One of the most striking differences between the first book of Go Tell It on the Mountain and Native Son for me was the rich relationships and side characters Baldwin offered. In “Many Thousands Gone,” Baldwin claims that “Bigger has no discernible relationship to himself, to his own life, to his own people, nor to any other people.” Certainly, as a reader, after 400 pages of Bigger’s isolated experience of the world, I found myself, while not put off, thoroughly fatigued. That fatigue sets in early, though. From the beginning, there is a feeling that everything in Wright’s world reflects back onto his main character. The shameful undertones of Vera and her mother as they change furtively and quickly in the opening of the first scene seems to somehow be more about Bigger’s shame and isolation. The competitive egos and insecurities of Bigger’s friends feels more indicative of Bigger’s issues than of an honest, nuanced depiction of community, friendship, or Black men. For me, this related back to the question of artistry that came up during Ahana’s presentation. This impulse, to create a main character with such overwhelming and isolating gravitas, was a bold choice. It was not always very relatable or efficient, and I believe some of the poetics, artistry, or connection was lost as a result.
Going into Go Tell It on the Mountain, I was curious to see if these same issues might come up or how they might be addressed differently. I think looking at the depiction of the mother in Baldwin’s book could be an excellent access point, especially as gender was such a gripping and obvious issue in the last text. At least for starters, I believe Baldwin explains the relationship between John and John’s mother much more effectively, artistically, and honestly. For example, as John thinks about old pictures of his mom in comparison with her current battered appearance, he finds that “between the two faces there stretched a darkness and a mystery that John feared, and that sometimes cause him to hate her” (20). This line beautifully conveys the ominous, mystical, and confusing feelings that John must wrestle with in his relationship with his mom. It is far more discernible, relatable, and redemptive almost.