The Gospel According to Baldwin

Just Above My Head By James Baldwin Dial Press, $12.95

IN 1976, For Colored Girls roused theatergoers while Pat Harris ruled HUD, so that was the Year of the Black Woman. This year must be the Year of the Black Relationship, since both Time and Newsweek wrote on that subject. Baldwin thinks so too. His newest novel, Just Above My Head, scrutinizes almost every possible variation of the black love relationship, homosexual to conjugal to incestuous to fraternal, while simultaneously indulging Baldwin's familiar obsession with the black church. His approach produces an odd melange of eroticism and spiritualism, which seems to alternate between embarrassing explicitness and slightly cloying romanticism. However, the book as a whole testifies to the author's considerable talent as chronicler of several decades of Afro-American cultural growth and change.

Just Above My Head traces the emotional and spiritual journeys of Arthur Montana, a gospel singer, and Julia Miller, a child evangelist, as seen through the eyes of Arthur's older brother Hall. Hall recounts Arthur's involvement with the Civil Rights Movement, Julia's fall from the ministry and subsequent exploitation by her father, Arthur's homosexual relationship with Julia's pianist brother Jimmy, and Arthur's mysterious death at the peak of his fame. The novel reads as if authored by Hall in an effort to understand his brother's life as an artist, in order to legitimize his need for art in a rapidly changing society. Though Baldwin halfheartedly attempts to detach himself from the character of Hall, it is clear Hall's observations about Arthur are really Baldwin's about himself as a writer and a black person in the changing America of today.

The plot follows Arthur, Jimmy, Julia, and Hall from their childhood world of church, home and family, through the Civil Rights Movement, to Europe and Africa, through flirtings with Islam or drugs and finally to the mostly white professional world in which they begin to build their futures. All the characters seem bound to each other either by love, blood, or the church, reflecting a perception about black life that Baldwin began fleshing out several novels ago, but all must grapple with some personal demons before they can enjoy their love for one another.

Interestingly, this love is usually homosexual, but it is part of Baldwin's vision of change that protagonists endure little suffering because of their sexual preferences. Unlike many of his previous homosexual characters, Arthur and Jimmy enrich their own lives and those of others through their relationship: Baldwin sanctions the participants and counsels the reader to accept and to bless their union also.

Unfortunately, Baldwin's female characters get no such support or sympathy. Whereas males in Just Above My Head find strength and identity through the love of other men, women are almost always victimized by men, and must then be redeemed by the love of--or more accurately, through sex with--yet another man. Women characters are not nearly so well drawn as the men, never as courageous or introspective or just plain deep. When the women are strong and serious, their virtues owe nothing to their own struggles, but result from serving men, being hurt by them or sharing their turmoil.


WHAT IS THE man saying? One can't be sure whether Baldwin is giving his honest appraisal of the position of women in society or is presenting his own reactionary ideal. In either case, the perspective is disturbing.

Baldwin's handling of the gospel music motif, which he weaves throughout the novel to mark the changes in Arthur's life, also warrants some criticism: readers lacking any exposure to gospel music may find the references hard to follow. This is important, since Baldwin depends on the music to evoke an atmosphere rarely found outside black churches. Those who can't understand the gospel theme can ignore it; still, having worked to incorporate that bit of black culture, it is sad the author failed to make the device serve the readers who most need "clues."

Despite these objections, Just Above My Head is a very moving work, carried along by the intensity of the author's own feelings. His painful discovery of his need for human contact, family, and identity makes inspiring, if not pleasant, reading. And though his protagonists are black, his message applies to whites as well: the more drastically our lives change, the more we all need each other's love, he seems to be saying. Even Time could agree with that.