inherited ideas that define so much of the analysis of the racial conflict on both sides.
Moralistic fervor, a high literary seriousness, the authority of the survivor, of the witness—these qualities made Baldwin unique. In his best work, he is drawn to the ways in which life can go wildly wrong, to examinations of the damage done the individual by society. Another bloodied stone is always waiting to be turned over. A sense of mission has guided Baldwin’s development as a writer. He was truly born with his subject matter, and yet for a long time his work showed a feeling of distrust for the promises of “pure” literature, a sense of its impotence, both personally and as a political weapon. In his youth Baldwin wanted to be identified not as a black but as a writer. It is a conflict he has never resolved.
Just Above My Head is a long and ambitious novel in which we find again many of Baldwin’s obsessions. He returns to the Harlem and the church of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953); to the homosexuality of Giovanni’s Room (1955) and Another Country (1962); and to the social and political outrage that has inspired all his work. Whether the visions of the past are still vivid is another question.
Hall Montana, the narrator of Just Above My Head, tells the story of his dead brother Arthur, a celebrated gospel singer, and in so doing Hall hopes to make sense of his own life, shatter his grief. Arthur was called “the Soul Emperor,” and Hall was his manager. When the novel opens, Arthur has been dead two years, of a heart attack in the basement men’s room of a London pub. Hall is tolerant, loving, grateful for children and wife, filled with memory and family feeling, and also schooled in the hardships of being black. His voice, however, is not very fluent and this makes for something of a strain in such a long work. The burden of editorial omniscience, including what his brother felt while having sex, forces Hall’s imagination to do more work than it can bear.
Hall is the witness to Arthur’s life, and Baldwin, we feel, has compelled him to testify. The story takes the form of a saga, bringing in three decades of history and shared experiences. Not only does Hall remember the sufferings of his family and friends, but his memories continually shift to embrace a sweep of black life: family relations, work, the importance of music, the influence of religious feeling, the intensity of the Freedom Movement. This is a story of costly, wearying struggle, mainly concentrating on Hall, his brother Arthur, and their lifelong friend, Julia Miller.
Julia has been a child evangelist, willful and arrogant, spoiled by possessive parents, but she has lost her faith after the death of her mother and fallen into a violent, incestuous relationship with her dandyish, weak father. The Montana family helps her to escape to New Orleans. Latter, back in New York, she becomes Hall’s mistress. She abandons him and goes to Africa where, in search of liberating experience, she takes a lover. Her younger brother Jimmy, open and innocent, becomes Arthur’s accompanist and devoted lover. Even when they are flung apart, these four people appear as members of a troubled, tightly knit family, each preoccupied with the feelings of the others. Hall’s tone is so intense and so sprawling, that everyone who has entered his or Arthur’s life, however briefly, is touched by it.
Most of the action takes place off stage. Intimates and strangers race in and out of the book. Arthur is always on tour—with his quartet as a young man in the South; or as an increasingly famous solo performer in Canada and Europe. The young Hall is drafted, and sent to Korea. Julia is swept off to Abidjan. The novel is composed mostly of earnest conversations about unfulfilled longings and absent friends—testimony given at bars, meals with the family, and other social events.
She was talking to me about something which was happening to us.
This was the strangest and most grueling sign of respect anyone had given me, in all my life.
“And so, I had to think about it. I knew what was holding me here.”
She reached out and put one hand in mine, for a moment.
“I would have liked to be able to have said—to myself—that it was you. But I would have been lying—to myself, and to you, and I love you too much for that.”
She dropped my hand, and nibbled at her rice. The restaurant was full, but not yet inundated, we had, for a moment, a haven.
A “haven,” one might say, from the agitated movements, the abrupt arrivals and departures that are intended to satisfy the need to have something happen in this novel. Here, as throughout Baldwin’s other work, flight is at the center of the psychological drama. The characters believe in the possibilities of another evening, a different place, a new face. The world is revealed to them at night, in the hours of nakedness, drinking, and truth-telling.
Although Hall tells many detailed anecdotes of the adolescent years of Julia and the two brothers, particularly Arthur, as they move into maturity his narration becomes more urgent and elliptical, as if he were uneasily aware that the story he wished to tell is too large. Crucial moments that would help us understand what he and his brother were going through are only hinted at. For instance, Hall mentions that there were troubles near the end of Arthur’s life, that he is said to have suffered from dissipation and cruelties and weariness. But Hall never returns to any of this, so we learn an important part of Arthur’s fate only through rumor.
Arthur himself never emerges from the shadows of his brother’s descriptions, but it is clear that he is very different from the subversive heroes of Baldwin’s earlier novels. He is homosexual, but seen sentimentally, continually as a member of a family, the doting younger brother, the loving son. He is meant to be a kind of artist hero, hardworking, dedicated, tragically undone by the rages of their lives. He unfortunately lacks the willfulness and chaotic interest of other artists in Baldwin’s fiction—the jazz musician Rufus Scott in Another Country, the actor Leo Proudhammer in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968). For Baldwin, the time for a daring portrayal of the homosexual as outcast appears to have passed. He seems now to be trying to make a sentimental truce between the outcast and the family, meaning the black community. Arthur goes to bed with many young lovers and longs to be “married” to them. In fact, he gets married as a boy, when he is fourteen, to Crunch, eighteen, a member of the gospel quartet in which Arthur gets his first professional experience in the Harlem churches and on the road in the South. Crunch is a repentant lady killer.
In Nobody Knows My Name (1961), Baldwin wrote, “In most of the novels written by Negroes until today…there is a great space where sex ought to be; and what usually fills this space is violence.” He himself confronted the subjects of interracial sex and homosexual encounters in Another Country. Sexual honesty contained healing possibilities for the disturbed psyche. “He held Eric very tightly and covered Eric’s body with his own, as though he were shielding him from the falling heavens.” However, in this new work, Arthur sees his homosexuality as a liability, a potential source of rejection.
But nothing less than confession is demanded of him. He dreams of Jimmy, and comes, almost, to prefer the dream because dreams appear to be harmless: dreams don’t hurt. Dreams don’t love, either, which is how we drown. Arthur had to pull himself to a place where he could say to Paul, his father, and to Hall, his brother, and to all the world, and to his Maker, Take me as I am!
For Baldwin, it once seemed possible that spiritual bondage could be overcome by belief in a transcendent passion. Freedom from sexual and racial bigotry was the only redemptive possibility for the individual confined and menaced by society. In Baldwin’s fiction homosexuality is symbolic of a liberated condition; but in Just Above My Head this theme is dropped—rejected, one might say—by having the homosexual characters imitate heterosexual behavior. By the time Arthur dies, he and Jimmy have been married fourteen years, complete with in-laws.
The anxious tone of this novel is a long way from the romantic melancholy of Giovanni’s Room, a book neglected not only because of its homosexual protagonists but also because in it Baldwin was writing exclusively about white characters, though he was hardly the first black writer to do so.
Until I die there will be moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth’s witches, when his face will come before me, that face in all its changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his speech will nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils. Sometimes in the days which are coming—God grant me the grace to live them—in the glare of the grey morning, sourmouthed, eyelids raw and red, hair tangled and damp from my stormy sleep, facing, over coffee and cigarette smoke, last night’s impenetrable, meaningless boy who will shortly rise and vanish like the smoke, I will see Giovanni again, as he was that night, so vivid, so winning, all of the light of that gloomy tunnel trapped around his head.
Abandoning his idealism about love, Baldwin now writes sentimentally not only about Arthur but about the entire Montana family. The parents are wise, forgiving, and everyone is uniformly resilient and “caring.” If Baldwin means to honor the family as one of the reasons why blacks have, if nothing else, survived, his way of doing so is hardly convincing. Giving to the family generous amounts of noble qualities results in a neat symmetry: us versus them. The hagiographic approach helps to account for the flatness and didacticism of this work, as it did of Baldwin’s last novel, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), a book that was also dogmatic in its insistence on families and marriage as joyous alliances against an oppressively conceived “them.” From Baldwin’s other writings, one knows he has had a far more complicated idea of the family.
Increasing disillusionment over the years may have led Baldwin to search for something like a “people’s book.” But there is a repetitious and inert quality to Just Above My Head. Attempting to be earthy, to render a vernacular, black speech, Baldwin loses something when he declines to use the subtle language of his essays. In many ways the bombast in Hall’s narration creates not a closeness to the material but a peculiar distance from it. In using a kind of ordinary language, hoping for what Richard Wright once called “the folk utterance,” Baldwin has denied himself the natural lyrical mode of expression for which he has such a high gift.
Eldridge Cleaver’s irresponsible attack in Soul On Ice may help to explain the turn in Baldwin’s work. Cleaver claimed that Baldwin’s work revealed a hatred of blacks, of himself, and a sycophantic love for whites, manifested in a racial death wish. Baldwin, according to Cleaver, attacked Wright’s Native Son and dismissed Norman Mailer’s The White Negro because he despised and feared masculinity. Cleaver also described the black homosexual as counterrevolutionary, castrated by the white man. His assault was doubtless prompted not only by the propaganda of Black Manhood but also by his own anti-intellectualism. The intimidation of Baldwin was extreme; along with many other black writers he faced the threat of being branded as a collaborator. Even as late as 1972, Baldwin could only answer by saying that he thought Cleaver merely felt impelled to issue a warning because he saw Baldwin as “dangerously odd,…of too much use to the Establishment to be trusted by blacks.”
The fury of the Black Power movement seemed to demand of Baldwin a new set of definitions with which to express his loathing of America’s racial troubles. In the long essay No Name in the Streets (1971), he charged Western societies with the “lie of their pretended humanism”; he once described how the “irresponsibility and cowardice” of the intellectual community during the McCarthy era first alerted him to the hypocrisy of rational liberalism. The political events of the Sixties—upheavals, assassinations, and secret police persecutions—fully confirmed his suspicions. Baldwin had made a choicè, one he hoped to realize in his writing.
As Harold Cruse pointed out, however, Baldwin was not much interested in identifying social and economic causes. He always conceived of racial and political injustice as deriving from sin and requiring salvation, an argument rooted in his Christian training. His many exhortations to collective conscience went unheard. The nation did not atone for the sin of slavery and still moves away, indifferent, unchastised. Baldwin’s exasperation with this “emotional poverty” has brought him to repudiate most of the claims of Western culture—“I don’t believe in the wagons that bring bread to humanity”—and to seek a refuge, however delusory, in black solidarity.
It would appear from this book that he is weary of battling alone and wishes for a wider, more popular acceptance, a coming home to the “folk.” There is a sad irony here. When Baldwin was young, in Paris, he quarreled with his “spiritual father,” Richard Wright, over Baldwin’s attack on the genre of protest novels. Wright felt betrayed and Baldwin defended himself by saying that all literature may be protest but not all protest was literature. Later, when recalling Wright’s isolation from other blacks in Paris, his aloneness, his alienation, Baldwin wrote: “I could not help feeling: Be Careful. Time is passing for you, too, and this may be happening to you one day.” Baldwin now writes as if he is haunted by this prophecy. Just Above My Head, with its forced polemical tone, represents a conversion of sorts, a conversion to simplicities that so fine a mind as Baldwin’s cannot embrace without grave loss.