by James Baldwin, 1978
In his final novel, James Baldwin tells the sprawling tale of gospel singer Arthur Montana through the eyes of his older brother Hall. As the book begins, Arthur has been dead for two years. Hall remembers that he had been found in a pool of blood in the basement of a pub in London. The death still weighs heavily on Hall, who is never quite sure how it happened. In the present day, Hall and his wife and two children are preparing to go to a barbecue at his old friend Julia’s house. This offers Hall’s son the opportunity to ask about his uncle, namely, whether the rumors that he was gay are true. Hall explains that his brother slept with a lot of people in his life, mostly men, but that he was always proud of him. So begins the portrait of young man growing up black and gay in a country where neither of those identities was deemed acceptable.
At nearly 600 pages, Just Above My Head is a wonderfully complicated mess of lives. Arthur gained fame as a gospel singer and toured the country with his childhood friends—Red, Crunch, and Peanut—as his accompaniment. Hall eventually became his manager, but before that spent time serving in the military in the Korean War. Among all of this runs the undercurrent of racism that was overtly prevalent in the US at the time. While such oppression is largely veiled in their home city of New York, its visibility in the southern states that they visit on tour is surprising to the quartet in a way they can’t quite express. Baldwin writes, “They never felt this way in New York—they moved all over New York. Here each is afraid that one of the others will get into some terrible trouble before he is seen again, and before anyone can help him. It is the spirit of the people, the eyes which endlessly watch them, eyes which never meet their eyes. Something like lust, something like hatred…” In fact, their fears do come to fruition, as, after a physical altercation with some white men before one of their performances, one of the group members disappears. They never confirm what happened to him, but they’re all certain that they know.
As in several of Baldwin’s other novels, homosexuality is never portrayed as a problem here. Arthur may struggle with discovering who and what he likes, but no more so than anyone reaching their sexual maturity. When Arthur finds love, that love is pure and strong, and even if he may not be able to express it openly to everyone, those who care for him accept it without question. It is never a hurdle he is to overcome. I haven’t learned enough about Baldwin’s life to know whether this was pure fantasy on his part, if he wished this is what life could be like for gay men in America, or if this is a reflection of his time spent in Paris transposed to another continent. Regardless, sexuality is never depicted as something to be corrected or cured; his novels are, perhaps, one of the strongest proponents of love is love is love.
Julia, her brother Jimmy (who eventually becomes Arthur’s longtime love), and their family provide a heart-wrenching subplot, as well. In her youth, Julia feels she has been called by God to preach, and her parents present her to various churches as something of a child prophet. This lasts until her early teens, when her mother dies, and she feels she can no longer spread the word of God. In truth, there is a horrific history of abuse in the family, and father Joel’s exploitation of his daughter exposes the hypocrisy that lies beneath the practice of Christianity. Baldwin himself once felt called to become a minister and later left the church due to its false promises; his condemnation of the church’s sanctimonious practices is a recurring theme in several of his novels, and it is especially pointed here.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to react to this novel, as I’ve found that I’ve much preferred Baldwin’s nonfiction writing, but the story is surprisingly engrossing. While Baldwin’s hand as the writer can sometimes be overly apparent in his Hall’s angry musings on race, he is still able to address pressing social problems without creating characters that serve only to further a political agenda. If there’s one thing I disliked about this novel, it’s all of the graphic descriptions of sex. In my occasional foray into romance, I’ve found that I’m not particularly fond of what I’ve heard referred to as “open door” scenes, and in this book, there were practically no doors at all. Perhaps because the novel is so long, this seems to be Baldwin’s most sexually explicit text.I found myself occasionally quickly skimming through several pages until the sex scene in question was over and I could pick up the narrative again. Beyond that, however, I was captivated by Arthur’s story—for it is really Arthur’s and not Hall’s. There is much ambiguity at the end, but so it often is with those whose lives we can only imagine and never truly know.