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Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin – Interesting but difficult to read

February 27, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (1952). French title: La Conversion.

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. James Baldwin. Go Tel lt on the Mountain.

Too late for what?

Welcome to Harlem, 1935 and meet John Grimes, the teenage son of a Seventh Day Adventist substitute preacher, Gabriel. We’re on the morning of his fourteenth birthday and he’s confused.

The first part of Baldwin’s debut novel focuses on John, his home and his family. In appearance, nobody remembers his birthday, not even his mother. We’re in a poor apartment and his mother Elizabeth has trouble dealing with John’s young brother Roy and his little sister Ruth. Roy is a troublemaker, daring in a way John would never dream to be.

Gabriel’s shadow hovers over the family. He might be a man of God but he’s no angel. John hates him fiercely because he’s a preacher and violent man. His mother Elizabeth is under his yoke, somehow feeling unworthy of her husband. Gabriel has a daywork during the week and preaches during the weekend but he doesn’t seem to practice what he preaches. We see that John lives in an unhealthy atmosphere.

For his birthday, John escapes to Manhattan and watches the white man’s world. And he wants to be part of it. This means escaping Harlem and his fate. John is also slowing understanding that he’s gay. Go Tell It on the Mountain was published in 1952, homosexuality is not openly discussed. But the hints are there for the reader to see. John is only starting to understand his sexuality and he has a crush on Elisha, the preacher’s son.

And he watched Elisha, who was a young man in the Lord; who, a priest after the order of Melchizedek, had been given power over death and Hell. The Lord had lifted him up, and turned him around, and set his feet on the shining way. What were the thoughts of Elisha when night came, and he was alone where no eye could see, and no tongue to bear witness, save only the trumpetlike tongue of God? Were his thoughts, his bed, his body foul? What were his dreams?

John knows deep down that he’s attracted to men but, in his world, it’s too big for words. John is gay, he’s tempted by the outside world, he’s intelligent and he hates his father. Why would he want to be a preacher like his father? Instinctively, he wants more for himself and cannot deny his sexual orientation. Who he is isn’t compatible with a preacher’s life.

Too late for what? Too late to be a straight religious black man in Harlem.

But he’s fourteen and not ready to give up on other people’s expectations. His conversion is his goal, something expected from his family but also something that could bring him closer to Elisha, the preacher’s son. He has doubts that he tries to conquer but they keep creeping up his mind:

And his mind could not contain the terrible stretch of time that united twelve men fishing by the shore of Galilee, and black men weeping on their knees tonight and he, a witness.

He wants to be saved. Badly.

The second part of the book is a Sunday morning service in Gabriel’s church. The whole family is there, Elizabeth, Gabriel, the children and Florence, Gabriel’s sister. Baldwin takes us in Elizabeth’s, Gabriel’s and Florence’s thoughts. They mull over their past and the reader sees their personal journey and John’s origins.

Gabriel used to drink and sleep around before he was saved. Florence was pious and stayed at home, taking care of their mother and spending time with her best friend, Deborah. Gabriel was still wasting his life away when Florence left for New York, to leave her hopeless brother behind and try to have a better life in the North. Deborah was sadly well-known in their town because she had been raped by a group of white men. She’s also very pious and Gabriel later marries her. After Deborah’s death, Gabriel comes to New York too and marries Elizabeth, John’s mother. He met her through Florence. Two despairs don’t make a hope, as they will soon discover it.

They have the past of common black people in the South and John belongs to the first generation that hasn’t known the South and has lived in New York his whole life. In a way, they’re like emigrants, the parents coming from another country, another past and the children belonging to their present, to this new territory they moved to. For the adults, it’s time to look back on their past and think about it:

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.

The dedication of Go Tell It on the Mountain is For my mother and my father. John looks like a young James Baldwin. Bright. Gay. Stepson of a preacher who married his mother when she was pregnant with him. Born in Harlem. Destined to explore the world. This novel was published in 1952, when Baldwin was living in Paris. Perhaps the geographical and emotional distance helped him write it.

For me, as interesting as it was, it was a very difficult read because of all the religious aspects. They put me off. The grand spectacle of the Sunday service was tedious to read. I was happy to read about the characters’ past, but all the religious parts bored me to death. I don’t know if they were necessary. Maybe they were, especially for foreign readers like me. Church services with events like this

The silence in the church ended when Brother Elisha, kneeling near the piano, cried out and fell backward under the power of the Lord.

as a regular occurrence is not part of my cultural background. At all. Living in Paris, Baldwin probably knew that some of his readers would need details. The Sunday service is supposed to be a powerful scene but I watched it from afar, thinking they were crazy to put themselves into such a state of mind for religion. In the end, we don’t really know where Baldwin stands, as far as religion is concerned. What does he really think about these ceremonies?

Go Tell It on the Mountain was a complicated read for me, one I can’t say I enjoyed. I expected more family confrontations and less sentences with God, Lord, the prophets and the saints in them. However, I think it’s an important book to read to understand Baldwin’s work.

Other billets about Baldwin’s work: Going to Meet the Man. A must read.

  1. February 27, 2019 at 7:33 pm

    I’ve never read JB. Probably I should. Maybe not this one.


    • February 27, 2019 at 7:35 pm

      Try Going to Meet the Man.


  2. February 27, 2019 at 11:31 pm

    I just read Beale Street, I was tempted to start with this one but after looking into it I was happy to read about it and jump straight to his work from the 70’s. I think this one is an important launchpad, connected to a part of his personal history, but I believe it is indeed a challenging read.


    • February 28, 2019 at 1:08 pm

      I’m currently reading Beale Street: it’s easier to read and excellent so far. I love the characters and the way Tish tells her story.
      The passage where Fonny and Tish go to church echoes scenes in Go Tell It on the Mountain.

      I think it’s worth reading to understand Baldwin’s other novels. It’s a window to Baldwin’s childhood and adolescence. He’s what we call here un écrivain engagé, I suppose I should say a political writer. So his personal experience and his ideas about the world we live in are important to understand his work

      Also, don’t forget that I’m French, the style was difficult for me and part of it comes from English not being my native language. You don’t have this problem.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 28, 2019 at 4:22 pm

        I like that expression ‘écrivain engagé’ I went to a talk last night about the The art and power of the personal essay, and I think James Baldwin may indeed have been a writer who was able to bring the personal and the political together in his work, to stimulate or provoke others too to engage, his perspective and ability to articulate it, both on paper and in person were exemplary.


        • March 1, 2019 at 4:27 pm

          There’s no real equivalent in English for “écrivain engagé”, is it? “political” is too narrow compared to the French meaning.
          We miss these writers nowadays. Perhaps Edouard Louis is one of them.

          I fully agree with what you say about James Baldwin. Have you seen I Am Not Your Negro? It’s a good companion to Beale Street
          It shows how much of his analysis of the black man’s condition in America he put under the young love story.

          The film is good too. And like Green Book, it is educational.


  3. February 27, 2019 at 11:46 pm

    I haven’t read it either. But yes, I find myself wanting to skip religious stuff in books…


    • February 28, 2019 at 1:02 pm

      Books that go too deep into religious feelings are not for me.
      Have you read anything else by James Baldwin?


  4. February 28, 2019 at 2:59 am

    Go tell it on the Mountain was set for my Matric year (year 12) but for reasons I don’t remember now I wouldn’t read any of the US and Russian novels (and hence I failed). I’ve since read a JB about a gay young man in Europe – ok but hard going. GTIOTM seems to be another instance of preachers treating their position as a power trip – all too common in literature and in life.


    • February 28, 2019 at 1:00 pm

      That’s a difficult read for students and I wonder what prompted the teacher to pick this one rather than any other dealing with the condition of black people in the US.

      Go Tell It on the Mountain is not about “preachers treating their position as a power trip”. I think he genuinely thinks that he has a mission and he views himself as a very pious man. The issue is that he has a conflict between who he is deep down (not every young man loves to drink in excess, be a skirt chaser and useless in any other area. That’s him, not just a being a young man) and who he wants to be and how he wants his family and community to see him. His sister Florence sees him clearly because she knew him as a child and through adulthood. He marries his wives, not out of love but as a misplaced sense of duty/charity and attempt at sainthood. A complicated man. All this inner struggling has repercussions on his behavior.

      Seen from my window, Gabriel has almost no education and I really wonder how someone as undereducated as him and with so little wisdom and self-reflection could imagine to be a guiddance for anyone and more than that, how a church can appoint such a minister.


  5. February 28, 2019 at 10:26 am

    I think I would struggle with the religious aspects too. Claire’s observation seems very apt – an important part of the foundation that enabled Baldwin to go on and progress to other works, but a challenging read when viewed on its own terms.

    I would have no hesitation in recommending Beale Street. It’s powerful, lyrical and beautifully written, and the 1970s setting makes it feel very relatable.


    • February 28, 2019 at 12:50 pm

      I struggled with these passages because it’s not European culture and don’t forget that English is not my native language. I never know what to expect when I start reading in English. Going to Meet the Man was not a problem, I’m currently reading If Beale Street Could Talk and it’s easy.
      Going Tell It on the Mountain? I had concentrate harder and it probably played an important role in my reading experience

      Beale Street is excellent. Have you seen the film?


  6. February 28, 2019 at 3:08 pm

    Yes, I have seen the film, it was one of my London film festival picks last year. (In fact, I read the novel while I was travelling in and out of London each day for the fest.) It’s an excellent film, very true to the book with the possible exception of the ending which has been tweaked somewhat. I really liked the way Barry Jenkins held the camera on the couple’s faces, giving the viewer a degree of access to the characters’ inner feelings.


    • March 1, 2019 at 4:19 pm

      I have now read the book and seen the film.
      Excellent film, the director managed to convey the deep and quiet love between the characters the way it’s described in the book.
      Too bad he felt the urge to “hollywood” the ending…

      The book is a masterpiece.


  7. February 28, 2019 at 7:26 pm

    This sounds incredibly powerful, I have read James Baldwin. I clearly should. Great review.


    • March 1, 2019 at 4:31 pm

      Thanks. This one was a difficult read for me.
      Going to Meet the Man is stunning. The short stories take you to Paris and Harlem and make you touch what constant racism does to a person. It fragilizes one’s foundations.

      If Beale Street Could Talk is both an ode to love and an implacable picture of the fate of black citizen in New York in the early 1970s.


  8. March 2, 2019 at 9:39 pm

    I have this in the TBR and I’m glad I’ve read your review first so I know it will be a tricky read. Going to Meet the Man sounds excellent, I really must read Baldwin.


    • March 2, 2019 at 10:23 pm

      The French translation is entitled La conversion. I should have looked for it before, I would have been warned. I didn’t expect the religious parts.

      Going to Meet the Man was a Book Club read and we all loved it. It is stunning, articulate and beautiful at the same time.
      Beale Street is a different genre but it makes you feel helpless the same way and wondering if things have improved enough.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. March 17, 2019 at 10:51 am
  2. September 6, 2020 at 10:47 am
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