Repression and Race

I Am Not Your Negro reiterated many of the things we’ve already seen from Baldwin in Go Tell It on the Mountian and The Price of the Ticket. Namely, Baldwin’s gospel of love and how it grew from his issues with the church, and Baldwin’s persistent belief in the cause of racism coming from White people trying to hide their shame and guilt. Baldwin paints a picture of the illusion of whiteness, how whiteness equates to power, not identity. I was particularly curious about the context of the film, being released in 2016, and how it was received by both the Black and White community. I saw a good amount of people question its relevance, and others praise it greatly. I think the film’s relevance is blatantly obvious, especially after 2016, where we have seen repeatedly, over and over, that there is no line the white community will not cross to justify itself or bury its own head in the sand. 

My mind is drawn to the debates over pulling down Confederate statues in public areas, and I lived very close to the University of Chapel Hill where a lot of that tension started. White people justified leaving those statues up because of their heritage. For a long time, a Confederate flag flew over I-95, right outside my hometown. And this is justified by heritage. By pride, in ancestors being Confederate soldiers, which constitutes a gross lack of self-awareness already. However, no one seemed to acknowledge that most of those statues in the South were erected in the 1930s, and later in the 1960s, as direct means of intimidation and hate against Civil Rights. White people put up those statues to convey their hate, then later, quite conveniently, forgot how they got there and got angry when people sought to remove such symbols of hate. As Baldwin says around the 43:40 mark in I Am Not Your Negro, “It is not a racial problem, it is a problem of whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible”. People were not willing to look at how those statues got there, and what they meant, because we all know what they mean. They are statues of traitors and dead men. 

Similarly, in my school in North Carolina, we were taught that the Civil War was fought over state’s rights and the southern economy. What drove that economy was not mentioned. Slaves. The Southern economy was built upon slavery. My school was often mocked for being woke and we didn’t even acknowledge slavery as the prime reason the war was fought. Even more recently, the banning of Critical Race Theory in Florida schools and the paranoia over book bans and “race being taught to children” indicate a resurgence of refusal by the white community and its leadership (being most facets of the government) to acknowledge even the most basic accountability for the state of Black people in America. It seems White Americans are hunkering down to deny and obfuscate even more, from justifying racism as heritage to replying with “All Lives Matter.” Baldwin is absolutely right that most of the efforts of White Americans is to cover up, repress, or explain away our shame. And I don’t know how to deal with that, which means I still am playing a part in a systemically racist society. There are so many other things we could be spending all of this time and energy on, like combating climate change, dealing with capitalism, addressing the innumerable global crises. All of this energy is being spent to repress the reality of race in America, on one side of the aisle, and because of that the problem of race in America is endless. As Baldwin writes in The Price of the Ticket and as it is later mentioned in I Am Not Your Negro, “they require a song of my captivity to justify their own”.  There are many points to addressing this that I could not even begin to describe, but I think the media has a crucial responsibility to swallow. I Am Not Your Negro shows a myriad of humiliating and stereotypical portrayals of Black Americans, many of which feed into the complete illusion of ignorance White Americans have built up around them. How information is presented by the media and the government, particularly as media and information become more and more intertwined with everyday life, has a vast effect on how people see themselves and the world around them. BLM protestors cannot be called a violent mob, while the rebels that flew a Confederate flag from the Capitol are “exercising their rights”. This woeful, willful ignorance is destroying us. I just don’t know how to remedy that ignorance on a larger scale.

A Self-Proclaimed Intercessor

The religiosity of Go Tell It on the Mountain is incontestable. Baldwin intentionally references various tenets of Christianity throughout this novel not only as an homage to his upbringing but also as an attempt to make sense of this faith that dominated his youth and reconcile it with his beliefs about love and life as a Black American. John’s father Gabriel is a clear example of the religious (sub)text intrinsic to Go Tell It on the Mountain

There are many moments in which the character Gabriel parallels Angel Gabriel who served as an intercessor between God and humans, communicating God’s wishes to humans throughout the Bible. In Luke 1, Angel Gabriel explains to Mary, “I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God.” Like the archangel from the Bible, Gabriel in the novel also makes clear his unique relationship with God to those around him; he states, “I been doing the will of the Lord, and can’t nobody sit in judgment on me but the Lord. The Lord called me out, He chose me, and I been running with Him ever since I made a start” (206). At another point in the novel, Gabriel tells Elizabeth, “The Lord’s been speaking to my heart, and I believe it’s His will that you and me be man and wife” (182). This is much like in The Annunciation when Angel Gabriel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Here, both Gabriels take part in the formation of the Holy Family in their respective settings. The likeness between Angel Gabriel and Gabriel in Go Tell It on the Mountain has a critical literary and argumentative purpose. Gabriel invokes his closeness to God as a source of moral authority and thus demands compliance from other members of his family and congregation. Baldwin then uses the other characters as witnesses to Gabriel’s anything-but-holy actions that sharply contrast his self-proclaimed role of sacrosanct intercessor. In doing so, Baldwin casts doubt on Gabriel’s legitimacy as a voice for God within their community and, with that, the lessons and messages Gabriel preaches on God’s behalf, primarily, that sexuality and romantic love have no place in the church and that religion is means by which to ensure Black Americans stay within a (racial, patriarchal, etc.) hierarchy.


While reading Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, I knew that there would be some connection and relationship between the story, its characters, and religion. I noticed references here and there, for example, the numerous mentions of being the “apple of one’s eye” which I believed to be a reference to the apple/fruit in the biblical story about Adam and Eve, and I highlighted these different references while reading (Baldwin p. 68, 133). However, it was not until our exercise in class where we actually referred to biblical texts that I realized there were a lot more connections. As Professor Kinyon said, almost every line has a reference to biblical text and religion in some way or another. From the title to some of the characters’ names, there were many biblical parallels.

One of the main biblical parallels that I had confirmed after our exercise in class was the parallel between John the character and a figure in the Bible. I recognized and understood the parallel between John’s father Gabriel and the Biblical figure Garbiel, his younger sister Sarah, the prophet Elisha or Elijah, and more but I was not able to make the connection with John so easily. I questioned if he was a reference to John, one of Jesus’ apostles, or John the Baptist. I think that finishing the novel really unified this concept for me when John in the novel becomes saved. In the Bible, John the Baptist, the son of Elizabeth, (the same as John Grimes in the novel) is set by God to preach repentance and baptize people in the Jordan River. He serves as an example of the importance of repentance of sin. John the Baptist’s story through life and his unfortunate death also serves as a reminder that God has a plan for all and saves us all. This is similar to John Grimes because John’s life is “plagued by sin” and in the end when he has his hallucinations in which he is saved he repents and becomes a changed person. As we have already often discussed, John sins through masturbation and his thinking about his sexuality and afterward, believes that his sin is visible to everyone. However in the Part Three of the novel “The Threshing Floor,” John is religiously converted in a similar way that John the Baptist converts others. When John visions the communion service with Elisha in which he breaks bread and drinks wine (the holy communion), he realizes he has blood on his feet that won’t wash off (Baldwin p. 197). Someone cries “Have you been to the river?” (Baldwin 197). John then goes to the river and is questioned about his belief in the Lord as a sinner and once he sees the Lord, he is set free. Perhaps this allusion to the river in this instance is meant to be a connection the Jordan River in which John the Baptist baptized others.

Also similar to John the Baptist, whose transition to being a prophet came with an acknowledgment of a time when he lived in the desert in obscurity, I saw a similar theme with the character John Grimes. Throughout the course of John’s life, he feels as though he is not understood, especially by his father, or to be more specific step-father. The feelings and emotions that emerge as a result of this, which may just be speculation, are what push John Grimes into this religious conversion and awakening. In the same way that John the Baptist’s obscurity pushed him to a life of ministry.

One last connection that I will make between John Grimes and John the Baptist is through a specific place in scripture. In Luke 3 John the Baptist paves the way for those awaiting judgment day. The people were waiting, wondering if John was the Messiah, the prophet that was promised to them by God. But in Luke, John answered them all, saying that he would baptize them with water but that he was not the most powerful, the one that would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire was the Messiah and the most powerful. The scripture follows by stating, “his winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn…” (Luke 3:17). The threshing floor is an exact reference to the chapter title in which John is saved.

There are probably many more connections that I can make between John Grimes and John the Baptist. It is very intriguing to see that when you actually analyze the text, the abilities to make Biblical parallels are numerous.

Hypocrisy and Love in Go Tell It on the Mountain

As Baldwin wrapped up Go Tell It on the Mountain with Elizabeth’s Prayer and The Threshing Floor, I was struck by how the story evolved into underscoring the religious and social hypocrisies surrounding Gabriel and women. This was not an unexpected turn, given Baldwin’s fascination with a church of love and early conflicts presented in the novel. Hypocrisy is also a common point brought up by religious critics and atheists, of whom I, in the spirit of full disclosure, am quite familiar with. My personal biases evident, I was fascinated with how Baldwin approached hypocrisy, particularly in his portrayal of faithful characters feeling justified in sinning. 

Gabriel is the prime example of this, as he repeatedly references God having forgiven him for his sins as an adolescent, and for his committing adultery with Esther. Similar to Elizabeth’s justification on page 21 (“Your Daddy beats you…because he loves you”) John’s perception of his father is revealed in his hallucination whilst being “saved”. “Then his father was upon him; at his touch there was singing, and fire…I’m going to beat it out of you.’” (191). Both of these cases highlight that Gabriel’s character, in real life and in “spirit” uses religion and piety to justify violence against his children. This is shown once again by Elizabeth’s aunt when Baldwin writes “It was true that her aunt was always talking about how much she loved her sister’s daughter…[Elizabeth] sensed that what her aunt spoke of as love was something else–a bribe, a threat, an indecent will to power” (150). Again, the aunt’s devotion and ideals of morality allow her to treat her niece terribly, to refuse to support or comfort her at all, all while pretending she “loves” her niece. This case presents the idea that the understanding of love as taught by religion, the tough love, the beat-your-child-because-it-will-save-their-soul love, is self-serving and incredibly harmful to (please forgive my word choice) actual interpersonal relationships. Obviously not all religious teachings of love are like this, but it seems in Baldwin’s understanding, those who learn of love and morality from the church and its interpretation of God’s love, are terrible at actually loving others. 

I was ever-curious to delve into the effect of religion on women. In Elizabeth’s Prayer, Elizabeth sees her love with Richard and John’s birth as a “disgrace” (148) despite clearly loving Richard as described on page 161. John having been born out of wedlock presents so great a stigma that Elizabeth forever sees him as “her” sin. She rejoices as his soul is saved and he is forgiven for “his” sin, which is utterly ridiculous because by Elizabeth’s own narrative, John’s only sin is being born of her out of wedlock. The core belief that, without having done anything, everyone is born into sin by a sinful act, creates an incredibly potent environment of shame and guilt over one of, if not the most, natural human interactions. The stigma surrounding sex and marriage, but particularly sex, permeates all of the women in Go Tell It on the Mountain, from the degrading portrayal of Deborah to Gabriel’s self-aggrandized vision of Elizabeth, with proper sex in wedlock, will give birth to a royal lineage. Gabriel treats Deborah, Esther, and Elizabeth as his possessions and mechanisms of his desires, then blames them as independent parties and tempters when he sins. The cycle of possessive actions, power, and control, met with double standards, blame, and guilt, drives the hypocrisy of the religion Baldwin depicts. 

Yet I am still glad that Baldwin acknowledges the merits and comforts religion provides. This much is shown just by John’s attitude at the end of the book, when he says “‘I’m ready…I’m coming. I’m on my way.’” (215). Baldwin’s persistence in religion’s comforts does seem to tie in to how he views his own “new” religion based around love. But it takes a lot to transition from the type of religion Baldwin grew up with and the type he adopted.

Notes of A Native Son: The Father and Son Dynamic

Baldwin talks a lot about his relationship with his father, as well as his reaction to his father’s death. One comment that truly stuck with me while reading this was ‘It was only that I had hated him and I wanted to hold on to this hatred… it was not a ruin that I had hated.'(p. 75)

This line from the reading stuck with me because it showed me that Baldwin only had this emotion to hang onto once his father died. Without his father and the hatred pointed toward him, there was no other emotion to feel but pain. The fact that his father dying did nothing but exercise the thoughts of pain and hate in his head was interesting to me, especially once he brought up his aunt sooner after. Baldwin describes his aunt as ‘beautiful’, or at least that is how he considered her in his childhood. Baldwin seems to recall everyone as nice r kind or beautiful, except for his father. Yet, his aunt is reduced to nothing more than a ‘little black monkey’ as she mourns the death of her brother. Baldwin clearly allows the feelings he has for his father to affect the relationships others may have had with his own father.

This reminds me of Go Tell It On a Mountain, since in that story the father and son dynamic was also strained. I believe that it was strained, but not in full form of hatred. We see how important a father figure is and how it can affect an entire upbringing. It can affect the views on religion, being, and violence. I question if violence in the home, through beating can be made into how people view the world. I believe that a spanking is different than actually being abused throughout childhood. I know that this story talks about how beatings can be related to love and furthermore, religion can be associated with being a good person. So, in Notes of a Native Son the hate Baldwin saw was just his realization that love and the Church did not have to be associated with violence.

The power of religion

In Baldwin’s opening story ‘Go Tell It on the Mountian’, religion is a constant topic of conversation. I find it an exciting appeal to many different issues. Religion throughout this story is prominent in the family dynamic. I especially found it interesting when the mother talked about how the boy’s father was a good man. When the boys truly think about it, they decide he must be a good man because he prays so often, and the mother does nothing to disagree with this perspective.

As someone who was raised Catholic, but has a father who is Seventh Day Adventist, church was a huge part of my life while growing up. I had the black church experience on Saturdays and then Catholic mass on Sundays. I will say the black church and Catholic mass are two completely different experiences. Catholic mass is about reading the Gospel and having a lesson taught to you for about an hour. (in my opinion). When I would go to my father’s church, I would experience the passion and the ability to truly feel what the pastors were saying because of their delivery. So, in a sense, I understand why religion was portrayed as a way of being considered ‘good’.

The ties to religion and violence also build into this same scene. The fact Roy talks about how they are lucky to have a father who makes them go to church and read the Bible, though this line does sound sarcastic in my eyes, it talks about having the ability to associate church with love and violence, such as hitting the boys when they do something wrong. This does in fact associate the ways of violence and religion having mixed lines, especially for John who has such strong ties to his faith.

The Ultimate Panopticon

I recently read an excerpt from Michel Foucault’s “Panopticism” in the class “Perspectives on Gender” with Professor Marcus, and upon finishing Part 2 of Go Tell It on the Mountain, I could not help but be reminded of Foucault’s work, specifically the parallels between what he names as “The Panopticon” and the role of religion in the lives of John and his family members. Foucault defines The Panopticon in the context of the carceral system, inspired Jeremy Bentham’s idea for prison reform where the cells circle around a central guard tower, The Panopticon (like the image above). Because they each face inward towards the tower, The Panopticon represents the constant possibility of surveillance, so much so that there not even need be a person inside as long as the people in the prison have internalized this belief (fear) that they are constantly being watched. There is no escape from this incessant monitoring, real or imagined, and risk of punishment that follows should they be caught doing the “wrong” thing. Given the seemingly narrow scope of The Panopticon in Foucault’s writing, I asked: what might The Panopticon look like in other settings? 

I think Go Tell It on the Mountain offers one possible answer to this question. I would argue that religion functions as some sort of Panopticon-like force in John’s life. One moment where this idea is especially evident is when John visits the movie theater when “having once decided to enter, he did not look back at the street again for fear that one of the saints might be passing and, seeing him, might cry out his name and lay hand son him to drag him back” (Baldwin 37). John very clearly worries that a member of his church will see him committing this sin and become someone who can testify against him before the Lord come judgment time. In other words, John feels that there is no reprieve from God’s watchful eyes. Another similar example of this idea is when the mass attendees recite “My soul is a witness for my Lord,” and in this instance, John experiences “an awful silence… a dreadful weight, a dreadful speculation… and this weight began to move at the bottom of John’s mind, in a silence like the silence of the void before creation, and he began to feel a terror he had never felt before” (Baldwin 76). I understand John’s visceral reaction to this religious expression to speak to the fear that arises from the exact internalized perception of constant surveillance that is the basis for The Panopticon. For John, by way of others or himself, there is no escaping God’s sight nor this world of binaries– good and evil, white and black– he sees as intrinsically connected to and enforced by his religion.