Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Penguin Modern Classics, 2001, 255 p, plus xi p Introduction by Andrew O’Hagan. First published 1954.

This is the acclaimed US author Baldwin’s first novel, a laying out of the black experience in the US in the early to mid-twentieth century. It is told in three parts, The Seventh Day, The Prayers of the Saints, and The Threshing Floor; the first and last of which relate to the life of John Grimes, stepson of Gabriel, who attends the Temple of the Fire Baptised, where his stepfather is head deacon – not the biggest nor the smallest church in Harlem, “but John had been brought up to believe it the holiest and the best.” The Saints referred to above are the three of the church’s congregation closest to John; his stepfather’s sister Florence, his mother Elizabeth and Gabriel himself: the Prayers outline their life stories. At the same time as being rooted in the conditions and culture of blacks in the US Go Tell it on the Mountain is also an examination of a kind of claustrophobic family dynamic which may well be of a wider commonality but for novelistic purposes must be rooted in the particular.

As the book’s title would suggest, the text is saturated with religious references and demonstrations of that over-the-top type of ceremonial – all hell-fire, ‘Praise the Lord’ and ‘Hallelujah’! – which is sometimes referred to as charismatic but to which that word surely does not fit at all well. While superficially allowing adherents to give vent to their passions such observances are also, like those families, claustrophobic and restricted – and intended to be so. Straying from the path is neither encouraged nor condoned. Indeed, it is to be condemned.

Gabriel is on his second marriage, his first was contracted in the South when he was a firebrand preacher, a calling he took up despite his leanings towards the pleasures of the flesh, perhaps to counteract their allure. But his wife died and he moved north, where his first son, by another woman, had also led a dissolute life before ending up being stabbed.

Gabriel treats his children with a harsh hand. It is not too stark to say cruel. Add the charge of hypocrisy to his list, then. Or is that stern forbidding attitude to the sins (even potential sins) of others more a manifestation of fear? Fear that others may be exactly like you, as tempted as you, as flawed as you? (In the religious zealot’s worldview, as sinful as you?)

He once told John that, “all white people were wicked, and that God was going to bring them low. They were never to be trusted, they told nothing but lies and none of them had ever loved a nigger.”

That last word encapsulates its times better than any other – as well as highlighting the enduring legacy of slavery and racism, the internalisation of bigotry, the lack of feeling of worth engendered by being treated, over generations, as worthless, or less than worthless.

The consolations of religion no doubt helped. In the travails of everyday existence the promise of a better life after death must have appeared compelling. Yet there is a bitter irony here. Such a religion may be attractive to the underdog but it serves to keep those underdogs – those slaves – in their place. In its early days Christianity was derided as a slave religion, beneath the dignity of the Roman citizen. In more recent times there may have been a benign missionary motive for inculcating it in the minds of people whose bodies were held as property. But it also functioned as an instrument of control. In that sense it is curious how much so-called fundamentalists concentrate on their god’s vengeful aspects (in the Christian context an Old Testament idea whose prominence is probably due to the influence of Paul of Tarsus on the religion’s early development – there is an argument that the religion ought really to be called Paulinity – but not an intrinsic part of Jesus Christ’s teachings.) Such people rarely mention peace, love and understanding.

It is left to Florence’s Prayer to voice another indictment, “All women had been cursed from the cradle; all, in one fashion or another, being given the same cruel destiny, born to suffer the weight of men.” If life for black men was tough how much more unfair must it have been for black women?

Aside: I assume the plates used for this edition were from the book’s earliest UK printings. Those were the days when British publishers rendered USian text into British English. Huzzah!

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “and the pulse of remembering and the ache of old news, makes for the beat of his early writing” (that second ‘and’ renders the subject of the verb plural; hence ‘make for the beat’,) an omitted comma before a piece of direct speech. Otherwise: “and a mighty work he begun throughout the city” (a mighty work be begun.) “‘She’d of dragged me down with her’” (probably a true reflection of the mode of speech portrayed but that ‘of’ always leaps out at me.)

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