The Shame of a Father and the Curse of Slavery

In Go Tell it on the Mountain, Baldwin includes the biblical allusion Noah cursing Ham’s descendants into a life a servitude. In the King James version, the story goes that Noah slept drunk and uncovered in a tent, and “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without” (Gen 9: 22). This resulted in Noah waking up and disowning his son that Baldwin describes: “Ah, that son of Noah’s had been cursed, down to the present groaning generation: A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren” (191). This story became the foundational text for justifying slavery on biblical grounds as historians racialized Ham as Black and his descendants were deemed to be Africans. This story returns to our initial question of what it means to be Black and explores the origins of the concept of race. Ham’s racialization as a Black figure links a divine proclamation of ancestral slavery to the present-day racial hierarchy.

Baldwin connects the biblical story to John seeing his father exposed. “Sometimes leaning over the cracked, ‘tattle-tale’ gray bathtub, he scrubbed his father’s back; and looked, as the accursed son of Noah had looked, in his father’s hideous nakedness.” John saw his father naked and connected an intimate moment of family privacy with the sin of indecent sexuality. This shows how Black men are sexualized and are held to a high standard of acting honorably within the family. John is held to a high, almost impossible moral standard by his father, but is still punished for viewing the shame of his father. The vagueness of the sin of John seeing his father naked connects to the lack of clarity in the Bible on what transgression Ham is committing. Many interpretations view Ham as a sexual offender and voyeur while others think he castrated his father or had relations with his mother while Noah was drunk. Regardless, Ham’s transgression was a crime against family honor and slavery was the proper punishment of life without honor. These biblical interpretations serve as a projection of white sexual fear and codes of honor. Baldwin sees himself and other Black men suffering from the legacy of the curse saying, “How could John be cursed for having seen in a bathtub what another man—if that other man had ever lived—had seen ten thousand years ago, lying in an open tent?” This also builds John’s shame in his sexuality towards men if he cannot even view his naked father without being reminded of the curse of Ham.

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.

The Evolution of Shame and Sexuality for John

In the beginning of the novel, John is consumed with thoughts about his burgeoning sexuality and what this means for his soul. He concludes that it is a sin because even thinking about his own nakedness brought on feelings of “shame and anger” (26). This feeling occurs when he looks at a picture of himself as a baby. Even in the most innocent and natural form, John hopes to hide his body and everything it signifies. At this stage in the novel, John has not yet made his full commitment to Christ in the Church. There is significant external pressure, but no substantive internal drive. (In fact, he would rather wear nice clothes and go to the movies). 

When John has his religious experience on the Threshing Floor, his shame about his sexuality and body seems to lessen while his commitment to the faith grows. During his hours long conversion he thinks about being with Elisha: “In his heart there was a sudden yearning tenderness for holy Elisha” (188) and a desire to “lie where Elisha lay” (188). After these thoughts his mind wanders, from dark places to light. But at the end of it all, the voice of Elisha is the voice that saves him. At the close of his experience it is Elisha who says, “Rise up Johnny” (199). The fact that Elisha is the one guiding him through to salvation says more about the combination of the profane and the sacred. It is John’s love for Elisha, which is sexual desire too, that helps him reach this religious climax. Baldwin seems to be gesturing towards a larger point, that sexuality and religion are not inversely related. 

In the final scene of the text Elisha and John share a kiss: “And he kissed John on the forehead, a holy kiss” (215). Although a kiss like this is often found in religious contexts, this kiss is at once religious and sexual. John noted his desire for Elisha throughout the text and their connection is deeper than just a friendship because of their joint effort to bring John through to the other side of his experience. When John is most holy, then, he is also most outwardly affectionate and comfortable in his sexuality. Perhaps, for Baldwin, this release of sexual shame is what really constitutes a religious experience.