Motifs of fate, dust, and silence appear to me as existing in an interconnected web of meaning within Go Tell It On The Mountain. I would like to explore these intersections, with special attention to what this might reveal of Baldwin, author of said web.
As mentioned in my last blog entry, the ceaseless dust of John’s surroundings and the point to which John is affected by this filth reveals his inescapable terror of the consequences of afterlife. John feels the need to atone for the pronounced evil of his body and identity, tasking himself with cleansing the floorboards and walls of grime in his home and in the church. This job is endless and reaps little reward. John is nearly suffocated by the dust, it “fill[s] his mouth” and threatens to “bury” him, and later, “made him cough and retch,” appearing as film around his mouth during his conversion (24, 187-188). I’m struck by the notion that the dust is so incredibly powerful that it muzzles. It invades John’s throat, his mouth, incapacitating him.
The dust transforms, however, coming to resemble the ashes of a fire. John’s throat, when filled with dust, burns as if filled with ash and becomes as “sharp as the fumes of Hell” (189). When a fire burns, ashes result. I contend that the dust that John consumes and gags on might mutate into ashes, part of the iconography of Hell. 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 is fated to this dust, yet is fighting to exist outside of this fate bequeathed to him by God and (in Baldwin’s view) is bequeathed to the American Negro. Simultaneously, John is fighting to escape the fiery Hell that he believes he is fated to. After his conversion, however, John finds reprieve. He escapes the silence symptomatic of his shame and finds a voice. Baldwin writes, “And the words came upward, it seemed, of themselves, in the new voice God had given him” (199). John is given a voice that transcends flawed human language, it comes from God himself. Baldwin may have felt a similar way when is called as a witness to the lived Black experience. This trajectory differs from the expectation of his stepfather, yet is a purpose Baldwin feels is truthful. He rejects the fate that Wright prescribes in Native Son and the fate prescribed to him by Christianity, which is “sealed forever, from the beginning of time” as a descendent of Ham (Down At The Cross 307). I’ve noticed time and time again that Baldwin is fighting to be understood for all the possibilities of his existence. He is an amalgam, a was, an am, and a will. Baldwin’s becoming is the inspiration for John’s own beginning. John is converted, yet is unfinished. As apparent in the last lines of the novel, he is still “coming” and merely “on his way” (215).