Takeaway: I need to read this again.
Go Tell It On the Mountain is my second Baldwin fiction book and my fourth book by Baldwin. Baldwin’s fiction and non-fiction styles feel very different. That may be more about what books I have read, but so far, I like his essays, more than his fiction.
I started Go Tell It On the Mountain as an audiobook. But the audiobook was difficult to follow. The structure of the book changes perspective and narrative frequently and there was just not enough cues in the audio to note that there was a change, let alone what the change was. So I gave up on the audio and read the print the rest of the way. The print was less confusing, although there were still places where jumps in action occurred and I feared that I had missed something and would re-read to realize that I had not missed anything.
Like several other authors, I can feel Baldwin’s talent. He writes beautifully and with power. But I do not love the stories. I know I am not supposed to love the stories because they are not about beautiful things or people. But still it is difficult to read about people in pain constantly. Now that I understand the structure more clearly I think I can read it better and pay more attention to the language and the narrative. Especially the last section feel’s similar to Flannery O’Connor’s dictum about needing to shout to the hard of hearing.
The is a book soaked in biblical allusions and direct references. I really do not know how someone would read this and make sense of it without a very good working knowledge of the bible.
This line, “If God’s power was so great, why were their lives so troubled?” does seem to be the central theme. God is real here. But the father figure (Gabriel), while attempting to follow God and being clearly used by God, is also abusive. In many ways, it seems that the real question is, if God is real why is Gabriel not changed.
Almost at the end, the Gabriel (John’s step father) is confronted by his sister over his past and current sin. The father responds, ‘“God’s way,” he said, and his speech was thick, his face was slick with sweat, “ain’t man’s way. I been doing the will of the Lord, and can’t nobody sit in judgment on me but the Lord.’ It is this type of father/church figure that I think that Baldwin in real life is reacting against.
I know that Go Tell It On the Mountain was semi-autobiographical. Baldwin was the son of a pastor. Baldwin had a very difficult relationship with his father and his father’s abuse certainly did not draw Baldwin to the church. But Baldwin also had a period where he was a preacher as a teen and seems to have been serious about it.
Both Baldwin and the character John were gay and that was part of the problem with their relationship to the church. It does explain the familiarity with the bible and religious metaphor. The layering of religious ideas, especially in the third section of the book around John’s conversation is masterful. His confrontation with his sin, layered with the concept of the curse of Ham (justification of racism common in the early 20th century) and his own curse of being attracted to men with the story of Noah being seen naked by his son communicated a lot quickly.
While I really do need to read this again to understand it more fully, I do think that Baldwin really does express well the question of what it means to see people that claim to be following God but do not seem to be impacted by their faith. Baldwin is pointing to a very strict fundamentalism, but that problem is not limited to a particular part of the church. Jesus said that we should be known as Christians by our love, and Baldwin is pointing out the father who seems to be known mostly by his hatred and sin.
(Spoiler Alert) Racism impacts everyone in the book. John’s biological father dies from suicide after the trauma of being arrested on trumped-up charges by a racist cop. A racist mob kills Gabriel’s son from a previous affair in a parallel to John’s father. Both the rural South and the urban North are implicated in the racism. The trauma continues through multiple generations to have impact. The racism gives context for the trauma and Gabriel’s hatred, but does not fully explain it.
Salvation occurs, but John still has to live in the world of sin. His father is unchanged and is likely to continue to be abusive. The racism of society is unchanged and will impact everyone in the book. The street that feels different as John walks back after his salvation feels new, but is still the same dirty street that he has always walked on.
The women are the saints of the book. Elizabeth, John’s mother, Florence, Gabriel’s sister, Deborah, Gabriel’s first wife, the praying women of the church, and others continue on in faith and hope despite the abuse of the men around them. Elizabeth and Florence’s lives are explored but I do not feel like they are still not as fully developed as Gabriel and John.
Like I keep saying, I need to read this again now that I am familiar with the story and the characters and I can pay attention more closely to the language and development.