James Baldwin: Go Tell It On The Mountain

Baldwin, James (1980), Go Tell It On The Mountain, Dell
ISBN 0-440-33007-6

DSC_0653A few days ago I’ve finished James Baldwin’s first two novels and I’m still reeling from the impact. Baldwin is an extraordinary writer. Although, at least in his early work (which is all I know), he is at best a competent stylist, moving the story along without unnecessarily clunky prose, the energy that pulses in these relatively short novels is imposing. It is not hard to see why Baldwin has become such an important and influential writer, leaving traces all over the American novel, not least in the work of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Subject and structure of these two novels is drastically different. One, Go tell it on the Mountain (1953) is about the ‘black experience’, telling us about the plight of an African-American family in New York and its history that includes the aftermath of slavery in the South. The novel is highly charged with religious fervor and personal desperation and manages to sum up an experience in a few episodes that border upon magical realism sometimes, reminding me of similar novels, such as Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep, where revelation plays a similar role. The other, Giovanni’s Room (1956), is about an unmarked American man’s experience in Paris who, while separated from his girlfriend, engages in an affair with a young man, the eponymous Giovanni, which ends in denial and murder. This story is told in so straightforward a manner that a possible reference, and not just because of the setting, is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

DSC_0656Go tell it on the Mountain is three books at once. It’s a depiction of the struggle of an African American family in the 1950s, of the historical struggle between slavery and what for the book was the present time and a vision of the future or rather: a soft-spoken rallying cry, an entreaty to ‘go tell it on the mountain’ that a new generation is born. Despite the different lines of impact, the novel as a whole coheres wonderfully and this is largely due to the structure. It’s cut into three parts. The first, “The Seventh Day”(taking place on a Sunday) introduces the family, and the tensions therein: the protagonist, John, is constantly slighted by his stepfather, Gabriel, who does not accept his stepson as a son at all, focusing instead his love and energies upon his ‘proper’ son, Royal. Gabriel’s wife Elizabeth, mother to both of the boys and to two more daughters, suffers his anger and moods helplessly, as often victimized as John himself. John is a quiet and frail boy, who is repeatedly described as ugly. The lack of love from his stepfather is mirrored in the lack of affection that the world has to offer an unmanly, shy and ugly boy. Royal, in contrast, is strong and boisterous. His father’s attention, far from making him attached to him, appears to him to be well-deserved. He gets into scruffs and arguments with his father now and then, as with the world at large. As the story sets in, he is brought home with a gash on his head, inflicted by a couple of white boys, who felt provoked by him. The section closes as we enter a revivalist church (the “Saints”) with the family, which includes Gabriel’s sister Florence.

DSC_0657The second section, “Prayers of the Saints” switches back and forth between the service as perceived by John, and the memories of three family members that tell us the family history and explain the tensions that we witnessed in the first section. These memories, formally designated as prayers, but taking the form not of prayers but of regular third person narratives lead us all the way back to the south and to the aftermath of the civil war and what it entailed for African Americans. The climate is doubly oppressive. The situation for blacks has not improved immensely; add to that the oppressive force of religion that seems to have the black community where Gabriel and Florence live, in its thrall. The way it’s described, it amounts to internalized oppression, which can be said of much, especially evangelical, religion. The complex relation of evangelical religion to freedom has been often pondered and is, I’d argue, at the heart of the novel. Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758) , one of the most important thinkers of American evangelical religion, has repeatedly stressed the harm of slavery, and the fact that before God, race, gender, class is not important. Before God, everybody is equal, not separate but equal, but completely, unreservedly equal. The allure of this thinking for marginalized groups cannot be underestimated; nor, alas, the ineffectual way that this thinking has worked on the reality of marginalized groups.

DSC_0655The idea of an equality in the afterlife appears to have freed many from trying to achieve that equality in the real world (although with Edwards, the spiritual world is more real than the real world. A conundrum), religion has often served the function of the “opiate for the masses” (credit where credit is due), literary traces of that function are all over the record, including Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The allure and the promise of that thinking, however, stayed active and dominate the present of the novel’s events as well, but I’ll return to that. For now, we’re in the community that is dominated by an oppressive brand of religion. Florence, at the first opportunity, flees the south and moves north. It is remarkable how the north, even after slavery and the civil war, is more than a simple destination, it’s a promise of something different, of an absence of racism, of a secular way of life, of an absence of gender oppression. Characters in the novel hope for all of these, one time or another, but are disappointed in one way or another. Gabriel, converting after his sister leaves, marries an older, barren woman in a gesture of renunciation of pleasure, takes himself a lover after a while and sires a child. Since he rejects woman and child, the pregnant lover moves north to Chicago but dies soon. The illegitimate son returns, is troubled by the climate in his mother’s home community and leaves again for Chicago where he, too, dies.

DSC_0654The fact that leaving and staying amounts to the same thing, as far as the character’s future happiness is concerned, is important for the claustrophobic overall feeling that pervades the three memories. Interestingly, writing this book from within an oppressed minority allowed Baldwin to focus upon oppressed groups within that group. Privilege isn’t a gift that the privileged can bestow upon a class of oppressed, privilege is, I think, a relative value, the center/periphery dichotomies are constantly at work, which Go Tell It On The Mountain beautifully illustrates. The strength of the patriarchal and able-bodied center, that disdains women and anything perceived as weak or bodily deficient is chilling in that we find Gabriel, as husband and stepfather, continuing the patterns of oppression that he’s suffered as a black boy in the south, only in a system where he is the center. Royal’s boisterousness and brashness needs to be read from that angle as well: he suffers from racism in the north, but he doesn’t actually ‘suffer’ it, he resents it, he expects to be kowtowed to and does not like being oppressed and marginalized in a different system. But the novel is adamant in not giving a voice to white people or Royal, instead, most of the time, we hear John’s voice (the whole book’s written in a third person subjective, just the person changes).

DSC_0657In the second section we get to hear both Florence and Elizabeth, who offer the first and last prayer/memory respectively. The middle (center?) memory is Gabriel’s, but it serves less as an affirmation of his worth; we witness instead the problems that Gabriel suffers, we see a torn and conflicted man, who tries to be everything at once. A man, a minister, an African American etc., but who comes to grief repeatedly. After the death of his first wife he travels to the north, only to find out that there is racism there, as well, although these aspects of the story are not narrated in his prayer. Gabriel’s identity is thoroughly contradictory, but he fails to understand this; Gabriel doesn’t have a single insight throughout the whole book. He is pummeled by society and lashes back at those that he’s allowed to hit. Later, in Elizabeth’s prayer, we are apprised of Robert, John’s father, who has been falsely accused of robbery; Robert has been jailed and humiliated.  After his innocence had been proven in court, and he’s been released from prison, we find that the punishing apparatus has completely broken him. Within weeks he crumbles and finally commits suicide. In the end, Elizabeth and Gabriel marry, but both the unresolved issues within Gabriel and John’s existence continuously trouble their marriage. John is especially problematic since he is both a reminder of Gabriel’s lost illegitimate son and of the persistence of sin, since John was conceived and born out of wedlock. With the marriage, the second section ends, having basically described the situation that John, in the present, finds himself in.

DSC_0653The third and last section is called “The Threshing Floor”, referring to the space between the pulpit and the pews, where in revivalist churches people are allowed and encouraged, to fall into a trance, to talk in tongues, in short, to experience conversion. All of a sudden, John is seized by a vision, the minutiae of which are too complex to discuss, but as a whole, it’s the most impressive piece of writing in the whole novel. In his conversion all the strands of the novel are gathered together, especially the role of religion as an emancipatory/oppressive instrument. John is clearly freed by the conversion, or rather: enabled. It is more than acceptance by a community, it is a general, so to say: divine acceptance. The importance of it is not reducible to his future role in the community as “one of them”. On the contrary, it affirms him as an individual, it gives him the strength necessary to go ahead. In a way, it even sunders him from his community, by stamping him with a seal, symbolized by another man’s kiss on his forehead; I read this seal or mark as taking up the damaging myth of Cain in a way much like Hesse did in his dark, flawed and prophetic novel Demian, taking it up, that is, in order to reverse the value judgment that accompanies it. His final words are “I’m coming. I’m on my way.” and these words are more than a simple statement of what he’s doing. They are a statement of intent; indeed, as much of this novel has shed light upon the ‘black experience’, so does this last sentence. He’s coming, indeed. As he’s one of my current preoccupations, I’ll return to Jonathan Edwards for a second here. Edwards maintained that conversion isn’t a revelation in the narrow sense, you are not revealed new knowledge. Instead, conversion makes you see clearer, understand better. So if I say that this book is a revelation, this is the sense of the word I use. It is a revelation and its power cannot be overestimated, the tangents that it’s writer’s thinking is pursuing are far too numerous to mention. There is a whole world, a simmering explosion within the pages of this book. You can’t not read it.

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One thought on “James Baldwin: Go Tell It On The Mountain

  1. Pingback: James Baldwin: Go tell it on the mountain - World Literature Forum

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