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Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin – Interesting but difficult to read

February 27, 2019 19 comments

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (1952). French title: La Conversion.

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. James Baldwin. Go Tel lt on the Mountain.

Too late for what?

Welcome to Harlem, 1935 and meet John Grimes, the teenage son of a Seventh Day Adventist substitute preacher, Gabriel. We’re on the morning of his fourteenth birthday and he’s confused.

The first part of Baldwin’s debut novel focuses on John, his home and his family. In appearance, nobody remembers his birthday, not even his mother. We’re in a poor apartment and his mother Elizabeth has trouble dealing with John’s young brother Roy and his little sister Ruth. Roy is a troublemaker, daring in a way John would never dream to be.

Gabriel’s shadow hovers over the family. He might be a man of God but he’s no angel. John hates him fiercely because he’s a preacher and violent man. His mother Elizabeth is under his yoke, somehow feeling unworthy of her husband. Gabriel has a daywork during the week and preaches during the weekend but he doesn’t seem to practice what he preaches. We see that John lives in an unhealthy atmosphere.

For his birthday, John escapes to Manhattan and watches the white man’s world. And he wants to be part of it. This means escaping Harlem and his fate. John is also slowing understanding that he’s gay. Go Tell It on the Mountain was published in 1952, homosexuality is not openly discussed. But the hints are there for the reader to see. John is only starting to understand his sexuality and he has a crush on Elisha, the preacher’s son.

And he watched Elisha, who was a young man in the Lord; who, a priest after the order of Melchizedek, had been given power over death and Hell. The Lord had lifted him up, and turned him around, and set his feet on the shining way. What were the thoughts of Elisha when night came, and he was alone where no eye could see, and no tongue to bear witness, save only the trumpetlike tongue of God? Were his thoughts, his bed, his body foul? What were his dreams?

John knows deep down that he’s attracted to men but, in his world, it’s too big for words. John is gay, he’s tempted by the outside world, he’s intelligent and he hates his father. Why would he want to be a preacher like his father? Instinctively, he wants more for himself and cannot deny his sexual orientation. Who he is isn’t compatible with a preacher’s life.

Too late for what? Too late to be a straight religious black man in Harlem.

But he’s fourteen and not ready to give up on other people’s expectations. His conversion is his goal, something expected from his family but also something that could bring him closer to Elisha, the preacher’s son. He has doubts that he tries to conquer but they keep creeping up his mind:

And his mind could not contain the terrible stretch of time that united twelve men fishing by the shore of Galilee, and black men weeping on their knees tonight and he, a witness.

He wants to be saved. Badly.

The second part of the book is a Sunday morning service in Gabriel’s church. The whole family is there, Elizabeth, Gabriel, the children and Florence, Gabriel’s sister. Baldwin takes us in Elizabeth’s, Gabriel’s and Florence’s thoughts. They mull over their past and the reader sees their personal journey and John’s origins.

Gabriel used to drink and sleep around before he was saved. Florence was pious and stayed at home, taking care of their mother and spending time with her best friend, Deborah. Gabriel was still wasting his life away when Florence left for New York, to leave her hopeless brother behind and try to have a better life in the North. Deborah was sadly well-known in their town because she had been raped by a group of white men. She’s also very pious and Gabriel later marries her. After Deborah’s death, Gabriel comes to New York too and marries Elizabeth, John’s mother. He met her through Florence. Two despairs don’t make a hope, as they will soon discover it.

They have the past of common black people in the South and John belongs to the first generation that hasn’t known the South and has lived in New York his whole life. In a way, they’re like emigrants, the parents coming from another country, another past and the children belonging to their present, to this new territory they moved to. For the adults, it’s time to look back on their past and think about it:

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.

The dedication of Go Tell It on the Mountain is For my mother and my father. John looks like a young James Baldwin. Bright. Gay. Stepson of a preacher who married his mother when she was pregnant with him. Born in Harlem. Destined to explore the world. This novel was published in 1952, when Baldwin was living in Paris. Perhaps the geographical and emotional distance helped him write it.

For me, as interesting as it was, it was a very difficult read because of all the religious aspects. They put me off. The grand spectacle of the Sunday service was tedious to read. I was happy to read about the characters’ past, but all the religious parts bored me to death. I don’t know if they were necessary. Maybe they were, especially for foreign readers like me. Church services with events like this

The silence in the church ended when Brother Elisha, kneeling near the piano, cried out and fell backward under the power of the Lord.

as a regular occurrence is not part of my cultural background. At all. Living in Paris, Baldwin probably knew that some of his readers would need details. The Sunday service is supposed to be a powerful scene but I watched it from afar, thinking they were crazy to put themselves into such a state of mind for religion. In the end, we don’t really know where Baldwin stands, as far as religion is concerned. What does he really think about these ceremonies?

Go Tell It on the Mountain was a complicated read for me, one I can’t say I enjoyed. I expected more family confrontations and less sentences with God, Lord, the prophets and the saints in them. However, I think it’s an important book to read to understand Baldwin’s work.

Other billets about Baldwin’s work: Going to Meet the Man. A must read.

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