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!

The Quest For Love

In Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin sees the possibility of love both within the theological as well as a physical aspect. Love is something that John Grimes struggles to find throughout the novel and I’ve been wrestling with this question — besides his mother, where does he get that love?

Love should have come from Gabriel, John’s step-father and God’s messenger (going off his namesake), but it didn’t. Rather, John receives the minimum and only that — he is fed. clothed, sent to school but he doesn’t receive the love and emotional care that is necessary for one’s growth. What Gabriel presents is a message of sinfulness and eternal punishment in the burning fires of hell. To be saved from the wrath of this fearful God that Gabriel preaches about, one needs to be humble and leave behind all earthly things. Gabriel’s God is not one of love and compassion — may be because Gabriel is projecting himself into the theology. Gabriel projects a lot of hate, fear, and guilt into his theology and it’s impossible to have a loving relationship to arise from such a cancerous atmosphere and heart posture. God, after all, is about love, acceptance, and compassion. One notable point as well is that loving God and one’s neighbor in a Christian point of view requires the relinquishment of the self and power — Gabriel (and John) refuses to give up that power — rather, he is attracted to the pulpit partly because of the power and importance that it would bring him — “he wanted to be master, to speak with that authority which could only come from God.” As a father, husband, and brother, Gabriel’s legacy is one of fear and hatred rather than love.

But there is a bit of hope for the redemptive powers of Love in Go Tell It. I believe that there was real love between Richard and Elizabeth. The cruelty, however, lies in the outside world (the white world), unable to hold love for black people, taking away Richard from Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s relationship with Richard shows that there is a possibility of love but that it lies outside the “normal” and expected avenues. I see this through Elizabeth and Richard because despite the fact that Richard wasn’t “saved,” he and Elizabeth thrived and were happy in the world they created. Whereas, when Elizabeth interacted with those within the church (speaking of men), she got nothing but heartache.

The strongest possibility of love lies in the relationship between John and Elisha. However, that relationship is tense and deals with a kind of sexualized spirituality. This is not yet a fully formed thought and I’m still formulating it — I will continue expanding upon this during our presentation this week.