If only we could read this book together. If only we could have a nation wide book read. If only we could think about the words we seem to use so easily today, words such as justice, equality, equity, fairness and truth. These words are in danger of having their meaning emptied and replaced with cultural preferences and prejudices; with easy definitions; with lack of thought, and even intentional carelessness. We should go back to the books; not to find definitions, but rather to find the stories that have filled these words with meaning. Go Tell It on the Mountain is one such story. While it is a fictional account of Baldwin’s childhood, its language is full of rage and desire that are of the truth.
Baldwin’s writing is filled with anger and hate, but at the same time there begins to emerge a beauty that his character, John, is struggling to bring forth. Admittedly, there was something uncomfortable about the pain I was reading as it was unlike other books I had read by authors of color. When I read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple years ago, or even the only book read in high school by a black author, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, I do not remember feeling deeply enraged by a world I thought I knew but realized, no, in fact, this was a world about which I knew nothing. I could feel the brutality in Baldwin’s world. I could feel his hatred. It did not seem fictionalized as for example a work by Flannery O’Connor’s. And while I do think Baldwin and O’Connor are similar in that they do not sentimentalize or romanticize race and the South; James Baldwin’s work seems more of the flesh.
The book opens up much like a movie with the camera lens steadily scanning its environment until it finds its point of focus. The story begins, then, on the day of John’s fourteenth birthday. It covers a twenty-four hour period, from Saturday to Sunday within a range of a few New York City blocks. There are two places of interest, John’s house and the Pentecost church where Gabriel Grimes, John’s step-father, preaches. And then there are the other two places: the North and the South. Within that twenty-four hours the reader witnesses John’s evangelical conversion and within that whirling turning point, on the altar mostly, is where John brings the reader to history. The center of gravity is the historical reality of being the direct descendent of slaves. The year is 1935. The place is Harlem.
John awakens on his birthday and he finds he is already out of place since he does not hear the usual sounds that serve to orient him.
“On other mornings he awoke hearing his mother singing in the kitchen, hearing his father in the bedroom behind him grunting and muttering prayers to himself as he put on his clothes; hearing perhaps, the chattering of Sarah and the squalling of Ruth, and the radios, the clatter of pots and pans, and the voices of folk nearby. This morning not even the cry of a bed-spring disturbed the silence, and John seemed, therefore, to be listening to his own unspeakable doom.”page 13
In this morning silence the reader enters another person’s life and history that seems remote at the same time that it is brought right down upon us. I must take a minute here and confess every once in a while I would close this book and say I was not going back to it. I could not find anyone I liked in it and it was making me work hard to think through the characters and why they behaved so cruelly towards each other.
Gabriel, John’s step-father was tormented and downright tormenting toward everyone in his life. At first glance he appears as the ultimate hypocrite divine. But, when I continued reading, just as when you get to know someone, I began to see his life as shards of broken glass. Born into slavery he was already shattered. He grew up in the South. His mother only wanted obedience from a boy who was born at the end of slavery into a world fragmented and torn apart. He had no understanding of relationship. His sister, Florence, who leaves the South when her boss makes unwanted advances is to him a mere buffer between himself and their mother. Finally, his mother’s prayers are answered when Gabriel turns away from his bad habits and untamed instincts and becomes a preacher. But at the moment of arrival; the moment he had made it and is invited to an evangelical conference he is taken by surprise by the lack of sacred in the sacred. The light shines on the self-serving hypocrisy of the communion of saints with whom he sits at table. This fills him with unease.
“Though they preached with great authority, and brought souls low before the altar — like so many ears of corn lopped off by the hired laborer in his daily work — they did not give God the glory, nor count it as glory at all; they might as easily have been, Gabriel thought, highly paid circus-performers, each with his special dazzling gift. Gabriel discovered that they spoke, jokingly, of the comparative number of souls each of them had saved, as though they were keeping score in a poolroom. And this offended him and frightened him.”page 132
These moments where Baldwin allows us to breathe; allows us to believe a body can possibly overcome its surroundings are fleeting. We might be quick to think Gabriel will soften, and ease into his life. But, Baldwin will not give in to our intolerance for pain and our superficial optimism. He pulls us back into the pain. Gabriel glimpses the hypocrisy but is stuck within a religious doctrine that allows him to create a world where he becomes exempt from making hard decisions. His actions become mere justifications for an external examination. The danger of the examination of consciousness, represented through Gabriel, is to always come out on top; always believe you are forgiven, as his sister Florence tells him, but never really think about your actions. Gabriel, in other words, cannot take the internal journey that truly sets one free.
His sister, Florence, another enigmatic character. Hard to like, as most of us are, but having a glimmer of pure truth nestled deep within her. She leaves the South, and it seems as if it her desire for a better life would be easy to come by in the North. Again, Baldwin does not give in to our fantasy. Right from the beginning, the leaving is not to be romanticized. When she tells her old and frail mother that she will go North there is no one to cheer her on. Her mother wants her to stay and labor alongside her. Gabriel, wants her to stay because he cannot deal directly with such an oppressive mother. No one wants to be alone. No one wants the other to succeed. No one wants to acknowledge what is tearing them up inside.
If Gabriel is not smart enough or courageous enough to voice his frustrations, certainly Florence’s husband, who drinks too much and spends too much of his earnings on so many pounds of coffee and giant boxes of cereal is such a man. In Harlem now, and away from the South, Florence believes she can change the man she has married and turn him into some image she has created. But, again, Baldwin does not give an inch. In the end Florence is pushed to recognize history through a few simple questions:
“Then there was silence. Although she had turned her back to him, she felt that he was no longer smiling and that his eyes, watching her, had darkened.
“And what kind of man you think you married?
“I thought I married a man with some get up and go to him, who didn’t just want to stay on the bottom all his life!
“And what you want me to do, Florence? You want me to turn white?”page 104
All Florence can do is rage against what she does not fully comprehend, and what she intuits is part excuse. James Baldwin gives the reader a constant examination of consciousness from all angles, which may cause the reader vertigo. There is no place to hide.
“But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road; the perspective, to say the very least, changes only with the journey; only when the road has, all abruptly and treacherously, and with an absoluteness that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is one able to see all that one could not have seen from any other place”page 208
When John’s mom, Elizabeth, becomes the center of focus, the story turns from hatred to grief. Here finally is someone who touches the heart with her love for her father and then with her own brief encounter with love in a romantic relationship. She meets, Richard, in a grocery store in Maryland, and they make their way up to New York City. She is young and motherless. It is 1920. They labor as chambermaid and elevator boy; they live in the bleak confines of small rooms, Elizabeth with her spiritualist Aunt and Richard in a room a few subway stops away. But their love pushes through the sordid details of their surroundings like a tiny blade of grass through cement in a sidewalk. It is a sign of life. It is too vulnerable. The reality of being black, even in the North, eventually overtakes them. Elizabeth begins to see:
“There was not, after all, a great difference between 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 similarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other.”page 211
We suffer with Elizabeth and Richard as their love is not enough to make right the world in which they live. Richard kills himself after being falsely accused of a crime, beaten in jail and then released. At the same time, Elizabeth’s pregnancy and her first son, John, is the result of that love and the will to live which no one can uproot.
John becomes the boy at 14 who finds himself on the altar repenting and sprawled out before God; not Gabriel’s biological son, Roy, who is as untamed and uncontrollable as his father was at a young age.
The surprise is that John asks to be saved. To the reader it seems a loss for John to be taken in by the preaching. Although, it is a victory for John in a different way, that is, against his step-father, who clearly does not want John to be on the altar.
There is an energy running through Baldwin’s book, a quivering energy that makes it under, over, and around all the series of blows received, and that is a will to live, which can be called love, and which is represented by John’s father, who is absent, but a force all the same, and becomes the boy on the altar, John. The preacher Gabriel, the step-father, could not sustain his love for anyone; always, he was willing to compromise love for some level of achievement to which he aspired. John, certainly not more virtuous than anyone else, moves through the world with hatred, to be sure, but also with a deep curiosity. At fourteen he has a certain trepidation, but also an openness that he is just beginning to intuit as his way.
For James Baldwin the words we use so easily today, justice, fairness, equality, equity, truth are not located on the body of one race, but in the deeds that eventually wound and traumatize a body.
James Baldwin’s first book, the one he stated he “absolutely had to write,” is real, and raw and intense. Every page works on the reader. It is a book, I believe, everyone should absolutely have to read.