Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The most important theme in Just Above My Head concerns homosexuality. Baldwin was plagued throughout his life by guilt about his openly acknowledged homosexual nature. One of the reasons he moved to Paris was that Europeans were much more tolerant of such proclivities at a time when homosexuals were treated like vicious criminals in the United States. Through the character of Arthur, Baldwin attempts to show that homosexuals deserve understanding because they can be valuable contributors to society. In several places in his novel, Baldwin provides lengthy and detailed descriptions of sexual behavior between two males, including sodomy, fellatio, and mutual masturbation. Some readers might find these descriptions offensive; Baldwin, however, believed that genuine love between two individuals of the same sex was just as beautiful as heterosexual love.

The meaning of the title Just Above My Head does not become clear until the end of the book. Baldwin’s description of Arthur’s death contains the following sentence:He starts down the steps, and the steps rise up, striking him in the chest again, pounding between his shoulder blades, throwing him down on his back, staring down at him from the ceiling, just above his head.

Just Above My Head was the last important work Baldwin penned, and he died eight years after it was published. Throughout the novel he implies that the shadow of death is hovering over his own head...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Just Above My Head is largely an exploration of types of human love, although the book contains a strong subtheme that involves racial conflict. Eldridge Cleaver had attacked Baldwin in Soul on Ice (1968) for abandoning racial matters in some of his earlier books in favor of concentrating on homosexual themes. Just Above My Head was presumably an answer to Cleaver’s attack. Although Baldwin was unwilling to abandon his homosexual theme totally in favor of writing about racial matters, he sought to merge the two concerns in this book.

The novel is also very much concerned with music and with the effects that gospel music has on the lives of black people. The individual books begin with lyrics from gospel songs, and elements of these lyrics permeate the novel both in direct quotation and in the rhythms and vernacular of Baldwin’s own writing.

Indeed, the novel’s concerns go beyond music and also explore some aspects of evangelism, focusing on the not uncommon phenomenon of the child evangelist, presumably divinely inspired to go forth and do the Lord’s work. The interweaving of this evangelism with sexual love, particularly incestuous sexual love between a pubescent evangelist and her father, offers a provocative theme to explore.