James Baldwin (1924-1987) was one of the great novelists I’m sure. But for reasons of my own I didn’t read Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) for my matric (year 12), and though I did read many years ago, and still own, Giovanni’s Room (1956) I didn’t like it. They were his first two novels. I’ve now listened to Just Above My Head (1979), his sixth and last and thought it a work of genius.
I wrote that introduction a few weeks ago, so over the last couple of days, on my way down from North Queensland, I’ve listened again, and liked it just as much. The novel is ostensibly the story of a gay Black gospel singer, Arthur Montana, during the years of the US Civil Rights Movement, the 1950s and 60s, as told by his older brother, Hall.
Hall, himself, at the beginning of the fifth and final ‘book’, says something like “I set out to write a poem of praise for my brother, and inevitably I wrote about myself.” What I think Baldwin wanted, and succeeded in doing, was to spell out to the world the condition of the Black man at this time in America by focusing on two closely connected pairs of siblings – Hall and Arthur, Julia and Jimmy, growing up in Harlem but whose parents have come up from the South – mostly through the eyes of Hall, but sometimes through Arthur’s eyes using the device “he later told me”.
Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Daniel saw the stone that was rolled into Babylon
Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Tearing down the kingdom of this world!
As a reader I would have skipped this and gone straight to the beginning of the text, which would have been a mistake. Baldwin has infused the whole novel with driving rhythms, taken from gospel singing and gospel preaching. There is a lot of music in this book, discussed and quoted. Hall says at one point, “Look for the beat. And look for the beat underneath.”
A while ago, I wrote that Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Christina Stead’s Letty Fox (1946) appeared to indicate that there was a New York school of writing in the 1940s and 50s characterised by an unstoppable flow of words. Baldwin appears to be of this school, and to have taken it to a new level. Whole sections of the novel aren’t descriptions of speech and action at all, but bursts of words, reinforced by repetition, setting an atmosphere.
The damn’d blood burst, first through the nostrils, then pounded through the veins in his neck, the scarlet torrent exploded through his mouth, it reached his eyes and blinded him, and brought Arthur down, down, down, down, down.
And so the book begins, with a hymn and with Arthur’s death, alone in the basement toilet of a pub in London.
Hall is writing from the perspective of a couple of years later. He is settled, with a wife and teenage children. They are visiting Julia, who was once his lover. Jimmy, Julia’s little brother and Arthur’s lover for the 14 years up to his death, walks in and is welcomed home. Julia gets out a photo albumn and so the whole story is told in Book 1, and Books 2,3,4,5 are enhancements, reinforcement, repetition.
I wish, wish, wish I had the book beside me on this truckstop table. It deserves a much more detailed – and loving – treatment than I am able to give it here. As I have implied, it is a mighty work of poetry, 20 hours or so, which is of course a credit to the reader, Kevin Kenerly, who interprets, sustains it over that considerable time, interestingly, playing down the song lyrics quoted and playing up the rhythms and variations in force of Baldwin’s writing.
We go back 30 odd years, to the late 1940s, Hall and Arthur are with their parents at a church service to see Julia, a child prodigy, preach, and Arthur sing. Hall’s father, a pianist, plays accompaniment. Julia’s father, a spiv, reads the lesson.
“Amen”, said Julia. “Now that was David talking. You all know who David was? David wrote these psalms and I believe they was put to music in the olden times and the people just sang and made a joyful noise unto the Lord with the psalms. This is David talking, and you know who David was? Well David went out one day looking for this wicked giant … You all still don’t know who David was? David was a shepherd boy, he fed the hungry sheep! I hear some of you saying, Who was this David? tell me more about this David! Well David was a king …”
The two families go back to the Montana’s apartment for dinner and so we become engrossed in their lives. Julia’s mother dies. Jimmy is sent down south to his grandmother. Julia stays, is her father’s support. Arthur and his friends form a Gospel singing group, tour down south. Hall is called up to fight in Korea. We don’t follow him, all the action remains in New York and in the South.
Julia is beaten senseless by her father. Julia preaches her last service with Arthur once again singing. Julia falls out of the story for a while, living quietly with Jimmy and her grandmother, reappears in New York as a model as Hall gets home from Korea.
Every Black person is described in the degrees and shades of their colour. Until near the end, when Arthur has a white lover in Paris, there are no white people in the story at all, other than Klanners down South.
The terror, the danger, for Black people, Northerners, of even driving through the South is visceral. There are rapes and murders. But all along the focus is on the central four. Arthur tours, sings within the frame of the Civil Rights Movement, some of their friends go off to join Malcolm X, but the focus is tight, we are not told about the movement, or about racism. We feel it.
James Baldwin, Just above my Head, first pub. 1979. Audiobook: Blackstone, 2016, read by Kevin Kenerly. 21 hours
see also these reviews from Emma/Book around the Corner:
Go Tell it on the Mountain (here) “Interesting, but difficult to read”
Giovanni’s Room (here) “Another Baldwin masterpiece”
Going to meet the Man (here) “A Must Read”
If Beale Street Could Talk (here) “A Must Read”
A Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou (here) “An ode to James Baldwin”