Posts tagged ‘James Baldwin’

Preachers’ kids have it rough – “Go Tell it on the Mountain” by James Baldwin

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, Published 1953

This was my first introduction to James Baldwin’s writing and I really liked it. Baldwin himself was a preacher’s kid and stated that “Go Tell it on the Mountain” was his way of dealing with his relationship with his father.

Set in 1930s Harlem, this is the story of John, a fourteen old year preacher’s son, who has his first religious experience at one of the church services while his Aunt Florence, mother, and father witness his “come to Jesus” moment.  As each member of John’s family watches him writhing and speaking in tongues they are each in prayerful thought, contemplating their lives.

Gideon, John’s stepfather, reflects on his life of shame.  He had grown up in the South with his sister Florence.  Gideon had been a drunkard and a womanizer until he found the Lord and began preaching.  He then married Deborah, a barren woman who had been raped when she was young by a gang of white men. Gideon believed he was on the Lord’s path.  But instead he finds himself “seduced” again by the devil in the form of a young woman, Esther, who gets pregnant and gives birth to a son.  Gideon never claims the son and he eventually is killed far away in Chicago. On her deathbed, Deborah tells Gideon that she knew all along about his indiscretion and that his failure to claim his own son is likely why his son died.  After Deborah’s death, Gideon moves to New York to be with his sister, Florence.  He meets Florence’s friend, Elizabeth, who had her son John out-of-wedlock.  Gideon uses Elizabeth and John as a way to fix his past by marrying Elizabeth and trying, through anger and indignation, to bring them both to Christ and out of their sinful lives.

Florence, John’s aunt, reflects on seeming failures in her life.  She and Gideon were born to a woman who had been a slave.  As soon as Florence is old enough, she leaves her mother on her deathbed to move to New York.  She marries a man who is just never good enough and after ten years of feeling her disappointment he leaves.  Florence knows of her brother Gideon’s sinful past but has never told her sister-in-law.  Florence’s health has started to deteriorate and she believes it is God’s wrath for all of her failures – and her resolution seems to be that she is now responsible for protecting John and Elizabeth from Gideon’s self-righteous abuse.  Her story ends with her informing Gideon that she will make sure that no one has continue to suffer  his abuse because he is exercising his demons.

Elizabeth, John’s mother, left her home to be with Richard, the man who finds her beautiful.  They live in New York and things seem hopeful, though Richard seems at times a broken spirit.  He is wrongfully arrested for a crime he did not commit and is very badly beaten by the cops. After being released from jail he dies.  And Elizabeth is left alone and pregnant. She meets Gideon, who seems to be a man of God who will take care of her and John.  They marry and she has another son, Roy, and two girls.  Elizabeth watches as Gideon treats both her and John with great disdain – clearly preferring his blood son Roy. John has grown up believing that Gideon is his father and cannot understand why he is so unloved and only wants to be considered important to someone – even if it simply means that someone remembers his birthday.

All of the characters have spent their lives struggling with God and religion while at the same time trying to fit into the societal norms both as women/men and as African-Americans in a very racially divided world. Baldwin touches on slavery, rape, racism, and classism with a very light hand and that can be refreshing.  Baldwin understands that his reader is smart enough to get the point without belaboring the point.  I appreciate that.  Baldwin’s overarching theme is religion and zealotry and how it can be used and twisted when needed. However, though it is obvious that Baldwin struggles with Evangelical Christianity, he does not belittle it or make it seem unreasonable in any way.  He is craftily able to show the religion’s weaknesses of judgment, self-righteousness, and cruelty while at the same time allowing for its strengthes of community, purpose and new beginnings.

Baldwin’s book is filled with preaching but somehow leaves the reader feeling that they have not been preached at but have been invited along for the experience and it is a worthwhile experience. Sometimes those preachers’ kids really get it right.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
― James Baldwin

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September 24, 2011 at 11:15 pm Leave a comment


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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