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.
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.
Douglas Field’s Pentecostalism and All That Jazz: Tracing James Baldwin’s Religion is probably one of my favorite articles that we’ve read so far. I appreciated how this article made sense of Baldwin’s understanding of religion and it allowed me to think about how growing up in the Baptist Church has affected my perspective of religion. I agreed with Baldwin’s argument of how the church as an institution can be contradictory and produce a lack of self love. I’ve seen how the Baptist church can condemn its members and I’ve seen how the Baptist church can be a safe haven. The point that I resonated with the most is that you can be critical of the church and still be very Christian or religious. I also appreciated the history lesson on jazz music and the Pentecostal church. I think that being involved with music in any aspect can be religious or spiritual. I also never thought about how religion can lead to passivity and I think Field makes a great point when he states, “Baldwin suggests that piety not only leads to passivity, but that it damages personal relationships” (446). I feel as though this happens with a lot of religious people who blame their actions on God instead of taking responsibility for it. Further it is often people who claim to be the most Christian that I’ve seen do this. It also turns people away from faith in anything when people of the church continuously act hypocritically. Baldwin’s practice of an anti-institutional spiritually shifted my interpretation of part one of Go Tell It on The Mountain. I didn’t think that this novel was going to be critical of the church. I knew that religion was going to be a theme in the novel but I didn’t think the criticization of the church was going to be a central point of chapter one. I am curious to see how Roy’s and John’s paths diverge or connect throughout the rest of the novel.
Field also addresses Baldwin’s ideology of salvation through the love and support of one another. He states, “Baldwin’s most radical rewriting of Christian–or at least spiritual identity–is to place emphasis on salvation and redemption, not through God, but through a love that is founded on the sharing of pain” (450). Can we be saved through each other? If God is the ultimate judge, do humans have the agency to save each other in a religious sense? I am not sure if Field meant for this to be taken quite literally. However, I am taking Jesus and Salvation for my second theo requirement right now so that could also be a reason why I am reading so deeply into this statement. The purpose of this article is to address Baldwin’s opposition to the church. However, I did not expect his interpretation of his use of religious language in his writing to be taboo. He states, “In Baldwin’s later fiction, nakedness is holy, but the fear of judgment is replaced by the act of complete surrender to another lover. This authentic sexual love becomes itself an act of both revelation and of redemption” (452). Baldwin’s idea of a holy sort of love is what we would associate as traditionally taboo, which makes his work all the more thought provoking to me. Field is quick to acknowledge that Baldwin is not talking about sexual gratification, but more of a spiritual sexual love that is received by both people involved. I have seen If Beale Street Could Talk and I think the movie captured this aspect of a spiritual love. I loved how the article ended by reiterating that “Love, then aided and nurtured through gospel music, becomes the bedrock of Baldwin’s new religion. Irrespective of class, gender or sexuality, love becomes, for Baldwin, a redemptive act” (453). Further, “Love, spiritual love, is the new religion. For it is ‘love’, Baldwin concludes, ‘which is salvation.’” I think Baldwin’s understanding of religion is digestible, coming from the perspective of someone who is a Baptist Christian and his philosophy makes a lot of sense to me.
While reading “Going to Meet the Man”, I noticed many similarities with “Down at the Cross”. For one, there is a consistent questioning of how Christianity differs between blacks and whites. Is God the same towards blacks as he is towards whites? Is there a separate heaven for separate races? In “Going to Meet the Man”, Baldwin writes about a white man named Jessie. “…he [Jessie] had never thought of their [African Americans] heaven or what God was, or could be, for them…” (Baldwin 938). Jessie deduces that there must be a separate heaven and maybe even a separate God for black people than whites. It’s not surprising that it’s not something he has thought about. Why would someone want to think that those they dehumanize on earth could actually prove to have the same worth in heaven? We see the same conclusions from a black perspective. In “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin writes, “But God…is white” (304). Baldwin has difficulty believing that the same God white Christians worshiped, could ever love him as well. We see this saddening ideology of racial separation in a belief that clearly stands for unity. This is due to the way the world we live in affects our spiritual beliefs. I find that often we judge God’s character based on the character of people or society. During Baldwin’s time especially, society said that we were meant to be separate and some automatically assumed that heaven must work the same. In our world, whites are automatically categorized as righteous and pure while blacks are subconsciously seen as sinful and suspicious. This leaves people assuming that God sees people the way society does- whites as godly and blacks as ungodly. To this day, we still have white churches and black churches. Why can’t people worship the same God together? It’s obvious that this racial separation continues to prevalent in our world today. However, doesn’t Jesus call for unity? Why isn’t the church representing God’s kingdom the way it’s supposed to? I believe these are questions Baldwin wrestles with.
Galatians 3: 28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (ESV). It’s clear that God does not see anyone as superior or inferior. He sees us as not just equal but one and the same. Separation and inequality are things the world teaches us, but not something God teaches. We must be careful with looking at the world for God when the world does not support what He says. Baldwin falls into the lie that God and the world run the same way when in reality they do not. Unity is what God calls for, yet all we see in the world and the church is disunion. The church is meant to represent Christ, and this is one thing that is certainly missing. God does not change his word for the world. We must change our world for his word. Moral of the story is to depend on God more than what we see in the world and shoot for change.
In “Down at the Cross,” the part where James Baldwin tells his father that his Jewish friend “is a better Christian than you are” really stuck with me during my initial reading (CE 308). I feel like there are a lot of people who identify themselves as Christian but fail to recognize what is one of the most important principles of Christianity: to “love thy neighbor.” This brings to mind the difference between following the letter of the law (taking what is written in the Bible literally) and following the spirit of the law (working to understand the underlying messages in the Bible). I would guess that David Baldwin was much more of a “letter of the law” kind of man based on how James Baldwin wrote the character of Gabriel in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Gabriel (David) seems to care a lot about his image in the church and about doing whatever will make him appear to be a holy man, but the lack of love and kindness he has for his son, whether that be because of John’s (James’s) sexuality, his intellect, his illegitimacy, his friendships with white people, or a combination of these and other factors, shows just how much he does not understand the most basic tenet of Christianity. David cannot get over his own pride and anger, so he takes it out on others instead of treating them with the love and compassion that the Bible demands of Christians. I think David Baldwin needed a reality check in that just because he considers himself a “holy man,” this does not make him a good person; one does not have to belong to a certain religion or claim a specific identity in order to live a good and virtuous life. She can still attempt to “love her neighbor” even without thinking about it from a Christian perspective, and I think that the effort and actions matter more in this case than the specific reasoning for that effort.
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.
The essentially autobiographical “Go Tell it on the Mountain” allows the reader to examine and relate to the true thoughts and emotions that shaped Baldwin. Several elements draw distinct comparisons between James and Jesus the Messiah. To start, the book itself begins with the protagonist’s birthday. Although it isn’t his actual day of birth, his 14th birthday symbolizes his start of puberty and the beginning of his consciousness, manhood, and realization of who he is. This is very similar to the beginnings of two gospel stories in the Holy Bible that describe Christ’s nativity and “birth”. Furthermore, both Jesus and the protagonist are assisted by a “Gabriel”. In Jesus’ case, the angel Gabriel came down to tell Mary, Jesus’ mother, that she would have a divine child. He delivered the news that out of her virginity, she would give birth to a child of the Lord. In class, we studied a marble statue that interpreted the concept of Gabriel’s delivery of the message that Mary would be impregnated with the seed of God. Gabriel was the messenger that predicted Jesus. In “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” Gabriel is portrayed as a stepfather, and while his seed did not produce the protagonist, his urging of John to embrace Christianity and get saved, allowed John to become the person he would be. John’s desire to please his family and follow in the ways of God truly shapes his thoughts and motivations. However, because he never truly feels the spirit that he anticipates coming when giving oneself to God, he views Christianity from a removed, third-person view. This enables him to recognize and speak about the hypocrisies. James Baldwin uses this knowledge and vantage to apply to his analysis of Black Americans. Additionally, in the biography of James Baldwin that was studied in class, it was only because James had been “saved” that his stepfather allowed him to stay in high school and cultivate his academic prowess. Without his education, he would not have the tools necessary for success. Lastly, both Jesus and Baldwin suffered for their beliefs and for the salvation of others. The Christian understanding is that Jesus suffered for our sins. The suffering element is important as humility is found in the time spent suffering. While Christ had to suffer, he did so to testify for humanity’s sins and to save them. Throughout the story, it is clear that John is suffering. Whether it is his sexuality, the sin of his masturbation, his treatment from his father, his outward appearance, Christianity in general, and his ideas of white people, John is constantly in turmoil. But “John” endures this in order to be able to testify for his people. Without the struggle and experiences of his childhood, he would not have been prepared to speak with credibility about the lives of Black people in his adulthood. His road destined him for service to others.