Tuesday, 12 October 1999

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

Edition: Penguin, 1991
Review number: 356

The issue of race has been so powerful in twentieth century American society, it is hardly surprising that so much of the best literature it has produced relates to the subject. Go Tell It on the Mountain is a rather unusual novel with the theme, since it is about the role of Christianity in the experience of black men and women in the first half of the century, and only indirectly about the relationship between black and white.

The relationship between races is implicitly part of this story, since (from a non-religious point of view) it explains much of the attraction of Christianity, particularly the hard-line evangelical forms of Pentecostalism, to these people. Promise of a better world to come, justice done towards the oppressors, status for the true believer: a potent set of ideas for a society working its way out of slavery.

Go Tell It on the Mountain tells the story of a young man, Johnny Grimes, growing up in Harlem in a poor family who are one of the mainstays of a tiny local Pentecostal church. Those who know him expect that, one day, he will become a great pastor, yet in his teens he is beginning to think of escape. This is partly because of the attractions of the world, but also partly because of the hatred his abusive father Joshua, a church deacon, inspires in him.

The novel concentrates on the climactic night in John's spiritual life, a night at the church where he must make the decision whether to accept Jesus as Lord or reject him forever. His parents and his aunt are there, with other church members, and the book basically tells us the thoughts of each as they pray, to give us an insight into the events that shaped the Grimes family.

Go Tell It on the Mountain, then, brings together two major themes of twentieth century literature, the history of American race relations, and the role of religion, and takes an unusual angle toward both. Much more positive about Christianity than most recent novels, it even takes the truth of charismatic theology almost for granted. It is concerned with real, imperfect people, not "saints" (in the generally understood rather than theological sense), but people with a real and living faith. Written at a time when the attitude of the white intelligentsia was particularly anti-religious, it is not surprising that Baldwin has been described as the writer they loved to hate.

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