In this review it’s best to not give away too much, the book is one of the most riveting and incredible experiences in reading ever experienced by this reviewer. In these pages, there’s more love, life, and liberty than you’d find in any US History book, where the pages and editors are deliberate in keeping one of America’s greatest authors, orators, and champions of human decency, James Baldwin, out of them.
James Baldwin’s novel, Just Above My Head, released in 1979 focuses on a family from Harlem New York during the 1940s to 1960s. I closed this book and, not for the first time during the read, burst into tears. In the 500 pages of the novel, which is gleaming with beauty, heartache, sorrow, and story: An education on love more thorough than thirty-one years of living. It’s difficult to truly give a proper account of words to the emotions experienced by Baldwin’s intensity and ferocious prose that roots into the depths of your marrow on each and every line.
There’s much of James Baldwin’s personal life written in the pages of Just Above My Head. Hall Montana, the narrator of the story is telling the life of his deceased brother, Arthur Montana. Arthur was a celebrated gospel singer, Hall his older brother and manager, and bears witness to his brothers’ life. In writing the story, Hall helps make sense of the grief he feels. Hall Montana has every resemblance of a good man, with a wife he adores and two children that give him immense pride to father. A loving brother, and a loving friend. A kind man born and raised in a hard world, and through Hall’s eyes, we see that world, an America that was neither kind or decent. Baldwin takes the reader through the lives of these families with compassion and life to the suffering that Baldwin, through Hall, was witness to.
The power of the book comes from the thoughts that Baldwin writes into Hall, and in turn which Hall writes into his brother Arthur. These thoughts move the story in a way: unexpected, poignant, and sharp. Experiencing the saga of three decades worth of the two families who grew up together in a Harlem Church. The account of Arthur and his friends’ young lives as gospel singers. Hall tells us the story of his first love and lifetime friend Julia, who was a young childhood preacher. We see her sufferings in life and have with it a morose and loving story filled with self-discovery. We read the suffering behind being raised with both good parents, bad parents, segregation, and desegregation. Surviving incest, rape, growing up during the civil-rights movement. Friends and families who survive through this and some don’t end up seeking something. By the time they start looking for what they’re seeking the Korean War draft comes calling and transforms the men in different ways, and all but too young to be drafted Arthur, end up supporting a theater of war. Much of the action that Baldwin’s characters experience happens off page, almost glossed over, and we’re left with who they are after the fact. While Hall, the oldest, is drafted first to Korea the youth gospel singers toured the south with Arthur and are shocked to see the south is still so dangerous for blacks in the years since emancipation. In time they find out it will get even worse after desegregation, leading to the civil rights movement. In adulthood Arthur’s young gospel group is no longer familiar. One is murdered, another becomes a drug addict, the third becomes insane, and the fourth becomes the Emperor of Soul, Arthur Montana, who is found dead on the floor of a bathroom pub in London at the opening of the novel.
The storytelling that Baldwin writes with isn’t like his essays – this is more personal than political, the thoughts of our narrator – and the play of detail versus shadow is a wonder to read. We see so many things in such detail written in the book, from the car rides through the south to the streets of New York during winter. First love and utter heartbreak. The shadows hold a lot more of the political discord that I was suspecting to find in the writing while the characters toured the south, you know it’s there – you know Baldwin has something to say about it, instead he focus’ on Arthur and his experience. Sharp and self-contained. It’s written with such love, love that has you constantly looking over your shoulder in those shadows with wonder in the mystique.
Just Above My Head is an experience in growing up and seeing the faces you’ve known for as long as they’ve been alive grow up too. It’s a reaffirmation of character, of being, and of love. Hall’s experience of growing up disliking Julia, the childhood preacher. We see him first with her as an old friend who used to be more than a friend. She’s close to him, his children, and his wife. Hall then tells us the story of what his brother was doing, from what must be the stories told to him by his brother, while Arthur was in Korea. We find out in the story that Arthur and his first love Crunch, a fellow singer in his gospel band, find Julia in a bad spot. Blaming herself for her mothers’ death, being abused by her father, and in desperate need of love. Later in life, when Hall is dating Julia, Arthur reconnects with Julia’s younger brother Jimmy – who was taken sent from his home in New York to live with his grandmother when he was young. Jimmy has loved Arthur for all his young life, and the two do end up together until the last days of Arthur’s life. Life rarely moves in straight lines though, and it doesn’t happen right away. We see Julia leave – to seek herself. We witness Arthur and Hall tour the south and experience the hatred and racism in Birmingham and Atlanta. We see Arthur truly find himself in Paris. All through the stories and memories held by Hall Montana, experiencing the grief of his baby brother having died of a heart attack before he turned 40.
As the characters travel and experience more of life and love they find themselves in out of New York and into Atlanta, Birmingham, Paris, and London. The horrors of the south during the 50’s and 60’s were genuine horrors. It’s nauseating to know that our country did that to our own countrymen. One of my biggest draws to Baldwin is his genuine telling of his experience, and that is why the book was banned in America. James Baldwin went on to be awarded one of the highest achievements from France because of this book, as a “Writer and Defender of Human Rights”, the President of France gave him the Légion d’Honneur.
This review was published on the 3rd of August, just having missed Baldwin’s birthday yesterday, August 2nd. Happy belated birthday, James. Thank you for everything.
Easily one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, I’ve rated Just Above My Head 5/5 Stars on Goodreads.