I really don’t know how I could have been so surprised that a book called Go Tell It on the Mountain could contain so much religious imagery, but I was. From each character’s name to the green snake that lives on the mantle, almost everything in the novel functions as some theological double entendre. Similarly, almost everything in the novel provides autobiographical insight into James Baldwin’s own life; the allusions to his own impoverished childhood in Harlem, his religious upbringing, and his tumultuous relationship with his father are unmistakable. I thought in this week’s blog post I’d unpack an aspect of the novel which lives at the intersection between these two themes: the historical role of the oldest son in the Bible.
According to the primogeniture of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the eldest male of each family is entitled to the birthright, or a double portion of his father’s inheritance. Younger sons were each allotted only a single portion of the inheritance, while daughters were expected to marry and were thus largely excluded from inheriting anything at all (shocker, I know). Beyond this material advantage, eldest sons were expected to serve as priests–an honorable position in ancient Israel.
I’d argue that Go Tell It On the Mountain reflects this bias towards the oldest son in the characters of John and Aunt Florence. Neither John nor Florence is the eldest male: John, though older, is illegitimate, casting his trouble-making half-brother Roy as their father’s only real heir, and Florence’s younger brother Gabriel is simply a rebel. Though both John and Florence prove themselves more responsible, respectful, and generally worthy of love, it is Roy and Gabriel who are heavily favored by their respective parents. In the first two parts of the novel, it’s never explicitly stated why Gabriel so blatantly prefers Roy (though the obvious similarities between father and son almost certainly play a part), but if we are to use James Baldwin’s own life as a lens through which to analyze the text, we might surmise that the “whiteness” of John’s intellect inspires a sort of fear in his father that no amount of praying or preaching can soothe. John is thus robbed of his birthright–his father’s love–while Roy gets his own double portion, remaining, for all his faults, somehow blameless in Gabriel’s eyes. Florence’s case is much more straightforward: she might be the firstborn, but she is also a girl, and “would by and by be married, and have children of her own, and all the duties of a woman” (EN&S 68). Florence is therefore continuously overlooked, forced to watch helplessly as her mother wastes all her efforts on an ungrateful son; she is precluded from her birthright–an education, her mother’s attentions, and any hope of a future–by virtue of her gender, just as the women of the Old Testament before her.
I’d like to think that James Baldwin’s religious background would have familiarized him with this concept of primogeniture, and yet I do not doubt that it was an issue which he recognized from his own life experiences. As we discussed in class, James Baldwin was not actually the eldest child; rather, David Baldwin had a son by a previous marriage. However, James was still forced to do much of the parenting, essentially raising his younger siblings for a father who hated him. Like John, his every attempt to do right by his father was overshadowed by the simple fact that he was not David’s real son. Despite following in his father’s footsteps as a religious leader and earning a reputation for his intellectual pursuits, James received no reward for his hard work; he labored without promise of any birthright.