The Two Gabriels

Our class discussion on Wednesday made me more interested in exploring the connections between John’s father Gabriel in Go Tell It on the Mountain and the archangel Gabriel in the Bible. In one sense, both angels bring salvation to those around them. In the Bible, the archangel Gabriel tells the previously barren Elizabeth that she will have a son, who later becomes John the Baptist. Go Tell It on the Mountain Gabriel brings salvation to the life of Elizabeth by marrying her. Her boyfriend had passed away and she was left unmarried with a son. Gabriel saves her from a life as a single mother and the potential insecurity that might come along with it during that time period. This situation mirrors what Gabriel did for his first wife Deborah. She was barren and, as a result, had few prospects for marriage, but Gabriel married her when others would not. 

However, there are crucial differences between these stories as well. While Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin and Elizabeth was married but barren when the archangel Gabriel appeared to them, Deborah and Elizabeth in Go Tell It on the Mountain had experience with sex and pregnancy. Deborah was sexually assaulted so violently by a group of white men that she physically could not have children, and Elizabeth gave birth to a child outside of marriage without ever telling the father. None of Mary’s purity or her cousin’s desperate prayers for a child exist in Baldwin’s narrative. With these biblical parallels in mind, it is difficult to understand Gabriel the character, who we see primarily through John’s eyes. John and his father’s contentious relationship seems to contradict this connection to Gabriel the messenger of God and deliverer of good news. An answer to this uncertainty may be found in the racism that impacts Gabriel’s life and loved ones in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Baldwin’s Gabriel is not perfect like the angel but that is because he has endured immense hardship that influences how he views the world and his son John. As Dr. Kinyon posited in class, John, with his unusual personality, may remind Gabriel of white people, resulting in their rift. While the biblical Gabriel reveals much about how Baldwin’s Gabriel brought a type of salvation to his wives, other areas of connection remain unclear. 

2 thoughts on “The Two Gabriels”

  1. I think your discussion of the two Gabriels is really important for helping us understand why Gabriel acts the way he does. One major distinction I see is that Baldwin’s Gabriel believes that he is the anointed one of God and that he is the most important person in this story. He repeatedly conveys his belief that his bloodline is royal and will bring about the glory that he so desperately wants. However, since he is the parallel of the angel Gabriel, then it is clear that he is not actually the main focus of this story. As we discussed in class today, the angel Gabriel is simply the messenger and the facilitator for other important individuals to accomplish great things. Therefore, Gabriel’s bloodline is not really holy or royal at all. Baldwin’s Gabriel does not recognize this because his ego and his pride prevent him from believing that John, a child he does not claim as his own, could actually be God’s anointed.

  2. Hi, Susan!
    I totally agree that Gabriel exhibits the weakest parallel to his Biblical namesake; it’s interesting to me that Baldwin would select the name of such a perfect being for such a flawed character. I also agree that John’s unusual personality may well elicit Gabriel’s wrath. It seemed so strange to me that Baldwin’s own father could reject James’ intelligence as “white” as we discussed during class. Baldwin himself alludes to this distinction between Blackness and intelligence in this quote: “I knew I was Black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” I can’t help but feel that Gabriel, for all his hatred of white people, actually antagonizes John the most. In fact, one of the only explicitly white characters is a kindly old man whose only function in the text is to smile at John. It’s almost like Gabriel/David has internalized all the racist ideas and abuse he’s taken from white people over the years–for example, that only white people can be smart and that it is unnatural for a Black man to display an abundance of intellect–and now projects it onto his son, inadvertently becoming to John/James the oppressive figure that white people once were to him.

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