37 pages 1 hour read

James Baldwin

The Amen Corner

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1954

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Summary and Study Guide


The Amen Corner (1954) is the first play by American author, orator, and civil rights activist James Baldwin. The play critiques Christian religion as a means of reinforcing oppression and poverty, specifically in Black communities. It also covers the rift between men and women in religious settings by examining the fall of its protagonist, a Black preacher named Margaret. Hollywood actress Juanita Moore, who was friends with Marlon Brando, asked Brando to loan $75 for Baldwin to write The Amen Corner. The play received a Broadway transfer in 1965, after the Original Cambridge Players produced the Los Angeles premiere. Beah Richards, who played Margaret, received a Tony nomination for Best Actress in the performance.

This guide refers to the 1998 First Vintage International edition.

Content Warning: This play discusses babies dying as an effect of systemic racism and poverty.

Plot Summary

The Amen Corner takes place in Harlem, New York, in 1954. Margaret Alexander is the preacher of a Black church where she and her 18-year-old son, David, also live. They moved to Harlem 10 years ago, after Margaret’s husband left them. Margaret is a fiery preacher, well-beloved by her congregation, and David’s gift for playing the piano has made him the darling of the church.

During a sermon, a young mother, Ida Jackson, approaches the pulpit asking Margaret to pray for her sick baby. Margaret asks if the young woman’s husband is pursuing God and says that maybe this is God’s way of telling her to leave her husband. The woman objects, and Margaret prays over the baby.

After the sermon, a few members of Margaret’s congregation are gossiping about David, who has been sneaking out of the church more often lately. Brother Boxer, one of the church members, has even more interesting news: Margaret’s husband, Luke, is back in town playing at a jazz club. The last time anyone heard about him, he was deadly ill with tuberculosis.

Margaret is discussing her upcoming trip to another church in Philadelphia when Luke appears. He is, as rumored, incredibly sick. In front of Margaret’s friends, Luke confronts Margaret and pushes her to confess what she never told them: She is the one who left Luke, not the other way around. The argument causes Luke, who is weak from his sickness, to collapse. He is carried off to a bedroom, where he will stay until he recovers. Sister Moore and Sister Boxer, two of the church members, ask Margaret to stay and tend to her family members, who clearly need her. Margaret insists on leaving for Philadelphia instead, claiming that Luke’s illness is God’s way of punishing his sins and that she has more important work to do than take care of him.

While Margaret is gone, David has a long talk with his father, who he believed for years had abandoned him. As they talk, they begin to bond over their shared love of music. David confesses to Luke that he wants to leave the church and pursue a career in music. Luke says that no matter his choice, he should always prioritize the people he loves. Music, although one of the greatest gifts one can have, can’t replace the people in your life.

Meanwhile, the church is growing more agitated with Margaret’s leadership. They start to question how she could leave her family in a time of need and start to scrutinize her pious attitude. Brother Boxer drives a liquor truck for a living and is frequently (and publicly) scolded for it. They start to question if Margaret is possibly keeping some of the church money for herself since she has a fancy new Frigidaire. The truth about Margaret leaving Luke has shaken their ideas about their pastor.

Margaret returns from Philadelphia and hears David playing one of Luke’s records on the phonograph. She is upset because she told him to never play it, and now he is deliberately disobeying her. She goes to Luke, convinced that he’s to blame for it. While the two of them are alone, Luke decides to unpack everything that went wrong with their marriage, once and for all.

Luke is still in love with Margaret and tries to help her remember the person she was before she left. Finally, the root of Margaret’s trauma is revealed when they discuss the birth of their stillborn baby. The baby died because Margaret herself was starving and malnourished, a result of her and Luke’s poverty. Margaret saw this as God’s punishment for being with Luke and left him to escape the pain of losing her child.

Later, Ida comes to Margaret with news of her own baby’s death. Ida is distraught that God didn’t save her baby and vows to never have another one. This time, Margaret tells Ida to go home to her husband, revealing a potential change of heart in her attitude toward men.

Meanwhile, the congregation is still gossiping about Margaret’s downfall. They realize that she’s been trying to control their lives in the name of holiness, such as when telling Brother Boxer to quit his job driving the liquor truck. They are being forced into a lower level of poverty under the guise of doing God’s will. Only Odessa, Margaret’s closest friend, defends Margaret. When they try to use the Frigidaire as an example of Margaret’s wealth among their own poverty, Odessa tells them that she’s the one who financed it with the money she made cleaning the homes of white people.

David no longer wants to lie about sneaking around. When Margaret catches him coming home drunk, he finally confesses. He tells her that he is grown now and has decided to leave the church to pursue a career in music. Margaret is devastated and begs him not to go, but David persists. He tells her that he will say goodbye before he leaves and exits.

Distraught, Margaret goes to Luke’s bedside one last time. She tells Luke that David is leaving. Luke is relieved that David will be making his own life now, separate from either of his parents. Margaret softens, finally confessing that she still loves Luke too. They share one final embrace before Luke dies at Margaret’s side.

When Margaret emerges, she discovers that the church is ousting her from the position of pastor. They’ve found her to be a hypocrite and want someone else to lead the church. She tries to find the strength to preach one final sermon. As she looks into the crowd, she laments that she has missed the whole point of Christianity: to love people without questions or limitations. She leaves the stand and goes downstairs. Odessa takes off Margaret’s robe, symbolizing that her days as a pastor have come to an end.