The central argument of this essay concerns the intolerable level of racism experienced by African Americans on a daily basis. Baldwin argues that this is so great that he lived his early life in overwhelming fear, both of his parents and of white people at large. He describes movingly of the terror he remembers seeing in his parents' eyes if he as a child were to do anything that would get him into trouble with white people, or even lead to his death. One example of this is Baldwin's own hopes to complete school and become a writer, which is resisted violently by Baldwin's father because he feels that his son has hopes that are impossible and dangerous to achieve in a white dominated world. From his father's perspective, he is actually doing his son a favour by crushing these dreams now rather than letting him potentially get hurt far more if they are crushed later.
As a result of this fear and terror experienced by African Americans, Baldwin argues that every African American person needed a "gimmick" to help them survive:
Every Negro boy... stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing,” a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. And it does not matter what the gimmick is. It was this last realization that terrified me and--since it revealed that the door opened on so many dangers--helped to hurl me into the church. And, by an unforeseeable paradox, it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.
One of the central arguments that Baldwin makes therefore in this essay is about the intolerable levels of racism experienced by African Americans, and the need as a result for a "gimmick" in order to help them survive a life dominated by fear and terror. For Baldwin, this "gimmick" was the church, and this enables him to explore the role of religion in his life and how it made him into the writer he became.