Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone by James Baldwin

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone” tells the story of a ten-year-old African American who struggles to make his way in a racist world and encounters various obstacles interfering with his growth and development. His family, the Proudhammers, provide a strong barrier against those obstacles. Leo describes how he and his brother Caleb are the best of friends and how they protect each other. His father, an immigrant from Barbados who has been crushed by life, still retains a strong sense of racial pride and an absolute commitment to his family. He believes that he comes from royalty, a race that was greater and nobler than the citizens of Rome or Judea and mightier than those of Egypt. He tries to instill this sense of background in his children and is frustrated by the fact that no one else recognizes his lineage. Leo recognizes the futility of his father’s vision. Already, as a ten-year-old, he recognizes that the most important part of life depends on learning how to fit into a world that shows him no mercy.

Mrs. Proudhammer is a model of the strong black woman who does what is necessary to provide for her family. Leo tells of a shopping trip during which his mother commands the storeowner to give them the food she requires although she lacks the money to pay for it. She tells the storekeeper to put the charge on her bill. It is evident that Leo takes pride in his mother for her willingness to do what it takes to take care of her family.

Caleb and Leo get into an argument about washing out the tub in the morning. When Leo claims that Caleb never cleans the tub, Caleb demands that Leo apologize. Their father comes to Leo’s defense and states that it is not necessary for Leo to apologize because the allegation is true. A major part of the relationship between the boys is that Caleb is responsible for Leo when they go out together. Caleb takes Leo along with him to the motion picture theater so that Leo can provide “cover” for Caleb when he in fact takes off to go out with his friends. Leo, small, frail, and sensitive, does not like Caleb’s friends, whom he views as aggressive and coarse. Leo describes himself as living in fear around those boys.

If Caleb fails to take Leo to the motion pictures, Leo has to hang around the box office and wait for some obliging adult to take him in. However, the worst part is the walk from their apartment to the theater several miles away. Each new neighborhood through which he must walk poses new dangers. He fears the other children, who are bigger and stronger, and white people, particularly police, whom he hates.

Leo describes his subway adventures. Usually, he can ride for free by sneaking under the turnstile. He loves to people-watch. However, on one Saturday evening, he forgets to get off the subway and gets lost. The train takes him far beyond his usual...

(The entire section is 785 words.)