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Go Tell It On the Mountain (James Baldwin)

March 30, 2010

I struggled my way through this book, to be perfectly honest. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a good read, but that it was difficult after finishing Seraph on the Suwanee (which was a much more absorptive read) and dealt with subject matter that I’m less interested in (i.e. religion). However, there’s a lot that I gained by reading this novel. Tying it in with the other African American novels I’ve read recently, it seems to be part of a larger body of work that’s interested in interrogating the religious values that are so much at the heart of the culture by focusing in on different characters. Baldwin seems most interested in religious hypocrisy, which becomes most apparent in John’s father, Gabriel. Gabriel is a kind of preacher, but he’s not really living a life that would be considered in accordance with the teachings of the Bible. His sister, John’s Aunt Florence, says it the most directly at the end of the novel when she reveals her knowledge of Gabriel’s unclaimed (and now dead) son; she chastises Gabriel and tells him how his life is really working as she sees it:

“Yes,” said Florence, watching his face, “you didn’t give her no bed of roses to sleep on, did you?–poor, simple, ugly, black girl. And you didn’t treat that other one no better. Who is you met, Gabriel, all your holy life long, you ain’t made to drink a cup of sorrow? And you doing it still–you going to be doing it till the Lord puts you in your grave.” (243)

These sentiments are at the heart of the novel, and crop up throughout it (although this is the place where they become the most explicit). There is a wide variety of characters – in both the past and the present — who have vowed to live a good life according to the Bible only to find themselves in situations where doing what their hearts want and doing what Christianity dictates are completely at odds with one another. The fact that Baldwin situates the most vile character of the novel (Gabriel) as a man of the cloth while simultaneously situating decent, good characters (Deborah, Elizabeth, Florence) as perceived sinners and fallen women highlights the hypocrisy he’s so interested in exposing.

It’s also interesting that Balwin chooses to explore these issues through a boy who’s just turned 14. John’s story begins and ends the narrative, with his (foster)father’s, mother’s, and aunt’s stories coming in the middle of his story. The entirety of Part Two is actually analepsis taking place during the evening worship where John will eventually endure his own struggle with his faith. I think part of what this accomplishes is that we’re seeing a boy whose entire family — the good and the bad — has essentially failed at merging their own happiness with their faith, and here’s John who is struggling with his own inner turmoil and trying to decide which direction his own life will take. In the aftermath of Part Two, it becomes clear that John’s struggle is somewhat unrealistic. Each of his role models has been through the same struggle, and each has fallen (in their own eyes). How can John possibly succeed? And I think this is the question Baldwin wants the reader to leave with. If he wanted the reader to be more optimistic, why would he include that final exchange between Elisha and John, during which John implores Elisha:

John looked at his father an dmoved from his path, stepping down into the street again. He put his hand on Elisha’s arm, feeling himself trembling, and his father at his back. “Elisha,” he said, “no matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember–please remember–I was saved. I was there.” (252)

 Despite the apparent attainment of salvation, John’s words speak of uncertainty, or even of a kind of conviction that it will not last. He has no choice but to enter his house again — the same house where he lives with his mother and his (foster)father, and where he is beaten and his mother is beaten and his brother is beaten. And it doesn’t look hopeful. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to last, and John’s own words indicate his awareness of this.

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