When I first read this book I was quite mystified by it, because I’m a very convergent thinker and, I suspect, sub-clinically autistic. It’s only in maturity that I’ve begun, little by little & with much help from literature, to understand that people think differently from each other, contradict themselves and change their minds, and writers are able to create characters that are neither good nor evil and narratives that don’t actually loud-speaker their own personal ideology. I don’t have much hope for myself as a writer, but I’m slowly extending the frontiers of my empathy and understanding.
So, this is coming-of-age story written in spare, almost ascetic language. The protagonist is young to come of age, but that’s unsurprising as he’s a Black youth in the USA. I will probably never grown up as much as the average Black American 14 year old, and that’s nice for me. The story is deeply spiritual, it has a hymn-like simplicity; light comes from darkness. It’s autobiographical, and I know Baldwin moved away from religion, so the ecstatic embrace of spirituality here wrong-footed me, especially as I’m an atheist myself. I know this sounds really foolish.
What actually jolted me to understand was going to see the recent production of Baldwin’s play ‘The Amen Corner’ at the National Theatre, which charts the same territory. I suddenly remembered the book and realised that I had been utterly ridiculous to expect the author to criticise his character – instead he had inhabited him, handing over the emotional truth. And along with that truth, he had opened a window into the the Black churches of Harlem and the life around them; the fellowship, the hypocrisy, the betrayal, the solidarity.
Baldwin summarised this story in The Fire Next Time, positioning his participation in the church as a response to the agony of living under White supremacy and a protection from what he feared in himself (due to the hostile supremacist, shaming construction of his body) but there is so much more to learn from it here, psychologically and sociologically, about Black experiences in the USA.