A. J. Liebling, “The Earl of Louisiana” (1961)

The Earl of Louisiana is Liebling’s nostalgic study of regional politics in an era when regional politics were being enveloped by a national mass culture and national political forum. It is not insignificant that the subject of this book, Earl Long — brother of the the Great Depression-era governor of Louisiana Huey P. Long — made his last bid for governor in 1959, one year before the famous Kennedy-Nixon televised debates. The later foreshadowed the emergence of a national political culture, shaped heavily by television media. Despite spending some of his last term as governor in a mental institution for his erratic behavior he remained a strong governor and decided to run for what would have been a fourth term (he served three terms off and on between 1940 and 1960), but lost to Jimmie Davis — a musician (Country Music Hall of Fame inductee) turned two-term politician. All of this makes for an interesting context for local politics, and something I have come to feel some nostalgia over myself after reading The Earl of Louisiana.

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Liebling starts with the in the Great Depression era politics were so local that people like Huey Long could make the same jokes at every public appearance (there was no national media to scoop stump speeches). Today, such repetition is laughable. Huey Long, who thought he could become president based on his successes in his state on social reform, seemed not to know that his achievements (such as free text books) were long in place in most of the Northern states.  But the broader point is that what seems ridiculous to the majority makes perfect political sense locally. But it is safe to say, I think, that someone who had just left a sanatorium today (or just been caught leaving a brothel, or slapped with paternity suits) might not have much luck in even regional politics today. With 24-hour news channels desperate for a story, they would likely turn all of that into national news.

Here are some looks at these colorful characters.

We need to accept this fact with some hesitation. Liebling’s book was written during the emergence of the Civil Rights movement and more importantly during the era of massive resistance by Southern state governments to school integration. Those same colorful local political cultures that allowed someone like Huey Long to emerge also made it possible for so many white Southerners to find integration inconceivable. Part of Liebling’s attraction to Earl Long was his relatively moderate position on Jim Crow laws. By the 1959 election, he supported expanded voting rights for blacks and an end to some Jim Crow laws. While this may have been politically motivated (he wanted the black vote) it did put him in the rare position of being a Southern democratic not to openly race bait at every chance. Some were even making a campaign point that the Fourteenth Amendment (the basis for most civil rights laws) was not legally ratified. This is also a product of the bizarre local politics.

Earl Long at work

Earl Long at work

“He had no need of the race issue; white poverty and the backwardness of the state gave him all the ammunition he needed. He adopted a policy of speaking disrespectfully of Negrores in public to guard against being called a nigger lover, and giving them what they wanted, under the table, to make sure they would vote for him. As the poorest Louisianians of all, they benefited disproportionately from his welfare schemes; it would be a dull politician who would try to disfranchise his own safest voters.” (354)

One example of this strategy was when he discovered that black nurses were not being hired at a hospital, he used racial outrage over white nureses waiting on black men to force the hospital to hire black nurses. I am not sure if this shows indifference, opportunitism, or “three-dimensional chess” but it worked in getting black nurses hired at the hospital.  In any case, however we read Earl Long’s racial policies, Leibling shows how his absence did not help matters in the context of the civil rights struggle. The final chapter documents through newspaper articles how race baiting was quickly becoming common again. At the very least, the Longs, Liebling suggests, prevented the worst of these horrific policies.

Well, populism and local idiosyncratic politicians is certainly Janus-faced. It can often break free of the rigidity and stagnation of the national realm (often irrelevant to the local) but it can also cultivate and nurture the most strange and odd perspectives, without sustained outside criticism. A national political culture may be able to reign in local tyrants but it also seems to make getting things done harder.

I dwell on this because the most common criticism of anarchism I have heard from people (outside of criticism of utopianism) is that it we will just end up with thousands of local cultures each pursuing their own odd values system. Of course, as long as this is not internal oppressive, I do not have a problem with it. In an age of global capitalist banality, where taking a job in Beijing looks, feels, smells, and tastes like taking a  job in the US (same hierarchies, same computers, same cubicles, same exploitation), I doubt that a diversity of local bizarre cultures may not be instantly better.

 

 

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James Baldwin, “No Name in the Street” (1972)

James Baldwin writes in his epilogue to No Name in the Street: “This book has been much delayed by trials, assassinations, funerals, and despair.  Nor is the American crisis, which is part of a global, historical crisis, likely to resolve itself soon.  An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born.” (475)  Baldwin must have felt that he was part of a revolutionary moment in history.  From this comes No Name in the Street.  His thoughtfulness about the dilemma of color in America is less prominent here.  No Name in the Street are journal entries from a war.  It is autobiographical, starting from his childhood, his life in the church, the imposition of an identity on him by others, and the search for a identity constructed for himself.  The second half documents the people he met, the struggles he participated in.  “The Fire Next Time” which he predicted in his 1963 work came true through urban riots, assassinations, and the rise of new movements, martyrs, and leaders.  The names of the two parts “Take me to the Water” and “To Be Baptized” use the same religious metaphors that through most of Baldwin’s writings and the point is clear to us.  The space between thought and emerging consciousness and action is not far, no farther than the line between walking to the river and the baptism.  Once one walks to the river, baptism may even be inevitable.

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Some of the topics that Baldwin discusses in this vibrant and even chaotic second part of this essay include:

1. His discussions and cooperation with Malcolm X and Baldwin’s feelings that Malcolm was correct about the ultimate collapse of the white civilization.  Baldwin was affected by Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination and began to work on a script for a play based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley.  “Malcolm, finally, was a genuine revolutionary, a virile impulse long since fled from the American way of life.” (412)  I attached one of their debates.

2. His aid to one of Baldwin’s friends, Tony Maynard, who was wrongfully accused of murder and awaited extradition to the United  States in a jail in Hamburg.  He would not be released until after No Name in the Street was published.  Baldwin focuses on Maynard’s feelings of terror at the American judicial system.  He accepts the position of other radical figures that all black prisoners in the United States are political prisoners because none of them were tried by their peers.  In a sidebar of sorts, Baldwin ponders on a white girl he knew from “the Village” and how when they accompanied each other in the city, they needed to pretend they were not together.  “Our connection caused us to be menaced by the police in ways indescribable and nearly inconceivable.” (419)

3. The Watts riot of 1965.  Baldwin connects the conditions of Watts to those of other urban areas, such as Harlem, which he was most familiar with.  The riots were an outcrop of the horrible conditions in the ghettos.  “The ghetto, beleaguered, betrayed by Washington, by the total lack of vision of the men in Washington, determined to outwit, withstand, survive, this present, overwhelming danger, yet lacks a focus, a rallying point, a spokesman. . . . Lord, we really need Malcolm now.” (434)

Watts Riots

Watts Riots

4. The Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination.  Baldwin’s reaction to Malcolm’s assassination was that of a revolutionary.  He was saddened because he felt the moment needed someone like Malcolm X.  With King, Baldwin seems to return to his religious state.  I guess that suggests how Baldwin saw both of these figures and their role in the movement.

5. The Black Panthers.  Like Malcolm X, the Black Panthers are needed.  “The black people need protection against the police is indicated by the black community’s reaction to the advent of the Panthers .  Without community support, the Panthers would have been merely another insignificant street gang.” (451)  (I suspect by the same logic without the need and the community support, the NOI would have been just another urban cult.)  He is very impressed by Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale even though Cleaver wrote a harsh criticism of Baldwin (which I recall was quite ad-hominid at attacked Baldwin’s ideas through his sexuality – Soul on Ice).

6. The emergence of black power is at the heart of the last pages of the essay.  This was both destructive and creative.  It pushed whites from the moment, of course.  He talks about the growing rift between the “flower children” and the blacks.  The bittersweet ending of the essay introduces the “carefully repressed terror in relation to blacks.” (471)  But it did help create a new identity.  If you watch some of the clips, you know that Baldwin struggled with the term “Negro,” which he embraced as part of his identity.  Younger activists and people like Malcolm X opposed the use of the term and preferred “black.”  It seems that Baldwin has come to terms with this change by the end of No Name in the Street.  (Is this search for an identity the meaning of the title?)    The seizing of the name “black” is seen by Baldwin as an essential component of liberation.

When Baldwin put down his pen on this work, the revolution was not done but it was beginning to see the end of its Jacobin phase – it was entering Thermidor.  His next collection of essays The Devil Finds Work is mostly about his relationship to film.  The Library of America did not even bother to publish his later novels.  The collected essays at the end of this volume cover mostly his 1950s and 1960s works, not collected in his other books.  Was Baldwin simply a Civil Rights writer?  I do not think so, but he lived during a revolutionary and found his voice in being one of its most eloquent interested interpreters.

James Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name” (1961)

Nobody Knows My Name is James Baldwin’s follow-up to Notes of a Native Son (he even subtitles it, “More Notes of a Nature Son.” The essays in this collection were written between 1955 and 1961 and carry on many of the themes of his first collection, including the different experiences of race in Europe and America, depictions of African-Americans in literature, and the religious life.  In his introduction he write about how he decided to return to the United States after several years in Europe.  For him, it was overcoming terror.  He confesses to residing in Europe out of fear.  Well, he returned at the right time to take part in some of the most interesting discussions about race in American history.  The essays in Nobody Knows My Name are therefore transitional.

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His opening essay considers the old question: “What does it mean to be an American?”  Perhaps it was Crevecoeur who first asked this question in his Notes from an American Farmer, where among other things we learn that being an American means first and foremost not being a European.  And Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Dubois taught us that this question is far from color blind.  For a writer, it poses the problem of perspective, which Baldwin sees are rooted in the place of our birth.  “Every society is governed by hidden laws.” (142)  He starts to hint at the trouble of being an American writer as tied to the liquidity of the society.  While Europe was more static in terms of class and status, “American writers do not have a fixed society to describe.” (142) More subtlety, Americans still have those hidden structures but cannot admit them or fully analyze them.  Europe provides some breathing space and perspective to describe the boundaries and limits of the American liquid world.

He has a long essay describing “The Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists” in Paris, which was declared by one of the presenters to be a second Bandung conference.  Baldwin does not quite fit into this conference, often opposing the Afrocentric positions of many writers.  Having spent much of his time arguing for the distinctive African-American experience, he cannot swallow this idea of a unitary black experience.  Africans at least have a country.  Baldwin is still impressed at the enthusiasm of the conference and its power.  I wondered if Baldwin felt himself as an immature writer, surrounded by those “big heads.”  I might just be projecting my own generational burdens.

Following up on this conference, Baldwin takes us back to Harlem where he exposes the devastation caused by urban renewal and the development of housing projects.  The rhetoric of free choice and free markets break down in a place like Harlem where race and economic barriers limit mobility.  If the urban reformers want a disgusting, low quality housing project they have the power to construct it, even if that construction costs the city a neighborhood, businesses, or parks.  As bad as the projects were as institutional impositions, they necessitated the further occupation of Harlem by the police.  “The only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive.” (176)  I think essays like these on Harlem are useful correctives to those who think things are okay.  In fact, things are much worse than we suspect.  Sadly, few of us realize this even though the evidence of how bad things are is often just across the street, or require looking at the world with a small amount of empathy. 

Nobody Knows My Name also includes a series of essays on the U.S. South.  Baldwin sees the South and the North as part of the same national trauma.  Northern blacks live the South, even if they never have been there.  It is in their family history and their cultural memory.  Its problems are also not unique.  He even correctly predicts that the trauma of the Civil Rights struggle in the South would be relived in Northern urban areas before long.  “It must be said that the racial setup in the South is not, for a Negro, very different from the racial setup in the North.  It is the etiquette which is baffling, not the spirit.  Segregation is unofficial in the North and official in the South, a crucial difference that does nothing, nevertheless, to alleviate the lot of most Northern Negroes.” (203)  I might add that at least formal institutional oppression can be easily targeted, if not easily taken down.  With the unofficial means of control, we face opaque threats that need to be clearly defined and located before they can be broken down.  In the same section he attacks liberal white Southerners for their inability to fully imagine an alternative to the world that they helped construct and define.  He focuses on Faulkner (who I have not yet read). White Southern writers cling to the mythology of the South and cannot demand immediate change without destroying the world that created them.  “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” (209) The end of this safety is something that people of Faulkner’s ilk cannot accept, making them poor allies for the struggle for racial equality.

I will leave you with another of Baldwin’s public talks.

James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” (1955)

Notes of a Native Son is the first of Baldwin’s collection of essays.  Often in his novels, characters are trapped by social expectations, family, urban environments, or peer groups.  Baldwin mentions more than once that he did not want to write about the “Negro problem” simply because he was a black writer active in the Civil Rights era.  Yet, that is exactly what he does in his 1950s and 1960s non-fiction work.  He realized the limitations of this and the cruel assumptions underpinning the expectation that a black writer consider issues of race.  “I started waiting on tables in a Village restaurant and writing book reviews — mostly, as it turned out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert.” (5)  But as any writer, he had to write about the life he lived and the times he lived in.  This makes the “Negro problem” central to his work form this period.  The essays in Notes of a Native Son were written when Baldwin was just starting his writing career and are grouped into three sections based on his experiences in these years: (1) his exhaustive reading, (2) growing up in Harlem, and (3) life as a black expat in Paris.

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The first part, consisting of three essays, examines the images of blacks in American culture.  First, he critiques Uncle Tom’s Cabin and by extension “protest novels,” which by their nature suspend realism for the pushing of a political wish.  Her characters are simple and her understanding of relationships between the races under slavery was shallow.  Such novels, Baldwin asserts, have their role in promoting freedom but are nevertheless bad novels because they miss out on the fundamental reality.  “The oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs.” (17)  Baldwin next levels a similar critique against Richard Wright’s Native Son.  Like Stowe, Wright is “trapped by the American image of Negro life. . . . It is the socially conscious whites who receive him [Bigger] — the Negroes being capable of no such objectivity.” (31)  By embracing the anger of the era, Wright is no less a distorter of the black experience.  His final critique is of Carmen Jones, a film with an all-black cast interpreting Carmen.  And again, we find the work of art separated from the realities of black life.  “One is not watching the complex and consuming passion which leads to life or death — one is watching a timorous and vulgar misrepresentation of these things. . . .The Negro male is still too loaded a quantity for them to know quite how to handle.  Baldwin’s essential cultural critique at this time is the inability of artists to depict the world as it really is.

The next set of essays are autobiographical and deal with the urban experience of African-Americans in places like Harlem.  He starts with a depiction of just how horrible things are in Harlem (“The Harlem Ghetto”).  Poor services, high rents, staggering food costs, and abuse by black and white politicians.  We feel like we are in the world described by David Simon in The Wire.  Indeed we are in many ways and it is tragic how little of what Baldwin describes has changed in the last fifty years.  What we end up with is trapped people.  Baldwin explores this social prison through an analysis of black anti-Semitism.   He sees it as a reflection of black bitterness toward whites produced by a racist society.   “The Negro’s outlets are desperately constricted.  In his dilemma he turns first upon himself and then upon whatever most represents to him his own emasculation.”  (53)  Yet (and here is makes the same point he makes in critiquing Native Son) bitterness and anger is not all that defines the urban experience.  “Journey to Atlanta” considers some jazz musicians who toured the South.  There they were taken advantage of by local political workers of the Progressive Party to canvas neighborhoods.  Of course, the lesson here is that these skilled musicians were essentially seen as their skin color.  “Notes of a Native Son” is the story of Baldwin’s father and his death.  These memoirs intersect with some of the brutal realities in Harlem, including the indifference of some of the whites he encounters.  Baldwin uses these small events to make explicable the race riot that engulfed Harlem at the same time that his father died.  “The avenues , side streets, bars, billiard halls, hospitals, police stations, and even the playgrounds of Harlem — not to mention the houses of correction, the jails, and the morgue — testified to the potency of the poison while remaining silent as to the efficiency of whatever antidote.” (78)

The final four essays come from Baldwin’s observations of expat life in Paris, particularly focused on what he sees as the uniqueness of the African-American experience.  In contrast to black nationalists (who he debates directly in The First Next Time), there is not a singular modern black experience in the world.  African-Americans are bound to the U.S. and have their own struggles there.  While providing some potential for freedom, Paris seems to be at best an escape from where the real reckoning must take place.  One looks at the meetings of African-American expats with Africans living in France.  “They face each other, the Negro and the African, over a gulf of three hundred years–an alienation too vast to be conquered in an evening’s good-will, too heavy and too double-edged to ever be trapped in speech.” (89)  Paris cannot become a center for identity for expats because too many of them are emotionally or otherwise tied to America.  Baldwin often wrote about blacks in America encountering police, so it is interesting that he took the time to write a long essay about his arrest in Paris (he was accused of fencing).  The police and judicial system is something that (I suppose) few expats experience and it may very well be one of the last parts of a foreign culture on experiences, if at all.  I suppose the essay shows how Baldwin never quite became a Parisian and still held onto American attitudes about the police and power.  The final essay describes Baldwin’s visit to a town that may have never encountered a black before.  In a way, this allows Baldwin to escape race for the first time in his life.  Since race is a dialectical experience, shaping the development of both whites and blacks, this small town lacked the “black-white” experience that would have contributed to such a fossilization of racial expectations.  Being in a town without any blacks meant he was in a town without a history of slavery, violence, economic exploitation, and hatred.  He sums up the “Negro problem” in America by saying “I am a stranger here.  But I am not a stranger in America and the same syllable riding on the American air expresses the war my presence has occasioned in the American soul.” (124)

 

I will forestall any conclusion for now, until I write on more of Baldwin’s writings on race.

James Baldwin, “Another Country” (1963): Literature from the Margins

During my time as a historian (whether that is entirely over is yet to be seen) I struggled to write history “from below.”  In practice, I tended to write it from the margins as much as I could.  I was only of dubious success.  One reason I am so attracted by American writers of literature is that it is through literature that the history of people on the margins of society can be fully articulated and realized.  It is perhaps for this reason that some of the best historical scholarship on marginal people tend to be cultural histories in one way or another (often it is confessed as such in the title).  James Baldwin wrote Another Country at the peak of the Civil Rights movement, when he had already achieved notoriety as an essayist studying the black experience in America.  I will look at these essays next week, but it is enough to say for now that his essays are interested in the daily lived experience of being black under Jim Crow or while experiencing racial discrimination, police brutality, or condescension in cities.  Whether institutional or not, these were real experiences.  Baldwin wanted to remind his white readers (I suspect his black readers did not need reminding) that these experiences mattered when added up and quilted together into the tapestry of an individual’s life.  However, Another Country is far too rich to be summarily defined as the literary expression of these arguments.

Marketed to a nation obsessed with interracial sex.

Marketed to a nation obsessed with interracial sex.

He starts with quoting Henry James making an argument for history from the margins.  “They strike one, above all, as giving no account of themselves in any terms already consecrated by human use; to this inarticulate state they probably form, collectively, the most unprecedented of monuments; abysmal the mystery of what they think, what they feel, what they want, what they suppose themselves to be saying.” (363)  Book One of Another Country documents the life and death of Rufus Scott, a bisexual jazz musician in Harlem.  Baldwin — through his narrator — makes clear that Rufus lives under the constant reminder of racism and poverty.  We meet him hungry and trying to sleep at a movie theater.  On the first page he despairs that “you took the best, so why not take the rest” and flees from the hostile gave (imagined or not we do not know) of a passing policeman.  Baldwin certainly wants to make the point that although the Northern cities lacked the formalized racial discrimination of Jim Crow laws, the city itself was a burden for many residents.  “The weight of the city was murderous–one of those who had been crushed on the day, which was every day, these towers fell.” (368)  These are the thoughts that precede his suicide, but thankfully we are quickly sent to a seemingly happier time.  It is the night that Rufus first has sex with Leona, a white woman from the South escaping her failed marriage.  Rufus later develops a relationship with Leona but at this time Rufus’ motives are more vicious.  In contrast to the powerlessness of the opening passages, Rufus here is at the top of his game, musically and sexually.  As his relationship develops with Leona we are again exposed to the perpetual invasion of race in Rufus’ life.  He worries constantly how other will look at him on the street (this is in contrast to the confidence with which he brought her to the party where they first had sex).  Leona once calls him “boy” with no racial assumptions, but this offends him greatly.   Ultimately, as a result of these feelings of inadequacy, his frustration, and racial/sexual self-hatred Rufus begins abusing Leona savagely.  Rufus projected all of this bile onto Leona.  As she explained: “He had a fight last week with some guy in the subway, some real, ignorant, unhappy man just didn’t like the idea of our being together, you know? and, well, you know, he blamed that fight on me.  He said I was encouraging the man. Why, Viv, I didn’t even see the man until he opened his mouth.  But, Rufus, he’s all the time looking for it, he sees it where it ain’t, he don’t see nothing else no more.”  (417)  We have good reason here to mistrust much of Rufus’s interpretation of the rest of the world, but we know better than deny the daily insults he did face as a poor black man in New York that over the years formed his identity and gave him a frame of reference to interpret the world.

Well, Rufus quickly declines.  He becomes a prostitute, homeless, and sleeping in restaurants and move theaters.  His friends — particularly the writer Vivaldo — try to help him but with little success.  He disappears and a few days later his body turns up.

This is the type of story that history cannot tell well.  With the exception of the music Rufus played, nothing of his feelings and experiences would be recorded.  Pretending Rufus was real (which of course, he is, after a fashion), we can imagine a diligent scholar would learn about his relationship with Leona via the asylum records from when he sent her South.  His suicide would also be in the police records.  What is not there is his daily humiliations, his street brawls (and imagined or real slights that began them), and the feel of the city for someone in Rufus’ position.  Most important, is the difficult to document and prove the non-institutional experience of repression.

 

James Baldwin, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953): Religion and Freedom

Go Tell It on the Mountain parallels nicely with one of the major themes I teased out of Eudora Welty’s work, namely the relationship between individual freedom and our social institutions.  While Welty was primarily concerned with the family, family traditions, and nostalgia as a barrier to freedom, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, looks at African-American Christianity in much the same way.  While providing a source of identity, community, and values it creates an environment that is individually the cause of much torment, anxiety, and confinement.  At more than one moment, the protagonist’s father Gabriel threatens to “beat sin out of him.” (190)  Religion becomes a cover for his child abuse, for long-term resentment toward his son (who is not his biologically), and control over his son’s future career plans.  Gabriel is himself shaped and conflicted by his religious values, fathering a bastard child.  (We wonder at a few points if his religious obsession with the sin of sex makes that diversion from God’s path nearly inevitable.)  It is not, however, an entirely insidious part of the character’s lives.  Except for a few characters in open revolt against religion, we cannot imagine them outside of the guidance of the church, but the psychological (and physical) abuse and the long train of bad decisions makes us wonder if they would not be better off in revolt against these traditions.  Like America, these characters stand on the edge of freedom but choose to stand safely on the side of repression.

This week, I will look at three of Baldwin's novels and some of his short stories.

This week, I will look at three of Baldwin’s novels and some of his short stories.

John, the protagonist, has many parallels with James Baldwin’s own life.  Both grew up in New York, raised by men who were not their biological fathers.  Their stepfathers are preachers and both are expected to enter the church.  John and James also both grew up with a handful of half-brothers and half-sisters.  If Go Tell It on the Mountain can be trusted as autobiography, then these siblings provided potential alternatives from the expected life in the church.  Baldwin took advantage of these and evaded the religious life through writing, which he started doing at a very young age.  His biographical chronology reveals Baldwin to be quite precocious.  He started writing eleven or twelve, began sketching Go Tell It on the Mountain before the age of twenty.  He met Richard Wright when he was 20, gaining his encouragement (and connections), which helps his continued writing.  He also realized his homosexuality around this time.  Go Tell It on the Mountain was published before he was 30 years old.  This places his writing career at a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, but as a Northern writer he would have a different relationship to the questions the Civil Rights movement thrust on the nation.  His questions are urban, international, and economic.  And while he did participate in some of the actions of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, he would have a closer relationship with the more urban “Black Power” perspective, meeting Huey Newton and working on a film adaptation of Malcolm X’s autobiography.

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Go Tell It on the Mountain is divided into three parts, but it really comes together as five chapters.  The first part, “The Seventh Day,” sets up the spiritual life of fourteen-year-old John.  We also learn immediately of the alternative, represented by Roy – his half-brother.  The novel opens with sexual curiosity.  John is curious about the sexuality in the street life of Harlem, Roy’s experiments, and his parent’s sex life.  John’s physical attraction to Elisha (who is already “saved”) perhaps parallels Baldwins own sexuality.  John lives in fear and awe of his stepfather.  His mother constantly reinforces the idea that his stepfather is a holy man.  He is also plagued with the idea that he is surrounded in sin.  In a memorial passage, we are introduced to a woman in a film John watches.  Rather than enjoying the film, John dwells on the fate of this woman’s soul and the fate of women like her.  The film is also a spiritual test for John. Would he accept or reject the sinful world or embrace God.  “He could not claim, as African savages might be able to claim, that no one had brought him the gospel.  His father and mother and all the saints had taught him from his earliest childhood what was the will of God.  Either he arose from the theater, never to return, putting behind him the world and its pleasures, its honors, and its glories, or he remained here with the wicked and partook of their certain punishment.” (38)  It is also in this first section of the novel that Roy is stabbed by some whites, again suggesting a powerful alternative for John, but it is also interpreted as a threat to his soul.  Unfortunately, most of us cannot see alternatives for what they are.

The second part is broken up into three chapters and open us up to the perspective of three of the most important people in John’s life: his aunt Florence, his stepfather Gabriel, and his mother Elizabeth.  It is presented as “the prayers of the saints,” for in John’s mind all three are saintly figures.  As we learn the details of these people’s lives we know that the narrative they presented to John was incomplete, convincing us that the religious life was not simply a free choice John made (which is how John often sees it, as when watching the sinful film) but chains, constructed through lies and half-truths.  The most dramatic of these lies is Gabriel’s illegitimate child.  Gabriel buys off the woman, Esther, using money stolen from his second wife, Elizabeth.  When the affair and the illegitimacy is exposed, Gabriel shows little remorse or concern.  Gabriel is able to harness all sorts of religious explanations for his actions, most notably the assumption that sin is the domain of the daughters of Eve.  Esther, a drinker and more attractive than his wife, brings him to sin.  Gabriel is able to twist his ending of the affair as a victory for the Lord.

Before looking at the final chapter of the novel, we cannot help but observe that like Gabriel and Elizabeth, Elisha wants John to find God and follow a religious path.  He is able to present these arguments to him without the near tyrannical authority of a step father (or a vengeful Lord seen through the eyes of a vengeful stepfather).  Rather than “beat the sin” out of John, Elisha presents a kinder, more forgiving Jesus.  “But when the Lord saves you He burns out all that old Adam, He gives you a new mind a new heart, and then you don’t find no pleasure in the world, you get all your joy in walking and talking with Jesus every day.” (52)  None of the “three saints” find much joy in the religious life.  What they find are tests, dramatic explosions of emotion, woe and pain.

The final section, “The Threshing-Floor” starts in a strange place.  John is engaged in alternatively a struggle with God and a struggle with his stepfather.  This intense experience turns out to be John’s conversion experience (afterward he is “saved”).  It is Elisha he sees when he comes out of this quasi-hallucinogenic experience.  Later in the evening, John is reassured by Elisha that he is saved, but his joy at this fact is not shared by his father, who remains resentful of his stepson.  This is a victory of sorts.  He in a sense is able to choose a variant of Christianity that is based more on love than on fear.  Does this place him as a spiritual equal as his father?  Perhaps even more than that.  It is doubtful that is transforms the power dynamic in that will likely leave John under the power of the physically (and as it turns out sexually) more daunting Gabriel.

What is key is that John feels liberated.  “He was free — whom the Son sets free is free indeed — he had only to stand fast in his liberty.  He was in battle no longer, this unfolding Lord’s day, with this avenue, these houses, the sleeping, staring, shouting people, but had entered into battle with Jacob’s angel, with the princes and the powers of the air.” (210)  In contrast to his perspective earlier in the novel where the religious path is a constant losing struggle.  At one point Gabriel condemns a parishioner for not attending church enough.  Gabriel was in perpetual conflict with his desires.

As an autobiography we can read this libertarian tension as continuing.  Baldwin would himself move from a religious career becoming a novelist, essayist, and activist.  I suspect John’s future is just as open, but it required first a liberation from the traditions and beliefs of the family.  In this we can be happily optimistic in contrast to Welty’s claustrophobic novels.  The family may be chains but they are not unbreakable.  John may benefit from the urban environment in ways Welty’s rural characters could not, but the important point is that John is able to shove off the monkey of family expectations (and physical or emotional tyranny) from his back.