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.
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.
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.