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Sunday, October 04, 2015

Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) by James Baldwin

James Baldwin

Book Review
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
by James Baldwin

  James Baldwin spans the major fault lines of 20th century America.  He was a gay, black, civil-rights activist/socialist with a lot to say about the role of Christianity in the lives of Americans.   He was born and lived in New York City and left New York for France where he lived the rest of his life.  Although he has a life time of work to his credit, both fiction and non-fiction, he is best known for Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman about the relationship between a young man grouping up in Harlem in the 1930s and his step father, a strict Pentecostal preacher who emigrated to New York City.  Other characters are his mother, Elizabeth and his step father's sister, Florence.  

  After an opening section that is more-or-less a stream of consciousness narrative by John- the narrator/author character depicting his day-to-day life.  His world is fraught with conflict and the day that is documented is John's birthday.  His mother, at least, remembers, but his older brother- ne'er do well Roy, spoils any opportunity for celebration by getting stabbed in the face, cursing out his father and then having his father beat him unmercifully.

  The second section has John and his Father, Mother and Aunt at the same church, where each has a flashback that gives insight into their back-story and current situation. The individual stories of the family members are almost unbearably sad.   Baldwin's homosexuality is not a central them of Go Tell It on the Mountain, but it is alluded to in the text.  Being gay is almost the least of John's problems, and when the story is included to embrace the experiences of his parent's generation, the overall effect is almost unbearably sad.

 If you read the first wave of classics of African American lit, written before the 1960s cultural revolution, you have a good grasp on the same problems that exist today in that community.  But Baldwin is also pointing the finger at Christianity and the role it plays in African American communities.  The character of John's step-father is shown as moving from a drinking, whoring, layabout to become a preacher over night.  He then fathers an illegitimate child with a local woman while married to another, and lets both Mother and Son die without ever acknowledging the connection.  The hypocrisy of this character isn't counter balanced by any redeeming positive traits, making him one of the major ogres of 20th century fiction.

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