Masterplots II, Short Story Series, Rev. Ed.
Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone
Author: James Baldwin (1924-1987)
Type of Plot: Domestic realism, coming of age
Time of Plot: The 1930's
Locale: Harlem, New York City
First Published: 1968
LEO, the narrator, a ten-year-old boy
CALEB, his seventeen-year-old brother
MR. PROUDHAMMER, their father
MRS. PROUDHAMMER, their mother
"Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone" tells the story of a ten-year-old African American who struggles to make his way in a racist world and encounters various obstacles interfering with his growth and development. His family, the Proudhammers, provide a strong barrier against those obstacles. Leo describes how he and his brother Caleb are the best of friends and how they protect each other. His father, an immigrant from Barbados who has been crushed by life, still retains a strong sense of racial pride and an absolute commitment to his family. He believes that he comes from royalty, a race that was greater and nobler than the citizens of Rome or Judea and mightier than those of Egypt. He tries to instill this sense of background in his children and is frustrated by the fact that no one else recognizes his lineage. Leo recognizes the futility of his father's vision. Already, as a ten-year-old, he recognizes that the most important part of life depends on learning how to fit into a world that shows him no mercy.
Mrs. Proudhammer is a model of the strong black woman who does what is necessary to provide for her family. Leo tells of a shopping trip during which his mother commands the storeowner to give them the food she requires although she lacks the money to pay for it. She tells the storekeeper to put the cost on her bill. It is evident that Leo takes pride in his mother for her willingness to do what it takes to take care of her family.
Caleb and Leo get into an argument about washing out the tub in the morning. When Leo claims that Caleb never washes out the tub, Caleb demands that Leo apologize. Their father comes to Leo's defense and states that it is not necessary for Leo to apologize because the allegation is true.
A major part of the relationship between the boys is that Caleb is responsible for Leo when they go out together. Caleb takes Leo along with him to the motion picture theater so that Leo can provide "cover" for Caleb when he in fact takes off to go out with his friends. Leo, small, frail, and sensitive, does not like Caleb's friends, whom he views as aggressive and coarse. Leo describes himself as living in fear around those boys.
If Caleb fails to take Leo to the motion pictures, Leo has to hang around the box office and wait for some obliging adult to take him in. However, the worst part is the walk from their apartment to the theater several miles away. Each new neighborhood through which he must walk poses new dangers. He fears the other children, who are bigger and stronger, and white people, particularly police, whom he hates.
Leo describes his subway adventures. Usually, he can ride for free by sneaking under the turnstile. He loves to people watch. However, on one Saturday evening, he forgets to get off the subway and gets lost. The train takes him far beyond his usual stop and soon he finds himself surrounded by white people. As his panic rises, he loses any sense of how to find his way back to Harlem. Eventually, he speaks to a black man on the train, who is decent enough to respond to his situation. The man stays with him until he is sure the boy is on the right train to go home. He gets home without further incident but is grateful to the stranger for helping him.
Another evening when Caleb takes Leo to the motion picture theater, he leaves him there and goes out with his friends. When Leo leaves the theater, he decides to look for Caleb. Because it is a rainy night, Leo gets drenched. Worse, he is frightened of the night and hides out in the cellar of an abandoned house. Soon he hears the sound of scurrying rats and then the sound of two people making love, which he thinks is some form of violent activity. He panics, runs out into the rain and straight home to Caleb, who calms the hysterical boy.
One evening, Leo and Caleb are confronted by a white police officer. The officer humiliates both of them by making threats and innuendoes that suggest they are up to some kind of criminal activity. When the boys come home and share the information with their father, he becomes enraged, partly at the indignity to his boys and partly at his helplessness to protect them. The discussion turns to the question of whether any white person is good. The story ends with the issue of justice for the black person unresolved.
Themes and Meanings
The major themes of this story is racism and its affect on the lives of people. The story is first and foremost about the impact of that racism on Leo, a sensitive ten-year-old boy. Leo's description of himself as small, frail, and a sissy in the eyes of Caleb's friends, suggests that Leo is a stand-in for the author and that the story may well describe his own situation. If so, then James Baldwin's lifelong struggle for social justice and equality for African Americans can be seen as developing from his emerging consciousness as a boy just like Leo, who already, as a ten-year-old, is fearful of whites and hates white police officers.
As the story develops, ample justification for this hatred is evident in the harassment and humiliation Leo and his brother experience during their encounter with the white police officer. This kind of humiliation is part of what it means to be African American in Harlem and by extension in the entire United States. The humiliation extends to the father, the man descended from royalty, who is unable to protect his children. Instead, Mr. Proudhammer has to swallow the indignity and accept his own impotence.
The story raises the issue of the humanity and goodness of white people. In the minds of the major characters, because of their behavior toward blacks, white people are seen as devoid of goodness and humanity.
Style and Technique
This first-person narrative is told through the eyes of a ten-year-old African American boy, who describes himself as timid, fearful, sensitive, and creative. This technique requires the reader to be alert and to evaluate the responses of this boy in light of a mature awareness. One quality of the story as the boy tells it stands out in sharp relief: the sense that the story is about people living in the dark. There is no mention of sunshine or brightness, only night scenes. Perhaps this exclusive focus on the lives of the Proudhammer family living in darkness is a way of conveying to the reader that the consciousness of the storyteller is in a state of darkness, a state of ignorance. Despite his awareness of what is going on around him, he does not see a way to deal with it. At this point in his life, no light is available--he has no understanding--to guide him to comprehend how to free himself from this darkness.
The episode in the subway serves as a metaphor for this situation. Leo states that he loves subways, and they taught him the geopolitical construct of the city. Black people got on and off the train in certain stops, white people at others. His recognition of this neighborhood segregation terrorizes him and eventually leads him to get hopelessly lost. This getting lost can be understood symbolically: Not only is he lost physically, but he has lost his ability to cope with a racist world beyond his comprehension.
From the standpoint of style, the story is told simply, as if from the consciousness of a ten-year-old. Leo has no awareness of politics or economics, of history, or intellectual movements of great figures. Nonetheless, politics, economics, history, and intellectual movements impinge on his consciousness through the reality of his life. He knows he is black and the world he lives in is dominated by whites and also repressive toward his people.
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