Just Above My Head

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

In Just Above My Head, James Baldwin echoes themes of his earlier works—the importance of the church in the black community (Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953), homosexuality (Giovanni’s Room, 1956, and Another Country, 1962), and deep social concerns (Notes of a Native Son, 1955, and The Fire Next Time, 1963).

Just Above My Head, Baldwin’s sixth novel, tells the story of a black gospel singer, Arthur Montana, and his brother and manager, Hall Montana, who narrates the account of Arthur’s rise to international stardom and his death of a heart attack in the basement men’s room of a London pub. The cast of characters, which is rich and various, includes Jimmy Miller, Arthur’s accompanist and lover, and his sister Julia, a child evangelist and Jimmy’s sister, as well as the “Trumpets of Zion” gospel quartet, whose members started singing gospel music together when they were teenagers. The quartet includes Arthur Montana and three friends who meet violent ends; one goes insane, one is murdered, and the other turns to drugs. The novel covers a span of thirty years in the lives of these friends and associates with settings ranging from Harlem to Africa, Korea, Paris, and the Deep South.

The plot is complex. Hall Montana is drafted and sent to Korea. Julia abandons the ministry, is raped by her father, then becomes a prostitute and takes a succession of lovers, including Hall and an African tribal chief. All of this unfolds against the story of Arthur Montana’s rise to stardom and his search for love, primarily homosexual. Told as it is against the...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991. A well-written biography that focuses on how Baldwin was influenced by the world and how he influenced that world. Discusses his relations with contemporary authors such as Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, and William Styron.

Clark, Kenneth B. The Negro Protest. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963. Consists of interviews with three of the most prominent black leaders of the period: James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Clark gets them to talk about one another and then discusses the differences and similarities among these three dynamic individuals who shaped American history.

Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. James Baldwin. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. A part of the Twentieth Century Views series, this collection contains some important appraisals of Baldwin’s work and career by Langston Hughes, Eldridge Cleaver, and Sherley Anne Williams, among others.

Kollhofer, Jakob J., ed. James Baldwin: His Place in American Literary History and His Reception in Europe. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Peter Lang, 1991. A col-lection of essays, by American, French, and German experts, evaluating Baldwin’s contribution to literature. Especially interesting in revealing the extent of Baldwin’s reputation in Europe and the European viewpoint on race relations in the United States.

Macebuh, Stanley. James Baldwin: A Critical Study. New York: Third Press, 1973. A good presentation of the social and historical background of Baldwin’s work.

Standley, Fred L., and Nancy V. Burt, eds. Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. A collection of contemporary reviews and essays covering Baldwin’s entire career.

Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin. James Baldwin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. A study that examines in particular the links between Baldwin’s works and his life.

Troupe, Quincy, ed. James Baldwin: The Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. Produced in commemoration of Baldwin’s death in 1987, this book is a collection of interviews and memoirs. It is illustrated with many photographs of Baldwin at various stages of his life and contains a valuable bibliography.

Weatherby, W. J. James Baldwin: Artist on Fire. New York: Donald Fine, 1989. An entertaining and illuminating biography based on conversations and interviews with more than one hundred people who knew Baldwin at different stages of his life. Weatherby himself was personally acquainted with Baldwin for more than twenty-eight years.