John becomes aware on the morning of his fourteenth birthday in 1935 that he does not want to become the preacher that everyone expects him to become. He imagines cursing his abusive father on his deathbed. He goes down to breakfast and worries that no one has remembered his birthday.
Why John might be hard to identify with: For modern readers, no real reason. He’s an intensely sympathetic character. White readers in 1952, of course, were not primed to care about black, possibly-gay masturbating teenagers, but Baldwin didn’t give AF.
- It’s always good to differentiate siblings right away by having them react to the same thing in individual ways: “John and Roy, passing these men and women, looked at one another briefly, John embarrassed and Roy amused.” Even the baby has an individual personality: “The baby, Ruth, sat in her high chair banging on the tray with an oatmeal-covered spoon. This meant that she was in a good mood; she would not spend the day howling, for reasons known only to herself, allowing no one but her mother to touch her.” Every character comes alive when they have secrets, even babies.
- Semi-autobiographical novelists have a ready-made store of the sights and sounds of their childhood: “the sisters in white, heads raised, the brothers in blue, heads back; the white caps of the women seeming to glow in the charged air like crowns, the kinky, gleaming heads of the men seeming to be lifted up—and the rustling and the whispering ceased and the children were quiet; perhaps someone coughed, or the sound of a car horn, or a curse from the streets came in; then Elisha hit the keys, beginning at once to sing, and everybody joined him, clapping their hands, and rising, and beating the tambourines.”
- There are lots of song lyrics. Baldwin has abandoned his religious upbringing, but he knows it provides him with lots of good material.
- The opening quote says of the faithful: “They shall run and not be weary”, but that’s never true in Baldwin’s work, where weariness is never far behind. Later, he says: “Her full lips were loose and her eyes were black—with shame, or rage, or both”. In Baldwin’s books, rage often becomes shame and shame often becomes rage.
- John is burdened by an unwanted legacy: “EVERYONE had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.” Begin at the moment the longstanding personal problem becomes acute and undeniable.
- Everybody feels misunderstood, though some of us think of ourselves are better than we’re regarded and some of us think of ourselves as worse. John is tortured by secret shame: He has “sinned with his hands” in the night, looking a shape on the ceiling that looks like a naked woman. (And he also seems interested in the body of the boy who plays the organ at church, which is presumably even more likely to bring him feelings of shame)
- Shades of Sixteen Candles, he’s worried that his whole family has forgotten his birthday: “His first thought, nevertheless, was: ‘Will anyone remember?’ For it had happened, once or twice, that his birthday had passed entirely unnoticed, and no one had said ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny,’ or given him anything—not even his mother.”
- He has decided to defy God, which is pretty badass: “The darkness of his sin was in the hardheartedness with which he resisted God’s power; in the scorn that was often his while he listened to the crying, breaking voices, and watched the black skin glisten while they lifted up their arms and fell on their faces before the Lord. For he had made his decision. He would not be like his father, or his father’s fathers. He would have another life.”
- He remembers being praised by his principal at his school and sensing what that might mean: “That moment gave him, from that time on, if not a weapon at least a shield; he apprehended totally, without belief or understanding, that he had in himself a power that other people lacked”
- He is beaten for his individuality, but he knows it’s a superpower: “it was his identity, and part, therefore, of that wickedness for which his father beat him and to which he clung in order to withstand his father. His father’s arm, rising and falling, might make him cry, and that voice might cause him to tremble; yet his father could never be entirely the victor, for John cherished something that his father could not reach. It was his hatred and his intelligence that he cherished, the one feeding the other.”