James Arthur Baldwin was born August 2, 1924 in Harlem, New York to a dysfunctional African American family. Attracted to writing from an early age, Baldwin attended the New York School in which he wrote school publications and honed his already exceptional writing skills. While traveling throughout Europe, Baldwin wrote multiple critical essays for American literary journals while simultaneously working on his novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain. Throughout the 1950’s, Baldwin published a collection of essays, Notes on a Native Son, along with another novel, Giovanni’s Room. During the late 1950’s, Baldwin attained further notoriety as he became involved in the civil rights movement. James Baldwin’s writing career persisted well into the 1980’s until his death of esophagus cancer in 1987 while living in France.
A whole corpus of literature exists relating to Baldwin’s seminal work, Go Tell it on the Mountain. Baldwin writings present a critical inquiry of culture and questions all the fundamental assumptions cultures make about religion, sexuality, culture, and even identity. In his own analysis of Baldwin’s work, Douglas Field comments, “The heterogeneous array of contributors… reflect the diversity of approaches to which Baldwin's work lends itself, illustrating that Baldwin was an amalgam of many things: African American, gay, expatriate, traveler, witness, essayist, to name but a few” (250). Field’s comment underscores the complexity Baldwin wrote with; Baldwin’s writings blurred lines during a time period when the line were well established and a foundational aspect of American culture.
Baldwin’s novel Go Tell it on the Mountain is heavily informed by ancient black spirituals and biblical allusions. However, the way in which Baldwin subverted the blueprint Black authors were expected to operate within. Baldwin related the following experience,
The editor…asked me, when I entered his office for the first time and after the book had been accepted, "What about all that come-to-Jesus stuff? Don't you think you ought to take it out?" Go Tell it on the Mountain is the study of a Negro evangelist and his family. They do, indeed, talk in a "come-to-Jesus" idiom, but to "take it out" could only mean that my editor was suggesting that I burn the book… I learned a great deal that afternoon; learned, to put it far too briefly, what I was up against; took the check and went back to Paris (Olson 295).
This experience is a microcosm of the conflicting opinions that swirled around Baldwin’s work. Whether he recognized it or not, whether he intended to or not, Baldwin presented a perspective that challenged virtually everything white American knew and accepted about Black culture. The same perspective can be seen in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. The way in which he wrote Go Tell it on the Mountain exemplified the beauty and complexity of Black Americans and challenged the expectation that Black authors only tell diminishing, marginalizing accounts of black Americans.
In her analysis of Go Tell it on the Mountain, Barbara Olson focuses on Baldwin’s treatment of religion throughout the text and investigates his intentions. Olson reports, Professional criticism, at least, is split over what the novel has to say about the church. Some critics say the novel is an ironic indictment of Christianity; others call it a stirring vindication”(296). These two groups are confounded by the ambiguity of the ending of the novel, and, while John does convert to Christianity, these groups either suggest that John’s conversion either signals his subjugation to the Christian community or his integration into it.
Barbara Olson does not join herself with either of these groups; she rather synthesizes the two perspectives and argues that Go Tell it on the Mountain “illustrate[s] the problem that the church's idiom posed for Baldwin's attempt to denounce the black church of his past. The sicknesses he bewails find their diagnoses and their cures within the Christian tradition itself.
Baldwin in effect, then, has portrayed Christianity as self-corrective. It is flawed in practice but not in essence” (300). Olson, like many other critics, look at the novel as a form of biography, which is surely a tenable argument, given the congruencies between the text and Baldwin’s personal history. From Olson’s perspective, John Grime’s conversion to Christianity does not constitute a belittling capitulation to Christianity; it rather signals his repudiation of his stepfather’s corrupted Christian tradition. John Grimes wishes to leave the church behind, although embracing and affirming the practice of Christianity. Olson contends this is evidenced in the text as John uses “incriminating quotations from biblical texts throughout…serve to challenge the version of orthodoxy and control the preacher has imposed” (301). Although Olson’s argument deftly builds a bridge between competing interpretations, she admittedly concedes that her argument requires a comprehensive analysis of all of Baldwin’s writings, rather than just a singular analysis of Go Tell it on the Mountain.
Instead of focusing on Baldwin’s perspective of Christianity, James R. Giles reviews and investigates the themes of alienation and sexuality in his essay “Religious Alienation and ‘Homosexual Consciousness’ in City of Night and Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Giles suggests that while most of Baldwin’s work does not unite gay and black consciousness Baldwin subtlety united the two themes throughout the text of Go Tell it on the Mountain. Giles claims that this idea is evidenced by John Grime’s relationship with his father’s church and the young boy, Elisha. John Grime’s is threatened by the church’s castigation of sexuality, reinforced by the repetition of terms like the “natural man” and the “old Adam.” Giles argues that this structured repression of all sexual desire, which he deems unnatural and therefore immoral, “force[s] the sexually healthy youth of their church to "go underground" with their sexual desires” (378). From Grime’s perspective, the sexual and religious alienation is complimentary, and the church effectually reinforces behavior that it disapproves of.
Because of the of the churches demand that John repress of sexual desire, Grimes posits that John then turns to the other ostracized boy of the story, Elisha. Although Grime’s argument contains a myriad of unfounded assumptions concerning homosexuality, his analysis of the John-Elisha relationship is as follows,
The John-Elisha attraction is a sensual wrestling match early in the novel. In fact, the John-Elisha theme is basic to the homosexual theme in Go Tell It on the Mountain… the wrestling match, written with an undeniable overtone of sexual attraction, makes it clear that, even if subconsciously, this is a key ingredient in their relationship. The wrestling match has long been a significant device for underscoring covert homosexual attraction (379).
This analysis of John’s religious and sexual alienation also finds congruities in Baldwin’s personal life. Beginning in his early teenage years, Baldwin “realized” he was gay, which made him an outcast both secularly and spiritually from his community. These two themes add another layer of complexity to the text. Baldwin may have felt pressure to make any themes of homosexuality more covert in order to placate his black audience, or Baldwin may never have felt completely comfortable with his homosexuality.
While a cacophony of disparate opinions have debated what the message of Go Tell it on the Mountain is, it would be difficult to identify one singular message of the novel. This is due to the complexity with which Baldwin writes. Rather than attempting to moralize or impose some universal principle onto his reader, Baldwin’s only desire is to help his reader see the world through his eyes (Barksdale 326). If Go Tell it on the Mountain is viewed as a from of autobiography, as simply a story of James Baldwin, then the competing interpretations of what Baldwin did or did not mean become nullified.
In Go Tell it on the Mountain, Baldwin strives to help his audience understand his struggle with exile and spirituality, though not abstractly. These themes are not meant to be metaphors or abstractions, but concrete experiences that encapsulate the perspective of a homosexual Blackman in white America. Perhaps W.E.B Dubois articulated best the plight of the Negro in the pre civil rights movement,
No true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two irreconciled strivings (Tomlinson 135).
Perhaps this sentiment is the message of Go Tell it to the Mountain. The novel is meant to reflect the struggles of an individual, not a community, because Baldwin was never part of a community. The fact that he negated to discuss violence in African American communities is evidence of that. The amalgamation of so many traits within Baldwin made it nearly impossible to find acceptance in any singular community and to construct a coherent identity.
Any cogent analysis of Go Tell it on the Mountain must consider the personal history of Baldwin. Baldwin even said himself, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them” (Tomlinson 135). From this perspective, Baldwin is in line with Foucault’s claim that it is impossible to divorce the writer’s bias and perspective from the text, and Baldwin realized this himself. The congruities of John Grime’s experience are undeniable with James Baldwin’s personal history. For example, during the early part of Baldwin’s life, he followed in his footsteps of his stepfather and became a preacher. Reflecting on this experience in an interview with PBS, Baldwin relates, “Those three years in the pulpit — I didn’t realize it then — that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty” (PBS.org). This statement underscores Baldwin’s perspective of religion and is reflected in the text of Go Tell it on the Mountain.
While the competing interpretations of Baldwin’s perspective of religion have already been articulated, beauty and anguish seem to the two nouns that describe Baldwin’s experience. Just as John Grimes battles his father to satisfy his expectations, James Baldwin struggled to reconcile his homosexual feelings with the orthodoxy of his Pentecostal church. On the other hand, Baldwin seems to leave the reader with a hint of hope. While Gabriel remains skeptical about John’s conversion, John walks down the Harlem avenue with a changed perspective. As if he is looking at an open sea of possibility, John arrives at his own personal conversion, separated from the dubious orthodoxy of his father’s church. Perhaps this freedom is the beauty Baldwin referred to in his interview. At the end of the narrative, James is liberated by his realization that he can find value in Christianity outside the constructs of orthodoxy. Although, Baldwin fills this scene with ambiguity, knowing that John is necessarily ostracized from the community to find this freedom.
The hypocrisy with which Christ condemned the Pharisees is reflected in the relationship between Gabriel and John. Gabriel’s hypocrisy is reinforced through dramatic irony as the reader is informed of his past indiscretions while John is left unaware. His feeling of duty toward his father precipitates his anguish. This is exemplified as John “sins in his hand” (Baldwin 12). John’s guilt is manifested and symbolized in his inability to make anything cleaner during his Saturday chores. From this perspective, the relationship between John and Gabriel is an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the Pharisees. Those who have been anointed are unable to recognize their own duplicitous while those who are ostracized construct their identity by how those in power view them.
This medium by which John constructs his self-perception translates into many other themes of the novel. His spirituality is defined by his ability to conform to the demands of his father, his priest. His alleged struggle with sexuality is further defined by his authoritarian father, which drives him toward his homosexual feelings for Elisha. This paradigm even translates into his identity as young black man. White American defines who is, but who John Grimes fabricated identity is further unaccepted by his black Pentecostal family. John Grimes is a manifestation, a reflection, of the identity crisis young Christians fall victim to when hypocrisy becomes a defining characteristic of those in power. This crisis is only compounded as the church enforces double standards by which those in power are allowed to hide their sins while the sins of those who are subjugated are reinforced. From this perspective, Go Tell it on the Mountain is a story about a boy trapped on the margins of many worlds. James Baldwin’s ability to illustrate the complexity of his young life successfully challenged his audience to question the validity of assumptions related to race, religion, sexuality, and identity.
Baldwin, James. Go Tell it on the mountain. New York: Dial Press, 1963.
Barksdale, Richard. ""Temple of the Fire Baptized"." Phylon 14.3 (1953): 326-327. JSTOR. 6 Apr. 2013.
Field, Douglas. "James Baldwin Now by Dwight A. McBride." MELUS 26.3 (2001): 250-252.
Giles, James. "Religious Alienation and "Homosexual Consciousness" in City of Night and Go Tell It on the Mountain." College English 36.3 (1974): 369-380. JSTOR. 3 Apr. 2013.
"James Baldwin - About the Author | American Masters | PBS." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. N.p., n.d. 7 Apr. 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/james-baldwin/about-the-author/59/>.
Olson, Barbara. ""Come-to-Jesus Stuff" in James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Amen Corner." African American Review 31.2 (1997): 295-301. JSTOR. . 4 Apr. 2013.
Tomlinson, Robert. ""Payin' One's Dues": Expatriation as Personal Experience and Paradigm in the Works of James Baldwin." African American Review 33.1 (1999): 135-148. JSTOR. . 4 Apr. 2013.