The feeling of existential unease, of not being at home in the world, is present in James Baldwin’s novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, to a painfully concentrated degree. The novel takes that feeling of unease as its starting point and goes on to explore broader themes related to family, history, and religion.
The story is set in Harlem, New York City of the 1930s, centered on a day in the life of John Grimes, a Black fourteen-year-old, and several members of his family, including his stepfather, his mother, and his aunt. We begin and end the novel on that same day, but Baldwin shows how much history is contained within that narrow timeframe. Deeper layers of past experiences are in the present, beneath the surface, earlier material serving as foundation, just as there could be deeper, more significant memories at the core of a particular memory.
We find John on a Sunday morning and Baldwin describes John’s recollection of his earlier Sunday mornings, in a way that hints at the character of memory.
“His earliest memories—which were in a way, his only memories—were of the hurry and brightness of Sunday mornings.”
Saying that John’s earlier memories are, in some sense, his only memories, refers to the formative, ever-present character of significant memories, and their role in shaping the mind, and consequently, the way we form other memories.
Struggling to find one’s place in society, involves struggling to understand the social and familial adversities one is facing. John’s adversities do not simply make his life difficult; they make him feel out of place: The poverty of his family, his self-righteous, out-of-touch, authoritarian father, the racial prejudice he encounters daily, the near absence of encouraging relationships, his mixed attitude toward religion, and the knowledge of his own body as short and ugly. His sensitivity and intelligence, though intensifying the pain of his condition, are his means of coping. Another response, perhaps a way of coping, John finds, is through rage and self-destructive tendencies. Baldwin traces the onset of rage as a response available in a hopeless situation.
“There was an awful silence at the bottom of John’s mind, a dreadful weight, a dreadful speculation. And not even a speculation, but a deep, deep turning, as of something huge, black, shapeless, for ages dead on the ocean floor, that now felt its rest disturbed by a faint, far wind, which bid it: ‘Arise.’ And this weight began to move at the bottom of John’s mind, in a silence like the silence of the void before creation, and he began to feel a terror he had never felt before.”
Baldwin’s descriptions of how feelings emerge show how a feeling can be response to an ambiguous situation, a temptation, or a problem. As a feeling arises, the person is in the process of taking a side in response to the present demands, the calls to action, settling on an attitude that disambiguate the complexity and simplifies the meaning of the situation. Meeting Esther, for example, spending time with her, loving her, would have had a different meaning for a man other than Gabriel. For Gabriel, being with Esther was tangled up with such dramatic associations—guilt, indecency, destruction, secrecy—leaving hardly any room for seeing Esther and the possible relationships they could have.
“[Gabriel] began to feel like a man in a nightmare, who stands in the path of oncoming destruction, who must move quickly—but who cannot move. ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,’ rang over and over again in his mind, like a bell—as he moved closer to her, undone by her breath, and her wide, angry, mocking eyes.”
Let us step back and make a few general observations about the structure of the novel. The book is divided into three parts, the first and the third of which are dedicated to John. The second part, however, is itself divided into three chapters, each devoted to a secondary character and their history. Each of the secondary chapters explore the theme of existential unease in the context of a different life.
There is a pivotal scene in the story, at the church, with everyone singing and praying together. This scene, as the heart of the story, pushes us out and pulls us back in. Each time, we enter a different narrative thread that follows one of the characters, and eventually returns to the scene. The juxtaposition of togetherness and aloneness, unity and separation, is a significant theme. It touches on family, as well as religion. Baldwin shows how the religious commitment, and the community of a faith, brings people together—Florence, Elizabeth, Gabriel, along with everyone else—for prayer, but then each character’s prayer gives a different rendering of that shared place and rests on a unique narrative thread.
The choice to portray characters at the moment of prayer is itself remarkable. We tend to forget the many ways we can look at a person, how each way of looking at them enables a way of representing them and thinking about them. How distant is an image of a person in prayer from our common ways of representing ourselves, for instance, on social media, with pictures that show we much we are enjoying our lives; how different is a representation of a person in prayer from, say, performance-centered metrics associated with work, efficiency, and achievement. How strange it feels to read Baldwin’s narrative threads departing from, and then returning to, the moment of communal prayer.
The chapter on Elizabeth, John’s mother, recalls her life as a young girl, her love for her father, and the discovery that her father’s job, which was running a brothel, meant she was not supposed to love him, to want to live with him. The heavy feeling of a love that is felt, but is recognized by the lover as out-of-place, is of course something Baldwin returns to in his second novel, Giovanni’s Room. But a similar pattern repeats once again in Elizabeth’s life, when she falls in love with Richard, John’s biological father. This time, it is the traumatic force of racism that prevents their life together to continue.
Elizabeth, as Mrs. Grimes, is portrayed as a deeply religious woman. While her faith enables her to endure the pains of her life, it also leaves her susceptible to mistreatment by her husband, Gabriel. One of the tragedies depicted in the novel is how racism coincides with mistreatments of women by the very men who are victims of racial prejudice. This topic is dealt with by Franz Fanon, in his Black Skin, White Masks, although I am also reminded of Sander Gilman’s work in Freud, Race, and Gender. Gilman points out how Sigmund Freud, himself target of antisemitic prejudice, perpetuated the essential force of that prejudice, i.e., hierarchies of worth and significance among human beings, in his biases against women.
The chapter dedicated to Gabriel, John’s stepfather, depicts him as a self-righteous and domineering preacher who has a complicated relationship with his family. While the chapter provides Gabriel’s backstory presumably in an attempt to garner sympathy from the reader, some readers have criticized it as ineffective. What is particularly noteworthy about Gabriel’s relationship with John is how it is influenced by the loss of Gabriel’s first son, Royal. As Royal was conceived with Esther, a woman with whom Gabriel had a secretive relationship, Gabriel never acknowledged him as his son. Thus, his sense of duty towards John seems to be formed by the guilt of having already failed as a father. John seems to enter Gabriel’s life not as a new and separate event, but as the shadow of a previous tragedy, against which Gabriel is powerless. Wasn’t a similar sense of predestination—a predestined fall—present in Gabriel’s encounter with Esther?
To understand Gabriel’s significant decisions, including his marriages to Deborah and Elizabeth, his affair with Esther, ending that affair, his refusal to acknowledge Royal as his son, we ought to consider his sense of powerlessness and surrender. Even his physical abuse towards his children reflects his fundamental lack of power. At the same time, Gabriel sustains a larger-than-life attitude, using religion in an instrumental and self-serving manner. The self-serving use of religion is not cold and calculated, of course, it allows him to create a delusional lifeworld, an atmosphere of feelings, where he can avoid facing ordinary uncertainties and admitting mundane imperfections. This self-aggrandizement is exemplified by the dramatic way he treats his decision to sleep with Esther, which even earns mockery from Esther herself.
“He understood about Esther, during those nine days: that she considered his fear and trembling fanciful and childish, a way of making life more complicated than it need be. She did not think life was like that; she wanted life to be simple. He understood that she was sorry for him because he was always worried. Sometimes, when they were together, he tried to tell her of what he felt, how the Lord would punish them for the sin they were committing.”
Florence emerges as an effective critic of Gabriel, despite the limited impact of her confrontation with him, at least the reader can be satisfied to see that criticism voiced out by one of characters. It is important to note that Florence’s criticism is not anti-religious but also grounded in a religious perspective. Baldwin, therefore, demonstrates how religion doesn’t have to be used in a self-serving way. This note on religion applies, more broadly, to John’s story and the slight shade of optimism it reflects. That optimism is offered within a somewhat religious framework, despite John’s skeptical attitude. Perhaps this is presented by the author as necessary, as in How else could John face a society rife with prejudice and brutality towards Black people, how else could he show strength and resilience in facing that world?
Maybe so. Although I will add that John’s skepticism is also a necessary ingredient. Along with the tensions between aloneness and togetherness, the past and the present, despair and hope, the dialectic of faith and skepticism embodied in John’s life is another expression of that existential unease at the heart of this novel. It is with the mixture of those dissonant ingredients in mind that the author invites us to think about the future, John’s future, and our own.