“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” (James Baldwin)

Trigger warning: mention of rape, domestic violence, racist violence

I was delighted when Go Tell It on the Mountain was selected for today’s review-a-long, as it has sat in my TBR for ages. I also really enjoyed October’s Vanity Fair review-a-long, and I fell in love with James Baldwin’s writing when I read Giovanni’s Room for the 1956 Club, back in October 2020.

Despite these various motivators, I was still worried I wouldn’t manage to join in, as my reading is slowly improving but still very poor, and my blogging is essentially non-existent. However, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) proved a good choice, as despite being a really tough read in terms of subject matter, it’s only 256 pages in my edition, can be read in an afternoon, and is full of Baldwin’s lyrical beauty.

Photo by Allan Warren, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The remaining obstacle is that it feels impossible to write about Go Tell It on the Mountain. It’s such a richly complex book and tackles such enormous themes, that I’m not even going to manage to approach doing it justice. So what follows is a few random thoughts 😊

The novel opens:

“Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.”

John’s father Gabriel Grimes preaches at the Temple of the Fire Baptized, a Pentecostal storefront church in Harlem. John is ambivalent about religion, finding it restrictive and acutely aware of the temptations all around him;

“For John excelled in school, though not, like Elisha, in mathematics or basketball, and it was said that he had a Great Future. He might become a Great Leader of His People. John was not much interested in his people and still less in leading them anywhere, but the phrase so often repeated rose in his mind like a great brass gate, opening outward for him on a world where people did not live in the darkness of his father’s house, did not pray to Jesus in the darkness of his father’s church, where he would eat good food, and wear fine clothes, and go to the movies as often as he wished.”

However, he does have faith. We follow John throughout his birthday as goes to the cinema and enjoys Central Park, but also attends church:

“The Sunday morning service began when Brother Elisha sat down at the piano and raised a song. This moment and this music had been with John, so it seemed, since he had first drawn breath.”

Aged fourteen, John is still finding out who he is. This is bound up in religion and church, but also in his academic accomplishments which mark him out at school and within his family; and his rejection of his father as a masculine role model who demonstrates violence and hypocrisy, beating his family often.

“His father’s arm, rising and falling, might make him cry, and that voice might cause him to tremble; yet his father could never be entirely the victor, for John cherished something that his father could not reach. It was his hatred and his intelligence that he cherished, the one feeding the other.”

In the second part of the novel the prayers of John’s father, mother and aunt are powerfully explored. I don’t want to say too much about the plot here, as the characterisations first introduced through John’s point of view are so sensitively deepened through this second part, including that of his abusive father (who remains wholly unlikeable, but a fully realised character). As a reader I enjoyed watching these complex adults emerge without any foreknowledge.

John’s parents are the first generation since emancipation, and the trauma of slavery is just within lived experience, as GTIOTM is set in 1935. The depictions of racism, every day and institutional, are enraging.

“She looked out into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all—the white city, the white world. She could not, that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world. She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, whom they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humor, had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs.”

Through John’s aunt Florence and his mother Elizabeth, Baldwin explores the additional patriarchal oppression women have to contend with. Florence’s academia is ignored to prioritise Gabriel’s, despite her desire for learning and his total disregard for it. Pregnancy outside of wedlock is left for the women to deal with. A woman who is gang-raped by white men is outcast:

“No man would approach her in honor because she was a living reproach”

There is a lot of compassion throughout the novel for female experience. With everyone there is a sense of things unspoken, in contrast to the vocal exuberance of preaching, and this is particularly true for the female characters.

“And he knew again that she was not saying everything she meant; in a kind of secret language she was telling him today something that he must remember and understand tomorrow. He watched her face, his heart swollen with love for her and with an anguish, not yet his own, that he did not understand and that frightened him.”

The final part of the novel follows John experiencing vivid religious visions, but I felt the ending was ambiguous, undermining the fervour. Baldwin demonstrates that human experience is subject to unpredictable forces, both internal and external, and I felt any certainty John believed in one day could be undone tomorrow. (For one thing, John doesn’t seem to acknowledge sexual attraction to Elisha, though as readers it seems to be there.)

As I mentioned at the beginning. I’ve found Go Tell It on the Mountain almost impossible to write about. I hope these few thoughts and extensive quotes have given some sense of it though! Baldwin is such gorgeous writer even with such harrowing subject matters: skilled but approachable, angry and compassionate, humane and unsentimental.

Now to dig If Beale Street Could Talk out of the TBR…

I’ll add in links to the other bloggers taking part today as I find them. Early signs are I’m out on a limb with this one, so please do check out the other reviews 🙂 :

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