Go Tell It on the Mountain is easy to underestimate, especially if you place it into the too-easy critical category of “semiautobiographical first novel.” The first time I read it, a few years ago, I made just that mistake. I spent the whole time tracking the “John” character for what it might tell me about James Baldwin himself. Which is not to say that it doesn’t tell is us something about him, but there is a lot more going on that makes me wonder why this book isn’t more widely read and talked about as a book high school students could read. The protagonist is a probably-gay 14 year old black male living in Harlem in the 1930’s; he has a tense relationship with his parents and his siblings, he is complicated, his motivations are not transaprent to himself, and he is at the center of a complicated family group protrait, with two strong women and a dissolute but not irredemable stepfather playing key roles that the novel moves in and out of the present to consider.
One thing that might make this book a challenge for a high school audience, though, is its religious context. Somewhere I saw this listed as a “Christian novel.” And there is a lot of religious quotation, allusion, imagery, and so on, much of which I can’t quite catch. I can catch that it is Christian, but the specific nature of many of its references make it clear to me that its author studied the bible much more closely than I have. Every page or so, in fact, has some italicized words that are undoubtably biblical quotations. Its characters’ speech regularly deploys old- and new-testament language without hesitation, and since this novel is written in the light of modernist aesthetics (little exposition or omnisicence, realistically marked dialect, etc.), if both characters in a conversation understand a reference, no one stops to tell you that it is one, or what it means.
That does not mean this book is not accessible – because beyond its specific invocations of the Bible, its prose is also more lyrically biblical, and the Bible’s narrative categories are nothing if not accessible. It also echoes, for me anyway, the prose of Joyce’s Dubliners or the early sections of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man – consider the opening sentences:
Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.
The novel’s story is told within the frame of a church service that John attends. It’s a storefront church at which his stepfather Gabriel serves as a deacon. But “stepfather” is a word never included – he is his “father” in the lines quoted above, and throughout. But John, it becomes clear, knows this is not his biological father, and knows that Gabriel doesn’t love him beyond in the most grudging, bad-stepfatherly fashion.
The ambivalent stepfather-son relationship mirrors John’s ambivalence towards Christianity and belief in god, a theme powerfully explored here – ambivalence, not grandiose athiestic escape, but a true ambivalence, one that sometimes bubbles to the top of John’s consciousness and sometimes stays lower down. Here is the closest it comes to the surface:
His mother, too, was silent, but he had seen her pray before, and her silence made him feel that she was weeping. And why did she weep? And why did they come here, night after night after night, calling out to a God who cared nothing for them–if, above this flaking ceiling, there was any God at all? Then he remembered that the fool has said in his heart, There is no God–and he dropped his eyes, seeing that over his Aunt Florence’s head Praying Mother Washington was looking at him.
I know enough about the Bible (Proverbs I think?) to know that “the fool has said in heart, There is no God” is a direct quoation – I believe the “Fool” also says in his heart there is no such thing as Justice, or that may actually be Thomas Hobbes, who cites this passage in the early pages of Leviathan.
What’s interesting about this passage is how family, religion work to pull John in several directions at once, and they are directions the novel never fully resolves.
The most powerful aspect of this novel is its extended answer to the question “why did she weep?” The story gets underway as John reports to the service to help Elisha, an older male youth-group-leader type character, with whom John is unspeakably in love, as he sets up the worship space for a late-night service. As they’re cleaning the floors, they flirt (though it’s hard to tell if Elisha is intentionally flirting, or just playing around in a way that’s not meant or felt as sexual at all). John himself feels that there is a problem with his feelings; that’s probably what the opening of the book is pointing to when it says it was already “too late” for him to be a preacher.
Before the servce, we read a harrowing sequence about John’s brother Roy, who has just been stabbed in a street-fight, during which a frenetic group argument of Dostoevskian proportions unfolds, between Gabriel, Roy, Elizabeth (John’s mother), and Florence (Gabriel’s sister, and therefore John’s aunt). It centers on an extended argument between Florence and Gabriel. While we’re reading, we sympathize more with Florence, who is calling Gabriel a hypocrite for chastizing his son for having gotten himself in so much trouble, while Gabriel keeps cursing all of them.
After the service starts, three extended backstories unfold, in the form of service attendees (“saints” as the story calls them). It’s sort of like they’re praying, but also like the narrator is just telling their stories to tell them, separately from any internally consistent idea that that person is actually thinking about that story at that time. It’s an interesting and compelling effect, though disorienting as well.
Three stories (“prayers”) are told. First, there is the prayer of Florence. She grew up down south, and as a teenager, a few days after her friend Deborah was gang-raped by a group of white men, Florence decided to leave for New York, forsaking her mother and her brother Gabriel. This makes us re-evaluate the earlier back-and-forth between Gabriel and Florence, since it reveals that at one time anyway, Gabriel felt a stronger since of familial obligation than Florence. But then, she is leaving because of legitimate fear for her safety and her life at the hands of the local white popoluation. She leaves, and marries Frank, an abusive alcoholic who eventually leaves her.
Next, forming the centerpiece of the novel, is Gabriel’s prayer. He married Deborah after Florence left. Deborah is older than Gabriel, and the two never have children (it’s not clear if that’s because they don’t have sex, or because Deborah is unable to have children – each, or both, being distinct possibilities after her traumatic rape). Gabriel becomes a preacher (though also works as a servant for a white family) and eventually seduces Esther, a younger woman who also works at the same white family’s house. She gets pregnant, and pleads with Gabriel to help her. He takes some money Deborah has stashed away and gives it to Esther, who travels to Chicago, where she dies giving birth to Royal, who is then brought back down south to be raised by Esther’s family. Gabriel never reveals his paternity, though over the years, Deborah figures this out. Eventually, Royal dies, having been stabbed to death in a gambling dispute in Chicago, upon learning which news, Gabriel tells Deborah the whole story. Deborah passes away soon after that, and Gabriel moves to New York, where he marries Elizabeth, thereby becoming John’s stepfather.
The last prayer is Elizabeth’s, during which we learn the heartbreaking story of Richard, John’s true father. He is a bookish young man working as a convenience store clerk, who meets Elizabeth down south. They decide to run away to the north; since they are not married, Elizabeth goes to live with her aunt in New York. She and John stay seriously involved, and Elizabeth becomes pregnant (though she does not initially tell Richard). One day they stay out late, and while Richard is waiting on the subway platform, three other young men (they are also black) run past, and as Richard stands up to see what the trouble is, two police officers run by, and arrest Richard along with the other three. Richard insists he is innocent, and refuses to “cooperate” or accept a plea-bargain. He is beaten by the police in jail, but is eventually acquitted. He is so traumatized by the experience that he slits his wrists the night he is freed. This leaves Elizabeth to bear John all on her own. She later meets Florence as they both work nights on the janitorial staff at a downtown building, and in one of the book’s most moving sequences, tells Florence her story, shamefaced and humiliated. Florence, who emerges as the book’s most steadfast and perhaps only true Christian, comforts her, eventually introducing her to Gabriel. They get married, and have three children toegher: Roy, the brother who is stabbed at the beginning, and two much younger sisters named Sarah and Ruth.
One of the most powerful characters, one who is only barely present at the surface of the text, is John’s father Richard, the father he never met. He stands as a powerful alternative to what Baldwin criticizes in the earlier essay as the larger-than-life Racial Hero, the cartoonish Man who Transcends Race, but also an alternative to the disasterous, abusive Gabriel and his son Roy (who, the book suggests, is destined for the same fate). When Elizabeth asks Richard how he got so smart, if he never went to school, what follows is a model for radical anti-racist education and revolution:
I just decided me one day that I was going to get to 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 talk me down, and never make me feel like I was dirt, when I could read him the alphabet, back, front, and sideways. Shit–he weren’t going to beat my ass, then. And if he tried to kill me, I’d take him with me, I swear to my mother I would… That’s how I got to know so much, baby.
But even though the novel exalts Richard’s perspective, it does not allow him to benefit from it: his death reminds me of something Baldwin says in the Kenneth Clark interview – and something built into the archetecture of “Sonny’s Blues” – something to the effect of “it’s just a matter of how they’re going to castrate you.” We can look upon the horror of Deborah’s rape as the clearly devestating consequences of unreconstructed Jim Crow, but how can we understand Richard’s suicide in the face of police brutality and northern benign neglect? We, in 2016, flatter ourselves that situations like Deborah’s are “a thing of the past” (though they’re not really), but Richard’s is just a clearer, more extreme version of what I have heard many people of color say was their experience of humiliation in the face of the police. It’s not enough to say that they didn’t do it, that they know their rights, that they educated themselves, that they “cooperate”… there is still the very live fear, pretty close to the forefront of their experiences, that in spite of ALL of that, that they might, at the drop of a hat, die a terrible death at their hands.
In the words of Elizabeth’s thoughts:
There was not, after all, a great difference betwee the world of the North and that of the South which she had fled; there was only this difference: the North promised more. And this similiarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other. Now she understood in this nervous, hollow, ringing city, that nervousness of Richard’s which had so attracted her–a tension to total, and so without the hope, or possibility of relief, or resolution, that she felt it in his muscles, and heard it in his breathing, even as on her breast he fell asleep.
Two books I’ve read since the last time I read this one – Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, and Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land – helped me read this time with a sense of geography, one I’m still coming to understand the implications of.
Though he’s intellectual, Richard is not a respectability-politics “post-racial” straw-man either. In aligning Richard with John, Go Tell It on the Mountain gets to the heart of what we can learn about James Baldwin’s vision for himself as an artist, intellectual, and activist.
With one big difference – John’s feelings about his own sexuality mean that even as the novel finishes with his epic come-to-Jesus catharsis, as Elisha walks him home, everyone else thinks John has finally “come through” – Elisha, Gabriel and Elizabeth all stand around, smiling and approving, while John stood there he “struggled to tell him something more–struggled to say–all that could never be said.”
It’s hard to tie up all the loose ends at the end of this book and draw a “lesson” from it, except that it works as a powerful expression of what might might have meant for John to be a black, Christian, gay son of the great migration, and past that, what all the other characters’ participation in the system at which John resides in the center, tells all of us, all these years later, about all that we can work to change.
I’ll be reading Notes of a Native Son (1955) – next.