Wednesday, March 19, 2014

[Review] Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

"The darkness and silence of the church pressed on him, cold as judgment, and the voices crying from the window might have been crying from another world. John moved forward, hearing his feet crack against the sagging wood, to where the golden cross on the red field of the altar cloth glowed like smothered fire, and switched on one weak light."
Rating: 5 Stars
Genre: Literary fiction, Modern fiction, African-American literature
Timeline: Early to mid 1900's
Synopsis: An honest portrayal of a black family living in New York. Every single member of the Grimes family struggles with their faith as they face the inhumanity of living in a violently racist world.

This book is like a work of art. You have to experience it a few times to even begin to truly appreciate the complex humanity that Baldwin has poured into his prose. Like many modernist works, there is a fragmentary cohesiveness in the way the story is told. At once broken yet fluid, I found myself startlingly aware of my own heartbeat as I was reading.

I think there is something to the rhythm of his words, which isn't surprising since Baldwin was a great enthusiast of jazz. There is a flow that carries you along even if you find yourself wavering over the subject matter. The story is foremost about John's internal struggle over his place and identity in a world that forces him to choose between being a sinner or a saint. Because he struggles with his own sexuality (Baldwin was also gay), and because he bears resentment against his abusive step-father who is revered at church, John becomes alienated from the Christ-centered community that he is brought up in. For himself, he sees no hope of redemption or salvation.

You can almost taste the oppression off the pages, and smell the anger and resentment against a world that only knows how to create barriers and boxes. It's a world full of don'ts and can'ts. It's a world where John feels he must read half the books in the library before being allowed to step into one. Relations between race are tense. Inside and outside the home, there is nothing but anger and frustration. John's brother Roy is a prime example of the black youth who instinctively feels the hypocrisy and the injustices of his daily life, so he walks around, a ticking bomb constantly exploding with small acts of violent rebellion.

The book is also concerned with the rest of John's family. It dips into the perspectives of his father, his father's ex-wife, his mother, and his aunt. There are some definite feminist themes in the story. The women in the family are constantly at battle with the rest of the world to assert their own humanity, to assert that they will not be second to a man, just as black is not second to white.

I thought it might be interesting to read this interview about Baldwin.

Would you tell us how you came to leave the States?

I was broke. I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York. My reflexes were tormented by the plight of other people. Reading had taken me away for long periods at a time, yet I still had to deal with the streets and the authorities and the cold. I knew what it meant to be white and I knew what it meant to be a nigger, and I knew what was going to happen to me. My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed. My best friend had committed suicide two years earlier, jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

When I arrived in Paris in 1948 I didn’t know a word of French. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t want to know anyone. Later, when I’d encountered other Americans, I began to avoid them because they had more money than I did and I didn’t want to feel like a freeloader. The forty dollars I came with, I recall, lasted me two or three days. Borrowing money whenever I could—often at the last minute—I moved from one hotel to another, not knowing what was going to happen to me. Then I got sick. To my surprise I wasn’t thrown out of the hotel. This Corsican family, for reasons I’ll never understand, took care of me. An old, old lady, a great old matriarch, nursed me back to health after three months; she used old folk remedies. And she had to climb five flights of stairs every morning to make sure I was kept alive. I went through this period where I was very much alone, and wanted to be. I wasn’t part of any community until I later became the Angry Young Man in New York.

Why did you choose France?

It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.

You say the city beat him to death. You mean that metaphorically.

Not so metaphorically. Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.

I was not raised on the Christian faith, so I had to do some independent research, but "Go Tell it On the Mountain" is actually a religious song that is sung in church. The actual title itself comes from one part in the book where Elisha, one of the saints, tells John: "'You keep your mind on Jesus. He went that way—up the steep side of the mountain—and He was carrying the cross, and didn’t nobody help Him. He carried that cross for us.’” The image inevitably reminds me of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, which I will use to conclude this review.