Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone Themes

James Baldwin

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The major theme of this story is racism and its affect on the lives of people. The story is first and foremost about the impact of that racism on Leo, a sensitive ten-year-old boy. Leo’s description of himself as small, frail, and a sissy in the eyes of Caleb’s friends suggests that Leo is a stand-in for the author and that the story may well describe his own situation. If so, then James Baldwin’s lifelong struggle for social justice and equality for African Americans can be seen as developing from his emerging consciousness as a boy just like Leo, who already, as a ten-year-old, is fearful of whites and hates white police officers.

As the story develops, ample justification for this hatred is evident in the harassment and humiliation Leo and his brother experience during their encounter with the white police officer. This kind of humiliation is part of what it means to be African American in Harlem and by extension in the entire United States. The humiliation extends to the father, the man descended from royalty, who is unable to protect his children. Instead, Mr. Proudhammer has to swallow the indignity and accept his own impotence.

The story raises the issue of the humanity and goodness of white people. In the minds of the major characters, because of their behavior toward blacks, white people are seen as devoid of goodness and humanity.