Sex, Violence And America

Thus far in the semester we have somewhat successfully organized James Baldwin’s works into various categories: Baldwin’s writings on religion, race, sexuality, and so on. But, the final chapter of Going to Meet the Man challenges the ease with which we compartmentalize the authorship of Baldwin. In this chapter, Baldwin brings together the themes of Christianity, race, and sex in an intentional, but nonetheless grotesque, manner. At the hanging of a Black man in his town, the main character, Jesse, watches his mother’s face: “her eyes were very bright, her mouth was open: she was more beautiful than he had ever seen her, and more strange.” Jesse himself “began to feel a joy he had never felt before” as “his scrotum tightened” (949). These sentences, blatantly sexual in nature, evoke something akin to a religious experience caused at the sight of a nearly-ineffable violent murder. Later, as Jesse reminisces on this moment as an adult, “he thought of the knife and grabbed himself and stroked himself and a terrible sound, something between a high laugh and a howl, came out of him” (950). Years later, Jesse’s sexuality is still connected to this violent memory. These two sections in the text are examples of the link between the themes of religion, racism, and sex that Baldwin explores and considers explicitly and thoroughly in conversation with one another for the first time in this piece.

With that being said, for me, the last chapter of Going to Meet the Man felt peculiarly reminiscent of the disturbing language and graphic imagery of Richard Wright’s Native Son that Baldwin was rather quick to dismiss as a mere protest piece. However, Baldwin’s writing reads as a kind of racial inversion of Wright’s novel. In the chapter “Going to Meet the Man,” it is the White men who experience sexual pleasure at the sight and thought of the castration, beating, and lynching of a Black man, unlike the deeply violent Bigger who masturbates to clips of White girls frolicking on the beach and later assaults and kills Mary Dalton as she lies incapacitated in her bed. Perhaps, though, the focus is not so much who committed and enjoyed these horrific acts but rather the fact that violence, sexual pleasure, and religion are inextricably linked in American culture. In his return to the states and subsequent close following of the civil rights movement, it is likely that Baldwin could no longer escape this uniquely interconnected reality. I wonder if we could argue that Wright had a similar point in mind.

A Self-Proclaimed Intercessor

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.

Hypocrisy and Love in Go Tell It on the Mountain

As Baldwin wrapped up Go Tell It on the Mountain with Elizabeth’s Prayer and The Threshing Floor, I was struck by how the story evolved into underscoring the religious and social hypocrisies surrounding Gabriel and women. This was not an unexpected turn, given Baldwin’s fascination with a church of love and early conflicts presented in the novel. Hypocrisy is also a common point brought up by religious critics and atheists, of whom I, in the spirit of full disclosure, am quite familiar with. My personal biases evident, I was fascinated with how Baldwin approached hypocrisy, particularly in his portrayal of faithful characters feeling justified in sinning. 

Gabriel is the prime example of this, as he repeatedly references God having forgiven him for his sins as an adolescent, and for his committing adultery with Esther. Similar to Elizabeth’s justification on page 21 (“Your Daddy beats you…because he loves you”) John’s perception of his father is revealed in his hallucination whilst being “saved”. “Then his father was upon him; at his touch there was singing, and fire…I’m going to beat it out of you.’” (191). Both of these cases highlight that Gabriel’s character, in real life and in “spirit” uses religion and piety to justify violence against his children. This is shown once again by Elizabeth’s aunt when Baldwin writes “It was true that her aunt was always talking about how much she loved her sister’s daughter…[Elizabeth] sensed that what her aunt spoke of as love was something else–a bribe, a threat, an indecent will to power” (150). Again, the aunt’s devotion and ideals of morality allow her to treat her niece terribly, to refuse to support or comfort her at all, all while pretending she “loves” her niece. This case presents the idea that the understanding of love as taught by religion, the tough love, the beat-your-child-because-it-will-save-their-soul love, is self-serving and incredibly harmful to (please forgive my word choice) actual interpersonal relationships. Obviously not all religious teachings of love are like this, but it seems in Baldwin’s understanding, those who learn of love and morality from the church and its interpretation of God’s love, are terrible at actually loving others. 

I was ever-curious to delve into the effect of religion on women. In Elizabeth’s Prayer, Elizabeth sees her love with Richard and John’s birth as a “disgrace” (148) despite clearly loving Richard as described on page 161. John having been born out of wedlock presents so great a stigma that Elizabeth forever sees him as “her” sin. She rejoices as his soul is saved and he is forgiven for “his” sin, which is utterly ridiculous because by Elizabeth’s own narrative, John’s only sin is being born of her out of wedlock. The core belief that, without having done anything, everyone is born into sin by a sinful act, creates an incredibly potent environment of shame and guilt over one of, if not the most, natural human interactions. The stigma surrounding sex and marriage, but particularly sex, permeates all of the women in Go Tell It on the Mountain, from the degrading portrayal of Deborah to Gabriel’s self-aggrandized vision of Elizabeth, with proper sex in wedlock, will give birth to a royal lineage. Gabriel treats Deborah, Esther, and Elizabeth as his possessions and mechanisms of his desires, then blames them as independent parties and tempters when he sins. The cycle of possessive actions, power, and control, met with double standards, blame, and guilt, drives the hypocrisy of the religion Baldwin depicts. 

Yet I am still glad that Baldwin acknowledges the merits and comforts religion provides. This much is shown just by John’s attitude at the end of the book, when he says “‘I’m ready…I’m coming. I’m on my way.’” (215). Baldwin’s persistence in religion’s comforts does seem to tie in to how he views his own “new” religion based around love. But it takes a lot to transition from the type of religion Baldwin grew up with and the type he adopted.

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.

A Churchgoer Walks Into a Bar…

In our last in-person discussion, I was very flummoxed about not being able to empathize with the religious perspectives and themes in Go Tell It On The Mountain. I think that I got too wrapped up in the community aspect of John’s life being a purely religious one rather than some other form of community. But I think I am starting to understand Baldwin’s beliefs in a joint communal-individual salvation. In Giovanni’s Room, the first bar scene illuminates both the goals and desires of an individual (David) and the greater community around him. This bar certainly does not present salvation in the traditional sense, but it presents Giovanni, who gives David an opportunity to love and be loved, and it gives the rest of its patrons a similar opportunity.

I did not comprehend John’s salvation because I don’t think John really comprehended it either; him being saved goes completely against his beliefs throughout the book that he cannot be saved because he is attracted to men. The religious dogma being taught to John (and at the same time Baldwin) made me upset, and my feelings of anger toward the institution of the church blinded me to the opportunity for growth that religion presents to individuals. While the institution of the church itself is flawed, its tenets of love are actually beneficial for those who cannot learn to love on their own. There are those in the church who choose a path of living in and teaching fear rather than love, but if love is taught effectively, people can live happier through learning about it. But again, the church itself is flawed and sometimes love is not presented as the end goal of its teachings. But the bar in Giovanni’s Room, while traditional viewed as an institution of sin and lust, actually brings the David towards a true love with Giovanni.

While I have not finished Giovanni’s Room, and thus do not know the result of David and Giovanni’s love or how Giovanni ends up arrested, the love is currently presented as pure and true. At first, it seemed Jacques was roping David into going to a bar purely out of lust; his goal seems to be simply sex. But David ends up having a rather meaningful and lovely conversation with Giovanni. Nothing overtly sexual occurs, yet they find themselves infatuated with each other throughout their entire evening together. The bar gives them this opportunity to do so. Like the church, it brings people together and places them in an environment where they can begin to express love. Obviously, this is not always the rule in a bar, and in fact many people at bars simply end up lusting after others like Jacques. But the bar does not instill the same dogmatic fear of not being saved in David that the church does to John. It is a place that is explicitly secular, yet gives David the ability to find love with Giovanni. Again, I do not know how the novel proceeds after Part I, but as of right now I see both David and Giovanni living through love rather than through fear.

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.

The sin is shame

In Go Tell It On the Mountain, James Baldwin mingles Scriptural references and queer-coding to portray John wrestling with his emergent sexuality. While John’s transformation is the focal point of the novel, Baldwin accomplishes a more complex portrait of how the characters relate to sexuality and religion. 

John grows up in an environment in which the body and nakedness are seen as sinful. He is ashamed of his baby photo in the living room that shows him naked (26), and he associates sex with sin and shame (10). However, Baldwin portrays many of the characters, not just John, struggling with shame about their sexuality. The church environment shames Elisha and Ella Mae for “walking disorderly” (14). Gabriel has troubled relationships with Deborah, Esther, and Elizabeth and has deep hatred and fear of his sexuality. John’s anxiety about his homosexuality being sinful is especially potent because he is raised in an environment that constantly reinforces that “sin was in the flesh” (15). When sexuality and desire are seen as sinful, disordered, and shameful, it prevents the characters from having healthy or holy relationships with themselves and one another.

Although the Bible is commonly used to hurt queer people and/or reinforce the association of the body and desire with shame, Baldwin’s choice to permeate the novel with Scriptural references serves a different purpose. Baldwin’s use of the Bible underscores the centrality of love in Christianity—not sin or shame. By foregrounding love in a novel about a suffocatingly Christian environment, Baldwin invites new uses of Scripture that break the cycle of shame about (homo)sexuality. Just beside the photo in the parlor that embarrasses John, for example, is John 3:16— “For God so loved the world…” (26). For Baldwin, use of the Bible is meant to foreground love above all. 

Language evocative of the Song of Songs intertwines John’s homosexuality with the Bible’s most beautiful love poetry. When John is on the threshing floor, he looks around for Elisha and Roy and realizes that love alone can save him from death, for “[l]ove is as strong as death, as deep as the grave” (193-194; Songs 8:6-7). It’s this realization about love that helps him through his transformation. At the end of the novel, when John and Elisha exchange a “holy kiss,” its mark on John’s face is “like a seal ineffaceable forever” (215). Their gesture of holy love again evokes the Bible’s love poetry: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death” (Songs 8:6). Baldwin inseparably entangles the novel’s queer-coding with its religious influences.

Baldwin’s use of Scripture in this novel hints that gay and Christian identities—indeed, sexuality and sanctity—do not have to be polar opposites, as John is just beginning to understand. It’s love, not shame, that will bring the characters closer to God.

Baldwin, Christianity, & new voices

Class discussion on Wednesday made me think more about how Baldwin uses speech, voice, and silence in Go Tell It On the Mountain. David pointed out how Baldwin plays with changing voice in Florence’s chapter in particular, and I think that this aspect of the novel is a unique way in which Baldwin draws on the Christian religious tradition: although he is critical of Christianity in many regards, he also seems to participate in the prophetic tradition of the scriptures by foregrounding voices that are silenced elsewhere.

With the Lucan references, James Baldwin both contributes to and subverts the Christian tradition. In particular, Baldwin’s use of speech and silence critiques the religious environment he grew up in, while hinting at a more liberative vision of Christianity. Baldwin invites us to attend to different voices than those we normally hear, and to pay closer attention to the silences that persist in our communities and in ourselves.

In a feminist & multicultural theologies class that I took, we discussed liberative readings of scriptural texts that have historically been used to oppress. Although Christian scripture and teaching have often been used negatively against BIPOC, female, and queer people (among others), that’s counter to God’s will. Noticing whose voices are (un)heard is a significant part of the work of reclaiming scripture, and I think Go Tell It On the Mountain has this project in common with liberation theologies’ work of retrieval and reclaiming. 

Revisiting the beginning of the Gospel of Luke which we read on Wednesday, I’m struck by Zechariah. His is the voice we would expect to hear in a religious tradition dominated by male voices, but Luke’s Gospel surprises us by letting us hear the voices of women. Likewise, Baldwin’s work “surprises” by disrupting the norms of whose perspectives we see. For instance, although there is much that John cannot say (p. 16), Baldwin makes sure that John’s perspective is the voice we hear. Because of his family relationships, race, and sexuality—not to mention his doubt, for which Zechariah was silenced by Gabriel—there are multiple silences imposed on John. Similarly, there are limits to what Florence can say aloud, but by writing a chapter from her perspective, Baldwin gives her more of a voice in the novel. 

Baldwin is mindful of ensuring that there are multiple voices participating in Go Tell It On the Mountain, taking a new approach to the religious influences we see—and using his own voice in a new way in this debut novel. Even if John is not able to speak in his home or church, in Baldwin’s novel, he is able to break his silence. The same goes for Baldwin—in the act of writing this novel, he shatters the silences in his own life.

Bad Religion

Last semester, in a class about how law and religion had shaped U.S. history, I read a book that discussed religion and lynching. The author spoke of America’s “multiple Christianities,” a phrase that’s stuck with me since. I was reminded of this phrase when I noticed the theme of religion in this week’s reading, and I wonder if it might be a good way to think about how Wright and Baldwin view religion and racism. 

For two men who disagree sharply about how to talk about racism in America, Richard Wright and James Baldwin appear to have a lot in common in their understanding of religion. This convergence of their views really interested me, since James Baldwin’s critique of Native Son is rather scathing, but he seems to share Wright’s opinions toward religion. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” he compares novels like Native Sonunfavorably with missionary stories and tropes of white as holy and black as sinful. He finally writes, “Bigger’s tragedy is… that he has accepted a theology that denies him life” (Collected Essays, 18).

If Baldwin is scornful of how themes of sin and sanctity are presented in Native Son, Wright seems equally so. In the final portion of Native Son, religion becomes an especially pronounced theme. Reverend Hammond and Bigger’s mother try to convince Bigger to turn to prayer while in jail. The preacher tells Bigger, “Be like Jesus. Don’t resist” (Wright, 285). But Bigger has no desire for religion, a repulsion that is compounded by the Ku Klux Klan’s burning cross: “The cross the preacher had told him about was bloody, not flaming; meek, not militant. It had made him feel awe and wonder, not fear and panic” (337). Religion, in Wright’s view, is used for negative purposes—either to suppress Black liberation or to empower white supremacists. This dichotomy between the burning cross and the preacher’s cross underscores that white Christianity and Black Christianity are two different things. Wright articulates this divide in “How Bigger Was Born” as well, commenting that there may as well be “a white God and a black God” (437). 

Wright and Baldwin’s shared cynicism towards religion is an important area of overlap. While they may see “multiple Christianities,” their perspective seems to be that all religion blinds people to the work of racial justice. Seeing how these two different novelists relate to religion, in particular their critique that Christianity is just as segregated as the rest of the United States, is an invitation to think more deeply about how we can engage with these authors as students at a Catholic university and enter more honest conversations about the role of religion in promoting or frustrating racial justice.