James Baldwin, was an American author born in 1924 and known for his writings about race, sexuality and class distinctions and tensions in Western society. He lived most of his life in France, but was well traveled and believed that writers were called to be a witness to the world; to continue to move but never to look away.
I was inspired to read more of Baldwin’s novels after watching the recent film I Am Not Your Negro, based on the beginnings of a film Baldwin wrote. Go Tell It On The Mountain is James Baldwin’s first novel, and also semi-autobiographical.
The majority of the novel takes places over the course of a little more than day, but covers an immense amount of backstory relayed with a biblical flow. You are left exhausted throughout it, breathing a heavy sigh of relief when you can finally put the book back on the bookshelf. It’s great writing, but it is mercilessly emotive and present: there is no down time.
The main character is a young boy, John, who is struggling with religion, identity and his own sexuality. The mountain is used as a metaphor for his struggle to make the ascent to religion, and faithfulness. In the beginning of the novel, he is questioning himself and the world around him.
“[John] stood for a moment on the melting snow, distracted, and then began to run down the hill, feeling himself fly as the descent became more rapid, and thinking: ‘I can climb back up. If it’s wrong, I can always climb back up.’”
John’s father is a pastor of the local church, and rains down judgement on the community constantly, but particularly on John. Because of this, John finds it even harder to find religion, because finding religion means kneeling to his father’s ideals.
Through John and his father’s relationship, as well as others in their family, the novel tells a story about the lives of African Americans connected to the church. This is shown to be a negative source as well as a positive one.
In the novel, the strict rules of the church breed intolerance and repression, creating moral hypocrisy by church leaders while judgement is made on others. This hypocrisy manifests in bitterness, violence and even hatred. John is unable to see the world outside of the church’s eyes, and thus views his very being as a sin. He is unable to fundamentally change who he is.
For John’s mother, religion seems to trap her in an abusive relationship with John’s father. She does not attempt to stand up for herself when her husband beats her.
“The menfolk, they die, all right. And it’s us women who walk around, like the Bible says, and mourn. The menfolk, they die, and it’s over for them, but we women, we have to keep on living and try to forget what they done to us,” John’s aunt, a staunch feminist with a number on John’s father, states.
The church is also as a positive source of community and love, and bring the community and family together in a way that they would not otherwise be. In church together, everyone in John’s family is able to reflect on their own lives independently, and the reader is able to get a glimpse into everyone’s thoughts and to connect the dots between all the stories. There is support and love in the church, even if it seems like it is sometimes more out of fear of god than because of a real understanding of one another.
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