The themes and elements of “The Rockpile” all share similarities with James Baldwin’s own experiences as a young man in Harlem. Baldwin followed in the footsteps of his stepfather, a storefront preacher, and preached from age 14 to age 17; this experience and environment inform much of Baldwin’s work. The consistent themes in Baldwin’s fiction, including personal identity, racial struggle, and the role of religion in daily life are present in “The Rockpile.” The story was first published in Baldwin’s 1965 collection Going to Meet the Man.
Baldwin centers the story on the rockpile, which represents stability and fixture but also a great temptation to the young protagonist of the story, Roy. The rockpile is at the center of the earth, but it is also a kind of hell, where children—the bad kids—go to fight for their place on the pile. As in the fight that opens Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (which this resembles), the battles are vicious and bloody.
The family in Baldwin’s story is a reverent Christian family; the children have biblical names—John, Paul, Delilah—except Roy, the story’s central character. Roy is the oldest, and it is clear that he will one day take the place of authority from his father, Gabriel. Roy’s fight on the rockpile is also a way of determining his ascendancy to his own position of authority, and Baldwin plays these scenes as though Roy takes power from the rockpile itself, both its centrality and its stability. However, the rockpile serves as a locus for violence and force.
The character most connected to Roy is Gabriel. Gabriel is a minister and in this sense stands for a Holy Father, a kind of personification of the Christian God. He is jealous, kind, powerful, and forgiving and carries the mantle of authority with the force to back it up. When Roy is injured on the rockpile, Gabriel does not scold him (as does his mother) but consoles him and indeed embraces the children as all “his children”—even though John is not his, but as Baldwin tells us, a “nameless stranger from his mother’s life of sin.” John is the bastard, but still Gabriel addresses the children as “all his.”
Though Roy is forbidden to play on the rockpile— Baldwin makes reference to “the forbidden street below,” and the implication of what “below” means is clear—a key scene occurs as Roy disobeys his mother and joins the gang fight on the pile. As Roy ascends to the top of the pile, he is struck on the head. Baldwin gives us his description of the experience: “Then for a moment there was no movement at all, no sound, the sun, arrested, lay on the street and the sidewalk and the arrested boys.” The sun itself has stopped; time has stopped. Baldwin stops time, in a story sense and a real sense, a caesura, to indicate a key moment in Roy’s development. After getting his breath, Baldwin tells us that “the figure on the ground” “caught its breath” and “felt its own blood.” The impersonal pronoun suggests a wounded animal. Instead of fighting (survival instinct), though, Roy calls for his mother (social imperative). Roy has left the jungle and turned toward civilization. This is necessary for Roy to assume an authoritative role.
Baldwin creates tension in the story by setting up sets of opposing forces: Roy’s temptation versus his knowledge of the law he must not transgress; the illegitimate son John versus the real sons; the father of the family versus the ascending authority figure, anxious to prove himself; the potential power and violent capacity of Gabriel versus Gabriel’s compassion and sense of justice. For another writer (Crane, for instance) these oppositions might collide to create a destructive, chaotic environment through which order may or may not settle out. But Baldwin chooses to have his tensions mediated by the father’s recognition that his son’s ascendancy is inevitable and necessary. The tale might also serve as a religious allegory in this sense. Roy (whose name recalls the French word for king) must pass through temptation and the trials of hell before he can ascend his throne and go about his father’s (or Father’s) business.
Baldwin, James. “The Rockpile.” In Going to Meet the Man. New York: Vintage, 1995.
Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
McBride, Dwight A., ed. James Baldwin Now. New York: New York University Press, 1999.