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[38] Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone – James Baldwin

If Giovanni’s Room is an unresolved love story between two men, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone puts its protagonist in the center of social spotlight where ideals of ethnics, politics, and sex force him to put on a mask. Leo Proudhammer, a 39-years-old black man, suffers from a heart attack at the height of his theatrical career, forcing him to abort all ongoing performance and rehearsal. As he hovers between life and death, James Baldwin delineates a tapestry of human life that is terrifyingly vulnerable – through the meticulous choices that have rendered him enviously famous in theater, through the racial and gay covering that have split him into multiple identities.

There exists something edgy and cruel about a childhood riddled with braving the Harlem streets. Proudhammer often found him in the spotlight of eyes: eyes of children who outjocked him, eyes of the white cops toward whom he felt a rush of murderous hatred, and the tell-tale eyes of the older folks who suspected of his sexuality. The prose sustains a tincture of anguish, a tinge of paranoid, of being black in a society that at times seems poised on the brink of unstoppable racial war owing the ludicrous demands to cover stereotype associated with both race and sexuality.

The theatrical industry which Proudhammer desires throws him further in disguises. Ironically it is through the many disguises he wears that he comes to term with his means. Instead of fleeing from the truth, he is approaching the reality. Disguises in a sense help make the truth a quantity with which he can live. In the juggling selves, Proudhammer retains loyalty to a white woman and a young black man. At first he might be most intimidated by his color for he does not appear to know that he is colored. He is met with people’s baleful exasperation as if he is possessed by some evil spirit. Then he begins to be intimidated (and confronted), far more grievously, by the fact of his sexuality. He is gripped with the realization that he has never, in the sexual context, arrived at an understanding of being bisexual or gay.

Written during a time in which racism and assimilation to white norms are horrifyingly rife, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone brings to vivid view a man struggling to become himself through identities of a black man, a bisexual man, and an artist. Various occasions demand him to cover one of more of these identities in order to fit in. The novel pieces together moments of a man’s life that teach one the price of human connection. Trapped in the wrong time, at the wrong place, and with the wrong ambitions trapped in the wrong skin, Proudhammer’s perseverance earns him a reward that redeems and justifies all that pain, stigma, and bewilderment he once experienced.

5 Responses

  1. I read Baldwin’s ‘Another Country’ and found it very intense. There is so much personal turmoil about race and class and sexuality. I found the main characters to be damaged so badly that they were self-destructing all over the place. I think ‘Giovanni’s Room’ is on one of my many reading lists, and I guess it’s time to hunt down the list and move it up the TBR pile.

  2. I’m growing into a fan of Baldwin’s. i read Go Tell It on the Mountain years ago then finally picked up two more and am going to read Another Country soon. A great American writer.

  3. Looks like we’ve got a fan club going here. 🙂

  4. Good comments, Matt. This gets me interesting in picking up some of the unread Baldwin on my bookshelf. Thank you.

  5. […] them, this is my least favorite of Baldwin up to date, ranked lower than Giovanni’s Room and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, reading more like pulp fiction. 336 pp. […]

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