The Amen Corner
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
JAMES BALDWIN 1968
The Amen Corner, the first dramatic play by the now much-celebrated African-American novelist, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin, was written during the 1950s, first performed on the professional stage in 1965, and first published in 1968.
The Amen Corner takes place in two settings: a “corner” church in Harlem and the apartment dwelling of Margaret Anderson, the church pastor, and of her son, David, and sister Odessa. After giving a fiery Sunday morning sermon, Margaret is confronted by the unexpected arrival of her long estranged husband, Luke, who collapses from illness shortly thereafter. Their son, David, along with several elders of the congregation, learn from Luke that, while Margaret had led everyone to believe that he had abandoned her with their son years ago, it was in fact Margaret who had left Luke in pursuit of a purely religious life. This information precipitates confrontations between Margaret and her son, her congregation, and her estranged husband, regarding what they see as the hypocritical nature of her religious convictions, which she uses to justify the breakup of her family. After an important conversation with his dying father, David informs Margaret that he is leaving home to pursue his calling as a jazz musician. On his deathbed, Luke declares to Margaret that he has always loved her, and that she should not have left him. Finally, Margaret’s congregation decides to oust her, based on their perception that she unjustly ruined her own family in the name of religion. Only after losing her son, her Page 22 | Top of Articlehusband, and her congregation, does Margaret finally realize that she should not have used religion as an excuse to escape the struggles of life and love, but that “To love the Lord is to love all His children—all of them, everyone!—and suffer with them and rejoice with them and never count the cost!’’
The Amen Corner addresses themes of the role of the church in the African-American family, the complex relationship between religion and earthly love, and the effect of a poverty born of racial prejudice on the African-American community.
James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in New York City, to David Baldwin, a factory worker and clergyman, and Emma (Jones) Baldwin. Baldwin was the eldest of nine children, whom he spent much of his childhood helping to raise and care for amidst the poverty of black Harlem. During his high school years, the young Baldwin became a revivalist minister for the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly. He graduated from De Witt Clinton High School in 1942, after which he began working in the defense industry in New Jersey. In 1942, when his stepfather died, Baldwin decided to become a writer and moved to Greenwich Village, New York, to pursue his goal. There he took on various unskilled odd jobs while working on his first novel. In 1944, he met the celebrated black novelist Richard Wright, who aided Baldwin’s career by helping him to get an Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship. Finding the racism in the United States more and more unbearable, Baldwin in 1948 moved to Paris, where he gained experience and insight crucial to his writing career, his sense of racial heritage, and his sexual identity.
It was during this period that his first two novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain(1953) and Giovanni’s Room(1956), were published. Returning to the United States in 1957, Baldwin became an important public speaker and activist in the burgeoning civil rights movement, a political role he maintained throughout his life. He continued to be a world traveler, living for various periods in France and other countries, as well as in the Untied States. Baldwin wrote distinguished works in several forms. Important essays on racial issues are collected in Notes of a Native Son(1955), Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son(1961), and The Fire Next Time(1963). Notable fiction, besides his first novels, includes Another Country(1962) and If Beale Street Could Talk(1974). The Amen Corner(1955) and Blues for Mr. Charlie(1964) are his most celebrated dramas. Baldwin died of stomach cancer on November 30 or December 1 (sources vary), 1987, in St. Paul de Vence, France.
Act I takes place “on a Sunday morning in Harlem.” It begins with a church service, led by Margaret Anderson, the pastor of a “corner” church. The singing of hymns, accompanied by Margaret’s eighteen-year-old son, David, on the piano, is an important element of the service. At one point, Mrs. Ida Jackson, a young woman, walks up to the pulpit holding her sick baby; she asks Margaret what she should do to save her baby, and Margaret advises her to leave her husband, but Mrs. Jackson asserts that she doesn’t want to leave her husband.
After the service, Margaret, her sister Odessa, David, and three elders of the church, Sister Moore, Sister Boxer, and Brother Boxer, congregate in Margaret’s apartment, which is attached to the church. Margaret’s long estranged husband, Luke, arrives unexpectedly at the apartment. In front of David and the church elders, Luke confronts Margaret with the fact that, while she had led everyone to believe that he had abandoned her with their son years earlier, it was in fact Margaret who had left Luke. After an infant of theirs had died, Margaret had blamed Luke for the tragedy, and had abandoned him to pursue a purely religious life. Luke then collapses from illness and is taken to lie down on a bed in Margaret’s apartment. Although David and the others plead with Margaret to stay and care for the dying Luke, Margaret leaves for a brief trip to Philadelphia for the purpose of aiding another church.
Act II is set the following Saturday afternoon. In the first scene, Odessa, Sister Boxer, and Sister Moore sit in the kitchen of the apartment, discussing Sister Margaret’s role in the church, given this new information that she had abandoned her own husband. The church elders express some discontent with Margaret’s use of the church funds and with her treatment of the congregation, as well as the hypocrisy they perceive in her years of lying about her relationship with her husband. In the next scene,
David enters the room where his father, Luke, lies ill. David and Luke discuss David’s ambitions to become a jazz musician and his father’s life as a jazz musician. Luke explains to David that being abandoned by Margaret had ruined his life. Luke encourages David to pursue jazz, but also explains to him that music is nothing if a man doesn’t have the love of a woman in his life.
During the next scene, in the church, several of the church elders and other congregation members gather to discuss Margaret’s position as pastor of the church. They criticize Margaret for her use of church funds, her treatment of her husband, and her seeming hypocrisies in regard to what she preaches versus how she lives her own life. They all break into a hymn, during which Margaret enters the church, just back from Philadelphia. She explains that the Philadelphia congregation will be coming to join their service the next day. They all sing a hymn and then say a prayer.
In the following scene, David brings a record player into the room where Luke lies and plays a record of Luke playing the trombone. Margaret enters the bedroom, and David leaves with the record player. Margaret and Luke then have a conversation about their relationship and the role of religion in Margaret’s life, but the two come to no understanding. Odessa then enters and warns Margaret that the church is about to have a business meeting in which they will be discussing Margaret’s position as pastor.
Act III takes place the following Sunday morning. In the first scene, Margaret and Mrs. Jackson talk in the church; Mrs. Jackson’s baby has died, but she resists Margaret’s religious advice about the matter and insists that she is more concerned with her husband than with religion. In the kitchen of the apartment, Margaret and her sister Odessa discuss Margaret’s relationship with Luke. Later in the church, Odessa joins the church elders, who are again discussing their plans to oust Margaret from her post as pastor. Odessa attempts to defend Margaret against this decision. In the apartment, David confronts Margaret with the fact that he has decided to leave home to pursue his calling as a jazz musician.
Margaret enters the bedroom where Luke lies dying, and they discuss David’s decision to leave. Margaret and Luke finally make peace with one another and admit that they still love each other; as they embrace, Luke dies. Margaret then enters the
church and speaks to the congregation, although she knows that they have chosen to oust her from her position. Margaret tells the congregation that she is “just now finding out what it means to love the Lord.” She concludes that “To love the Lord is to love all His children—all of them, everyone!—and suffer with them and rejoice with them and never count the cost!” The congregation breaks into a hymn as Margaret steps down from the pulpit, enters the room where Luke lies dead, and falls beside his body on the bed.
David is the eighteen-year-old son of Margaret and Luke. David plays the piano in the church during Margaret’s sermons, and his mother wants him to pursue a life of devotion to religion, utilizing his musical talents for that purpose only. David, however, has enrolled in a music school, and has been secretly sneaking out to jazz clubs and playing in a jazz band. One night, he sneaks out to hear his estranged father, Luke, also a musician, play at a jazz club. When Luke arrives at Margaret’s house, David learns that it was his mother who had left his Page 24 | Top of Articlefather, and not his father who had abandoned them, as she had led him to believe. While Margaret had wanted David to accompany her to Philadelphia, David chooses to stay home with his dying father. David and Luke have an important discussion about the family history, his parents’ relationship, and jazz music. When Margaret returns from Philadelphia, David confronts her with the decision that he is leaving home to pursue a career as a jazz musician. David tries to explain to his mother that he can make a better contribution to the world through pursuing his own musical calling, pleading with her that “Maybe I can say something—one day—maybe I can say something in music that’s never been said before.”
Luke is the estranged husband of Margaret, and the father of David. Luke arrives unexpectedly at Margaret’s house and collapses from illness. He confronts Margaret with the fact that she had left him after blaming him for the death of their infant child years earlier. Margaret is unsympathetic to his pleas of love for her, and leaves for a brief trip to Philadelphia, despite the fact that he lies dying in a bed in her home. While Margaret is gone, Luke has an important conversation with their son, David, in which he tries to explain to David his perspective on his relationship with Margaret. After Margaret returns from Philadelphia, Luke again confronts her with the fact that she had unfairly blamed him for the death of their infant and had used religion as an escape and an excuse to leave him. He tells her that David’s decision to leave is a decision to “live,” not a moral lapse on his part. Most of all, Luke pleads with Margaret that he loved her and needed her and that she should never have left him. Luke then dies, after which Margaret finally realizes the truth of what he has said.
Margaret Alexander is the pastor of a church. In the first scene of the play, she gives a sermon. She then prepares to leave for a brief trip to Philadelphia to aid another church. As she is about to leave, her estranged husband, Luke, arrives unexpectedly and collapses from illness. Several members of Margaret’s congregation learn that while she had lead everyone to believe that Luke had abandoned her with their son, David, in fact it was Margaret who left Luke. Despite the fact that Luke lies on his deathbed in her home, Margaret leaves for Philadelphia anyway. While she is gone, members of her congregation meet to discuss their various dissatisfactions with Margaret’s position as pastor of their church. They question her use of church funds as well as the new information that she had abandoned her own husband. When Margaret returns, she is confronted by her son, her estranged husband, and her congregation. David informs her that he has been secretly playing in a jazz band and is going to leave home to pursue a career as a jazz musician. Luke confronts her with the fact that she had blamed him for the death of their infant child years ago and had abandoned him in the name of the service of God; Luke points out Margaret’s hypocrisy in using religion as an excuse to escape life. Finally, Margaret’s congregation confronts her on similar grounds. Having lost her son, her husband, and her congregation, Margaret finally realizes that religion should not have been an excuse for her to break up her family but a reason for her to stand by her man.
Brother Boxer is an elder of Margaret’s church who resents her for insisting that it is sinful of him to take a job driving a liquor delivery truck.
Sister Boxer is an elder of Margaret’s church who criticizes Margaret for insisting that it is sinful for her husband, Brother Boxer, to take a job driving a liquor delivery truck.
Ida Jackson is a young woman who steps up to the pulpit during Margaret’s sermon with a plea for help for her sick baby. Margaret advises her to leave her husband, but Mrs. Jackson protests that she doesn’t want to leave her husband. Later, Mrs. Jackson returns to Margaret for consolation after her baby has died. Again, Mrs. Jackson protests Margaret’s religious explanations and consolations, asserting instead that “I just want my man and my home and my children.” Margaret tells her that she needs to pray, but Mrs. Jackson disagrees, maintaining that she is going home to her husband instead. Margaret finally realizes that Mrs. Jackson is right to stand by her man, rather than abandon him in the Page 25 | Top of Articlename of religion, telling her, “Get on home to your husband. Go on home, to your man.”
Sister Moore is an elder of Margaret’s church who is instrumental in having Margaret ousted from her position as pastor.
Odessa is Margaret’s sister, who lives with Margaret and David. Odessa is supportive of Margaret, and defends her against the criticism of the members of her congregation.
Religion is a central theme in Baldwin’s play. The first seventeen pages of the play are taken up with a Sunday morning church sermon, led by the pastor, Sister Margaret Anderson. Baldwin has noted that this material was in part based on his own experiences as a young minister. Baldwin also wished the theater audience to be swept up in the experience of actually attending a church service. The role of religion in Margaret’s life is examined and questioned by various characters throughout the play. While Margaret presents herself as a pure, holy woman who has been abandoned by her husband, others point out that she has used religion as an excuse to escape from the problems of the material world. It is Luke who finally impresses upon Margaret the idea that she has misinterpreted the significance of religion. Luke points out that human love is not at odds with religion, but is in fact an important element of religion. It is only after she has lost her son, her husband, and her congregation that Margaret is able to appreciate Luke’s words. Her final words to her congregation confirm her understanding.
Although not one of the play’s most prominent themes, the impact of poverty permeates the play as an underlying condition of the lives of the characters. Margaret berates Brother Boxer for taking a job driving a liquor delivery truck, asserting that it is sinful of him to spend his day providing liquor to people. Sister Boxer, Brother Boxer’s wife, however, complains that Margaret is not taking into account the importance of earning a living and supporting a family. In other words, it is economic necessity, based on the limited availability of jobs to African-American men during that time period, which requires that Brother Boxer accept the best job he can find. Poverty is also an underlying theme in the death of Margaret’s infant, years before the play takes place, and the death of Mrs. Ida Jackson’s infant. It is made clear that these babies became sick and died due to poor nutrition (and perhaps inadequate medical care) because of their poverty. Reference is also made to the limited availability of jobs for African-American women, as one character refers to her work as a maid in the home of a white woman. Thus, while there are no white characters who appear in the play, the black community is presented within a broader context of racial inequality in which African-American women have little choice but to work in positions of servitude to white women, and African-American men are compelled to accept whatever jobs may be available to them.
Many critics have noted that one of the recurring themes throughout Baldwin’s fiction is that of love. Baldwin states in his “Notes” to the published play that the first line he wrote was Margaret’s in Act III: “It’s an awful thing to think about, the way love never dies!” Margaret throughout most of the play has made the mistake of substituting religion for the love of her own husband. Luke insists that he still loves her, and yet she continues to deny her own feelings of love for him. Through the character of Luke, the love of a woman is presented as a necessity to the survival of black men in a racist society; Luke’s downfall is attributed to Margaret’s withholding of love from him. It is only at the end, just before Luke dies, that Margaret is able to understand the power of love: “Maybe it’s not possible to stop loving anybody you ever really loved. I never stopped loving you, Luke. I tried. But I never stopped loving you.” Baldwin explains that although Margaret, by the end, “has lost everything,” she “also gains the keys to the kingdom.” He goes on to say that “The kingdom is love, and love is selfless, although only the self can lead one there. She gains herself.”
Baldwin wrote this play with a very specific stage set in mind. The two main parts of the set are the church and the adjoining apartment. The positioning of the church in relation to the apartment is symbolic of the role of the church in the life of the family. The stage notes indicate that “The church is on a level above the apartment and should give the impression of dominating the family’s living quarters.” This is meant to symbolize the dominating influence of the church on Margaret’s family. The set design within the church is also a key element of Baldwin’s vision for this play. The stage notes indicate that the church “is dominated by the pulpit, on a platform, upstage.” Thus, within the church itself, Margaret, as the pastor giving sermons, is the dominant figure. This set design emphasizes the extent to which the church is an arena in which Margaret holds a great deal of power, as opposed to the rest of the world, in which she is an impoverished single black woman. The program notes also mention that on the platform on which the pulpit sits is “a thronelike chair.” The implication is that, in the world of her congregation, Margaret reigns supreme, as if she were royalty. This again emphasizes, by way of contrast, the extent to which, in the rest of the world, Margaret as a poor African-American woman is virtually powerless. Finally, Baldwin wanted the stage set of the church to position the audience of the play itself as if they, too, were members of the congregation, listening to Margaret’s sermons. This positioning of the audience is key to one of Baldwin’s central goals in writing this play: to suggest a parallel between Page 27 | Top of Articletheatrical elements of performance and audience participation in the black church with that of the theater.
A central element of Baldwin’s play is the church sermons led by Pastor Margaret. As he has stated in his “Notes” which preface the published edition of the play: “I knew that out of the ritual of the church, historically speaking, comes the act of the theatre, the communion which is the theatre. And I knew that what I wanted to do in the theatre was to recreate moments I remembered, as a boy preacher, to involve the people, even against their will, to shake them up, and, hopefully, to change them.” The long service that begins the play alternates the singing of hymns with a fiery sermon by Sister Margaret. Margaret’s sermon is written in the highly developed and stylized oratory style of African-American ministers. This oratory style is most easily recognized by the use of repetition of key phrases and the use of black English vernacular. The civil rights activist Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. has been widely noted for his skill and mastery of this oratory style, particularly as exemplified by his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
African-American Literary Movements
Twentieth-century African-American literature has been characterized by two important literary movements: the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. The Harlem Renaissance, also referred to as the New Negro Movement, designates a period during the 1920s in which African-American literature flourished among a group of writers concentrated in the Harlem section of New York City. Important writers of the Harlem Renaissance include James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man(1912); Claude McKay, who wrote the bestselling novel Home to Harlem(1928); Langston Hughes, who wrote the poetry collection The Weary Blues(1926); and Wallace Thurman, who wrote the novel The Blacker the Berry(1929). This period of incredible literary output diminished when the Great Depression of the 1930s affected the financial status of many African-American writers. The Black Arts Movement, also referred to as the Black Aesthetic Movement flourished during the 1960s and 70s, and embodied values derived from black nationalism and promoted politically and socially significant works, often written in Black English vernacular. Important writers of the Black Arts Movement include Imamu Amiri Baraka (also known as LeRoi Jones), Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison.
Dramatic works by African-American writers in the nineteenth century include King Shotaway(1823), by William Henry Brown, the first known play by an African-American writer; The Escape: or, A Leap for Freedom(1858), by William Wells Brown, the first play by an African-American writer to be published; and Rachel(1916), by Anglina W. Grimke, the first successful stage play by an African-American writer. Important literary movements, such as the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, influenced dramatic works and stage productions by African Americans in the twentieth century. The development of Black Theater in the first half of the twentieth century was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, and included the establishment of theaters devoted to black productions in major cities throughout the United States. The most prominent black theaters by mid-century were the American Negro Theater and the Negro Playwrights’ Company. In the post-World War II era, black theater became more overtly political and more specifically focused on celebrating African-American culture. One of the most prominent works to emerge from this period was the 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry. The Black Arts Movement, which emerged in the 1960s, led to the establishment in 1965 of the Repertory Theater of Harlem, initiated by Amiri Baraka (still LeRoi Jones at that time). Baraka’s award-winning 1964 play, The Dutchman, is among the most celebrated dramatic works of this period. Ntozake Shange’s 1977, for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf, utilized an experimental dramatic format to address issues facing African-American women. In the 1980s, August Wilson emerged as an important African-American playwright with his Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom(1985), about a blues singer and her band, set in Chicago in the 1920s.
In his “Notes” for the first publication of The Amen Corner in 1968, Baldwin recalls that writing the
play was “a desperate and even rather irresponsible act.” With one published novel to his name (Go Tell It on the Mountain), Baldwin was not in a strong position to succeed with his first play. As his agent at the time informed him, “the American theatre was not exactly clamoring for plays on obscure aspects of Negro life, especially one written by a virtually unknown author whose principal effort until that time had been one novel.” Nevertheless, Baldwin forged ahead, and The Amen Corner, written in the 1950s, was first produced on the campus of Howard University, then in Los Angeles, before opening on Broadway in 1965. While it won the 1964 Foreign Drama Critics Circle Award, the play was not published in book form until 1968.
Critics have commented on the artistic success of Baldwin’s play as a dramatic stage production. Carlton W. Molette, writing in 1977, stated that The Amen Corner “is one of the most successful Afro-American plays that I have seen.” Molette asserts that “The first professional production was moving as theater ought to be but seldom is.” Carolyn Wedin Sylvander, asserting that “The Amen Corner is a better play than its production history or critical attention would seem to indicate,” especially praises Page 29 | Top of Articlethe play for its qualities as a stage production, particularly in Baldwin’s use of music: “the play is certainly constructed in such a way as to truly ’come alive’ on the stage. Much of that liveliness and power to involve is transmitted through the music. Group singing, individual singing, instrumental accompaniment, jazz (Luke on record), all provide choral commentary on character and conflict.”
Several critics have noted the play’s embodiment of aesthetic values put forth by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Darwin T. Turner explains that “The Amen Corner seems more clearly designed as a drama written about black experience for a black audience. In this respect, it resembles Black Arts drama, in which the dramatist presumes that he must write without concern for the white spectator, who exists outside the black experience and without comprehension of it. I do not wish to imply that Baldwin consciously designed the play for the education of a black audience. Instead, I am suggesting that he found strength in writing meaningfully about an experience he knew while assuming that his audience would be equally familiar with that experience.” Turner concludes that Baldwin’s “success, I feel, did not result solely from his recreation of a church setting that was familiar to him but from his presumption that his audience required no interpretation, no modification, because it already knew the cultural setting. Thus Baldwin achieved an artistic freedom rarely granted a black dramatist except when he works within the theater of a black community.” Molette provides a similar assessment of Baldwin’s play in terms of the ways in which it addresses its audience: “The Amen Corner does not protest to whites; it informs, educates, illuminates blacks.... It is not self-consciously black. The play assumes that there are some elementary aspects of black culture that do not require explanation within the body of the play. It assumes, in effect, a black audience. It is not an anti-white play, it is an a-white play.”
Molette, however, does note that “the play is not perfect,” pointing out that “Ironically, The Amen Corner is at its worst as a play precisely when it is at its best as literature. There are several two-character scenes between the members of the Alexander family that are true literary gems. They are also the scenes of greatest character revelation. They actually tell us too much about the characters. Now, all that is told needs to be told; but some of it ought to be told through means other than words.” Molette goes on to criticize scenes that are particularly static and lacking in drama when seen on stage.
For example, in Act II,“the action slows down, and the words become far more important than the deed. In the theater, that usually means trouble. This is especially a problem with the scenes that involve the father (Luke), because he is confined to his sickbed, making visual interest through movement very difficult to achieve, as well.”
Fred L. Standley praises the play, along with other works by Baldwin, for his treatment of “a variety of thematic concerns: the historical significance and the potential explosiveness in black-white relations; the necessity for developing a sexual and psychological consciousness and identity; the intertwining of love and power in the universal scheme of existence as well as in the structures of society; the misplaced priorities in the value systems in America; and the responsibility of the artist to promote the evolution of the individual and the society.”
Trudier Harris criticized Baldwin’s portrayal of female characters in a number of his works, asserting that “Few women in Baldwin’s works are able to move beyond the bounds of the traditional roles that have been cut out for them and in which the use of their bodies is the most important factor.” Harris Page 30 | Top of Articleoffers both criticism and praise, however, of Baldwin’s representation of women through the character of Margaret in The Amen Corner. She states that Sister Margaret “is most like the women in the fiction in her desire and ability to serve.... In her adherence to scripture, she is one of the most fanatical of Baldwin’s black women characters. Yet in her recognition of the unrelenting antagonism between males and females, she voices the plight of all of the church-based women.” Harris concludes, however, that, in Baldwin’s fiction and drama, “for all this growth and progression, for all this freedom of action and movement, the women are still confined to niches carved out for them by men whose egos are too fragile to grant their equality.”
Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema. In the following essay, Brent discusses the motif of jazz music in Baldwin’s play.
Music plays a central role in expressing key themes within Baldwin’s play. The play is structured thematically around two types of music: church music and jazz music. On one level, church music and jazz music are symbolic within the play of opposing sets of values, represented on each side by Luke and Margaret: church music represents Margaret’s religious fervor and convictions, while jazz music represents Luke’s insistence on embracing life through human love. David, the eighteen-year-old son of Margaret and Luke, is caught between the opposing sets of values held by his mother and father. He is torn between his mother’s insistence that he continue as a church musician and his own desire to follow in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a career as a jazz musician. By the end of the play, however, as Luke dies in her arms, Margaret realizes that life (as symbolized by jazz) and religion (as symbolized by hymns) do not embody opposing values of sin and purity—but actually encompass one another as expressions of love—love of life and other human beings, as well as love of the Lord.
The role of actual music in the performance of the play thus expresses the struggle between these opposing viewpoints and sets of values. The predominant musical motif throughout the play is church music. The production notes state that, even before the curtain rises, David’s piano music, emanating from the church, can be heard underneath the random street noises. The opening scene of the play is essentially a church service, alternating Margaret’s sermon with the singing of hymns by the congregation, accompanied by David’s piano. In addition, throughout the play, members of the congregation spontaneously break into the singing of hymns.
Before Luke’s unexpected arrival at Margaret’s apartment, David has already chosen a path away from church music and toward jazz music. Although he has told his mother that he has enrolled in a local music school, he has also been secretly sneaking out at night to attend jazz clubs and play in a jazz combo. It is later revealed that he had gone one night to watch his father, whom he hadn’t seen in years, play trombone in a jazz band. Jazz music, however, while central to the play thematically, is only actually heard on the stage during a few key scenes. When Luke first appears unexpectedly in Margaret’s apartment, the stage directions indicate that “Jazz version of ’Luke’s Theme’ begins.” Luke thus symbolically brings the values associated with jazz into Margaret’s realm of church music. When David brings a phonograph into the room where Luke lies dying and plays a record of Luke’s trombone music, the sound of jazz music provides the audience with a visceral contrast to the hymnal music which has, up to this point, dominated the play. The playing of this record is furthermore an important point of contact between father and son; it represents David’s decision to follow in his father’s footsteps in the pursuit of a career as a jazz musician. David’s association of his father with jazz music is in fact what led him to pursue music; he tells Luke that “I remembered how you used to play for me sometimes. That was why I started playing the piano. I used to go to sleep dreaming about the way we’d play together one day, me with my piano and you with your trombone.” This exchange between David and Luke furthermore provides a point of connection between father and son in which David rejects his mother’s system of values (as represented by church music) and takes on his father’s system of values (as represented by jazz music). For David, entering the world of jazz leads to a loss of religious faith. He tells Luke that, after he was asked to join a jazz combo, he “stopped praying,” and that, eventually, “I stopped believing
—it just went away.” Luke admits that he, himself, never found religious faith.
When David comes home one morning smelling of whiskey, Margaret associates his pursuit of jazz with “wickedness” and “sin”; she particularly associates it with sex, as she accuses David of “stinking of whiskey and some no-count, dirty, black girl’s sweat.” For David, however, playing jazz music is a calling, equivalent to a religious calling. He tells Margaret that, while he “can’t play piano in church no more,” playing jazz is something he’s “got to do!” For David, playing jazz is equivalent to a religious calling in the sense that he feels he’s got “work to do” in the world, by “speaking for” his fellow African Americans through his music. He tells Margaret: “I’ve got my work to do, something’s happening in the world out there, I got to go! I know you think I don’t know what’s happening, but I’m beginning to see something.. .. Who’s going to speak for all of us? I can’t stay home. Maybe I can say something—one day—maybe I can say something that’s never been said before.” Thus, while Margaret associates jazz music with “wickedness” and “sin,” David perceives jazz to be essentially equivalent to religion in the sense of having an important, positive effect on the world.
The conflict between Margaret’s associations of jazz with wickedness and sin and David’s associations of jazz with a religious calling is representative of the seemingly conflicting associations jazz music has acquired through history. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, while jazz developed in the twentieth century in the urban settings of brothels and bars, it’s musical roots are firmly planted in the “spirituals” born of the adaptation by African slaves in America to Christian hymnals:
This vast influence of Africanized church music on the development of jazz underlines one more fallacy about the music, which is that it was always linked irrevocably to the lowlife. Its connections with the brothels of Louisiana and the saloons of Chicago tell only half the story, for jazz has been concerned with sanctity as well as with sin, has been a sacred music as well as a profane one. Its links with Christianity and particularly with the act of worship and the rituals of birth, marriage, and death have proved so durable that they remain unbroken to this day.
Thus, while Margaret associates jazz only with the profane, David is more accurate in his association of jazz with a religious calling and positive
social force. Furthermore, the historic and musical relationship of jazz music to church music is indicated by Margaret’s decision to allow “drums and trumpets” to be played during a church service. When Sister Rice asks if these instruments “seem kind of worldly,” Margaret responds: “Well, the evil ain’t in the drum, Sister Rice, nor yet in the trumpet. The evil is in what folks do with it and what it leads them to. Ain’t no harm in praising the Lord with anything you get in your hands.” Brother Boxer then suggests that, while David hasn’t been to services in a week, these “drums and trumpets,” instruments associated with jazz music, will “bring Brother David out to church again, I guarantee you that.” While she herself is not aware of it, Margaret’s decision to allow these more flamboyant instruments into her church is indicative of the common musical ancestry of jazz and church music. Furthermore, her statement that “Ain’t no harm in praising the Lord with anything you get in your hands,” suggests that David’s ultimate decision to pursue jazz rather than church music may constitute his own form of “praising the Lord” through the expression of his musical gifts.
From Luke’s perspective, as from David’s, jazz music represents a positive life force, associated with human love. When Margaret tells Luke that David has gone to pursue life as a jazz musician, Luke responds that “He’s gone into the world. He’s into the world! ... He’s in the world, he’s living .... He’s living. He’s living.” The association of Luke with jazz, as representative of life, and human love, is evoked when, in their final interaction before Luke dies, Margaret and Luke are symbolically remarried. He tells Margaret, who is wearing her white robe for conducting church service, “You all in white. Like you was the day we got married. You mighty pretty.” Margaret recalls that they were married on a sunny day, to which Luke responds, “They used to say, ’Happy is the bride the sun shines on.’”
In the final minutes of the play, Luke dies in Margaret’s arms, just as she has finally admitted to herself and Luke that she still loves him and has always loved him: “Maybe it’s not possible to stop loving anybody you ever really loved. I never stopped loving you, Luke. I tried. But I never stopped loving you.” As Margaret and Luke embrace, the music of “The Old Ship of Zion,” sung by the congregation, is heard emanating from the church, where Sister Moore is leading the sermon. As Luke dies, the mouthpiece to his trombone falls out of his hands to the floor. Margaret sees the mouthpiece and picks it up. As the congregation sings “I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table,” Margaret then enters the church, “Still holding Luke’s mouthpiece clenched against her breast.” Luke’s trombone mouthpiece symbolizes jazz music and the values of life and human love he espoused. Margaret’s gesture of holding the mouthpiece “clenched against her breast” symbolizes her decision to embrace Luke, her human love for him, and “life.” Margaret’s changed perspective, whereby she comes to understand that human love is not opposed to religion, but is in fact embraced by religion, is expressed through her final words to the congregation, which has decided to oust her as their pastor: “I’m just now finding out what it means to love the Lord.... To love the Lord is to love all His children—all of them, everyone!—and suffer with them and rejoice with them and never count the cost!” As Margaret steps down from the pulpit (presumably still holding Luke’s mouthpiece), Sister Moore leads the congregation in a “final song of jubilation.” Walking away from the church and sounds of the hymn to enter the bedroom where Luke lies dead, Margaret symbolically distances herself from her former religious convictions and moves toward Luke’s jazz world of life and human love. Margaret’s final act of removing her white robe and falling beside Luke on the bed also carries sexual connotations; after years of renouncing earthly love, Margaret has finally returned to her marriage bed.
Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Louis H. Pratt
Discussed within this essay is the viewpoint that The Amen Corner is strictly a “religious drama.”
Sometimes the phrase “religious drama” is applied by Baldwin’s critics to his first dramatic effort, The Amen Corner. This meaningless and inappropriate epithet reflects a superficial grasp of the more significant aspects of the drama. It is a categorization which precisely points up the reason many critics are unable to analyze the broader philosophical aspects that dominate the play. They cannot view the whole drama of conflict because religion, the part, has obscured their view. Perhaps also, the critics have fallen victim to the idea that the black man’s world is a sphere of religious and racial consciousness, and therefore it is expected that the theme of religion should dominate his writings in the instances where race has failed to prevail. I suggest that Amen is not a “religious drama” but rather a drama of interpersonal conflict, set against the background of a storefront Holy Roller church in Harlem. Only if we view the drama from this perspective can we discover the deeper human emotions and involvements with which the playwright is concerned.
Near the opening of The Amen Corner it becomes obvious that Margaret Alexander, the church’s pastor, has fled the world of reality to take refuge—not in religion—but in illusion and self-deception. We find her in the midst of a homiletic rejoinder to the congregation’s concepts of religion: “Some of you say, ’Ain’t no harm in reading the funny papers.’ But children, yes, there’s harm in it. While you reading them funny papers, your mind ain’t on the Lord. And if your mind ain’t stayed on Him, every hour of the day, Satan’s going to cause you to fall. Amen! Some of you say, ’Ain’t no harm in me working for a liquor company. I ain’t going to be drinking the liquor, I’m just going to be driving the truck!’ But a saint ain’t got no business delivering liquor to folks all day ...”
This admonition raises the ancient, yet valid question of whether or not some objects can be considered intrinsically good or evil apart from their social context. Obviously, Margaret’s response would be affirmative. But illusion suggests confusion, and even Margaret is not always consistent in her attitude. When she is questioned about the “worldliness” of the drums and trumpets that the Philadelphia church members plan to bring to New York, she tells Sister Rice that “the evil is in what folks do with [the drum or trumpet] and what it leads them to. Ain’t no harm in praising the Lord with anything you get in your hands”.
But that “anything” does not include a liquor truck. Sister Boxer recognizes this incongruity and continues her challenge: “Well, ain’t a truck a thing? And if it’s all right to blow a trumpet in church, why ain’t it all right for Joel to drive that truck, so he can contribute a little more to the house of God?”. Margaret replies simply that there is “all the difference in the world.” She can clearly see that a musical instrument has no intrinsic moral significance, but she fails to regard the liquor truck in that same light.
Another theme in the play concerns the perversion of one of the basic concepts of Christianity: humanitarianism. The foundation of Christian doctrine rests on the compassion and sympathy of one human being for another—the saved and the unsaved—and we would expect that one as holy as Margaret would practice what she preaches. Yet we are struck by a merciless, hypocritical piety which becomes apparent when Luke returns home and collapses. In spite of her husband’s need, Margaret refuses to postpone her trip to Philadelphia because “the Lord made me leave that man in there a long time ago because he was a sinner. And the Lord ain’t told me to stop my work. . . “. Here we have the curious paradox of the woman of God who refuses to help an unsaved brother—her husband—precisely because he is a “sinner.” Margaret has other souls to save.
When we consider the allusions to fancy cars and good times which the Philadelphia congregation seems to enjoy, the ostensible purpose for her visit lies open to question. This is particularly true in light of the apparent neglect of her own congregation, as seen when Sister Moore raises the question of Margaret’s visit to Sister Rice’s mother while Sister Boxer listens. The two women begin to empathize with Margaret because the Philadelphia visits have left her with her “hands full,” but Sister Boxer recognizes the hypocrisy inherent in their pastor’s priorities and counters, “She got her hands full right down there in her own house. Reckon she couldn’t get over to pray for your mother, Sister Rice, she couldn’t stay here to pray for her own husband”.
The social significance of the play, as I have suggested, is paramount. On this level the familiar Baldwin theme of the search for identity becomes apparent. Fred L. Standley’s succinct analysis of the significance of this quest in Baldwin’s writings provides a context for my consideration here:
This search or quest for identity is indispensable in Baldwin’s opinion, and the failure to experience such is indicative of a fatal weakness in human life.
The quest for identity always involves a man with other men—there can be no self-perception apart from or outside the context of interpersonal relationships. Only within the dynamic interplay of personalities can men become profoundly aware of the significance of being a man. Baldwin sees the lack of interpersonal relations as explicitly related to the breakdown of communication between persons—specifically ’the breakdown of communication between the sexes’....
Luke appears in Act I, and we soon discover that David believes his father had abandoned him. But it is Margaret who is guilty of desertion. She had interpreted the death of their second baby as a sign from the Lord to leave her husband and find a “hiding place.” She finds sanctuary in the church because all other doors are closed to her, and she begins her quest for self as a minister of God. But, as Standley’s comments indicate, Margaret has made a tragic mistake which is revealed when Mrs. Jackson comes forward to have Margaret pray for her ailing baby:
MARGARET: Maybe the Lord wants you to leave that man.
MRS. JACKSON: No! He don’t want that!
Mrs. Jackson refuses Margaret’s advice because she has already discovered that her identity can only be achieved through an open line of communication with her husband. Margaret has yet to realize this.
The parallel story of the two women becomes even more significant when we consider the sharp contrast which Baldwin makes. In Act III, after her baby has died, Mrs. Jackson tells Margaret, “I ain’t like you, Sister Margaret. I don’t want all this, all these people looking to me. I’m just a young woman, I just want my man and my home and my children”. Margaret, too, had lost a child when she was a young woman but instead of standing by Luke, she nagged him to drink because she felt that he was responsible for the baby’s death. She deprived Luke and David of the family relationship which each needed so badly, though no more than she herself required. And as Mrs. Jackson stands alone in the church—a young woman who has just lost her second child—she is bewildered and perplexed. Margaret, however, begins to see her own mistake from the past. Realizing that she has taken the wrong road, Margaret reverses the advice that she had given to Mrs. Jackson prior to the baby’s death. “Go on home to your husband,” she advises compassionately. “Go on home to your man”.
In all probability, Luke is the most sensitive and perceptive character in the play. In one of the most memorable scenes, he describes his suffering, and we are moved to empathy and pity. He tells David that he has failed in his quest for identity—not because of his music—but because he has been denied the most basic human quality—love: “I don’t believe no man ever got to ... [who he is inside] without somebody loved him. Somebody looked at him, looked way down there and showed him to himself—and then started pulling, a-pulling of him up—so he could live”. Luke realizes that Margaret’s distorted sense of reality has precluded the extension of her love and understanding, thereby denying David the pursuit of his manhood. He knows that any efforts either to prescribe the terms of that quest or to protect him from its consequences can only result in the pain and misery of failure which he himself knows only too well. Luke has learned that a man must strike out, against the odds, if necessary, to discover the meaning of his own life. And he encourages David to take the first step toward reaching that goal.
Baldwin skillfully uses the contrasting qualities of vision and blindness to symbolize Margaret’s lack of inner sight as compared to that possessed by Luke. This juxtaposition becomes particularly significant near the end of the drama, as the two parents discuss the boy—Margaret as if he were dead, Luke affirming that he is alive:
MARGARET: He’s gone.
LUKE: He’s gone into the world. He’s gone into the world!
MARGARET: Luke, you won’t never see your son no more.
LUKE: But I seen him one last time. He’s in the world, he’s living.
MARGARET: He’s gone. Away from you and away from me.
LUKE: He’s living. He’s living. Is you got to see your God to know he’s living?
The references to “dark” and “white” further serve to draw our attention to the contrasting moods and heighten our awareness of these two different reactions to the boy’s departure:
MARGARET: Everything—is dark this morning.
LUKE: You all in white....
Luke’s subsequent death occasions Margaret’s remorse and enhances the cognizance of her own identity. She is forced into a reexamination of those Page 35 | Top of Articlevalues that have precipitated her misfortune, and she emerges in the final scene with a fuller understanding of the error of her ways: “Her triumph. . . is that. . . although she has lost everything, [she] also gains the keys to the kingdom. The kingdom is love, and love is selfless, although only the self can lead one there. She gains herself”.
Source: Louis H. Pratt, “The Darkness Within,” in James Baldwin, Twayne Publishers, 1978, pp. 83-87.
Stanley Macebuh’s essay offers a brief look into the background of James Baldwin and touches on the making of The Amen Corner.
James Baldwin’s continuous attempts to come to terms with his inheritance in the Western world have earned him a certain genteel notoriety in the history of American letters. The passionately apocalyptic vision, the pained discomfiture in the realm of morals, the evangelistic fervour and the biblical rhetoric are elements in his writings that ultimately derive from his long apprenticeship and briefer ministry in the Black Church in Harlem. From a more technical perspective, also, the extent to which he has so far shown an ability to control the fictional form is clearly not unrelated to the rhetorical practices of the Black Ministry; but beyond the generalized and now somewhat mandatory notices that have been made between the mood of his writings and his personal history, little serious attempt has so far been made to identify the precise manner in which his religious background has been for him both a source of creative inspiration and of conceptual and psychological constraint.
Students of the history of the Black Church in America are agreed that the practice of Black Christianity has always been ambiguous in its objectives; they will admit that while its joyless rejection of the things of the world in favour of a hypothetical paradise was more akin to the dreams of the early Christians, its very faith in the possibility of another, better world was in itself a subjective response to the actual condition of its members. While, that is, the rhetoric of the city of God may have been a somewhat impractical indulgence, the very mythology of Black Christianity, with its curiously appropriate analogies to the biblical accounts of the Jewish exile, may also be seen as a strategy of guarded political protest. For those who are overwhelmed by the often fatal inequities of their social condition, there is an understandable temptation to
reject the real world as evil, and this rejection is often accompanied by a feverish anticipation of the millennial Eden, of an age in which there shall be neither pain nor injustice.
“To a people without circumstantial hope”, Reuben Sheres has written, “(the Black Church) offered the hope of the by and by. .. The circumstances of the existing world were bad enough that (sic) they needed to be denied or rejected ... and in their place was substituted the hope of the world to come”.
The oppressed, it is true, cannot make any exclusive claims to the knowledge of evil, but it is also true that when understood as much in its social as in its metaphysical meaning, evil is a reality with which they are only too familiar. That the congregations of the Black Church should thus have been preoccupied with the celestial city is, therefore, quite understandable, but it should also be emphasized that its millennialism was, almost by definition, equally a strategy of protest, an expression of dissatisfaction with the real condition of the members of these congregations. Indeed, the very transformation of the Church from an ’invisible institution’ to an established and transparently Black organization was, in itself, an act of moderate defiance, a gesture of denunciation of the inhumanity of the older, white churches; and the long line of ministers and preachers who, through the history of this church have seen and taken advantage of the possibilities of social leadership offered by it is, clearly, an indication of its political significance.
Nevertheless, despite the implication of ’protest’ that is involved in any definition of utopianism, religious or political, it must be observed that the true strength of the Black Church lay rather in the power of its metaphorical evocations than in any actual confrontations it may have had with white oppression. Lawrence Jones’ observations in this regard are no doubt well-meaning enough, but he rather strains credibility when he claims that
... viewed through the prism of present rhetoric, it becomes clear that one of the issues being contested in the founding of the Black Churches was Black Power.
The Black minister, it is true, occasionally managed to acquire a measure of actual political influence in proportion to the size of his congregation, as shown by the more recent example of Martin Luther King’s meteoric career; but in general, political protest in the Black Church was a matter of analogical references to biblical history. The generic white man was Pharaoh, from whose oppression a black Moses was some day to arise to rescue his brethren, and America was Egypt, the land of sin and evil and godlessness that was doomed to suffer the brunt of God’s fiery vengeance. There were compelling practical reasons for this preference for indirect imagery. The certainty of furious reprisals, of the white backlash, ensured that the ’protest’ of the Black Church should be couched in such terms as to render it lame and largely unavailing. And in a world in which terror and suffering were more real than the possibility of ideal justice in society, the feverish anticipation of bliss in heaven became a more rewarding exercise than any attempt to confront the evil in the actual world.
The millennialism and the metaphorical protest in Black Christianity are two major elements that were later to be dramatized in Baldwin’s writings, but there was a third element which, in our opinion, is even more significant for an understanding of Baldwin’s career so far. We have seen how, in response to the actual suffering of its members, the Black Church evolved a theology in which the promise of the celestial city took on a lurid fascination for them, and we have suggested that practical considerations of safety contributed to the rhetorical extravagances of this theology. For the preacher who contemplated the plight of his congregation, safety, the evasion or assuagement of white anger, lay in metaphor, in indirect statement. He could offer them citizenship in heaven, and he could inveigh against the corruption of Sodom and Gomorrah, against the oppression of the Pharaohs with far more impunity than he could decry, in straightforward language, their real suffering. But he knew also, with a chill puritan certainty, that not all his flock would automatically gain entrance into heaven. Promising them the city of God, he also reminded them of the visitation of God’s anger on all who chose the path of evil and sin. And since he knew how much more accessible the path of damnation was, his predictions of doom were even more passionate than his promises of divine intervention. And so he left in the minds of his congregation an indelible fear, a vision of their corruption, of the dangers they courted if they were ensnared by the temptations of the white man’s world.
Such was the theology of Baldwin’s adolescence in America. Everywhere he turned he saw the manifestations of sin. The Harlem of his boyhood was, and still is, as close to an illustration of the contours of hell as could be found anywhere in the real world. At home, his father was a discontented, imperious patriarch whose single-minded religious fervour was as formidable as his permanent rage; at school and on the streets, he saw only omens of his own personal corruptibility. Under such conditions, it was not inevitable that Baldwin should see the social horror around him primarily as a paradigm of metaphysical evil; but given the pervading squalor, both of spirit and of environment that he saw around him, it is perhaps understandable that he should have felt he had no right to expect to be spared the fate of his friends and playmates. At fourteen he entered the church in search of safety, having convinced himself that safety was ’synonymous with God’. Four years later he was out of the church; it had given him little more than the illusion of safety, and it had sought to curtail both his freedom of action and of imagination. It was at this time that he took the curiously not unrelated decision of becoming a writer.
Source: Stanley Macebuh, “The Amen Corner,” in James Baldwin: A Critical Study, Third Press, 1973, pp. 29-33.
Baldwin, James, “Notes” to The Amen Corner, Dial Press, 1968, pp. xv-xvi.
Harris, Trudier, Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin, University of Tennessee Press, 1985, pp. 9-11.
Molette, Carlton W., “James Baldwin as Playwright,” in James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Therman B. O’Daniel, Howard University Press, 1977, pp. 184-86.
Standley, Fred. L., “James Baldwin as Dramatist,” in Critical Essays on James Baldwin, edited by Fred L. Standley and Nancy V. Burt, G. K. Hall, 1977, p. 302.
Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin, James Baldwin, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 91, 96.
Turner, Darwin T., “James Baldwin and the Dilemma of the Black Dramatist,” in James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Therman B. O’Daniel, Howard University Press, pp. 192, 194.
Baraka, Amiri (LeRoi Jones), The Dutchman and the Slave
Ship: Two Plays, Morrow, 1964.
These two plays are critically acclaimed pieces by one of the leading writers of the Blacks Arts Movement.
Harris, Trudier, Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin, University of Tennessee Press, 1985.
This book is a critical assessment of the female characters in Baldwin’s fiction.
Jones, LeRoi (Imamu Amiri Baraka) and Larry Neal, eds., Black Fire: An Anthology of African-American Writing, Morrow, 1968.
This text is an important collection of works emanating from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s.
Leeming, David Adams, James Baldwin: A Biography, Knopf, 1994.
Leeming’s book is a recent and highly enjoyable biography of Baldwin.
Shange, Ntozake, for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf: A Choreopoem, Scribner Poetry, 1997.
Shange’s play is an important experimental dramatic work (first published in 1977) that emerged from the Black Arts Movement. It addresses issues of African-American women in terms of racism and sexism.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693600013