Review of James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain
New York: Knopf, 1953.
The novel is divided into five sections. In the opening James Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem. His mother left his biological father when Baldwin was still young. Three years later she married David Baldwin, a part-time Baptist preacher. The elder Baldwin was particularly harsh on the future writer. Essays like “Notes of a Native Son” and, arguably, the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, feature Baldwin trying to come to terms with his step-father.
In his early teens, Baldwin converted to Pentecostalism and became a celebrated young preacher. He discusses his experiences in the Fireside Pentecostal Church in a several pieces, including “Down at the Cross,” which appears in The Fire Next Time. In that essay, he describes both his attraction to the “excitement” of the church, and his eventual disillusionment when he realizes he can fake it.
This wasn’t the only factor in his rejection of the church at age 17. In “Down at the Cross” and several other essays, Baldwin accuses the black church of making false promises, especially that of “safety,” which it cannot keep. Though he never fully rejected Christianity entirely, even describing himself as “born again” in a 1979 essay (“Open Letter” 784), Baldwin was a frequent critic of the church in both his fiction and essays. He was particularly critical of racism in the “white church,” and attacked what he called “the white God” who sanctioned slavery.
Baldwin had connections to several writers and artists who influenced his work, including Beauford Delaney, Countee Cullen, and Richard Wright. The latter relationship was a tumultuous one as a result of Baldwin’s pointed critiques of Wright’s work.
Baldwin’s relationship with the civil rights movements was also strained because of his sexuality. Baldwin was an openly gay man who wrote about explicitly queer sex in his fiction as early as his second novel, Giovanni’s Room. Many civil rights leaders, especially those connected to the black power movement, rejected Baldwin because of his sexuality.
Baldwin passed away in 1987. At his funeral, a tape recording of the writer singing “Precious Lord” was played, a lasting tribute to his fraught relationship with Christianity, especially Holiness/Pentecostal Christianity. He published seven different novels, two plays, and numerous essays and short stories. Go Tell It on the Mountain is his first novel.
The novel is divided into five sections. In the opening section, John is celebrating his 14th birthday. As a poor, African-American boy in 1930s Harlem, he feels trapped between the debilitating life he sees his father, Gabriel, living, and the life of excess he imagines white Americans enjoying. Gabriel is a part-time preacher and part-time laborer. To celebrate his birthday, he uses the money his mother gives him to go to a movie theatre, which only highlights the life he wants, but feels is unavailable to him. When he returns home he finds his parents, Gabriel and Elizabeth, fighting after his brother was injured in a street fight. Later, John goes to the church to get ready for an evening prayer service. There, he talks with Elisha, whom he is secretly attracted to. The rest of the congregation, including his family, filter into the church and the service begins.
The middle three sections of the novel are the “prayers” of three of John’s family members. They fill in John’s familial heritage. His Aunt Florence’s chapter reveals that she left the south, and her mother, to find a better life in the north. She married a man named Frank who eventually leaves her for another woman. In the present, she is still grieving the loss and torn about the possibility of giving into the church, and her brother, Gabriel, as a means of dealing with her grief. His father’s chapter tells the story of Gabriel’s conversion and career as a minister. Though Gabriel is very successful and committed to a “holiness” life, he eventually succumbs to his desire for a woman who is not his wife. The woman becomes pregnant, and although Gabriel is able to hide it, the failure starts a debilitating downward spiral that he endures even in the present. His mother’s chapter reveals that Gabriel is actually John’s step-father. John’s biological father, Richard, never marries his mother. Instead, they lived together until Richard commits suicide, suffering the emotional trauma of racially motivated police brutality.
The final section is John’s conversion. At the end of the prayer meeting, John is slain by the spirit and has an intense vision of racial violence. When he comes to, it is already morning and he declares himself saved. Although Gabriel is skeptical, the other characters support his conversion and rejoice with him.
Clarence Hardy has identified the church in the novel as a Black Holiness church. The Black Holiness movement is very similar to African-American Pentecostal churches, though some slight differences exist. In the novel, there are a number of ecstatic experiences. Elisha speaks in tongues, John is slain in the spirit, etc. Beyond this, there are some crucial Pentecostal theological ideas, including an emphasis on spiritual anointing and power. Consistent with Holiness churches, there is also reference to sanctification, which is downplayed in some Pentecostal denominations. The novel also engages with Black Holiness Theodicy, theology pertaining to African-American suffering, particularly slavery.
There is a wealth of scholarly criticism on Baldwin’s novel, far too much to summarize here. Instead, I will highlight a particular controversy amongst critics and a few interesting studies that address the specific religious content of the novel.
Much of the scholarly work on Go Tell It on the Mountain addresses John’s conversion experience. Some scholars have read it has a legitimate conversion into the Black Holiness tradition (Gibson; Coleman; Lynch; Lundén, etc.), though some in this group see this as a negative because of the sacrifices John will have to make, including suppressing his homoerotic desire (Powers; Cobb; Scruggs; Hardy, etc.). On the other hand, critics have also argued that John does not experience any kind of conversion and, instead, maintains a kind of status quo (Olson; Fabre; Nagueyalti; O’Neale; etc.). These are only two extremes in the critical controversy. Numerous critics have argued that John is able to find the “compromise” he is looking for at the beginning of the book, combining elements of the Black Holiness tradition with the white world he envies, enabling him to explore his sexuality while simultaneously participating in a “new” religion (Robinson; Macebuth; Dixon; etc.). Still others have suggested that the conversion is simply a metaphor for John’s acceptance of a gay identity (Csapó), his entrance into adulthood (Allen), or even the birth of a rejuvenated Civil Rights movement (Norman).
Both Peter Kerry Powers and Angelo Robinson look at the way Pentecostal/Holiness attitudes towards the body and desire, particularly homoerotic desire are portrayed in the novel. Robinson concludes that “John is not ‘cured,’ ‘healed,’ or ‘delivered’ from his sexual desire during his rebirth; he is rather ‘restored’ to confront the reality of his sexual desires while at the same time claiming the promise of salvation in that reality” (349). Powers provides a much closer analysis of the tension between bodily desire and responsibility to the religious community, and how they are brought together through confession in the Black Holiness church and in Baldwin’s novel. Powers suggests that “while John’s conversion bridges the gulf of separation between self and others in the formation of community, it does so only by maintaining a gulf inside John himself between public role and private desire…. John’s desire, finally, is still a love that dare not speak its name” (806). So, while both critics are aware of the religious context of the novel, they both make very different conclusions about John’s conversion, and how it impacts his homoerotic desire; for Powers, John must hide his desire in order to be part of the religious community, while for Angelo, the conversion experience gives John the ability to live as an openly gay, saved black man.
Clarence Hardy’s James Baldwin’s God is the most comprehensive examination of the Holiness context of Baldwin’s work. He sees a progression in Baldwin’s work, in which the rejection of the Holiness movement “takes its initial shape in Go Tell It and his early short stories and then crystallizes most notably in his later fiction and essays, where he adopts a less sanguine view of his personal conversion experience” (xiii). This puts Baldwin’s first novel in a particularly interesting place. Baldwin’s objections to the church that he later expresses in The Fire Next Time are present in the novel, but not as harsh, and seem to be partially balanced by some redeeming qualities. The result is that Go Tell It on the Mountain embodies some of the tensions described above. In his chapter on Go Tell It on the Mountain, Hardy explores the tension between the links to African religions and racist theology in John’s conversion, as well as the tension between the “safety” offered in the church and the oppression and despair that “safety” costs. He draws on sources related to African rituals, anthropological and sociological studies of Holiness and Pentecostal churches, as well as historical information about the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North to conclude that, in Baldwin’s earlier works, “the church is depicted as a repository of illusions that attempts but fails to ward off the possibilities of human secular activity and pleasures” (7). John’s conversion, meanwhile, “can be seen as the entrance of a new member into an adult community, with all the status that it implies, or as an opportunity for a broader group to exercise social control on its individual members” (10). Hardy’s analysis of the novel in its religious context does not provide a clear answer to questions surrounding John’s conversion, but rather illuminates some of the tensions the conversion explores.
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Coleman, James. Faithful Vision. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 2006.
Csapó, Csaba. “Defiance against God: A Gay Reading of Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin.” The AnaChronisT (2000): 315-26.
--. “Race, Religion and Sexuality in Go Tell It on the Mountain.” James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. Ed. Carol Henderson. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.57-74.
Dixon, Melvin. Ride Out the Wilderness: Geography and Identity in Afro-American Literature. Urbana: Illinois UP, 1987.
Fabre, Michel. “Fathers and Sons in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Modern Black Novelists. Ed. Michael G. Cooke. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1971. 88-104.
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Joyce, Justin A. and Dwight McBride. "James Baldwin and Sexuality: Lieux de Memoire and a Usable Past." A Historical Guide to James Baldwin. Ed. Douglas Field. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. 111-40.
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Lynch, Michael F. “A Glimpse of the Hidden God: Dialectical Vision in Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.” New Essays on Go Tell It on the Mountain. Ed. Trudier Harris. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1996. 29-57.
Macebuh, Stanley. James Baldwin: A Critical Study. New York: Third P, 1973.
Nagueyalti, Warren. “The Substance of Things Hoped For: Faith in Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Obsidian II 7 (1992): 19-32.
Norman, Brian. “Duplicity, Purity, and Politicized Morality: Go Tell It on the Mountain and the Emergence of the Civil Rights Movement.” James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. Ed. Carol Henderson. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. 13-28.
O’Neale, Sondra. “Fathers, Gods and Religion: Perceptions of Christianity and Ethnic Faith in James Baldwin.” Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Eds. Fred L. Standley and Nancy V. Burt,Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. 125-43.
Olson, Barbara K. “‘Come-to-Jesus Stuff’ in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and ‘The Amen Corner.’” African American Review 32.2 (1997): 295-302.
Powers, Peter Kerry. “The Treacherous Body: Isolation, Confession, and Community in James Baldwin.” American Literature 77.4 (2005): 787-813.
Scruggs, Charles. “The Tale of Two Cities in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.” American Literature 52.1 (1980): 1-17.