Hall Montana describes his reaction to the news of his brother Arthur’s death in the opening of James Baldwin’s novel Just Above My Head as he sits in an empty home that he shares with his family on a Thursday morning. Here, the Reader gets a glimpse of a prevailing theme in this book: the consequences of love in all of its forms, be it retuned or refused, praised, accepted, or condemned. Hall’s reaction to news of his brother’s death leads him through a memory laden soliloquy in which he recounts telling memories of upcoming themes of the story to come while he digests the news that he has received. As a prelude of things to come, Hall asks the reader,” Do you know, friend, how a brother loves his brother, how mighty, how unanswerable it is to be confronted with the truth beneath that simple word? Simple. Word. Yes. No. Everything becomes unanswerable, unreadable, in the face of an event yet more unimaginable than one’s own death. It is one’s death, occurring far beyond the confines of one’s imagination. Or, surely, far beyond the confines of my imagination. And do you know, do you know, how much my brother loved me? How much he loved me! And do you know I did not know it? Did not dare to know it: do you know? No. No. No.”(Baldwin 4) In this passage, we see Hall questioning the reader’s understanding, and indeed his own understanding of love. This questioning of love, particularly as it will develop in context to homosexuality and race is significant to the work as a whole because it questions the existence of love and how it manifests in settings of difficulty and/or discrimination. This theme is further alluded to when Hall later shares his mother’s feelings about New York after the death of Arthur. “She doesn’t like this city because it robbed her of her son, and she feels that the people in the church, when they turned against him, became directly responsible for his death.” (Baldwin 6) The reader does not yet know all the details of this turn, Arthur from the church, nor the church from Arthur, but it would seem that conflicting drives, values, and discrimination were at play. The story can be presumed to be pretty well saturated with locations, people, and events that created strong emotional ties, ties based upon strong sentiments like love and hate, that eventually soured over the course of time, finally completely rotting after the death of Arthur. The ties are strong enough to drive Arthur and Hall’s mother away from her surviving family in New York, all the way to New Orleans. Love and discrimination, race and sexuality, family and society, play a pivotal, strong roles in this story.
As the story goes on, the main characters are formally introduced: Hall Montana, Arthur Montana, Julia Miller, and Jimmy Miller. Baldwin manifests himself in each of these characters (‘Just Above My Head Characters’). Hall Montana represents Baldwin the novelist. Hall is a conservative heterosexual who leads the typical American life. He is the quintessential image of middle class, white picket fence suburban life. This was a life style that Baldwin himself once strived to live. He worked diligently to ignore his homosexual urges and live a typical heterosexual lifestyle. He learned over the course of some years that this lifestyle would never suit him and accepted his homosexuality and lived his life as a non-conformist. Hall is the representation of how Baldwin saw his life playing out if he had chosen to live wearing a mask of heterosexuality and conformity. Hall’s brother Arthur represents Baldwin’s chosen path. Arthur is an open homosexual African-American male, and he experiences many forms of discrimination in the course of his life as an intersectional member of society. His life parallels Baldwin’s in many ways, including his exodus to Europe to live a more comfortable life without the omnipresent discrimination of life in America. Julia Miller represents Baldwin’s carnality and spirituality. Both Julia and Baldwin were childhood evangelists who turned from spirituality and devoted themselves to carnal delights for a period of their lives at right around the same age. Julia and Baldwin both also shared an unfortunate upbringing under an abusive father. Julia was repeatedly raped by her father, and Baldwin was beaten regularly and intensely. Corresponding with the theme of love and its hardships and its fickleness, Julia and Hall at one point in the story have a relationship that comes to an end and sets Hall in to melancholy for a while when Julia abandons him and leaves for Africa. Jimmy Miller goes on to become Arthur’s life partner. He parallels Baldwin’s pursuit of love and acceptance in his own life. Jimmy finds love in Arthur that mirrors the type of love that Baldwin himself sought out, continuing the prevalent theme of manifestations of love and homosexuality that are the basis of this novel (‘Just Above My Head Characters’).
Just Above My Head tells a story that spans approximately thirty plus years. In this time, the reader follows the lives of the four characters listed above. This story though, through and through, is based upon love. Hall, Arthur, Julia, and Jimmy’s lives, their stories, all revolve around love. Hall experiences unrequited love when he pursues Julia, and ultimately finds love in Ruth whom he builds a family with. Arthur struggles with his career and his homosexuality until he accepts who he is and finds love in Jimmy that lasts for the remainder of his life. Julia loses herself in her search for love and is forced to leave America for Africa to tace her roots and find peace. Jimmy finds love in Arthur and loses it upon his death. He then tours the country alone as he did with Arthur to learn to love himself (‘Just Above My Head Summary’).