After the thought-provoking presentations on Wednesday, Rae’vonne’s presentation about the idea of strangerhood in Go Tell It On the Mountain struck me. Her discussion of John’s and Baldwin’s experiences of strangerhood was a really powerful way of framing the themes of religion that run through these novels, particularly her insight that the church often creates strangerhood, rather than providing experiences of belonging.
Kiera linked this idea to Jesus’s comment in the Gospels that no prophet is accepted in their own hometown. To this point, I think there’s a connection between strangerhood and exile. This is a theme throughout the Christian Bible. As we see in the book of Exodus, God’s chosen people are not those in power. Rather, God’s preferential option for revelation of Godself is to the dispossessed, the marginalized, the stranger.
In Go Tell It On the Mountain, John’s otherness in his communities makes him feel like a stranger, but he is also cast as a prophetic character. These two traits are directly linked. John’s experience of being a stranger causes him to question his surroundings and try to understand where he fits. His transformation at the end of the novel describes God’s grace acting on John, and perhaps John can have this religious experience precisely because of—not in spite of—his identity as a stranger.
Similarly, it’s not a coincidence that Baldwin writes this novel when he himself is in a time of exile: living in Paris, experiencing a fraught relationship with his family, and feeling othered by his race and his sexuality. Is it his very experience of exile that shapes his self-understanding as a prophet? Baldwin could see the fractures in Christianity and in the church with clearer eyes than those around him, because these institutions never provided him with a place of true belonging. In that exile, he found a prophetic voice. If neither the church nor America saved Baldwin from strangerhood, his stranger status may well have equipped him to be a prophet.