Study Guide

Blues for Mister Charlie

by James Baldwin

Blues for Mister Charlie Themes

Themes and Meanings (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In the play’s preface, Baldwin announces that the play takes place in “Plaguetown, U.S.A.,” and that the “plague is race, the plague is our concept of Christianity: and this raging plague has the power to destroy every human relationship.” As a play of ideas, Blues for Mister Charlie affords Baldwin the opportunity to explore several of the issues connected with race and Christianity through the use of dialogue and setting.

Baldwin uses stage structure as a comment on the situation between the races. He devises a set in which an aisle is placed between what he terms “Whitetown” and “Blacktown”; the division immediately sets the tone for the play. At times, the two sections function as the church, at other times as the courthouse. These two divisions not only support the themes of the play but also suggest the idea of two seemingly irreconcilable opposites.

With these several divisions as background for the play, Baldwin makes a statement about the nature of a society that permits a white man to murder a black man and not be punished for it. This speaks to the question of who has power and who does not. Richard recognizes this; on his return to the South, he tells his grandmother that “it’s because my Daddy’s got no power that my Mama’s dead.” According to Richard, this lack of power allows whites to “rape and kill our women and we can’t do nothing.” When Richard challenges Lyle’s power and, by extension, that of the white community, he is killed.

Power is not the only factor operative in the relationship between the races. The sexual factor—or, rather, the sexual basis of racism—is in fact the most explosive element, according to Baldwin. He depicts a white community that is obsessed with the sexuality of black people.

Baldwin focuses on the white community’s sexual fears and guilt and shows how these can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. When a group of white people gather in Lyle’s kitchen, their conversation inevitably turns to the sexual threat that they think that black men represent. They are terrified by the thought of “a nigger without no clothes on,” and they think that sex is the only thing that interests black people. The white men terrify their women with exaggerated stories of the black man’s sexuality.

Baldwin intimates that sex is used as a substitute for and as an indicator of power. It also becomes a...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Blues for Mister Charlie Themes and Meanings (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Blues for Mister Charlie shows the necessity for people to make an unwavering commitment to the full exercise of civil rights and equal opportunity for all citizens of the United States, regardless of race. Such a stance may disrupt personal relationships and even involve the use of violence; it may put one’s property, livelihood, and life at risk. There is little chance for progress on this vital social issue, however, unless such a commitment is made. The drama uses the characters of Meridian and Parnell to illustrate this theme.

Meridian has chosen to stay in the South because he believes he can help to improve the conditions for African Americans in his hometown. He has urged his people to adopt a nonviolent posture in response to threats and violence committed against them by whites. Even when his own wife lost her life in an incident that he suspected to be a bitter fruit of racism, Meridian chose not to demand that legal authorities investigate the matter. He placed his faith in God and his liberal friend, Parnell, hoping that they could influence others and cause changes to be made.

Meridian’s outlook is altered by his son’s death. The minister has tried to protect his son from the debilitating effects of racism, but his efforts are ultimately futile. His son’s death forces Meridian to reexamine the effectiveness of his nonaggressive strategy for social change. He questions both God’s allowance of the suffering of African Americans and his white friend’s ability to be an advocate for African Americans, who are seeking...

(The entire section is 642 words.)