sometimes witty book reviews
tw racial violence, family violence
First published: 1953
Found: I wanted to read at least one Baldwin work before seeing I Am Not Your Negro (2016)*
Pages/read time: 221, three days
There are people in the world for whom ‘coming along’ is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive.
In strict terms this book is a slice-of-life story of John’s fourteenth birthday and the histories of the people surrounding him at the moment he is saved by the Lord. His father, Gabriel: a failed preacher and violent ‘man of God’. His mother, Elizabeth: like his father, moved North to New York and Harlem to find a better life, after a trying upbringing as a practically orphaned child living with an oppressively religious aunt in the South. His father’ sister, Florence: another woman who made her way North, who was married and widowed by an impossible man and is now dying from cancer. During the course of the day John believes his birthday to be forgotten, his brother Roy is knifed by a group of whites and finally, he finds himself writhing on the dusty floor of his church in heaven-sent agony; his father, mother and aunt praying over him anxiously.
Looking at his face, it sometimes came to her that all women had been cursed from the cradle; all, in one fashion or another, being given the same cruel destiny, born to suffer the weight of men. Frank claimed that she got it all wrong side up: it was men who suffered because they had to put up with the ways of women—and this from the time that they were born until the day they died.
John hates God because right now, the person in his life with the strongest faith his father. The man who beats him, strikes his mother and loves his younger brother Roy more. He wants to believe that white people are good, though with his brother’s brow split open by a white man’s knife, this ideal has faded in the course of just one day. What he does not know is his father’s checkered past, the identity of his biological father and his mother’s true love, that his aunt went without seeing her brother for two decades, and that his grandmother – a former slave – raised an buried half a dozen children before having Florence and Gabriel. But he does know Elisha, a brother at his church, not so much older than himself. Elisha, who’s arms and brow glisten sensually when he is in the throws of divine healing.
Here were the women who had been the cause of her aunt’s most passionate condemnation of her father – hard-drinking, hard-talking, with whiskey and cigarette-breath … [W]as she, Elizabeth, so sweetly fallen, so tightly chained, one of these women now?
James Baldwin’s writing weaves a complicated and nuanced narrative around the events of one otherwise slightly unusual but not wholly unheard of day in Harlem in mid 1950s America. This nevertheless builds to create a shocking but compelling climax. His descriptions of bodily functions and sensations do not – even in today’s supposedly forward thinking and ‘progressed’ world – fail to evoke reaction in the reader. Baldwin’s descriptions of daily human brutality are only surpassed by his revelations of the almost divinely compassionate in every day life. This is slice-of-life narrative with all the gore, nuance and accidental beauty left in – packed in.
Nothing tamed or broke her, nothing touched her, neither kindness, nor scorn, nor hatred, nor love. She had never thought of prayer. It was unimaginable that she would ever bend her knees and come crawling along a dusty floor to anybody’s altar, weeping for forgiveness.**
The intensity with which Baldwin writes is astounding, both in it’s detail and in the sheer force that sustains such dense dialogue and descriptions for scores of pages at a time. It’s exhausting but never tedious. Baldwin’s understanding of his community, their morality, their motivations and their language is keenly evident without being (like Salmon’s Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses) bewildering to the uninitiated reader.
Go Tell It On The Mountain is, for the most part, undeniably still a very relevant and confronting text today. Baldwin does not shy from scenes of daily domestic, sexual and racial violence. Race, gender, sexuality, morality, intellectualism, religion – somehow Baldwin eloquently expresses views on all these subjects without descending into a dry and self-aggrandising treatise.
If you think To Kill a Mockingbird was ‘important’, or ‘eye-opening’ for you, then Go Tell It On the Mountain will ram home just how much you don’t, and perhaps never really will, truly understand.
*Of course, as it usually transpires, one work alone was never going to be enough
** Yes, I am quoting more than normal because I feel supremely unqualified to make any criticisms of this author