James Baldwin grew up in Harlem and never knew his biological father. His Baptist minister stepfather was "Brooding, silent, tyrannical ... and physically abusive, he was also a storefront preacher of morbid intensity." Also like John, Baldwin underwent a religious awakening at the age of 14, when Baldwin became a Pentecostal preacher. His later novels expressed his growing disillusionment with church life, and they also feature homosexual and bisexual themes.
John is a confused adolescent boy. He cannot look at anything without having it painted in the light of the church. According to the church, he is committing sin because of his own nature, which is the cause of his confusion.
The story includes racial injustice, both as a background theme, and in one flashback sequence as leading to John's biological father's (Richard's) suicide. Richard had been wrongly imprisoned and beaten, despite having proclaimed his innocence.