Hall Montana, the narrator in James Baldwin’s novel Just Above My Head, tells this story with all the joy and all the rage I’ve come to expect from Baldwin’s novels. He weaves both of these emotions together in such a way that the reader doesn’t necessarily recognize one or the other but knows that both are embedded deeply into not just Hall but Hall’s family and friends, too.
The novel begins with the death of Hall’s gospel singer brother Arthur which allows Hall to recount the story of both of their lives. The brotherly love between Hall and Arthur is in the forefront of the novel and provides the bulk of the story’s emotional appeal. Secondary, but no less important, are the relationships between Hall and two different women and the relationships between Arthur and two different men. These relationships still powerfully support the bond between the brothers.
As in other Baldwin novels, gospel music lyrics get interspersed throughout the story. While the imagery in these songs adds both depth and atmosphere to the novel, it doesn’t turn it into a religious story. At the same time, Baldwin doesn’t erase the potential impact of the beliefs behind the music. Ultimately, Hall plows through a ton of emotion and a ton of reflection to come to his conclusion:
…how could we sing, how could we know that the music comes from us, we build our bridge into eternity, we are the song we sing?