A Literary Retrospective: Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain

Raja-Léon Hamann, LeipGlo contributor and PhD student in Cultural and Social Anthropology, will offer his insights into the novels of James Baldwin in this new article series. He will go through all of Baldwin’s novels, starting with his debut Go Tell It on the Mountain in this first article.

If I had to name one person who has inspired my writing and my critical thinking most profoundly, it would, without any hesitation, be James Baldwin (1924-1987). There are, in my view, only very few other authors who have been able to articulate the ills of US-American society as eloquently and pointedly as he did. Baldwin was a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist, a visionary whose work touched upon a wide range of issues, among them, first and foremost, race, gender, sexuality, history and memory, freedom and justice, identity, and love. What distinguishes Baldwin’s writing is its emotional authenticity, the particular way in which he explored the complexities and depths of human emotion and sensuality.

Baldwin insisted that the task of the writer is to have an absolute commitment to truth, a “devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment” (Notes of a Native Son, 15).

He carefully differentiated this understanding of truth as devotion to humanity from truth as devotion to a cause. The latter, as he argued, inevitably leads to the subordination of the complexity, ambiguity and value of human life to simplified and reductive doctrines (ibid. 15–16). Because of this general skepticism towards ideology and his conviction that as a writer he had to remain as independent as possible, Baldwin, throughout his life, was never part of any civil rights organization, such as the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC or the Nation of Islam.

In spite of that, though perhaps also for that very reason, he was one of the central critical voices of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. Towards the end of the 60s, Baldwin’s prominence waned, principally due to the changing of guards in the struggle for Black liberation, but also related to the ongoing discrimination he was faced with, as a homosexual Black man, from within the movement. In 1970, he emigrated to Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, where he spent the rest of his life, closely following and commenting on developments in the US.

Given both his fascinating biography and the importance of his work for me personally, I have always wanted to write about Baldwin.

When I recently re-watched Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary based upon Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, I was inspired to finally put theory into practice. Since most people are familiar only with the writings he produced between the 1950s and the mid-60s, the original intent behind this text was to introduce readers to Baldwin’s later novels. However, when I realized that my ideas would by far exceed the space of one essay, I decided to write a series instead, focusing on each of his novels at a time.

My intention is to provide both a general introduction to Baldwin’s literary work, as well as to focus on particular aspects in his novels that are commonly neglected. To substantiate my interpretations, I will also include thoughts from his critical essays that elucidate the philosophy underlying his writing. I begin the series with Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), which, as he said, he had to write if he ever wanted to write anything else.

Go Tell It on the Mountain is regarded as the most autobiographical of Baldwin’s novels.

James Baldwin leaning on a tree
Photo by Allan Warren. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The young protagonist John Grimes, just as Baldwin himself, was born and raised in Harlem, living together with his half-siblings, his mother, and his stepfather, a lay preacher whom John experiences only as a distant, unforgiving, and cruel man. The central matter of the book is John’s wrestling with his identity, heritage, and fate, which may be read in parallel with what Baldwin described in his essay “Down at the Cross” as his own “prolonged religious crisis” that he underwent during the summer when he became fourteen (The Fire Next Time, 15).

Set in 1935, the novel’s main events unfold within the short timeframe of about 24 hours. The plot is centered around a tarry service visited by John and his family in their local storefront church on the evening of John’s fourteenth birthday. The entire middle part of the book, however, is comprised of flashbacks. First, to the past of John’s aunt, then to his father’s and, finally, to his mother’s, where we learn about the formative moments and experiences of their lives—events which would also shape John.

Most interpretations of Go Tell It on the Mountain principally direct their attention to the relationship between John and his stepfather Gabriel. Indeed, Baldwin himself stated that the novel was very much about processing his own relationship with his father figure. For the purpose of this essay, however, I would like to focus on two other issues, namely, on the central role of women and on the theme of transgenerational struggle. While I do not deny the importance of the relationship between Gabriel and John, I argue that, by focusing only on this aspect, common readings tend to overlook other crucial dimensions of the novel.

The first person who sees John as he enters the kitchen on the morning of his fateful fourteenth birthday is his mother, Elizabeth.

There are several other moments in the novel which describe John and his mother facing each other. And always there is an intense care with which she looks at him, appears to truly see him. As becomes clear over the course of the book, her act of seeing John needs to be interpreted as more than only visual perception, but as recognition of his worthfulness as an individual, as a loving gaze. In contrast, his stepfather Gabriel’s eyes “sweep” over John, filled with anger and hate; he does not, he cannot see his stepson.

Throughout the novel, John’s mother acts as an anchor for him, the parent he is loved and protected by, even though he feels that there is something about her that he will never understand.

This mystery he senses might be understood as a distance between them created by time—Elizabeth’s past life being too far away from John for him to ever truly know or understand. It is not only time, though, but also the fact that their lived experiences are gendered, which prevents John from grasping the pain that appears to be buried within his mother. In my reading, the novel is just as much about the different female characters’ struggles to emancipate themselves from their respective husbands and other men in their lives and from societal expectations at large, as it is about John’s emancipation from his stepfather.

This is perhaps most evident in the case of John’s step-aunt, Florence, who, as a young adult, leaves her brother Gabriel and their mother, to travel north in search of freedom. Looking back at her past, she reminisces about what kind of life she could have had, had it not been for the birth of her brother, after which “[t]here was only one future in that house, and it was Gabriel’s—to which, since Gabriel was a man-child, all else must be sacrificed” (Go Tell It on the Mountain, 81–82). Years after having left the South, living in Harlem, Florence finds herself in an unhappy marriage, apparently unable to escape what she describes as a “curse” that has been cast upon all women who “in one fashion or another, being given the same cruel destiny, [are] born to suffer under the weight of men” (ibid. 94). Yet despite all the hardships she experiences, she remains a strong and independent character, eventually separating from her husband, living by herself, and being one of the only people to ever stand up to Gabriel.

Street art and quote of Baldwin in Portland, OR, photo by Redfishingboat. License: CC BY-NC 2.0

Identifying not only racism but also sexist structures of oppression as a plague for Black people, Baldwin creates a much more complex social critique in Go Tell It on the Mountain than most of his male contemporaries did. Any path to freedom, as the novel makes clear, has to be thought of in intersectional terms, and this of course was as true then as it is today.

This leads me to what I regard as the core theme of the book—the transgenerational struggle for Black liberation—which may become most evident from John’s crisis, but which, ultimately, underlies all of the different characters’ bids to emancipation.

The novel begins by describing how people have always insisted that John would follow in the footsteps of his stepfather and become a preacher, and “without ever thinking about it, [John] had come to believe it himself” (13). There appears only one possible choice ahead of him: Either he goes to church, turns to God, and is “saved,” or he becomes a sinner, loses himself, and perishes like so many others have before him. No other imaginable paths have ever been presented to John. The beginning of his crisis is his sudden questioning of this naturalized belief, of this tacit assumption that his place was fixed, which, as he comes to realize, has never given him any actual choice to make at all.

John, as Baldwin himself and many of his generation, is the grandchild of formerly enslaved people, his parents among the first generation of free-born African Americans after the abolition of enslavement.

Both his father and his mother went north as part of the Great Migration to build a better future for themselves. Neither, however, was able to escape the circle of violence and oppression. John may be seen as standing at a crossroads—his crisis is of both a spiritual and moral nature, a crisis that, at its heart, is about his place in the world, about where he came from, and where he may go. Already early on in the novel, John makes the decision that “[h]e would not be like his father, or his father’s fathers. He would have another life.” (21) But he is scared, for he does not know how to walk his own path and there appears to be no one able to show him. This is the state of mind in which he enters the church on the evening of his fourteenth birthday.

Children playing leap frog in Harlem New York 1930
Children playing leapfrog in Harlem, New York around the time the novel takes place. National Archives at College Park, public domain

The climax of the novel occurs when John falls onto the church floor during the service, apparently filled with the Holy Spirit and fighting for his salvation. John feels as if he is falling deeper and deeper into an abyss, and from this utter darkness an “ironic voice” challenges him to rise and “leave this temple and go out into the world” (24). A captivating passage then follows, describing the agonies of a people not explicitly identified by the novel, but who, given their apparent connection with John and the kinds of ordeals they went through, may be interpreted as representing his ancestors, the enslaved Africans and African-Americans: “The scars they had endured would scar his back, their punishment would be his, their portion his, his their humiliation, anguish, chains, their dungeon his, their death his” (233).

Having arrived literally at the bottom of his crisis, it becomes evident that John’s struggle is not simply about his immediate surroundings, but about facing his inheritance. John is challenged to face the task of his generation, free himself from the trauma and burden of his ancestors, impersonated by his father figure, and create a new way of life for himself.

In the end, it is not God’s mercy that “saves” John, but human love.

Elisha, the preacher’s nephew, is the one who helps John rise from the depths of his despair. Indeed, Baldwin, in all his writings, sees human love as the only kind of salvation; it is in love that he sees spirituality at work, a way for us to become freer, to transcend ourselves and realize our full potential. “Love,” as Baldwin writes in “Down at the Cross,” “is what takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within” (The Fire Next Time, 95).

To love means to face another, to see another, and thereby, also, inevitably, to see oneself, in one’s nakedness and vulnerability, but also in one’s beauty and strength. For Baldwin, this also implied that we had to face our past, battle the historical creations still haunting us and limiting our freedom, and hence “rob history of its tyrannical power” and recreate ourselves according to principles more humane and liberating (Dark Days, 42–43). A task that we have evidently yet to achieve.

At the end of the novel, John has not yet found himself—while he has made the first crucial step on his own path, it remains unclear where he will go from there, but this, as I would say, is the very freedom he has gained:

“He would weep again, his heart insisted, for now his weeping had begun; he would rage again, for the lions of rage had been unloosed; he would be in the darkness again, in fire again, now that he had seen the fire and the darkness. He was free—whom the Son sets free is free indeed—he had only to stand fast in his liberty.” (Go Tell It on the Mountain, 251)

Raja-Léon Hamann is a PhD student in Cultural and Social Anthropology and the current holder of the Anton-Wilhelm-Amo award for best graduate thesis at the Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg. His dissertation project, "More than just Black - Gullah Geechee Revitalizationism and Identity Politics under the Postliberal Condition in US American Society," focuses on the interrelations between cultural recognition and economic redistribution as means to achieve social justice. His PhD project is funded by the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation.

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