Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, USA, 1952

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, USA, 1952

Baldwin’s novel Go Tell it on the Mountain is autobiographical in the sense that Baldwin, like the central character, John Grimes, grew up in Harlem without ever knowing his biological father and had a religious fanatic as a stepfather – in Baldwin’s case, a Methodist minister, in John’s case, a Pentecostal preacher. There are even muted hints in the book that John could be (like James) homosexually inclined.

The Pentecostal church reaches out to the downtrodden black community of Harlem, giving it a sense of belonging and even purpose. Wrapping its authority around each and every one of its parishioners, it offers security and salvation while hypocritically whittling away at any kind of independent thought or action. The couple innocently holding hands will be damned to hell fire unless they repent, and the woman who conceived outside of wedlock will be constantly reminded of the grave sin that hangs like a millstone around her neck.

The preacher, Gabriel, however, seems to be immune to any kind of retribution as a result of his actions. He is vicious and abusive, plunging his family into what can only be described as hell on earth. The reader is constantly thrown between the cruelty of Gabriel at home and his religious fervour in the little shop-front church. The hypocrisy is blatant, yet this is all the community has to hang on to.

Set upon by whites, labelled as second-class citizens, banished to the very edge of society, these African-Americans have turned for solace to the Old Testament as interpreted by the Pentecostal church. They can identify with the Jews in their exodus from Egypt, and like the Jews they look forward to a new dawn. The Bible remains front and centre of this novel, with language, situations and characters paralleling stories from the Old Testament.

The writing is masterly, and Baldwin beautifully captures a visual and auditory picture of Harlem – a picture that remains with the reader long after the last page has been read and the book closed.


The photo of James Baldwin is from Wikimedia

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