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Literary Criticism of James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s (1924– 1987) public role as a major African American racial spokesman of the 1950’s and 1960’s guarantees his place in American cultural history. Though not undeserved, this reputation more frequently obscures than clarifies the nature of his literary achievement, which involves his relationship to African American culture, existential philosophy, and the moral tradition of the world novel. To be sure, Baldwin’s progression from an individualistic, universalist stance through active involvement with the integrationist Civil Rights movement to an increasing sympathy with militant Pan-Africanist thought parallels the general development of African American thought between the early 1950’s and the mid-1970’s.

Indeed, his novels frequently mirror both Baldwin’s personal philosophy and its social context. Some, most notably Another Country, attained a high degree of public visibility when published, leading to a widely accepted vision of Baldwin as a topical writer. To consider Baldwin primarily as a racial spokesman, however, imposes a stereotype that distorts many of his most penetrating insights and underestimates his status as a literary craftsman. More accurate, though ultimately as limited, is the view of Baldwin primarily as an exemplar of the African American presence in the “mainstream” of the American tradition. Grouped with Ralph Ellison as a major “post-Wright” black novelist, Baldwin represents, in this view, the generation that rejected “protest literature” in favor of “universal” themes. Strangely at odds with the view of Baldwin as racial spokesman, this view emphasizes the craftsmanship of Baldwin’s early novels and his treatment of “mainstream” themes such as religious hypocrisy, father-son tensions, and sexual identity. Ironically, many younger African American novelists accept this general view of Baldwin’s accomplishment, viewing his mastery of Jamesian techniques and his involvement with continental literary culture as an indication of alienation from his racial identity.

james-baldwin-detailUncompromising in his demand for personal and social integrity, James Baldwin from the beginning of his career charged the individual with full responsibility for his or her moral identity. Both in his early individualistic novels and in his later political fiction, he insisted on the inadequacy of received definitions as the basis for self-knowledge or social action. Echoing the existentialist principle “existence precedes essence,” he intimated the underlying consistency of his vision in the introductory essay in Notes of a Native Son:

I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright.

Baldwin’s insistence on the moral center and movement in the world cautions against associating him with the atheistic or solipsistic currents of existential thought. Never denying the possibility of transcendent moral power—which he frequently imaged as the power of love—he simply insisted that human conceptions must remain flexible enough to allow for the honest perception of experience. Fully recognizing the reality of existential pain and despair, Baldwin invoked honesty and self-acceptance as the necessary supports for the love capable of generating individual communication and at least the groundwork for political action.

Baldwin’s social vision, reflecting his experience in a racist culture, acknowledges the forces militating against self-knowledge and moral responsibility. Each of his novels portrays a series of evasive and simplifying definitions built into religious, economic, and educational institutions. These definitions, which emphasize the separation of self and other, control the immediate contexts of individual experience. As a result, they frequently seem to constitute “human nature,” to embody the inevitable limits of experience. Although sympathizing with the difficulty of separating the self from context without simultaneously denying experience, Baldwin insists that acquiescing to the definitions inevitably results in self-hatred and social immorality. The individual incapable of accepting his or her existential complexity flees to the illusion of certainty provided by the institutions that assume responsibility for directing moral decisions.

This cycle of institutional pressure encouraging existential evasion ensuring further institutional corruption recurs in each of Baldwin’s novels. On both personal and social levels, the drive to deny the reality of the other—racial, sexual, or economic— generates nothing save destruction. Derived from the streets of Harlem rather than from Scripture, Baldwin’s response echoes Christ’s admonition to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The derivation is vital; in Baldwin’s novels, those who extract the message from the Bible rather than from their lives frequently aggravate the pain that makes evading reality seem attractive.

The immediate focus of Baldwin’s attention gradually shifted from consciousness to context, creating the illusion of a change in his basic concerns. Although he always worked in the realistic tradition of the novel, his choice of specific forms paralleled this shift in thematic focus, though again his later work indicates an underlying unity in his fiction. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, employs a tightly focused Jamesian form to explore the developing awareness of the adolescent protagonist John Grimes, who is not yet aware of the evasive definitions conditioning his experience. After a second Jamesian novel, Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin adapted the relatively unstructured Dreiserian mode in Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. Characters such as Rufus Scott and Vivaldo Moore in Another Country continue to struggle for individual awareness, but Baldwin’s new narrative stance emphasizes the impact of the limiting definitions on a wide range of particular social circumstances. Attempting to balance the presentation of consciousness and context, Baldwin’s last two novels, If Beale Street Could Talk and Just Above My Head, synthesize the earlier technical approaches. Returning to the immediate focus on the individual consciousness in these first-person narratives, Baldwin creates protagonists capable of articulating their own social perceptions. Consciousness and context merge as Baldwin’s narrators share their insights and, more important, their processes with their fellow sufferers.

These insights implicitly endorse William Blake’s vision of morality as a movement from innocence through experience to a higher innocence. Beginning with an unaware innocence, individuals inevitably enter the deadening and murderous world of experience, the world of the limiting definitions. Those who attempt to deny the world and remain children perish alongside those who cynically submit to the cruelty of the context for imagined personal benefit. Only those who plunge into experience, recognize its cruelty, and resolve to forge an aware innocence can hope to survive morally. Specifically, Baldwin urges families to pass on a sense of the higher innocence to their children by refusing to simplify the truth of experience. This painful honesty makes possible the commitment to love despite the inevitability of pain and isolation. It provides the only hope, however desperate, for individual or social rejuvenation. To a large extent, Baldwin’s career developed in accord with the Blakean pattern. John Grimes begins his passage from innocence to experience in Go Tell It on the Mountain; Rufus Scott and Vivaldo Moore, among others, struggle to survive experience in Another Country, which intimates the need for the higher innocence. Baldwin’s last two novels portray the entire process, focusing on the attempt first to find and then to pass on the higher innocence. Just Above My Head, with its middle-aged narrator and his teenage children, clearly represents a more highly developed and realistic stage of the vision than If Beale Street Could Talk, with its teenage mother-narrator and her newborn infant.

james_baldwin_booksGo Tell It on the Mountain 

Go Tell It on the Mountain centers on the religious conversion and family relationships of John Grimes, whose experience parallels that of Baldwin during his youth. Although he believes himself to be the natural son of Gabriel Grimes, a preacher who, like Baldwin’s stepfather, moved to New York after growing up in the South, John is actually the son of Gabriel’s wife, Elizabeth, and her lover, Richard, who committed suicide prior to John’s birth. Growing up under the influence of his hypocritical and tyrannical stepfather, John alternately attempts to please and transcend him. Gabriel expends most of his emotional energy on his openly rebellious son Roy, whose immersion in the violent life of the Harlem streets contrasts sharply with John’s involvement with the “Temple of the Fire Baptized,” the storefront church where his conversion takes place. To the extent that Baldwin organizes There was not,around John’s attempt to come to terms with these pressures, the novel appears to have a highly individualistic focus.

The overall structure of the novel, however, dictates that John’s experience be viewed in a larger context. Of the three major sections of Go Tell It on the Mountain, the first, “The Seventh Day,” and the third, “The Threshing Floor,” focus directly on John. The long middle section, “The Prayers of the Saints,” a Faulknerian exploration of history, traces the origins of John’s struggle to the experience of his elders, devoting individual chapters to Elizabeth, Gabriel, and Gabriel’s sister Florence. Together the prayers portray the Great Northern Migration of African Americans from the South, from rural to urban settings. Far from bringing true freedom, the movement results in a new indirect type of oppression. As Elizabeth recognizes:

There was not, after all, a great difference between the world of the North and that of the South which she had fled; there was only this difference: the North promised more. And this similarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other.

Even in his most individualistic phase, Baldwin is aware of the power of institutional pressures. The origins of John’s particular struggle against the limiting definitions go back to their impact on both Elizabeth and Gabriel.

Elizabeth’s relationship with John’s true father, at least in its early stages, appears to offer hope for at least a limited freedom from external definition. Highly intelligent and self-aware, Richard struggles to transcend the limitations imposed on black aspiration through a rigorous program of self-education, which he shares with Elizabeth. Despite his intelligence and determination, however, Richard maintains a naïve innocence concerning the possibility of self-definition in a society based on racist assumptions. Only when arrested on suspicion of a robbery he had nothing to do with does he recognize that his context defines him simply as another “nigger.” Unable to reconcile this imposed definition with his drive for social transcendence, he despairs and commits suicide. This act, in turn, destroys Elizabeth’s chance for obtaining a greater degree of freedom. She is not, however, simply a victim. Fearing that Richard will be unable to cope with the responsibility of a family, she fails to tell him of her pregnancy. Far from protecting him, this evasion contributes to his destruction by allowing Richard to view his situation as purely personal. Elizabeth’s own choice, conditioned by the social refusal to confront reality, combines with the racist legal system to circumscribe her possibilities. Forced to care for her infant son, she marries Gabriel, thus establishing the basic terms for John’s subsequent struggle.

Seen in relation to John in “The Seventh Day,” Gabriel appears to be one of the most despicable hypocrites in American literature. In relation to his own history in “The Prayers of the Saints,” however, he appears victimized by the institutional context of his youth. In turn, he victimizes his family by attempting to force them into narrowly defined roles. The roots of Gabriel’s character lie in the “temple-street” dichotomy of his southern childhood. Encouraged by his religious mother to deny his sensuality, Gabriel undergoes a conversion experience and immerses himself in the role of preacher. As a result, he enters into a loveless asexual marriage with his mother’s friend Deborah, herself a victim of the racist psychology—enforced by black and white people—which condemns her after she has been brutally raped by a group of whites. Eventually, Gabriel’s repressed street self breaks out and he fathers a son by the sensual Esther. Again attempting to deny his sensuality, Gabriel refuses to acknowledge this son, Royal. Like John’s half-brother Roy, the first Royal immerses himself in the street life that Gabriel denies; he dies in a Chicago barroom brawl. Gabriel fears that Roy will share Royal’s fate, but his attempt to crush his second son’s street self merely strengthens the resulting rebellion. Faced with the guilt of Royal’s death and the sense of impending doom concerning Roy, Gabriel retreats into a solipsism that makes a mockery of his Christian vocation. Far from providing a context for moral responsibility, the church—both in the South and in the North—simply replaces the original innocence of religious fervor with a cynical vision of religion as a source of the power needed to destroy the innocence of others.

Against this backdrop, John’s conversion raises a basic question that will recur in slightly different circumstances in each of Baldwin’s novels: Can an individual hope to break the cycle of evasion that has shaped his personal and social context? In John’s case, the problem takes on added dimensions, since he remains ignorant of many of the events shaping his life, including those involving his own birth. By framing the prayers with John’s conversion, Baldwin stresses the connection between past and present, but the connection can be perceived as either oppressive or liberating. The complex irony of “The Threshing Floor” section allows informed readings of John’s conversion as either a surrender to evasion or as a movement toward existential responsibility. Focusing primarily on John’s internal experience as he lies transfixed on the church floor, “The Threshing Floor” revolves around a dialogue between an “ironic voice” that challenges John to return to the street and the part of John that seeks traditional salvation. Throughout John’s vision, the narrative voice shifts point of view in accord with John’s developing perception. As John accepts the perceptions implied by his vision, the ironic voice shifts its attention to yet deeper levels of ambiguity. To the extent that John resolves these ambiguities by embracing the Temple, his experience seems to increase the risk that he will follow Gabriel’s destructive example.

Several image patterns, however, indicate that John may be moving nearer to a recognition of his actual complexity. Chief among these are those involving the curse of Ham, the rejection of the father, and the acceptance of apparent opposites. From the beginning of the vision, the ironic voice ridicules John for accepting the curse of Ham, which condemns him both as son and as “nigger.” Manipulating John’s sense of guilt for having indulged his street self by masturbating, the ironic voice insists that John’s very existence “proves” Gabriel’s own sexual weakness. If Gabriel condemns John, he condemns himself in the process. As a result, John comes to view himself as the “devil’s son” and repudiates his subservience before his “father.” Without this essentially negative, and ultimately socially derived, definition of himself, John finds himself in an existential void where “there was no speech or language, and there was no love.”

Forced to reconstruct his identity, John progresses from this sense of isolation to a vision of the dispossessed with whom he shares his agony and his humanity. John’s vision of the multitude whose collective voice merges with his own suggests suffering as the essential human experience, one obliterating both the safety and the isolation of imposed definitions. Significantly, this vision leads John to Jesus the Son rather than God the Father, marking an implicit rejection of Gabriel’s Old Testament vengeance in favor of the New Testament commitment to an all-encompassing love. The son metamorphoses from symbol of limitation to symbol of liberation. Near the end of his vision, John explicitly rejects the separation of opposites—street and temple, white and black—encouraged by his social context: “The light and the darkness had kissed each other, and were married now, forever, in the life and the vision of John’s soul.” Returning to his immediate environment from the depths of his mind, John responds not to the call of Gabriel but to that of Elisha, a slightly older member of the congregation with whom he has previously engaged in a sexually suggestive wrestling match reminiscent of that in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920). John’s salvation, then, may bring him closer to an acceptance of his own sensuality, to a definition of himself encompassing both temple and street. Baldwin ends the novel with the emergence of the newly “saved” John onto the streets of Harlem. His fate hinges on his ability to move ahead to the higher innocence suggested by his vision of the dispossessed rather than submitting to the experiences that have destroyed and deformed the majority of the saints.

Another Country

Another Country, Baldwin’s greatest popular success, analyzes the effects of deforming pressure and experience on a wide range of characters, black and white, male and female, homosexual and heterosexual. To accommodate these diverse consciousnesses, Baldwin employs the sprawling form usually associated with political rather than psychological fiction, emphasizing the diverse forms of innocence and experience in American society. The three major sections of Another Country, “Easy Rider,” “Any Day Now,” and “Toward Bethlehem,” progress generally from despair to renewed hope, but no single consciousness or plot line provides a frame similar to that of Go Tell It on the Mountain. Rather, the novel’s structural coherence derives from the moral concerns present in each of the various plots.

Casting a Melvillean shadow over the novel is the black jazz musician Rufus Scott, who is destroyed by an agonizing affair with Leona, a white southerner recently arrived in New York at the time she meets him. Unable to forge the innocence necessary for love in a context that repudiates the relationship at every turn, Rufus destroys Leona psychologically. After a period of physical and psychological destitution, he kills himself by jumping off a bridge. His sister Ida, an aspiring singer, and his friend Vivaldo Moore, an aspiring white writer, meet during the last days of Rufus’s life and fall in love as they console each other over his death. Struggling to overcome the racial and sexual definitions that destroyed Rufus, they seek a higher innocence capable of countering Ida’s sense of the world as a “whorehouse.” In contrast to Ida and Vivaldo’s struggle, the relationship of white actor Eric Jones and his French lover Yves seems Edenic. Although Baldwin portrays Eric’s internal struggle for a firm sense of his sexual identity, their shared innocence at times seems to exist almost entirely outside the context of the pressures that destroyed Rufus. The final major characters, Richard and Cass Silenski, represent the cost of the American Dream. After Richard “makes it” as a popular novelist, their personal relationship decays, precipitating Cass’s affair with Eric. Their tentative reunion after Richard discovers the affair makes it clear that material success provides no shortcut to moral responsibility.

Baldwin examines each character and relationship in the context of the institutional pressures discouraging individual responsibility. His portrait of Rufus, the major accomplishment of Another Country, testifies to a moral insight and a raw artistic power resembling that of Wright and Émile Zola. Forgoing the formal control and emotional restraint of his earlier novels, Baldwin opens Another Country with the image of Rufus who “had fallen so low, that he scarcely had the energy to be angry.” Both an exceptional case and a representative figure, Rufus embodies the seething anger and hopeless isolation rendering Baldwin’s United States a landscape of nightmare. Seeing his own situation as unbearable, Rufus meditates on the fate of a city tormented by an agony like his own: “He remembered to what excesses, into what traps and nightmares, his loneliness had driven him; and he wondered where such  violent emptiness might drive an entire city.” Forcing readers to recognize the social implications of Rufus’s situation, Baldwin emphasizes that his specific situation originates in his own moral failure with Leona. Where Gabriel Grimes remained insulated from his immorality by arrogance and pride, Rufus feels the full extent of his selfenforced damnation. Ironically and belatedly, his destitution clarifies his sense of the extent of his past acceptance of the social definitions that destroy him.

Wandering the streets of Manhattan, Rufus feels himself beyond human contact. Desperately in need of love, he believes his past actions render him unfit for even minimal compassion. His abuse of Leona, who as a white woman represents both the “other” and the source of the most obvious social definitions circumscribing his life as a black male, accounts for his original estrangement from family and friends, who find his viciousness uncharacteristic. All, including Rufus, fail to understand soon enough that his abuse of Leona represents both a rebellion against and an acceptance of the role dictated by racial and sexual definitions. Separated from the psychological source of his art—jazz inevitably rejects the substructure of Euro-American definitions of reality—Rufus falls ever further into a paranoia that receives ample reinforcement from the racist context. Largely by his own choice, he withdraws almost entirely from both his black and white acquaintances. When he is on the street following Leona’s breakdown, he begins to recognize not only his immediate but also his long-term acceptance of destructive definitions. Thinking back on a brief homosexual affair with Eric to which he submitted out of pity rather than love, Rufus regrets having treated his friend with contempt. Having rejected the “other” in Eric and Leona, Rufus realizes he has rejected a part of himself. He consigns himself to the ranks of the damned, casting himself beyond human love with his plunge off the bridge.

Although not absolving Rufus of responsibility for his actions, Baldwin treats him with profound sympathy, in part because of his honesty and in part because of the enormous power of the social institutions that define him as the “other.” Throughout Another Country, Baldwin emphasizes that white heterosexual men possess the power of definition, although their power destroys them as surely as it does their victims. Television producer Steve Ellis, a moral cripple embodying the worst values of the American economic system, nearly destroys Ida and Vivaldo’s relationship by encouraging Ida to accept a cynical definition of herself as a sexual commodity. Vivaldo, too, participates in the cynicism when he visits the Harlem prostitutes, indirectly perpetuating the definitions that reduce black people to sexual objects, and thus implicating himself in Rufus’s death. In fact, every major character with the exception of Eric bears partial responsibility for Rufus’s destruction, since each at times accepts the definitions generating the cycle of rejection and denial. The constituting irony, however, stems from the fact that only those most actively struggling for moral integrity recognize their culpability. Vivaldo, who attempts to reach out to Rufus earlier on the night of his suicide, feels more guilt than Richard, who simply dismisses Rufus as a common “nigger” after his mistreatment of Leona.

This unflinching portrayal of moral failure, especially on the part of well-meaning liberals, provides the thematic center of Another Country. Baldwin concludes the novel with the image of Yves’s reunion with Eric, who is apparently on the verge of professional success with a starring role in a film of a Fyodor Dostoevski novel. This combination of personal and financial success seems more an assertion of naïve hope than a compelling part of the surrounding fictional world. The majority of the narrative lines imply the impossibility of simple dissociation from institutional pressure. Ultimately, the intensity of Rufus’s pain and the intricacy of Ida and Vivaldo’s struggle overshadow Eric and Yves’s questionable innocence. As Ida tells Vivaldo, “Our being together doesn’t change the world.” The attempt to overcome the cynicism of this perception leads to a recognition that meaningful love demands total acceptance. Ida’s later question, “How can you say you loved Rufus when there was so much about him you didn’t want to know?” could easily provide the epitaph for the entire society in Another Country.

Just Above My Head

In Just Above My Head, Baldwin creates a narrator, Hall Montana, capable of articulating the psychological subtleties of Go Tell It on the Mountain, the social insights of Another Country, and the political anger of Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. Like other observer-participants in American literature, such as Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby (1925) and Jack Burden in All the King’s Men (1946), Hall tells both his own story and that of a more publicly prominent figure, in this case his brother Arthur, a gospel singer who dies two years prior to the start of the novel. Significantly, Just Above My Head also reconsiders Baldwin’s own artistic history, echoing countless motifs from his earlier writings. Though not precisely a selfreflexive text, Just Above My Head takes on added richness when juxtaposed with Baldwin’s treatment of religious concerns in Go Tell It on the Mountain; the homosexuality theme in Giovanni’s Room; the relationship between brothers and the musical setting in “Sonny’s Blues”; racial politics in Blues for Mister Charlie and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone; the Nation of Islam in The Fire Next Time and No Name in the Street; and, most important, the intermingled family love and world politics in If Beale Street Could Talk. Baldwin’s reconsideration of his own history, which is at once private like Hall’s and public like Arthur’s, emphasizes the necessity of a continual reexamination of the nature of both self and context in order to reach the higher innocence.

Similarly, Hall’s resolve to understand the social and existential meaning of Arthur’s experience originates in his desire to answer honestly his children’s questions concerning their uncle. Refusing to protect their original innocence—an attempt he knows would fail—Hall seeks both to free himself from the despair of experience and to discover a mature innocence he can pass on to the younger generation. Tracing the roots of Arthur’s despair to pressures originating in numerous limiting definitions and failures of courage, Hall summarizes his, and Baldwin’s, social insight:

[T]he attempt, more the necessity, to excavate a history, to find out the truth about oneself! is motivated by the need to have the power to force others to recognize your presence, your right to be here. The disputed passage will remain disputed so long as you do not have the authority of the right-of-way. . . . Power clears the passage, swiftly: but the paradox, here, is that power, rooted in history, is also, the mockery and the repudiation of history. The power to define the other seals one’s definition of oneself.

Recognizing that the only hope for meaningful moral freedom lies in repudiating the power of definition, Hall concludes: “Our history is each other. That is our only guide. One thing is absolutely certain: one can repudiate, or despise, no one’s history without repudiating and despising one’s own.”

Although Baldwin recognizes the extent to which the definitions and repudiations remain entrenched in institutional structures, his portrayal of Hall’s courage and honesty offers at least some hope for moral integrity as a base for social action. If an individual such as Hall can counteract the pressures militating against personal responsibility, he or she may be able to exert a positive influence on relatively small social groups such as families and churches, which in turn may affect the larger social context. Nevertheless, Baldwin refuses to encourage simplistic optimism. Rather than focusing narrowly on Hall’s individual process, he emphasizes the aspects of the context that render that success atypical. Although Hall begins with his immediate context, his excavation involves the Korean War, the Civil Rights movement, the rise of Malcolm X, and the role of advertising in American culture.

Hall’s relation with his family and close friends provides a Jamesian frame for the Dreiserian events of the novel, somewhat as John’s conversion frames the historical “The Prayers of the Saints” in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Just Above My Head, however, leaves no ambiguity concerning the individual’s ability to free himself or herself from history. Only a conscious decision to accept the pain and guilt of the past promises any real hope for love, for the higher innocence. Similarly, Baldwin reiterates that, while the desire for safety is understandable, all safety is illusion. Pain inevitably returns, and, while the support of friends and lovers may help, only a self-image based on existential acceptance rather than repudiation makes survival possible.

Arthur’s childhood experiences provide clear warnings against the attempt to maintain innocence throughArthur’s death, occupying a thematic and emotional position similar to Rufus’s in Another Country, provides the point of departure for Hall’s excavation. A gifted gospel singer as a teenager, Arthur rises to stardom as the “emperor of soul.” Despite his success, however, he never frees himself from doubts concerning his own identity or feels secure with the experience of love. Even though his parents offer him a firm base of love and acceptance, Arthur feels a deep sense of emotional isolation even as a child, a sense reinforced by his observations of life in Harlem and, later, in the South. Though he accepts his own homosexuality with relatively little anxiety, his society refuses the freedom necessary for  he development of a truly satisfying emotional life. The Edenic innocence of Eric and Yves clearly fails to provide a sufficient response to the institutional context of Just Above My Head.

Arthur’s childhood experiences provide clear warnings against the attempt to maintain innocence through simplistic self-definition. Julia Miller, like John in Go Tell It on the Mountain, undergoes a salvation experience and embarks on a career as a child evangelist. Encouraged by her parents, friends of the Montanas who rely on their daughter for economic support, she assumes a sanctimonious attitude that she uses to manipulate her elders. Arthur’s parents deplore the indulgence of Julia, unambiguously rejecting the idea that her religious vocation lifts her beyond the “naughty” street side of her personality. Ultimately, and in great pain, Julia confronts this truth. After her mother’s death, she discovers that her father, Joel, views her primarily as an economic and sexual object. His desire to exploit her earning potential even when she says she has lost her vocation reflects his underlying contempt for the spirit. This contempt leads to an incestuous rape that destroys Julia’s remaining innocence and drives her to a life as a prostitute in New Orleans. Eventually, Julia recovers from this brutalization, but her example provides a clear warning to Arthur against confusing his vocation as a gospel singer with a transcendence of human fallibility.

The experiences of the members of Arthur’s first gospel group, the Trumpets of Zion, reveal how institutions infringe even on those not actively committed to simplifying definitions. At one extreme, the social definitions establish a context that accepts and encourages murder—symbolic and real—of the other. Peanut, a member  f the Trumpets and later Arthur’s companion on the road, vanishes into the Alabama night following a civil rights rally, presumably murdered by whites seeking to enforce the definition of African Americans as “niggers.”

Equally devastating though less direct is the operation of the context on Red, another member of the Trumpets, who turns to drugs in an attempt to relieve the pain of the Harlem streets. Even Hall finds himself an unwilling accomplice to the imposition of social definitions when he is drafted and sent to Korea. Powerless to alter the institutional structure, Hall recognizes, and tells Arthur, that the American military spreads not freedom but repudiation in the Third World. Hall’s subsequent employment by an advertising agency involves him in another aspect of the same oppressive system. Viewed as an anomaly by his employers, as an atypical high-class “nigger,” Hall nevertheless participates in the creation of images designed to simplify reality for economic gain, which will be used to strengthen the oppressive system. The juxtaposition of Julia’s false innocence with the destructive experiences of Peanut, Red, and Hall protects Arthur against the urge to dismiss any aspect of his awareness. A large part of his power as a singer derives from his recognition of the reality of both street and temple, expressed in his ability to communicate sexual pain in gospel songs and spiritual aspiration in the blues.

Arthur, then, appears ideally prepared for the responsible exercise of existential freedom. His failure even to survive underscores the destructive power of the corrupt institutional context. The roots of Arthur’s doom lie in his homosexual relationship with Crunch, the final member of the Trumpets. Highly desirable physically, Crunch feels locked into a definition of himself as a sexual object prior to his involvement with Arthur. In its early stages, Arthur and Crunch’s love, like that of Yves and Eric in Another Country, seems an idyllic retreat, a spot of innocence in the chaos of experience. The retreat, however, proves temporary, in part because Crunch cannot free himself from the urge for self-simplification and in part because of the continuing presence of the outside world. Uneasy with his sexual identity, Crunch becomes involved with Julia when he discovers the extent of her father’s abuse. Arthur recognizes that Crunch is not abandoning him by reacting to Julia’s pain and accepts the relationship. Granted sufficient time for adjustment, Arthur and Crunch seem capable of confronting their experience and forging a higher innocence as the basis for a lasting love. The time does not exist. Crunch is drafted and sent to Korea. Separated from Arthur’s reassurance and tormented by self-doubt, Crunch never fully accepts his sexuality. After his return to Harlem, he and Arthur gradually lose contact.

The repeated losses—of Peanut, Red, and Crunch—create a sense of isolation that Arthur never overcomes. The expectation of loss periodically overpowers his determination to communicate, the determination that makes him a great singer. Even during periods of real joy, with his French lover Guy in Paris or with Julia’s brother Jimmy, who is both his pianist and his lover, Arthur suffers acute emotional pain. Attempting to survive by rededicating himself to communication, to his artistic excavation of history, Arthur drives himself past the limits of physical and psychological endurance. He dies in the basement bathroom of a London pub after a lover’s quarrel, clearly only temporary, with Jimmy. By concluding Arthur’s life with an image of isolation, Baldwin emphasizes the power of the limiting definitions to destroy even the most existentially courageous individual.

Arthur’s death, however, marks not only a conclusion but also the beginning of Hall’s quest for the higher innocence, which he, along with his wife Ruth, Julia, and Jimmy, can pass on to the younger generation. This higher innocence involves both individual and social elements, ultimately demanding the mutual support of individuals willing to pursue excavation of their own histories. This support expresses itself in the call and response dynamic, a basic element of African American oral culture that Arthur employs in his interaction with audiences while singing. As Baldwin recreates the traditional form, the interaction begins with the call of a leader who expresses his own emotional experience through the vehicle of a traditional song that provides a communal context for the emotion. If the community recognizes and shares the experience evoked by the call, it responds with another traditional phrase that provides the sense of understanding and acceptance that enables the leader to go on. Implicitly the process enables both individual and community to define themselves in opposition to dominant social forces. If the experience of isolation is shared, it is no longer the same type of isolation that brought Rufus to his death. In Just Above My Head, the call and response rests on a rigorous excavation requiring individual silence, courage, and honesty expressed through social presence, acceptance, and love. Expressed in the interactions between Arthur and his audiences, between Hall and his children, between Baldwin and his readers, this call and response provides a realistic image of the higher innocence possible in opposition to the murderous social definitions.

As in John’s vision in Go Tell It on the Mountain and Rufus’s self-examination in Another Country, the process begins in silence, which throughout Baldwin’s novels offers the potential for either alienation or communication. The alienating silence coincides thematically with institutional noise—mechanical, social, political. The majority of Americans, Baldwin insists, prefer distracting and ultimately meaningless sounds to the silence that allows self-recognition. Only individuals sharing Arthur’s willingness to remove himself from the noise can hope to hear their own voices and transform the silence into music. Every moment of true communication in Just Above My Head begins in a moment of silence that effectively rejects the clamor of imposed definitions. The courage needed for the acceptance of silence prepares the way for the honest excavation of history that must precede any meaningful social interaction. The excavation remains a burden, however, without that interaction. No purely individual effort can alter the overwhelming sense of isolation imposed by social definitions. The individual stage of the process merely heightens the need for acceptance, presence, and love. Arthur sounds the call amid the noise; he cannot provide the response. Perhaps, Baldwin indicates, no one, not even Jimmy, can provide a response capable of soothing the feeling of isolation emanating from early experiences. Nevertheless, the attempt is vital. Julia recognizes both the necessity and the limitation of presence when she tells Hall of her relationship with Jimmy: “I don’t know enough to change him, or to save him. But I know enough to be there. I must be there.”

If presence—being there—is to provide even momentary relief, it must be accompanied by the honest acceptance underlying love. Refusing to limit his acceptance, Hall answers his son Tony’s questions concerning Arthur’s sexuality with complete honesty. Understanding fully that his acceptance of Arthur entails an acceptance of the similar complexity in himself and in Tony, Hall surrenders his voice to Jimmy’s, imaginatively participating in a love that repudiates social definition, which rises up out of the silence beyond the noise. Implicitly, Hall offers both Tony and his daughter Odessa the assurance of presence, of acceptance, of love. They need not fear rejection if they have the courage to accept their full humanity. The assurance cannot guarantee freedom, or even survival. It can, and does, intimate the form of mature innocence in the world described by the composite voice of Baldwin, Jimmy, and Hall, a world that

doesn’t have any morality. Look at the world. What the world calls morality is nothing but the dream of safety. That’s how the world gets to be so f—-ing moral. The only way to know that you are safe is to see somebody else in danger—otherwise you can’t be sure you’re safe.

Against this vicious safety, a safety that necessitates limiting definitions imposed on others, Baldwin proposes a responsibility based on risk. Only by responding to the call sounding from Arthur, from Jimmy and Hall, from Baldwin, can people find freedom. The call, ultimately, emanates not only from the individual but also from the community to which he or she calls. It provides a focus for repudiation of the crushing definitions. Hall, using Jimmy’s voice, describes the call: “The man who tells the story isn’t making up a story. He’s listening to us, and can only give back, to us, what he hears: from us.” The responsibility lies with everyone.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

 

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Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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