The Curse of Ham

In class, the curse of Ham has been brought up on several occasions. I have read Genesis 9:21-27 several times throughout my life, yet this was a concept I was unaware of. After digging deeper into this ideology, I further understand Baldwin’s point of view on Christianity as described in his writing, specifically “Down at the cross”. 

In Genesis 9:25, Noah curses his son Canaan for seeing him naked. Noah states, “‘Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.’” This story has been used for decades to validify slavery and the putting down of people of color. According to Time Magazine, “In its boiled-down, popular version, known as “The Curse of Ham,” Canaan was dropped from the story, Ham was made black, and his descendants were made Africans” (Rae). In reality, all the brothers had the same father and were the same race. However, Africans being seen as the descendents of Ham is accepted, and blacks are deemed as less than due to fate. 

The curse of Ham is a concept that Baldwin is taught and continues to struggle with during his time in the church. In “Down at the Cross”, Baldwin writes, “I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and that I was therefore predestined to be a slave” (Baldwin 307). Baldwin believes that he is meant to be less than according to the word of God. He does not understand how God can be loving to some people and not loving to others. Therefore, Baldwin not only doubts the love Christians show, but the love of God resulting in his loss of faith.

A Final Thought on Baldwin and Religion and A Look Ahead

In “Down at the Cross,” James Baldwin describes his experience preaching to children, saying, “When I watched all the children, their copper, brown, and beige faces staring up at me as I taught Sunday school, I felt that I was committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life. Were only Negroes to gain this crown? Was Heaven, then, to be merely another ghetto?” (309). In this quote, Baldwin criticizes acceptance of present suffering in the hope of reward in the next life. His critique appears to hint at the way white Christians used this same tactic to discourage slave insurrection and revolt in the antebellum South (Field, 445). However, Douglass Field writes that Baldwin felt a similar disdain toward the black church, which fostered “a tendency towards passivity” (446). 

Over the past week, I have thought a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. and his call for love of white people, a call Baldwin similarly emphasizes in his relationships with religion. King seems to emphasize the love of Christ, rather than the fear of eternal damnation in his speeches, living out the kind of Christianity Baldwin appreciates. Yet, eventually, King’s emphasis on love, which is both active in its confrontational nature and passive in its disdain for violence, falls out of favor in the civil rights movement, replaced by a more militant approach to equality. I wonder how Baldwin views this shift. If love is the right path toward civil rights and equality, it seemingly requires a reciprocal reaction from the oppressing group, which could take a long time if it ever comes at all. Thus, the turn away from love, or at least from unconditional love, makes sense since African-Americans should not have to wait to receive the rights that fundamentally belong to them. To me, unconditional love and the fight for civil rights remain in an uneasy union and I look forward to seeing how Baldwin’s writings on the civil rights movement accept or nuance his emphasis on love shown here.

The American Condition (and Lil Nas X?)

Reading “Other(ed) Americans in Paris: Henry James, James Baldwin, and the Subversion of Identity” by Eric Savoy, although it was focused primarily on Giovanni’s Room, many connections can be found in Baldwin’s novel Go Tell it on the Mountain, and with new discussions of otherness in pop culture. Baldwin argues that Americans lost the history that they set out to find, that “our history…is the history of the total, and willing, alienation of entire peoples from their forebears.” He says that his Black ancestors had no desire to come to America, but neither did the ancestors of those who became white (Savoy 340). This recognition of the past, or the privilege to refuse it, is something I see in the characters of Gabriel and Florence. For Florence, she claims that she did not want to become white, but she wanted to run from the history her mother shared with her and the “common niggers” she found she lived around. The otherness she was refusing in herself and those around her is what Jacques and Savoy call the American Condition: “the despicableness of the inability to perceive the reality of otherness,” (Savoy 344). 

The American Condition is also reflected in Gabriel, as he cannot love anyone for who they truly are, their otherness, especially John. However, Gabriel’s rejection of otherness goes further because it is based in fear. Baldwin says that Americans failures to accept the lessons of history result in the dangerous disrespect for other people’s personalities, and the consequences of this disrespect is the inability to sympathize or to love one’s own otherness (Savoy 343). This is present in Gabriel, as he continues to try to create a “royal” line of children that continues to fail. Instead of facing his own mistakes and accepting his failed history, his own inability to love his otherness is projected onto John and many other family members around him.  

I think we continue to see the disrespect and lack of self-love on individuals’ otherness in the modern day. Not just in the obvious racism that this country is built on, but also through many other forms of otherness, including homosexuality. Although one could see this as completely unrelated, I find the recent conversations surrounding Lil Nas X, and his otherness to fit into this topic. Pop artist, Lil Nas X just released a song that highlights his homosexuality and the condemnation gay people have always experienced, and he is a black man, so conversations of race have inevitably risen, as well. Many arguments have involved the topic of his music video influencing children to a life of sin, but I argue that the American Condition has already done that. The fear of the wrath of God has allowed those that believe in religion to become the judges, the jury, and the executioners who have decided that any hint of otherness requires their own condemnation, on sight. Although the human condition and pop culture could extend back to Michael Jackson, and Prince, I wanted to focus on Lil Nas X, as he is the most recent.


I found all the presentations this week interesting, but I particularly enjoyed the one on strangerhood the most. Strangerhood presents the idea of always feeling a sense of not belonging in one’s environment, and just being a stranger. I found this concept being related to Go Tell it on the Mountain interesting because it was something we had discussed during Native Son, and I did not think of the concept of strangerhood in John’s life before the presentations. Seeing the presentation made the connection of John constantly being aware of his strangerhood very obvious. I do wish I had also connected the dots and thought about this earlier. Now, when I think about Go Tell it on the Mountain in light of John’s strangerhood, I think John strangerhood is first clearly stated when Baldwin writes that “the darkness of his sin was in the hardheartedness with which he resisted God’s power.” (Baldwin 31) Here, John feels guilty for not fully taking part in the church and following what he has been told are the church’s teachings. At the same time, he is resistant to accept God’s power, which he has been told, can save him. John has been brought up around the church and its teachings. If he feels guilty for not accepting what he has been taught all his life, by the institution which is supposed to represent the almighty which he must pray to, then he is a stranger to the environment in which he has been raised. Like Bigger, no one in his house really understands him and his thought process. Clearly, John’s strangerhood is a representation of Baldwin’s, which was touched upon in the presentation. Baldwin left everything, including his family, behind in America and moved to France because he was a stranger in the country in which he was brought up. He felt unsafe, from the white folks that he had seen all his life, in his motherland. Since he moved to France, with barely any acquaintances there, he was a stranger there as well.   

Strangerhood & Exile

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. 

“The Most Segregated Hour”

One of the recurring topics of our class has been the fact that the Christian Church in America is a tool that reinforces segregation. We first saw this in I Am Not Your Negro, in which Baldwin, in an interview with Dick Cavett, exclaims: “I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian Church which is white and a Christian Church which is Black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians and I certainly cannot trust the Christian Church.” I was interested in this quote, as we discussed the misattribution of it in class on Wednesday. For that reason, I did a little bit of research about the quote as well as the topic of racial segregation in Christian churches. 

Although Baldwin attributes the quote to Malcolm X, I was only able to find a similar quote from Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “I think it is one of the tragedies –– one of the shameful tragedies –– that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America” (King). Baldwin reiterates King’s point in later works such as “Down at the Cross,” in which he writes “In the same way that we, for white people, were the descendants of Ham, and were cursed forever, white people were, for us, the descendants of Cain” (Collected Essays 310). 

This begs the question: has anything changed? Are churches today more integrated than they were fifty years ago? Well, the answer is complicated. According to a 2001 article, up to 87% of Christian churches were racially homogenous, with 69% of congregations being almost entirely white and 18% of congregations almost entirely Black (Vischer). But of course, such a statistic is suspect, as the study only considered Black and white Americans, without noting if a church was attended by Asian, latinx, or Indigenous populations. More recently, the Pew research center noted that “[m]any U.S. congregations are still racially segregated, but things are changing” (Lipka). According to their 2014 study, 20% of Americans attend a church in which no single racial group constitutes more than 80% of the congregation. This begs new questions: is a Church that’s 80% white, but say, 20% latinx no longer a tool of anti-Black segregation? Likewise, just because 20% of Americans attend such churches, that doesn’t mean that anything has changed. Maybe those individuals just attend a handful of “Megachurches” with huge populations. Regardless, the fact remains that Christian churches, on average, are largely racially homogenous. Until things seriously change, Baldwin’s statements reflect a vital and highly disconcerting critique that Christians of all denominations should reflect upon.

Flesh As Sin

The presentations today prompted a continuation of thought regarding one of the things Baldwin takes issue with within the institution of the church: the sin of flesh. Baldwin has learned from the church to hate his body, which might commit actions of his sinful sexuality. Baldwin is taught by American society to hate his skin, which threatens the legitimacy of whiteness. Baldwin, in grappling against this self-loathing, reveals what he has struggled to love most about himself: his body.  

I believe this might relate to our discussion of the afterlife, which is said to be existence without flesh and body. Perhaps the Christian church orients itself away from the sin of our human bodies knowing that the afterlife means a dismissal and a departure from the profane. Yet this is a notion that Baldwin confronts, as he believes that the shame we are taught to approach our bodies with is harmful. Salvation need not be divorced from bodily existence. 

To believe sin is inherent in your body and written on your skin is to never believe in personal salvation. Baldwin believes in his own salvation and prophethood, regardless of his physicality. He refuses to be ashamed of his flesh, knowing that it instead is the content of his deliverance. Baldwin vehemently rejects flesh as sin as taught in religion and society, instead rewriting flesh to exist as sanctification. He suggests that “love can only be attained through a holistic acceptance of the body as well as the spirit,” which is perhaps why Baldwin also demands sanctity of nudity as an exposed body (Field 451). 

David, the protagonist of Giovanni’s Room, has salvation “hidden in his flesh,” as the body holds redemption in its very existence. Most of Baldwin’s protagonists make no distinction between the body and the spirit, as he contends that the two share in significance and value. He uplifts the body as a sight of salvation, “insisting on [its] sanctity and acceptance” (Field 451). I’m curious to track this train of thought as we continue to trace patterns in our second Baldwin novel. Questions I might ask going forward: Is transcendence reached when the body and soul meet each other? How are sexuality and religion continually entangled in Baldwin’s text? Does human flesh force a confrontation between sexuality and religion?

The father and The Father

When reading Go Tell It On the Mountain, I could not help but make comparisons that John makes between his father Gabriel and how he views God as the Eternal Father. John’s world is steeped in shame and hatred, and the force that holds these two emotions together in John’s heart is intricately tied up with his perception of his father and the Father. Every time someone praises John, his mind immediately goes to his father — of Gabriel beating him, belittling him, calling him ugly — as if he subconsciously thinks of his father in moments of praise to humble himself in some sick way. This is much like how church teachings would encourage God’s servants to humble themselves, especially when doing God’s work.

One could infer that John cannot feel God’s presence (or even refuses to) because his perception of God as a vengeful, unforgiving, unyielding being converges with how he views his own father, Gabriel: “John’s heart was hardened against the Lord… John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father.” (19) This comparison is deepened by the language people would use to describe familial relationships: “your Daddy beats you… because he loves you” (21) is akin to the trials and tribulations that God would bestow upon his subjects and servants, most prominently in the Book of Job. John lives in constant fear of his father and of God, and he is unable to understand what love would look like from either of them since he is only taught to obey and endure, and this battle of what he feels and what he ought to feel remains the driving force for the tension within Baldwin’s writings.

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.

When the Saints Go Marching In

Throughout the duration of my reading of Baldwin’s Go Tell it On The Mountain, I have been interested in how the narrative bases itself on James Baldwin’s autobiography, while also interacting Biblical symbolism in order to create a criticism of the Christian religion. I’ve been particularly in the themes of apocalypticism that run through the narratives of each major character in the text. Though the main characters (John, Elisha, Gabriel, Elizabeth, Deborah, etc.) are all seeking to grow in their faith in God, it seems as though their greatest motivation for being “saved” is just to avoid the eternal damnation they feel destined for. They do not show nearly as much interest in being with God in the afterlife as they do in fleeing Hell. This is shown through the “fire and brimstone” rhetoric that pervades the thoughts words of each character in John’s family. Shame seems to be the main motivating factor for this outlook on religion and faith.

            As this piece is based in Baldwin’s autobiography, I feel that Baldwin is making a criticism of the culture of the [Black] church, in its exploitation of human shame. We can see this through John’s redemption at the end of the text. Although John bears doubts about his religion and even hates religion because of its association with his father, he still seeks out peace in religious redemption. When John is saved and has his name written the Book of Life at the end of the narrative, he feels a sense of peace, or perhaps relief. He no longer feels that he has to run from Hell; no matter how much of a sinner he feels he is, he has escaped Hell. He gets to be in “that number” when the saints come marching into the pearly gates, but it may not be until the afterlife that he gets to fully accept and love himself.

            Still, John has doubts at the end of the work, the fear of damnation somehow still finding him taking over. He says to Elisha, “No matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember—please remember—I was saved. I was there.” (Baldwin 215). He cannot fully revel in the miracle of his salvation; he is too fearful that it might be taken away from him.

Florence is perhaps the only character who is not willing to compromise her true self for her the eternal life of her soul. We can see this through how she talks with her brother Gabriel on matters of “the heart”. She is well aware that Gabriel is a well-revered man in the church and seen as very faithful man of God, but she does not believe that intention alone will get Gabriel to march with the saints into heaven. This is why Gabriel hates Florence; he sees her as a threat to his own salvation.

Go Tell it on the Mountain tells the story of a collection of characters who find solace in religion not necessarily because they want to march with the saints into heaven’s gates, but because they want to escape the Hell that they feel their sin and shame promises them. It’s fascinating to see Baldwin’s criticism of religion jump out through these characters!