Monday, February 29, 2016

Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

It is, once more, Black History Month - okay, the last day, but still - and for the sixth year in a row, I read at least one book by an African American author. Here are my previous selections:

Other notable books by African American or African authors:

Books on Black History by other authors:


Photo by Allan Warren
Used pursuant to the Creative Commons License

Go Tell It On The Mountain is James Baldwin’s most autobiographical book, with the characters drawn largely from his own family. I chose this book because it was considered an important one, but without really knowing what it was about. I can say without hesitation that this is an excellent book, and one that spoke to me in unexpected ways.

First, a bit on the structure. I should issue a spoiler warning for those who haven’t read it, although the “plot” is hardly the most important thing in the book. Also, it was published in 1953, the year my father was born, so it is hardly a secret at this point.

The book is told largely from the point of view of John Grimes, a 14 year old young man growing up in Harlem in the 1930s. He is intelligent and sensitive, and fits the mold of a person who sincerely, desperately, wants to be good and to be loved. He was easy for me to identify with, as he has a lot in common with my own personality. John is also the character based on Baldwin himself.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, entitled “The Seventh Day,” sets the stage, introducing the characters, and taking place during the greater part of a typical Saturday in John’s life - but a day that would lead to a great change in him. The central struggle for John is his competing desires. On the one hand, he wishes to break free from his fundamentalist - and fanatical - stepfather; on the other, he is drawn toward his stepfather’s religion and toward the ideal of salvation. Along the way, we are introduced to the stepfather, Gabriel, who is both extremely religious and also violent against his family; the mother, Elizabeth, who has had a hard life, and wishes the best for her children, but is blamed by Gabriel for their faults; John’s half-brother Roy, as stubborn and rebellious as his father was; and Florence, Gabriel’s sister, strong and hard.

The middle section is subdivided into three parts. It is entitled “The Prayers of the Saints,” and each subsection tells the backstory of a character largely from that character’s point of view. So we hear of Florence, who eventually escaped from her life in the South, caring for her invalid mother and putting up with the drunken debauchery of her brother Gabriel. Her life in the North isn’t much better, as she suffers through an abusive marriage and poverty. We next hear of Gabriel, who battles his demons through his religious convictions, but has a humiliating failure that haunts him and that he hopes is not discovered. Finally, we hear from Elizabeth, who experiences a tragic love (which results in the conception of John), and who must balance her own guilt and regret with her duties to her children and husband.

One of the things that I truly loved about this book was Baldwin’s amazing ability to empathize with his characters. His own stepfather was as violent and unloving as Gabriel, and yet, Baldwin portrays him as a complex and startlingly sympathetic character. As far as that goes, he dedicates the book to his mother and father - and I believe he means his stepfather. (He refers to Gabriel as John’s father throughout the book, in recognition of the fact that Gabriel raises John.) To take a person who was abusive, haunted by his own demons, and who was fatally conflicted between his guilt on behalf of his own wayward biological son, and his jealousy of the docile nature of his stepson, and make him into a character that can be understood and pitied takes a level of grace and charity that is rare. (I am reminded to a degree of Anthony Trollope, who likewise understood that utter villains are rare.)

The final section is entitled “The Threshing Floor,” and tells of John’s conversion experience and his own epiphany in his life’s journey.

Baldwin portrays the complex relationship that the African American community has had with religion. On the one hand, it was and remains a source of community, solidarity, and inspiration. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most inspiring ideals sprang in significant part from his faith, and that faith was in so many ways a binding factor in the Civil Rights Movement. On the other hand, though, religion has also served as an agent of repression and an enabler of hypocrisy. Gabriel is able to “rule” his family with a violent hand in large part because of his beliefs. He is convinced that he must beat the wickedness out of his son Roy lest he meet the violent and tragic fate of his illegitimate son - the first Royal. Likewise, Gabriel believes (wrongly) that it is Elizabeth’s softness that has led Roy to rebel, and thus he beats her while blaming her for Roy’s choices. Gabriel cannot see that Roy cannot respect his father, because he realizes that Gabriel is a total hypocrite, unable to control his own passions or be loving to his family.

The thing is, this isn’t just a description of a particular African American experience. I myself recognized the dynamic here. In some ways, there is the experience that I had in my brief days in the Bill Gothard cult - religious fanaticism and hypocrisy are much the same everywhere. In others, I see the lives of friends, acquaintances, and clients who survived abusive family situations that were caused or exacerbated by religious fundamentalism. More than anything, I recognize the guilt. The feeling that the mistakes of the parents justify the most extreme measures against the children, to “save” them from making the same mistakes. And when I read of Roy, several faces come to mind immediately.

Even more than that, though, there is John. John is me. But he is also many others. For all of us who have always had the strong desire to be good, who have always wanted desperately to have love and approval. For those of us who felt in some sense that we could never live up to our own ideals, but also could never truly gain the approval of our parents without losing some crucial part of ourselves.

The story becomes even more interesting, though, when one follows the progression past the end of the book.

At the end, John has his salvation experience. He becomes “saved” both from an outside perspective and from his own. He feels he has met God.

Likewise, James Baldwin had a similar experience at age 14. He would go on to become a pentecostal preacher like his stepfather.

But after that, things changed.

In his late teens, Baldwin became disillusioned with religion. As he later explained to Elijah Mohammed (one of the early leaders of the Nation of Islam), “being in the pulpit was like working in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked.”

It is easy to see this in Go Tell It On The Mountain. On the one hand, John’s experience is treated as being fully genuine. On the other, as Baldwin narrates the story, it is clear that he realizes that much of what is venerated as “true” religion is just smoke and mirrors. It is a craft much like music - or magic. The skilled practitioner can see behind the curtain and explain the emotional manipulation.

I am very much in Baldwin’s camp on this issue. There are indeed many genuine believers, who live out their religion in quiet, largely unnoticed ways. But for the most part, those who garner the attention are all sizzle, and no steak. It is an illusion played to gather money and attention from the masses, with nothing of substance behind it. It is just selling a false promise that everything will be better with a formula of some sort.

One more factor in all of this that struck a chord: Baldwin was gay, as he came to realize. You can see the genesis of this in his obvious attraction to his cousin Elijah, which John sublimates into a religious adoration. Later, Baldwin would write more controversial works about sexuality, which led to him being marginalized in the Civil Rights movement. (At the time, homosexuality was associated with communism and generally treated as suspect, so his existence was inconvenient for the movement.)

The reason, though, that this struck me was this: starting in my early teens, I have known friends who have come out. Of the young men in particular, I can say this: they are like John. They have generally been the sensitive, kind, young men. The ones most drawn to the things of God. Contrary to the stereotype - and the vile slander heaped on them by the James Dobsons and Bryan Fischers and Duggars of the world - they are not a bunch of godless predators. And they have generally been eaten for lunch by the church.

For Baldwin, one can see how he would notice the illusion. As long as the facade of goodness is maintained, one can hide evil and violence behind the curtain of fanaticism. But for the one who makes that fatal misstep, there is nothing but condemnation and marginalization awaiting.  

There are some lines I think are worth quoting. First is Roy’s response to his mother who tries to convince him that he is lucky to have a father who works to support him.

“Yeah, we don’t know how lucky we is  to have a father what don’t want you to go to movies, and don’t want you to play in the streets, and don’t want you to have no friends, and he don’t want this and he don’t want that, and he don’t want you to do nothing. We so lucky to have a father who just wants us to go to church and read the Bible and beller like a fool in front of the altar and stay home all nice and quite, like a little mouse. Boy, we sure is lucky, all right. Don’t know what I done to be so lucky.”

Surprise, surprise! Cultural Fundamentalism is the same everywhere, isn’t it?

A little later, after Roy gets into a fight, Florence takes her brother to task:

“Don’t you worry about my language, brother,” she said with spirit, “you better start worrying about your life. What these children hear ain’t going to do them near as much harm as what they see.”

“What they see,” his father muttered, “is a poor man trying to serve the Lord. That’s my life.”

“Then I guarantee you,” she said, “that they going to do their best to keep it from being their life. You mark my words.”

Total truth. I can see this reflected in the many parents I know that feel their children have somehow strayed. In actual fact, they are doing their best to make sure that are not doing what their parents did that damaged them.

This is one of the things it is so hard to do as a parent. We want so much to see them behave that we forget to focus on creating a loving environment.  

Near the end of the book, when Florence confronts Gabriel with the way he treated his baby-momma years ago, he tries to wiggle out of it by claiming he is past all of that and just following the Lord.

“And if you have been but a stumbling stone here below?” she said. “If you done caused souls right and left to stumble and fall, and lose their happiness, and lose their souls? What then, prophet? What the, the Lord’s anointed? Ain’t no reckoning going to be called of you? What you going to say when the wagon comes?”

He lifted up his head, and she saw the tears mingled with his sweat. “The Lord,” he said, “He sees the heart--He sees the heart.”

“Yes,” she said, “but I done read the Bible, too, and it tells me you going to know the tree by its fruit. What fruit I seen from you if it ain’t been just sin and sorrow and shame?”

And this is indeed a question for all of us to ponder. If all we have left behind us is a trail of destruction and shame, what matters it if we have keep some sort of theological orthodoxy?

One final one. This comes from the story of the young Gabriel, in his first days as a preacher, when he is naive, and also a bit full of himself. He has not yet taken his first real fall, but he can recognize the hypocrisy in some fellow preachers.

They seemed to him so lax, so nearly worldly; they were not like those holy prophets of old who grew thin and naked in the service of the Lord. These, God’s ministers, had indeed grown fat, and their dress was rich and various. They had been in the field so long that they did not tremble before God anymore. They took God’s power as their due, as something that made the more exciting their own assured, special atmosphere. They each had, it seemed, a bagful of sermons often preached; and they knew, in the careless lifting of an eye, which sermon to bring to which congregation.

The young Gabriel never wants to “hold the gift of God so lightly.” And yet he too, cannot really grasp the point, as he himself cannot learn to show love. It’s either showmanship or hellfire and legalism for Gabriel. He finds he has neither the talent to be a successful showman nor the ability to live up to his own standards, so he compensates by loading rules and pressure on his family.

Again, I highly recommend reading this book. Baldwin’s writing is perceptive and his understanding of family and church dynamics is spot on.


  1. "On the other, as Baldwin narrates the story, it is clear that he realizes that much of what is venerated as 'true' religion is just smoke and mirrors. It is a craft much like music - or magic. The skilled practitioner can see behind the curtain and explain the emotional manipulation."

    I can't speak to preaching, but church music has a similar dynamic. I'm a professional church organist and yeah, you are aware of "behind the scenes" stuff that the congregation is not. Some of it is purely functional (come in after the priest says X, don't drown out the cantor, etc.), but there is an unavoidable "theatrical" element in all public worship (traditional or contemporary) simply because it is what it is.

    What you DON'T want to happen is what Baldwin is talking about here, where it becomes all about you and/or manipulating the congregation emotionally. This can happen in any worship style or format, but in my personal and professional experience, there's a much worse problem with it in the contemporary church right now. Think of places like Hillsong with the smoke machines and stadium lighting, etc. I know one organist who saw the writing on the wall and got a new job when the pastor literally said they needed more "spectacle" in their services (ugh), and, not shocking, they went contemporary shortly thereafter.

    All that being said, I've also sat around and listened to organists complain that no one listens to their preludes and postludes, too, so it can happen anywhere. My take on it: as a church organist who is also a practicing Christian (and they aren't always), church is NOT your personal recital.

    1. "Church is not your personal recital."


    2. I'm not much in favor of that kind of spectacle either way, although I am firmly on the line between traditional and contemporary. (I can play both styles - and do.) No church I have regularly attended does the spectacle thing for worship. For drama productions? Sure, but regardless of the style of music, we went with an attempt to avoid, rather than create distraction.