The Follies of Religion

James Baldwin’s passion for writing began at an early age despite the crippling poverty that enveloped him and his family of eleven. His talent was already palpable while he was studying. As a member of the school publication, he published a score of poems, short stories, and plays. Poverty again nearly derailed his dream. Post-school, he started earning a living to support his family. He earned paltry pay but he never let the ugly realities surrounding him dim his dream of becoming a writer. While earning a living, he did self-study. Things started turning in his favor after he got accepted into a literary apprenticeship in Greenwich Village. This apprenticeship played a key role in getting his works printed in prominent national publications.

Moving to Paris in 1948 proved seminal in the establishment of Baldwin’s reputation as a writer. In 1953, Baldwin finally published Go Tell It On The Mountain. In his debut novel, Baldwin transported the readers to 1930s Harlem, New York. At the heart of the novel is John Grimes, the oldest born of an African American household. He was raised in an environment that was wrapped up in squalor. At the helm of the Grimes household was Gabriel, a pastor for the Pentecostal Church. With firebrand sermons that reeled droves of believers in, he has built a reputation for himself. The matriarch, Elizabeth, on the other hand, was left to tend for the children. As the eldest, John was tasked to help their mother in taking care of the household.

Being the son of a minister, it has been assumed that John would follow the same path as that of his father. Recently celebrating his fourteenth birthday, he found himself in a quandary. Apart from the poverty that permeated every corner of their household, religion was second nature to the Grimes, an offshoot of the patriarch’s vocation. Religion teaches about good nature, from kindness to compassion to gratitude. These are values we often hear about whenever we enter sacred houses of worship. Religion has inculcated into us that paradise and salvation await those who live in kindness and humility. However, these are values that John barely saw in their household. What he has witnessed, and keep on witnessing made him question what religion really means. To gain a deeper understanding of religion, he started exploring things that the Church has considered as anathema.

“Nothing tamed or broke her, nothing touched her, neither kindness, nor scorn, nor hatred, nor love. She had never thought of prayer. It was unimaginable that she would ever bend her knees and come crawling along a dusty floor to anybody’s altar, weeping for forgiveness. Perhaps her sin was so extreme that it could not be forgiven; perhaps her pride was so great that she did not need forgiveness. She had fallen from that high estate which God had intended for men and women, and she made her fall glorious because it was so complete.”

~ James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

Often considered by many pundits as the best of Baldwin’s literary corpus, Go Tell It On The Mountain is a multilayered narrative that tackled a score of heavy and serious subjects. As John grappled with his relationship with the Church, it became apparent that religion was one of the major forces that propelled the story. It was a subject that loomed above the story, the common thread that tied up all the story’s ends together. It comes as no surprise that the book was teeming with biblical references and religious intersections.

John’s struggles were personal but also resonated on more universal levels. The impasse John found himself in was one that many of us can relate to. Religion, like politics, has become a prevalent presence in our lives through no faults of our own. We inevitably reach a point in time when we start examining the relationship we have with our Faith. We contemplate and try to reconcile what our Faith has taught us with the realities that surround us. What we see is a stark dichotomy. The idealism of our Faith contradicts the pandemonium that our world is wrapped in. Where is the kindness that we often hear about? Where is the compassion? If there exists a Supreme Being, why are cruelty, violence, and suffering ubiquitous? Treading these thin lines we learn that life rarely offers conclusive answers. It is a journey that only we can see through. The story was never about the destination but about the struggles we face. As John’s journey showed, these realizations are gateways to either a spiritual awakening or a maturity.

Baldwin vividly portrayed how the Pentecostal Church figured in the lives of African Americans. It is a major driving force and knitting the community together. It beaconed amidst the sea of suffering and helplessness. It provided a ray of hope and has established quite a reputation for its upbeat Sunday gatherings and powerful sermons from its ministers. However, lurking behind the facade of animated homilies are the darker shades of the Church. Greed and moral corruption abounded. Pastors use their power and influence not only to gather huge crowds and rejoice in the words of the Lord but also to reap pecuniary benefits from their most devout followers. Sadly, it is a reality that remains prevalent in the contemporary and their followers are none the wiser.

Rather than conforming to the norm of sequential and chronological storytelling, Go Tell It on the Mountain stepped out of the box. The main storyline commenced on John’s birthday but the story spanned several decades. From the present, the story moves back into the past. Through flashbacks, the readers were provided details of the main characters’ lives. While religion was the major thread that bound the novel’s elements together, the novel’s focus remained on the characters, their relationships, and how their development.

“But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road; the perspective to say the very least, changes only with the journey; only when the road has, all abruptly and treacherously, and with an absoluteness that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is one able to see all that one could not have seen from any other place.

~ James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

Looming above the story was Gabriel. It was through Gabriel’s story and personality that one quality of the Church was portrayed: hypocrisy. Before discovering the words of the Lord and becoming a minister, Gabriel was a violent young man who grew up in poverty in the Deep South. As a young man, he exhibited violent tendencies that led to the creation of a chasm between him and his sister, Florence. Florence would eventually leave him to tend to their dying mother. His epiphany, however, did not deter him from committing sins of his own. Ironically, he condemned the ministers who used their position to enrich themselves but he was unable to fully suppress his sexual nature.

In the Church, he stomped with authority and commanded everyone’s attention. His Messianic complex has helped earn him devout followers. However, within the ambit of his own home, what he displayed in his household is contrary to what he preaches on the pulpit. He was abusive to his wife and had no qualms showing it in front of their children. This stark dichotomy in his nature was one of the sources of John’s confusion apropos religion. Gabriel’s relationship with John was devoid of compassion and his rejection of John soon came to light. It was revealed that John was conceived before Gabriel met Elizabeth through premarital sex. This is in itself was another exhibit of Gabriel’s contrary nature. He was involved in an extramarital affair that bore him a son that he refused to acknowledge. His sister, Florence, constantly threatened to expose him for his misdeeds.

Sex was second nature in the story. The novel was rife with references to man’s sexual nature and carnal desires. The characters often find themselves in situations that brushed them up with their desires. It was one of the moral intersections that John had to learn to navigate; religion has taught him that lust is a sin and all sins of the skin were seen as abhorrent. Those who have sinned were outcasted and rejected. The inevitable discovery of carnal desires balanced the religious nature of the story. Our worldly desires ground us up. Confronted with these realities, John learned to suppress his sexuality and desires lest he suffers the wrath of his stepfather and the prejudice of society. The novel contained undertones of homosexuality.

Providing an interesting perspective to the story was Florence. Through her story, Baldwin depicted the patriarchal hierarchy that remains prevalent in both family and societal settings. This patriarchal structure reverberated all throughout the story. Florence, though older by five years than her brother, had to play second fiddle to her pampered brother. Two things that she yearned for were given to her brother but not to her: education and respect. She was raised to think and believe that her main goal in life is to be a good wife and mother. She was trained by their mother to perform all domestic tasks that were expected of a good housewife. The moment she saw an opportunity to leave, she did not hesitate. In her new environment, she refused to be silenced by misogyny, discrimination, and abuse by violent men.

“She did not know why he so adored things that were so long dead; what sustenance they gave him, what secrets he hoped to wrest from them. But she understood, at least, that they did give him a kind of bitter nourishment, and that the secrets they held for him were a matter of his life and death. It frightened her because she felt that he was reaching for the moon and that he would, therefore, be dashed down against the rocks; but she did not say any of this.”

~ James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

All these elements were astutely woven together by Baldwin’s riveting storytelling. He vividly captured the nuanced portrait of an African American family while grappling with several seminal themes and subjects. The outcome was a rich and lush coming-of-age story that is unsurprisingly heralded as one of the most enduring literary masterpieces. It was deceptively thin but its several layers, built brick by brick by Baldwin’s dexterous hands, provided for a lean and insightful reading experience.

In writing his first novel, Baldwin drew elements from his own life. In Go Tell It On The Mountain, the readers experience the epiphany and the internal struggles of the author. He was exposed to religion at a young age, even becoming an active preacher in a small revivalist church when he was fourteen. The story commencing during John’s fourteenth birthday then comes as no random element. His experiences provided the foundations upon which he built what many consider as his finest work. In examining the relationship between one’s self and the Church, Baldwin did an amazing job of reeling in the readers, writing about a profound experience many can relate to.

However, Go Tell It On the Mountain does not reduce itself into a mere exploration of religion and its place in our lives and society as a whole. It is not about the establishment of a belief system. Rather than a projection of the Church and its follies, the novel dives deep into what it means to be religious and what it means to be worldly. Through the stories of the main characters, a bevy of subjects such as the patriarchy, domestic violence, and our relationship with our families, was explored. Go Tell It On the Mountain has established Baldwin as a literary titan. Almost seven decades after its publication, it remains a literary tour de force and is widely recognized as a classic of contemporary African American literature.

Ratings

94%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 
27%
Writing (25%) – 
24%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
15%

It has been years since I first encountered James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain in must-read lists. I would have not learned of him had I not been perusing these must-read lists. The book immediately piqued my interest for it reminded me of a popular Christmas song of the same title. It did take years but I finally acquired my own copy of the book last 2020. It was a book I was really looking forward to, hence, its inclusion in my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. Coincidentally, it was the last book on this reading list that I read. Without any iota on what the book was about, I nevertheless dived in. What I have not expected was the book’s main motif: religion. Nevertheless, I was intrigued for Baldwin’s storytelling was spellbinding. He managed to capture how religion binds a community while, at the same time, painting a portrait of its follies. While religion was the main theme, the novel’s chief concern was the development of the characters. There was so much reality in the book that it comes as no surprise it was drawn from the author’s own life. Go Tell It On The Mountain, while not totally perfect, was an insightful read.

Book Specs

Author: James Baldwin
Publisher: Delta Publishing
Publishing Date: June 2000
Number of Pages: 226
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

James Baldwin’s stunning first novel is now an American classic. With startling realism that brings Harlem and the black experience vividly to life, this is a work that touches the heart with emotion while it stimulates the mind with its narrative style, symbolism, and excoriating vision of racism in America.

Moving through time from the rural South to the northern ghetto, starkly contrasting the attitudes of two generations of an embattled family, Go Tell It on the Mountain is an unsurpassed portrayal of human beings caught up in a dramatic struggle and of a society confronting inevitable change.

About the Author

James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York City, USA, to a single mother. The eldest of nine children, Baldwin grew up in poverty. When he was 14-years-old, he served as a youth minister in a Harlem Pentecostal church; he was influenced by his stepfather who was a Baptist minister.

Baldwin’s passion for reading began at an early age. He also showed promise as a writer during his school years. While enrolled at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he worked on the school’s magazine where he published a score of poems, short stories, and plays. He also worked alongside future famous photographer Richard Avedon. Post-graduation, a period of ill-paid jobs, including laying railroad tracks for the U.S. Army in New Jersey ensued. At the same time, he did self-study and took on a literary apprenticeship in Greenwich Village following the demise of his stepfather. The apprenticeship was instrumental in having his essays and short stories published in national publications such as The NationPartisan Review, and Commentary.

In 1948, Baldwin moved to Paris where he would live for the next eight years. While in Paris, Baldwin published his first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain in 1953. His second novel, Giovanni’s Room, was published in 1956. This was succeeded by Another Country (1962), Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Just Above My Head (1979). He has also published essays, short story collections, autobiographical works, and plays. For his works, Baldwin has received accolades such as the Eugene F. Saxton Memorial Trust Award, the 1963 George Polk Memorial Award, and the 1986 Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur. He was also the Guggenheim Fellow in 1954 and the MacDowell fellow in 1954, 1958, 1960.

Baldwin passed away on December 1, 1987, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France following a battle with stomach cancer.