(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Just Above My Head is narrated by Hall Montana and deals with his memories of his beloved brother Arthur as well as of friends and other relatives. There is a deliberate contrast between the lifestyles and attitudes of the older generation of African Americans, consisting of the parents of Hall and Arthur Montana and Julia and Jimmy Miller, and those of the younger generation. Though still stigmatized by racial prejudice, the young people have better opportunities to achieve financial success and self-realization. Hall’s memoirs mainly concern the struggles of Arthur, Julia, and himself to survive and grow in a white-dominated society.

The story begins two years after Arthur’s death but immediately flashes back to the days of his and Hall’s childhood, at the beginning of the Korean War. All the young men in the story live under the shadow of the draft. Hall is eventually drafted and loses touch with the other characters while he is serving in Korea.

One of the most important people in the lives of Arthur and Hall is Julia Miller, who at the age of eleven is inspired by the Holy Ghost and is in constant demand as a preacher at black fundamentalist churches. The book is flavored with many excerpts from Julia’s sermons as well as abundant quotations from traditional gospel hymns. Baldwin attempts to give his work the feeling of a musical composition, thereby suggesting that music has played a large part in the survival of African...

(The entire section is 565 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Just Above My Head is divided into five books. The first opens when Hall Montana receives word that his younger brother, thirty-nine-year-old Arthur Montana, a renowned gospel singer, has died, presumably of a heart attack, in the basement men’s room in a restaurant in London. Hall, who is forty-six when Arthur dies, has great difficulty reconciling himself to the death of his brother, an active homosexual. It is he, through reflective and extended flashbacks, who relates the story of his brother’s life. In doing so, Hall also reveals how his younger brother helped him to gain insights into love and the meaning of life. At the beginning of book 5 of the novel, Hall Montana calls his story “a love song to my brother.” It is the younger brother who teaches the older, who causes him to gain new perceptions.

Hall and Arthur Montana have known the Millers since the thirteen-year-old Arthur met eleven-year-old Julia in a Pentecostal church in which he was singing and she was preaching. Both Julia and her brother, Jimmy, children of Joel and Amy Miller, are precocious. Julia has been a child evangelist with a large following from the time she was nine years old. Jimmy, two years younger than his sister, is a good musician. Amy Miller dies shortly after the Millers and the Montanas meet, and her widower, Joel, soon seduces Julia, who has a continuing affair with her father.

Still in his teens, Arthur joins the Trumpets of Zion, a gospel singing quartet, and tours with them. He rooms with Crunch, another member of the group, on tour, and the two soon fall into a love affair. Arthur struggles with guilt about his homosexuality but is confirmed in his lifestyle. When the quartet disbands after touring the South, Arthur continues to tour on his own.

Meanwhile, Julia, at fourteen, has given up preaching and for the next few years is enmeshed in her incestuous affair with Joel. Then Crunch, having been drafted to serve in Korea, passes through New York and has a fleeting affair with Julia, who finds herself pregnant by him. When her father discovers this, he beats Julia severely and the fetus is aborted.

The scene now shifts to five years later. Hall, who had also been drafted to serve in Korea, is now thirty. He is out of the service and is living and working in San Francisco. On a trip to New York, he looks up...

(The entire section is 966 words.)