Philip Larkin On Inherited Trauma

There is a scene in Go Tell It On the Mountain that’s bothered me since I first read it. It’s extremely short—you can almost miss it if you aren’t paying attention. In the scene, John has just watched a film and stands on a hill, pondering the allures of sinful city life. He runs down the hill in a moment of joyous freedom, only to nearly collide with an old white man; the two “stopped, astonished, and looked at one another. John struggled to catch his breath and apologize, but the old man smiled. John smiled back” (EN&S 32). 

And that’s it! That’s the whole scene. Now, John already enjoys a comfort among white people that his elders have never experienced; his intellect affords him his white teachers’ respect. And white people have never abused him in the ways his Black father has; in fact, it is Gabriel, not any white man, who continuously antagonizes John. Why, then, should John fear the white folks, who have always been kinder than his own flesh and blood?

What John doesn’t realize, of course, are all the twisted ways in which whiteness has shaped his entire family. It is whiteness that carved the racist, postbellum landscape of Gabriel’s youth; which brutally violated Gabriel’s first wife, Deborah; and which destroyed his firstborn son Royal. It is whiteness which drove Elizabeth’s first love Richard to take his own life after he was implicated in the robbery of a white man’s store, a crime he did not commit. It is whiteness that instilled in Florence the internalized racism which alienates her from the “dirty” and “common” lower class Black people; which moves her to try and lighten her skin; and which ultimately contributes to her separation from her husband, who feels Florence would prefer it if he’d only “turn white” (81). 

Gabriel, like his wife and sister, is a product of whiteness—a victim. In an extremely screwed-up way, it makes sense that, recognizing in John’s intellect a sort of whiteness, Gabriel would so violently react. I’ve talked a lot about inheritance laws; this is John’s allotted portion. The same Gabriel who once reflected on “how sin led to sin” and who has for so long borne that Great White Sin of racism now passes the fruits of his trauma onto John, projecting years of oppression onto his step-son (129). It reminds me of that Philip Larkin poem, “This Be the Verse”:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Gabriel and Elizabeth and Florence have all lived their lives; they’ve each experienced whiteness in all its cruelty and fallen victim to the cycle of oppression, Their fates are sealed. But John! John is young—only fourteen—and has his whole life ahead of him. John is the future—a future that has emerged from a history of racism and violence, but which ultimately promises to break the cycle. John, at his core, is a symbol of Baldwin’s hope for the next generation of Black Americans: where whiteness has marred John’s entire family tree, it only smiles at him.

3 thoughts on “Philip Larkin On Inherited Trauma”

  1. I really enjoyed looking at the story from this perspective, and I love the optimistic reading you have done here in suggesting that John represents Baldwin’s hope for the future. I had also stopped at this passage when I read it, even though it is so brief. I was especially struck by how joyful and youthful John seems in this passage. John has had to deal with so many hardships and heavy burdens in his life, so it made me happy that he could be so carefree in this moment. I think it truly demonstrates how Baldwin himself, despite all of his own personal struggles and inner conflict, hoped to be an instrument in bringing about a more positive world for future generations.

  2. First of all, I love this post and the connections you’ve made. It is clear that racism has made John’s family what it is. Bigger comes to my mind when thinking about the reasons for why people are the way they are and do the things they do. I still find his actions too egregious to substantiate or justify with racism, but with Gabriel I can fully empathize. I see as you do that racism has sculpted Gabriel into the hardened father he is today, incapable of loving his son. I think that the worst part about this dynamic is how whiteness can cause so much damage yet come out unscathed. We can see how whiteness is actually responsible for John’s current situation, but he cannot see it himself. He cannot find it in himself to condemn his own silent oppressor.

  3. Excellent ideas here and I love your connection to Larkin’s poetry. This can also connect to what we were exploring with Native Son and how Mr. and Mrs. Dalton are both kind and charitable to Bigger with his generous pay and opportunities for education, but this is only surface deep. They present this facade while simultaneously support systemic systems of racism in the community that prevents the Black community from improving their future. I’m also considering how we see this in corporations today. After the murder of George Floyd, there was a surge of brand responses to the BLM Movement, and while some took genuine accountability and supplied funding, many statements were merely performative.

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