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.

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.

Self-Hatred in Go Tell It on the Mountain

Self-hatred is one of the most complex depths of human emotion, and as someone who has truthfully struggled with it, I am inevitably drawn to its themes when it is expressed in art and literature. Needless to say, I was surprised by the degree of self-hatred over race in Wright’s Native Son. My own ignorance towards self-hatred in the Black community was exposed once again after beginning Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and subsequent analysis by Douglas Field in Pentecostalism and all that Jazz

I expected the majority of struggles and self-hatred to come from John Grimes in Go Tell It on the Mountain, and while John shows a good deal of conflict over his “hardened heart”, I was drawn more to the character of John’s father. John’s struggles with religion are familiar to me, particularly with “his sin was the hardheartedness to which he resisted God’s power” (Baldwin, 17). John sees himself with darkness, an allusion to his skin and his soul, in regards to how averse he is to religion. Breaking the expectation of his Pentecostal family and community result in self-hatred. That much seems universal, at least in my eyes; expectations and pressures, particularly for young people, can put them at odds with who they actually are. That schism leads to self-hatred, and that much is one of the most common lines of humanity. 

However, Baldwin seems to deal, at least in the first part of Go Tell It on the Mountain, with how self-hatred is passed down by means of the father. This is unclear at first, but is gradually revealed by Aunt Florence via her interactions with John’s father. Aunt Florence reference’s the father’s past actions to being very similar to Roy’s recklessness and states “you was born wild, and you’s going to die wild. But ain’t no use to try to take the whole world with you. You can’t change nothing, Gabriel” (47). The father’s (Gabriel) behavior is not becoming of a preacher or a holy man, and by portraying him as such, his personal life aside, Baldwin shows a pattern of repression and self-hatred in religious figures. The father beats the son that is like him and blames the one who isn’t. Baldwin also shows this another religious figure, Elisha, who after being publicly reprimanded by his own uncle for showing interest in a woman, doesn’t accept his own feelings and blames Satan for causing them. These themes are not uncommon regarding religion or fathers for that matter, but a line in Field’s essay made me especially curious: “[Baldwin] lambasted the black church’s inability or unwillingness to counter a deeply embedded black self-loathing”. Field credits Clarence Hardy’s treatment of Baldwin for the quote. 

I am genuinely curious to study the differences in the Black and White community over the role the church plays in happiness, fulfillment, and self-hatred. Baldwin portrays a service as incredibly passionate, emotional, and devout, while maintaining a character who is unenthralled by the display. What role does the church play in a “deeply embedded black self-loathing” and how prevalent is self-hatred in the Black community compared to others? 

Baldwin’s 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.