23 pages 46 minutes read

James Baldwin

The Rockpile

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1965

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Summary: “The Rockpile”

“The Rockpile” is a short story by the novelist, essayist, and civil rights activist James Baldwin. Although it was originally published in Baldwin’s only short story collection, 1965’s Going to Meet the Man, it was likely written much earlier, as it uses characters that appear in his 1953 semi-autobiographical debut novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain. This guide refers to the 1995 First Vintage International edition of Going to Meet the Man.

“The Rockpile” takes place in Harlem in the 1930s. John and Roy are half brothers who live across the street from a rockpile on which other Black boys fight after school and all day every weekend. The brothers believe the rockpile is a place of great power because their aunt told them it prevents the subway cars from flying off the tracks. John is the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Grimes, while Roy is the son of Elizabeth and Gabriel Grimes, a pastor. Elizabeth and Gabriel also have two other children, Paul and Delilah. Elizabeth forbids either boy from going to the rockpile but mostly addresses her warnings to Roy; while John is afraid of the rockpile, Roy is drawn to it.

Saturdays, the boys are free until Gabriel comes home from work, and they pass their time sitting on the fire escape watching the people in their neighborhood. They label the ones who go to their church as redeemed and the others as wicked sinners. They believe the street itself, along with all of Harlem, is a place of wickedness and danger. One summer, a boy drowned in the nearby river, and John and Roy watched his funeral procession pass by the rockpile and disappear into the house next door. Even watching the street seems sinful to John, but he cannot take his eyes off it and the rockpile.

One Saturday, John draws a picture to pass the time. Other boys call to Roy on the fire escape, and he goes downstairs despite John’s warnings not to do so, lest their mother find out he’s gone. John becomes more interested in his drawing until he sees a huge gang fight on the rockpile and remembers that Roy is down there. He sees Roy laughing, his shirt torn, as he stands atop the pile. Then, Roy is knocked over when a can hits him, cutting his forehead. John tells his mother, and she and her church friend, Sister McCandless, bring Roy back to the apartment. They treat his wound, which is not all that serious though could have cost him an eye if the can hit him lower. Elizabeth and Sister McCandless question John about why he let Roy go down to the street. He says that Roy promised him he would only be gone five minutes, but Sister McCandless says that answer is not sufficient and warns him about how angry Gabriel will be. Leaving the apartment, she runs into Gabriel on the stairwell and tells him about Roy’s injury.

Entering the apartment, Gabriel immediately demands to know what happened. Roy cries as he starts to tell Gabriel about the incident, but Elizabeth interrupts to explain. Gabriel grows angry at her, criticizing the size of her eyes and the fact that she wasn’t adequately watching Roy. She tells him that she cannot do all the household tasks and keep an eye on Roy, who she says takes after his father and is uncontrollable. Gabriel decides to blame John for Roy’s injuries and threatens to beat him. Elizabeth stands up for John and says it’s Gabriel’s fault that Roy was hurt because Gabriel spoiled him. She says that he must change his ways or else Roy will meet a much worse fate than he could have met today. The look Gabriel gives her scares her, as it is filled with hatred alone and not anger. His countenance changes back to normal as he sees Elizabeth once again as the mother of his children. As her own eyes cloud over, Elizabeth leaves the room and tells John to pick up his father’s lunchbox. He bends over, placing his head right next to Gabriel’s shoe