James Baldwin: A Prodigal Son?

I found James Baldwin’s reflections on the tumultuous relationships with both of the father figures in his life in “Notes of a Native Son” and later in “Alas, Poor Richard” to be some of the more powerful pieces we have read thus far. It is especially striking to consider the similarities between his stepfather David Baldwin and mentor Richard Wright, as they both had profound impacts on the life and work of James Baldwin long after they passed. 

To say the least, Baldwin did not have a picturesque relationship with either of these individuals. Baldwin recalls only one time in all his life with his stepfather David in which they had really spoken to one another. Baldwin adds that he cannot remember a time when he and his siblings were happy to see their father return home (79). He experienced a similar distancing with Wright, noting that their dialogues “became too frustrating and acrid” (265). Tragically, Baldwin reconciled with neither paternal figure in his life before they died. 

I would argue that Baldwin saw a bit of himself in both David and Richard, and this realization of similarity is part of the reason for their tense relationships. By this I mean, Baldwin watched how qualities of these father figures eventually led to their deaths, in a physical sense for his stepfather and a metaphorical one for his mentor as an author. I think he feared that, because of their likeness, he might face a similar fate. Baldwin explains that David “lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit” that frightened him “to see how powerful and overflowing this bitterness could be” and it was now his (65). In a similar vein, of Wright Baldwin says, “They despised him… It was certainly very frightening to watch. I could not help feeling: Be careful. Time is passing for you, too, and this may be happening to you one day” (266). For Baldwin, David and Wright are comparable not only in their relationship to him as some sort of distorted father figure but also in that they serve as a warning. Yet, despite the turmoil they caused him, he longs for their presence. Baldwin laments, “Now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now” (84). Similarly, he speaks to Wright: “Whoever He may be, and wherever you may be, may God be with you, Richard, and may He help me not to fail that argument which began in me” (258). This desire for reunion with David and Wright evokes for me the image of the prodigal son… has he returned home?

Gabriel, David Baldwin, and Saul

In Gabriel’s first meeting with baby John, the child is enthralled by the music he hears and Gabriel says, “Got a man in the Bible, son, who liked music, too. He used to play on his harp before the king, and he got to dancing one day before the Lord. You reckon you going to dance for the Lord one of these days?” (Baldwin 177). In these phrases, Gabriel refers to David who played his harp for King Saul (1 Sam 16:19-23) and later danced before God (2 Sam 6:14-16). The introduction of David and Saul into Go Tell It on the Mountain is exceptionally fruitful as it connects both to the text and Baldwin’s life. Though the connections between the biblical David, John, and Baldwin are equally rich, I want to focus here on the link between Saul, Gabriel, and David Baldwin and the way Saul adds to our reading of the text. In the Bible, David plays his harp for Saul because the king is “troubled by an evil spirit from God” (1 Sam 16:15). This description implies some mental trouble for Saul, presumably a mental illness. Undoubtedly, Baldwin recognized parallels between Saul’s evil spirit and his father’s mental illness. The shift from serving as God’s messenger to having a mental illness that impairs thought is startling but, as Saul’s example shows, it is not unprecedented nor is it disconnected from God’s larger plan. In the Bible, the evil spirit troubles Saul once the spirit of God leaves him and fills David instead. The spirit of God leaves Saul because he disobeys the Lord in battle. God commanded Saul to “go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Sam 15:3). Though Saul follows through on killing women and children and fails by not killing the leader of Amalek, God’s command here is worth pondering. God’s instructions illustrate the difference between the Old Testament God and the New Testament Christ; the lack of mercy on anything and anyone seems antithetical to Christ’s message. For Christians, these instructions represent a rift in the faith: is Christianity about love (as Baldwin would assert) or about follow God’s commands on the path to heaven? Ideally, these options are the same but Saul’s case shows that is not always the case. Baldwin favors the Christianity of love and forgiveness, but Gabriel, and presumably David Baldwin, seem to follow a Christianity that features an angry God and a constant serpent in the grass, looking to provoke his ire. In Go Tell It on the Mountain,Baldwin repeats Saul’s internal battle between following God, doing the right thing, and keeping up appearances in the story of Gabriel’s life. In trying to balance these impulses, Gabriel fails; the Bible shows that Saul also falls short. Strikingly, the punishment for that failure is also the same. Saul not only receives an evil spirit from the Lord but also loses the right to keep the kingship and spirit of Lord within his lineage; he cannot choose his heir. Gabriel experiences the same reality. By naming their son “Royal,” Esther forces her imperfect child to serve as Gabriel’s heir. Furthermore, Gabriel hopes that he can pass on the spirit of the Lord to Roy, but he seems to have only passed on the “evil spirit from God.” Rather, God chooses Baldwin, the unlikeliest of heirs like David, to continue his work on Earth, spurning Gabriel’s desires. By looking at Saul in comparison to Gabriel and David Baldwin, Baldwin illustrates how God’s control over the world, both real and perceived, affects the characters in the text.