James Baldwin Revisited
Go Tell It on the Mountain

by Ralph Dumain

“You think that's all that's in the world is jails and churches?”
           —Roy Grimes to his mother

Baldwin's first novel, heavily autobiographical, features a sensitive, literate boy and his family. The protagonist John Grimes is trapped in a repressive religious household in Harlem; his elders are emigrés from the South. His stepfather Gabriel is tyrannical and brutal and moreover a preacher.

One day the principal enters John's school classroom to single John out. John is terrified. To his surprise, the principal says "You're a very bright boy, John Grimes," and "Keep up the good work." (20)

This paragraph characterizes John in a nutshell:

That moment gave him, from that time on, if not a weapon at least a shield; he apprehended totally, without belief or understanding, that he had in himself a power that other people lacked; that he could use this to save himself, to raise himself; and that, perhaps, with this power he might one day win that love which he so longed for. This was not, in John, a faith subject to death or alteration, nor yet a hope subject to destruction; it was his identity, and part, therefore, of that wickedness for which his father beat him and to which he clung in order to withstand his father. His father's arm, rising and falling, might make him cry, and that voice might cause him to tremble; yet his father could never be entirely the victor, for John cherished something that his father could not reach. It was his hatred and his intelligence that he cherished, the one feeding the other. He lived for the day when his father would be dying and he, John, would curse him on his deathbed. And this was why, though he had been born in the faith and had been surrounded all his life by the saints and by their prayers and their rejoicing, and though the tabernacle in which they worshipped was more completely real to him than the several precarious homes in which he and his family had lived, John's heart was hardened against the Lord. His father was God's minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven, and John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father. On his refusal to do this had his life depended, and John's secret heart had flourished in its wickedness until the day his sin first overtook him. (20-21)

Note that John's religion is identified with the cruel patriarchal figure who embodied its authority. John's intelligence, the fount of his autonomy and self-respect, is hated and violated by his father; hence, to protect himself John must resist his Lord in order to resist his lord and master, his preacher-father. This is essential to the structure of the book.

John's brother Roy is more openly rebellious. Roy's mother defends his father while Roy castigates him. Roy complains about his father beating him constantly. His mother replies: "Your daddy beats you because he loves you." Roy rejoins: "What you reckon he'd do if he didn't love me?" His mother responds that his daddy would just let him go to hell or to jail. (23-24)

Roy is adamant that this is no way to live, and he denies he's jailbound: “You think that's all that's in the world is jails and churches? You ought to know better than that, Ma.” (25)

Roy has nailed the black woman's slave mentality, but he might as well have been talking to himself.

Later, as John walks through the city, he muses on his past and his elders' past, on the white people he sees, whom his father has told him are all evil, on the main library on 42nd street, and so on.

When he returns home, he learns that his brother Roy has been stabbed. Eventually his father tends to his wounds but remains angry and hostile. Gabriel's wife Elizabeth bears up patiently, but his sister Florence talks to him like he's a dog. Gabriel blames the white boys for having it in for black people (the word he uses is not so civilized), but Florence reminds him that Roy went out looking for trouble. Gabriel blames Elizabeth for not keeping Roy out of trouble, but Elizabeth insists the matter is out of her control. Elizabeth just advises continued prayer.

Gabriel slaps Elizabeth as hard as he can. This is more than Roy can take, and he threatens:

Don't you slap my mother. That's my mother. You slap her again, you black bastard, and I swear to God I'll kill you. (48)

Elizabeth asks Gabriel to pray, but Gabriel takes off his belt and starts beating Roy. Florence grabs the belt and stops him.

John then pays a visit to the church, and plays around with Brother Elisha, who tells him about the way of the Lord vs. the way of the flesh and the temptation of girls. Elisha insists he's saved. Then the church sisters—the "saints"— enter. They carry on. John observes. John, however, has not been saved.

The novel has an unusual structure. I have just described Part One, "The Seventh Day". Part Two, "The Prayers of the Saints", is comprised of three chapters, the "prayers" of Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth, which are flashbacks beginning with their lives in the South before their migration northward. Part Three, "The Threshing-Floor", resumes where Part One leaves off.

Florence's prayer: Florence's mother knew slavery. Florence's brother Gabriel was not a holy man in his youth; he was a wild one. Florence had enough of the South and bought a ticket for New York. This news terrifies Gabriel, and their mother is none too pleased. Florence is determined and she leaves. Up north she marries Frank, who leads a dissolute life. Their struggle remains unresolved till Frank's death. We also learn about Gabriel's first wife Deborah down south. Deborah reveals that Gabriel produced an out-of-wedlock child, whose mother died when the child was born. Florence hates Gabriel and contemplates revealing his secret, The flashback ends as her revenge fantasy is mingled with prayer.

Gabriel's prayer: Gabriel flashes back to his first sexual encounter with Deborah, a member of his congregation down south. She's a rather homely girl, but devout, and they give in to their mutual attraction. When the male church elders gather round and make fun of Deborah (including the fact that she had been sexually assaulted by white men) behind her back, Gabriel scolds them as impious. (108) Gabriel then marries Deborah. Gabriel also reminisces about Esther. When he first met Esther, he invited her to come here him preach. She is impressed by his preaching, but as Deborah notes, Esther seems to have something else on her mind. Gabriel is self-righteous as usual, but Esther has no interest in salvation. Gabriel keeps hectoring Esther about her soul, badgering her until he gives in to his lust for her. (126) Sure enough, she gets pregnant. Knowing how miserable Gabriel is with Elizabeth, and how nonexistent the prospect of the two producing a child, Esther suggests Gabriel leave Elizabeth for her, but Gabriel is thinking of his position as a pastor and will have none of that. (131) Esther is a realist, but Gabriel is keen to preserve his image of himself.

"Satan tempted me and I fell. I ain't the first man been made to fall on account of a wicked woman."

"You be careful," said Esther, "how you talk to me. I ain't the first girl's been ruined by a holy man neither." (132)

Esther threatens to tell everyone the truth, and they argue about that, but Esther figures they wouldn't want to marry one another anyway. Esther surmises that as faras Grabriel is concerned she is good enough to be Gabriel's whore, in secret, but not good enough to be seen with him in the light of day. The only reason she doesn't broadcast the truth is that she doesn't want to reveal what a fool she's been.

I ain't ashamed of it—I'm ashamed of you—you done made me feel a shame I ain't never felt before. I shamed before my God—to let somebody make me cheap, like you done done. (133)

She just wants to go somewhere and have her baby. "I guess it takes a holy man to make a girl a real whore." He has no money, so he steals Deborah's secret savings to pay Esther's travel expenses. He replaces the money three months later, not knowing whether Deborah has discovered the theft.

Gabriel receives a bitter letter from Esther, warning him that he will pay some day. She may not be holy, but she has morals.

I'm going to have my baby and I'm going to bring him up to be a man. And I ain't going to read to him out of no Bibles and I ain't going to take him to hear no preaching. If he don't drink nothing but moonshine all his natural days he be a better man than his daddy. (135)

Overwhelmed by guilt, Gabriel wandered from town to town to preach but was reminded of his guilt, of temptation, and of similar circumstances everywhere he went—sin and wickedness everywhere. Esther died in Chicago, and her body was brought back home to be buried. Gabriel watched his son Royal grow up a stranger, ran into him on the streets, and Royal would joke with him irreverently. Everyone wondered where the boy had gotten a name like Royal, but Gabriel knew that it was because he had revealed to Esther that he would name his son Royal if he ever had one. Gabriel dreaded every time Royal was brought up in conversation. At the age of 16 Royal went away, but not to join the service, and Gabriel saw him again only after the war. The streets were dangerous; white men had just murdered a black man and were likely out for more blood. Gabriel ran into Royal that menacing night and warned him off the streets. (143) Two years later Royal was killed in Chicago. When Deborah tells Gabriel the news, she reveals that she knew Royal was his son and that Gabriel has stolen her money. She had guessed what was going on from the first night Esther came to church. Deborah asked why he did what he did and said nothing.

"I asked my God to forgive me," he said. "But I didn't want no harlot's son."

"Esther weren't no harlot," she said quietly. (148)

Gabriel makes his excuses. Deborah reveals that she would have taken Royal in, whatever the consequences. Back in the present time, Gabriel's remembrance of this whole story is completed as Elisha writhes on the floor speaking in tongues. Gabriel and John stare at each other in judgment.

Elizabeth's prayer: Elizabeth's mother died when she was a child. She loved her father, but was removed from his household to keep her away from his disreputable profession. She lived with her aunt but hated her. Her husband-to-be Richard is her ticket out of her Aunt's house and out of the South. Once in Harlem, where all can do as they please, the traditional virtues fade into insignifance. Richard's friends are an ungodly bunch.

They all seemed to be saying, as Richard when she once timidly mentioned the love of Jesus, said: "You can tell that puking bastard to kiss my big black ass." (163)

She is none too pleased with this, but then the North reneged on its promises. She remains devoted to Richard, and does not press for marriage. Richard has a foul mouth, but he is kind to Elizabeth, and even takes her to art museums. Richard is completely self-educated.

"I just decided me one day that I was going to get know everything them white bastards knew, and I was going to get to know it better than them, so could no white son-of-a-bitch nowhere never talk me down, and never make me feel like I was dirt, when I could read him the alphabet, back, front, and sideways." (167)

Elizabeth never tells Richard she is pregnant. One night a policeman informs her that Richard is in jail for a robbery. Richard is innocent, but the cops arrested him anyway and beat him badly. They beat him furiously in jail when he refused to sign a confession. Elizabeth, upon visiting him, wonders aloud what they should do. Richard retorts:

"Maybe you ought to pray to that Jesus of yours and get Him to come down and tell these white men something." (172)

They have no money for a lawyer. Visiting hours are soon over. Richard is in spite of everything acquitted of the crime, and after being released, weeps in his room. That night he commits suicide.

Elizabeth's son by Richard is John.

Elizabeth meets Gabriel through Florence. Florence talks about Gabriel like a dog, and about all men the same, and doesn't believe the Lord changes anyone's hearts. But she introduces Elizabeth and John to Gabriel, and Gabriel is very kind. Florence is perturbed when the two hit it off. They marry, and Roy is the result.

The stream-of-consciousness of the three saints weaved in and out of the past, as the prayer-service intensified in religious ecstasies. In Part Three, "The Threshing-Floor", John is possessed and goes into a religious trance. The world drops out from under him. Yet he is aware of the presence of others. He can see the hatred in his father's eyes. And the bottom drops out of John's world again. His mind rushes through all his sins and beatings. John is overtaken by terror, darkness, and despair. And then a voice carries him through. And John cries out to be saved. Elisha answers his cries. And the church sisters join in. Then he comes face to face with his mother, who is so affectionate yet seems so distant. Then he comes face to face with his father. John declares his salvation, but his father preaches back at him coldly. Aunt Florence encourages him. Everyone is high on prayer. The church sisters are immeasurably delighted at John's conversion. Gabriel maintains his harsh, self-righteous attitude. Florence, however, reads his beads. Florence shows Gabriel the letter that Deborah wrote her. Gabriel is as stubbornly nasty as ever, but Florence cuts him down and lays him low. (211-215)

Coming back to the real world, John converses with Elisha, his rock. Elisha advises John on remaining steadfast. John rejoins his parents. Elisha leaves him with a last friendly word and a kiss on the forehead. John turns to face his father, smiles, but his father does not smile. John's mother is waiting for him, and it is time to join her.

I can't think of many writers more powerful than James Baldwin. At the moment I can't think of any. Baldwin's writing style in this first novel is masterful. Baldwin's writing is highly saturated with Biblical language. This can be extremely annoying to those of us who don't like this stuff, but even many of Baldwin's religious-flavored passages hold up in spite of the adverse reaction one might have have to them were it not for Baldwin's voice. I had to re-read several sections of the novel in order to write this piece, and I was more moved the second time around.

But also don't forget the overpowering eloquence of Florence's final denunciation of Gabriel, mixing conventional religious notions with uncompromising down-to-earth reasoning.

As for content, I find the novel inconclusive. It need not be conclusive, I suppose, but I feel as if there should be a sequel, that the book should not end without us knowing the story will take a different turn as it continues. We really don't know what is next for John, and we can't be certain what conclusions to draw from his conversion experience. Is it an act of affirmation, or an act of desperation? Is it divine love that reaches out to John, or is it the very human connection to Elisha? Can we tell from the novel alone, without knowing from other sources, how definitively Baldwin turned against Christianity?

Years later Baldwin recounted how he recoiled when his editor suggested: "What about all that come-to-Jesus stuff? Don't you think you ought to take it out?"

Barbara K. Olson nails the problem:

His [Baldwin's] editor's otherwise absurd reaction to the "come-to-Jesus stuff" in Go Tell It on the Mountain may have been strangely warranted. It may bespeak a not surprising secular discomfort with a work so saturated with evangelical fervor and biblical language. And it may bespeak a legitimate uncertainty as to whether this novel makes an ironic commentary on the faith or, instead, gives a straight apologetic for it. For Mountain's attitude toward Christianity is ambiguous at best: It requires the reader to be familiar with Baldwin's views penned elsewhere if he or she is to be confident that the novel denounces rather than defends essential Christianity. Believers and unbelievers alike could very well conclude that Christianity has been celebrated, not mocked, on the pages before them. Baldwin's intended denunciation was undermined by the black church idiom he chose to use.

Professional criticism, at least, is split over what the novel has to say about the church. Some critics say the novel is an ironic indictment of Christianity; others call it a stirring vindication. Those favoring vindication number in their ranks such notable critics as Albert Gerard, Donald Gibson, and Shirley Allen. Those favoring the indictment position include Robert Bone, Michel Fabre, Nathan Scott, Howard Harper, Stanley Macebuh, David Foster, and Trudier Hams.

Is Baldwin's take on Christianity ironic?

[Rolf] Lunden has discovered that readings of the novel as ironic "appeared only after The Fire Next Time [1963] had been published. All the reviewers back in 1953 failed to detect any irony" (114). This historical finding makes Baldwin's editor appear not quite so singularly obtuse.

Olson claims that while Baldwin's subsequent work, the play The Amen Corner, makes a clearer statement in unambiguously condemning his Christian characters, "this second attempt is only slightly more successful than the first, in large part because Baldwin's return to the church idiom riddled his message more than redeemed it." Baldwin's efforts at faithfully rendering the power of the black church experience make his attempts to criticize it backfire. If Christianity can be seen as self-corrective, regardless of the flaws of its practitioners, then any negative message becomes vitiated. (Note: though this is a recurrent salvage operation in the black church, it's a characteristic of Christianity's genius at mind control in general. See, e.g., the conclusion of the Steve Martin film Leap of Faith.)

Olson has it right. As a documentary of a certain slice of Baldwin's experience, the conversion episode at the end is valid, provided it is not simply accepted as is. Baldwin's dismay at his white editor's reaction is understandable in that the experience the novel relates would be wiped out were the Jesus stuff simply to be dismissed by the wave of a hand. But the editor's irritation also has a valid basis, in that the religion-drenched narrative is almost self-validating to the undiscerning reader, since the ending is somewhat upbeat and almost confirms the religious perspective, though ambiguities remain.

The conversion experience is validated by the church sisters and by Elisha, but the depiction of the experience reminds me as much of torture, brainwashing, and consequent personality restructuring as anything else. It is more optimistic than the conclusion of Orwell's 1984, and the resolution bolsters John's humanity and ability to transcend authority rather than being crushed by it, but I don't think the two situations are completely dissimilar.

The women are the keys to the tale, as is Baldwin's extraordinary sensitivity to his female characters. The rebellious, "sinful" women—Esther and Florence—convey the most truth. While John is closest to Elisha, who subtends John's religious vision, Florence is the only one with what could be considered an objective view of the overall situation. Deborah and Elizabeth are sympathetic characters, but their patient Christian forbearance, while arguably the only viable position they could take, exemplifies the black woman's historic slave mentality. Such black women are characteristically seen and see themselves as redemptive figures (a problem I also have with the conclusion of the film The Color Purple, not to mention what I have witnessed in real life), but this perspective, while there is some justice in it, is essentially conservative and politically unconscious. While there is something to be said for going with the flow and bending so you don't break, autonomy disappears in the process. It is an adaptation to unfreedom. Those of us who have known and loved black women like this cannot but be torn when confronting this mentality.

At the other extreme is the self-righteous religious hypocrite, Minister Gabriel, who lashes out at everyone's alleged sinfulness but is entirely consumed by his own pride, in defiance of his fundamental helplessness. This is the weakness of an historically male coping strategy.

The (pro-)Christian reader could argue that there are two versions of Christianity at war in this work: one of self-righteous manipulation of others, the other of forgiveness and healing, but both are in actuality founded on the same premises and both are delusional.

While the women seemingly transcend their degradation by allowing themselves to be consumed by the fantasy of redemption in the Lord, it is obvious that they are only deluding themselves, denying any reality-based conceptual grasp of their situation. Florence alone among the religious maintains a semi-independent perspective. In fact, her prayer, unbeknownst to her encouraging church sisters, ends in virtual despair.

Baldwin obviously intended to depict the intense dissociation between the avowed belief system of the characters and the actual human relations in which they participate. Internalization of the illusory Christian ideology of sin and redemption is the price paid for a flight from a painful reality to which there is no earthly remedy. The reader sees the crushing weight of oppression in all this. One's integrity, i.e. sense of being an integral being, is under seige at all times. Not only is the world—or more precisely, society—sinful, but sin saturates the psyches of the oppressed as deeply as it does the oppressive world. But while one may indeed stray from what is considered ethical behavior, the sense of sin seems to be an effect more than anything else of an intense societal assault on self-esteem. All these characters, even Gabriel when he leads a loose life early on, are after all more sinned against than sinning—to use their language. Gabriel is in a constant panic; his obsession with sin is virtually paranoic, even before he begins to blame everyone else for his own actions. Others are overwhelmed both by circumstance and by the Christian ideology, including the intellectually inclined John in the end. From the vantage point of an oppressed people, we can witness the psychological workings of dissociation and the techniques of Christian mind control described by Edmund D. Cohen in his book The Mind of the Bible-Believer.

This novel should be an eye-opener for those who content themselves with pious platitudes and treat human suffering as if it's a walk in the park. America is a nation of peoples who all came from nothing and who have come a long way. While some of us make sentimental gestures towards our roots, we also erase our real history. Who can blame people for not wanting to look back? But should you feel the need to look back, look back in anger.

“Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty—necessarily, since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels.”
     — James Baldwin, "Letter from a Region in My Mind"
          (New Yorker, 17 Nov. 1962; reprinted in The Fire Next Time, 1963).

Note: Go Tell It on the Mountain was originally published in 1953. References here are to the paperback New Dell Edition, 1970.

Personal note: I finished reading this novel on Mother's Day, 13 May 2007, also the second anniversary of Evelyn's death.

Written 1 June - 5 June 2007
©2007 Ralph Dumain

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