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.