Just Above My Head Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

James Baldwin

Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

Just Above My Head was published following a period when much literary attention had been focused on two of its major concerns, homosexuality and racial conflict. Twenty-three years earlier, Baldwin had written Giovanni’s Room (1956), which was one of many postwar homosexual works, including Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948), Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), Alberto Moravia’s Two Adolescents (1948), James Barr’s Quatrefoil (1950), Arthur A. Peters’s Finistère (1951), Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story (1959). Baldwin’s presentation of the homosexual theme of Just Above My Head would have been quite revolutionary in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, but by the late 1970’s, when the book appeared, the theme had come to be quite easily accepted.

Also, the racial anger which had spilled over into many of the books of the Black Revolution, and which Baldwin had addressed to some extent in Notes of a Native Son (1955), had been considerably dissipated by 1979. The festering fury evident in the contributions that make up Black Fire (1968), which LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Larry Neal edited, and the militant anger seen in such LeRoi Jones plays as The Baptism (1964), Dutchman (1964), The Slave (1964) and The Toilet (1964) are not present in Just Above My Head. Racial rage, such as that expressed by Malcolm X in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), is also not present in the Baldwin novel or in any of the significant literature of the last years of the 1970’s, largely because social conditions affecting blacks had begun to change and racial pride had begun in most quarters to replace racial anger. Just Above My Head is more a statement of sorrow about racial inequalities than one of rage.