Prophecy and Doubt in Just Above My Head

Christopher Z. Hobson

Abstract


Written in the aftermath of the civil rights era’s expansive hopes, James Baldwin’s last novel, Just Above My Head (1979), examines a fundamental issue, the choice between hope and skepticism, or prophecy and doubt. Baldwin approaches this issue by questioning two cornerstone ideas of his fiction, the need for prophetic art and this art’s focus on anticipating a renovated society, often pictured in terms adapted from apocalyptic biblical texts and Gospel music lyrics. Just Above My Head is Baldwin’s fullest presentation of this kind of art and its linkage to apocalyptic hopes. He dramatizes these ideas in the art of his Gospel singer protagonist, particularly in a climactic scene of artistic dedication whose Gospel lyric envisions “tearing down the kingdom of this world.” Yet Baldwin also unsparingly questions these same ideas through plot and the blues-inflected skeptical-tragic consciousness of his narrator. Responding to a 1970s moment when hopes for transcendent justice seemed passé, Just Above My Head’s unique contribution is not to try to resolve the ideas it counterposes, but to face both the possible falseness of prophetic hope and our continuing need for it, and to present the necessity for choice in a final dream that holds the key to the novel’s meaning. In presenting this issue through a sustained double-voiced narrative that reexamines its author’s artistic practice and raises fundamental choices in outlook and conduct, Just Above My Head evidences the continuing artistic vitality of Baldwin’s late fiction.


Keywords


Prophecy; prophetic art; apocalypse; apocalyptic; civil rights; Gospel; Daniel

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7227/JBR.1.4

Copyright (c) 2015 Christopher Z. Hobson

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