Just as John cannot seem to escape the endless accumulation of dust in his house, in his church, or on his body, I couldn’t escape the initially unclear motif of dust within Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. I initially thought this dust might signify John’s interminable dread and shame with regard to his position in the church. However, upon further investigation, this notion is complicated when viewed in a Biblical context.
Baldwin relies heavily on religious language and imagery, and its parallels and subversions illustrate John’s existential crisis. Dust appears everywhere: “in the walls and the floorboards…beneath the sink where roaches spawned…in the wall against which they hung…in every corner, angle, crevice of the monstrous stove and lived behind it in delirious communion with the corrupted wall”; dust even “veils [the] doubtful glory” of the windows, which might otherwise offer a reprieve of “gold or silver” (19). The dust of John’s home reflects the dust that he feels spoils his interior. He feels dirty, vile, and even wonders if he resembles Satan presumably because of his emerging sexuality.
“The Temple of the Fire Baptized” has caused John an inescapable self-loathing and contempt for his body. John is so affected by this intrusion that he is nearly suffocated by the dirt that surrounds him. The dust “rose, clogging his nose and sticking to his sweaty skin,” it “fill[s] his mouth” and threatens to “bury” him (24). He is submerged in the dust of his own self-hatred and internal dissonance; a feeling I believe Baldwin knew all too well. John harbors an extreme self-consciousness and feels the need to atone for the pronounced evil inherent in his body, yet “so much labor brought so little reward” (24). He is horrified that this filth will remain forever and come to dictate consequences afterlife. The same church that taught him to hate his sexuality and body is the church of which is to decide his fate, a toxic entanglement of which John feels he will never elude.
In the Old Testament of the Bible, God creates man from the dust of the ground and envisions a return to this origin: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust, you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). John sees the origin and fate of humanity as a reminder that he is sub-human, and must bend to the will of God. He is stifled by this notion of nothingness, coming from and returning to, the nothingness of dust. Yet this dust transcends the junction of before birth and of after death, it characterizes John’s very life. He is not permitted the freedom to escape the reminder of the beginning of his already-determined end, he is smothered within the confines of life. Dust, for John, will not solely exist before and after his life on Earth, it instead must destroy him from within.