Blues for Mister Charlie Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: Drama)

James Baldwin

Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Blues for Mister Charlie was written during one of the most turbulent periods in the racial history of the United States. After nearly three hundred years of protest and a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, most African Americans still found themselves without the same civil rights and standard of living enjoyed by white Americans. In the early 1960’s, the nation experienced thousands of demonstrations against discrimination in employment, education, housing, and the use of public facilities. White racists injured and murdered African Americans and their white sympathizers. Militant segregationists did not exempt black children or churches from their wrath. In one of the most hideous incidents of the period, a bomb thrown into the basement of a Birmingham, Alabama, church killed four girls and injured twenty-one other people. The governors of Alabama and Mississippi unsuccessfully tried to block the admittance of black students to their all-white “public” universities. Hostile feelings between African Americans and whites led to race riots in New York City, Jersey City, and Philadelphia. Nonviolent solutions began to seem ineffective to many African Americans, who saw little progress in the improvement of race relations and the socioeconomic status of African Americans.

Within this historical contest, James Baldwin wrote Blues for Mister Charlie primarily to educate white audiences concerning the plight of African Americans. The drama was inspired by a real murder, in 1955, of a fourteen-year-old black Chicagoan named Emmett Till. While visiting relatives in a small town in Mississippi, Emmett allegedly flirted with a married white woman. Two white men kidnapped and murdered the youth, and an all-white jury acquitted the men, who later confessed to the crime with no remorse. Blues for Mister Charlie illustrates graphically how racism obstructs justice, as evidenced by the case of Emmett Till.