Go Tell it On the Mountain
Saints and “Sodomites”: Sex and Spirituality in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain
In James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, religion functions not only as form of worship but also as a covert site of sexual expression. In the novel’s opening chapters, Baldwin often characterizes religious worship in language that borders on the erotic. This undermines the popular conception of sexuality as detached from and even antagonistic toward the soul—the site where divinity resides. However, as can be observed in the Bible itself, sexuality and the body are never completely separate from the soul. In both Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians and the Song of Songs, there are passages that compare the relationship between Christ and the Church to the relationship between lovers. This concept, known in theological circles as “embodiment,” informs Baldwin’s understanding of sexuality; for Baldwin, the sublimity of desire is profoundly similar to spiritual transcendence, and the two seemingly disparate forces interact and influence each other in significant ways. John, the protagonist of Go Tell It on the Mountain, begins to understand this when he must reconcile his latent homosexuality, which he perceives as being at odds with his religious upbringing, with his fraught spirituality. He accomplishes this after a lengthy conversion experience, which itself parallels an orgasm in its structure and intensity. Over the course of the conversion, John rejects the body-soul dichotomy of organized Christianity, as represented by his father, Gabriel, and opens himself up to divine love in the form of Elisha, who also represents the object of John’s suppressed same-sex desire.
Comparing spirituality with sexuality is not a new phenomenon. While popular theology claims that the body, with all its attendant yearnings and desires, is completely separate from the soul, which is typically associated with spirituality and the divine, analogies and metaphors that link the spiritual with the sexual can be found in the Bible itself. For example, Ephesians 5:25-30 reads: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her [….] So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body” (New American Standard Bible, Eph. 5:22-30). In this instance, a direct parallel is drawn between Christ’s relationship to the Church and the relationship between a husband and his wife. Though one could argue that the relationship the epistle describes is one of love rather than sexual desire, the fact that Paul, the writer of Ephesians, explicitly characterizes the relationship as one similar to that between a husband and wife rather than one between friends or siblings indicates a relation between the Christ, the Church, and sexual companionship.
One can also observe similar metaphors in the Song of Songs, famous for its flowing, erotically-charged poetry. One particularly titillating passage reads: “O queenly maiden! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand. Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle” (New American Standard Bible, Song 7:1-3). While some of the Song’s figures have lost their arousing luster—it’s hard to imagine comparing a lover’s hair to a flock of goats going over well in a contemporary context—the erotic potential of the lyrics is nevertheless evident. Incensed over the Song of Song’s undoubtedly erotic language and its depiction of a healthy sexual relationship between an unmarried man and woman, many fundamentalist interpretations of the scriptures insist that the song’s erotic figures act as another metaphor for the relationship between Christ and his “bride,” the Church. While intended to dilute the sexual implications of the text, this interpretation, if accurate, incidentally furthers the claim that the Bible often likens the relationship of Christ and the Church to the relationship between a husband and wife, thereby implying a degree of sexual desire.
This analogy complicates the Judeo-Christian narrative, which, as many mainstream religious authorities insist, claims that the body (sex) and the soul (spirituality) are wholly detached from one another. These biblical passages show that the two are often inextricably linked. In theological discourse, this phenomenon is referred to as “embodiment.” Critic Anne-Janine Morey defines embodiment as “the unreconciled relation of body and spirit” (3). In Judeo-Christian theology, God (the Word) and the flesh are conceived as binary oppositions, with the divine operating on a metaphysical plane. Scriptures show, however, that this is not necessarily the case, and the sublime quality of God’s love for the Church can often only be compared to the love between a husband and wife.
Early in Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin draws on this biblical precedent by utilizing language that draws an explicit comparison between sex and the fervent intensity of pentecostal worship. The best example of this can be observed in Baldwin’s description of Elisha, the Sunday school teacher, dancing during a church service. Baldwin writes, “It seemed that [Elisha] could not breathe, that his body could not contain the passion, that he would be, before their eyes, dispersed into the waiting air. His hands, rigid to the very fingertips, moved outward and back against his hips, his sightless eyes looked upward, and he began to dance” (9). Baldwin describes the actual dance in highly sexual language: “[Elijah’s] hands closed into fists, and his head snapped downward, his sweat loosening the grease that slicked down his hair; […] his thighs moved terribly against the cloth of his suit, his heels beat on the floor, and his fists moved beside his body as though he were beating his own drum” (9). The dance culminates in orgasmic intensity, furthering the implicit comparison between worship and sexual expression: “And so, for a while, in the center of the dancers, head down, fists beating, on, on, unbearably, until it seemed the walls of the church would fall for very sound; and then, in a moment, with a cry, head up, arms high in the air, sweat pouring from his forehead, and all his body dancing as though it would never stop. Sometimes he did not stop until he fell—until he dropped like some animal felled by a hammer—moaning, on his face. And then a great moaning filled the church” (9). This almost erotic fervor extends to the other congregation members. During Sunday morning worship, “[s]omething happened to their faces and their voices, the rhythm of their bodies, and to the air they breathed; it was as though wherever they might be became the upper room, and the Holy Ghost were riding on the air.” (8). Here, Baldwin directly links the sexually-charged atmosphere of the church with the presence of the Holy Ghost, thereby connoting a connection between God’s presence and sexual desire. This connection sets the stage for the protagonist John’s sexual and spiritual awakening.
Baldwin indicates John’s latent homosexuality early in the novel. When John wakes up on the morning of his birthday, he discovers, to his horror, that he has had a wet dream. John awakes on this morning “with the feeling that there was menace in the air around him—that something irrevocable had occurred in him” (Baldwin 11-12). He then recalls a scene in the boy’s bathroom at school, where “he had sinned with his hands a sin that was hard to forgive. [… A]lone, thinking of the boys, older, bigger, braver, who made bets with each other as to whose urine could arch higher, he had watched in himself a transformation of which he would never dare speak” (13). Baldwin clearly implies that John has masturbated while thinking of these boys. John is obviously disturbed by his “sin,” the darkness of which calls to mind, “the darkness of the church on Saturday evenings [….] It was like his thoughts as he moved about the tabernacle in which his life had been spent; the tabernacle that he hated, yet loved and feared” (13). As can be observed from this passage, John’s mediated relationship with his sexuality is very similar to his relationship with religion: He “love[s] and fear[s]” both (13), and both will form the crux of his “conversion” experience at the end of the novel.
It becomes increasingly apparent later in the novel that Elisha is the object of John’s desire. Baldwin describes a wrestling scene between the two fraught with sexual tension: “[John] kicked, pounded, twisted, pushed, using his lack of size to confound and exasperate Elisha, whose damp fists, joined at the small of John’s back, soon slipped. It was a deadlock; he could not tighten his hold, John could not break it. And so they turned, battling in the narrow room, and the odor of Elisha’s sweat was heavy in John’s nostrils” (55). Like Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord in Genesis, John wrestles with the object and reminder of his stymied homosexuality. As John begins to overpower Elisha, he is “filled with a wild delight” at “watching [the] manifestations of his power” (55). John’s joy is twofold: on one hand, he is elated at the opportunity to have physical contact with his beloved; on the other, he takes satisfaction in knowing that he is capable of overpowering Elisha, who also forces John to grapple with the existence of his same-sex desire. Similar to his feelings toward religion, which he both “love[s] and “fear[s],” John is locked in a love-hate relationship with his beloved and the reminder of his sexual desire, which he views as incompatible with his spiritual upbringing (13).
John’s fear and apprehension regarding religion stems largely from his relationship with his father. Gabriel, with his hypocrisy and faux saintliness, represents traditional, fundamentalist Christianity. He is adulterer and abuser, yet he is regarded by the other members of the congregation as a pillar of the church. Sarah, John’s sister, sums up the public perception of Gabriel perfectly: “‘Looks to me like he’s a mighty good man,’ she says. ‘He sure is praying all the time.’” (19). Gabriel has perfected the appearance of outer piety, but his behavior throughout the novel shows otherwise. Not only has he committed adultery with a young woman during his first marriage, but he regularly abuses his current wife, Elizabeth, and his children. Through Gabriel, Baldwin shows the hypocrisy of traditional Christianity. In order to distance himself from his sexual sin, Gabriel has forced a distinction between his soul, which he views as flawless and divine, and the carnal desire of his body. Gabriel embodies the body-soul dichotomy so prevalent in Judeo-Christian thought; in order for John to embrace the concept of religious embodiment, he must first reject his father.
In a sense, John’s conversion experience at the end of the novel initiates his recognition of the divinity of his desire. In his vision, John witnesses Elisha lying on the floor while Gabriel stands menacingly behind him. John experiences “a sudden yearning tenderness for holy Elisha; desire, sharp and awful as a reflecting knife, to usurp the body of Elisha, and lie where Elisha lay [….] As he cursed his father, [so] he loved Elisha [….]” (229). John refers to a memory in which he has to bathe his father: “Sometimes,” writes Baldwin, “leaning over the cracked, “tattle-tale gray” bathtub, [John] scrubbed his father’s back; and looked, as the accursed son of Noah had looked, on his father’s hideous nakedness. It was secret, like sin, and slimy like the serpent, and heavy, like the rod. Then he hated his father, and longed for the power to cut his father down” (233). John observing his father’s nakedness becomes a metaphor for the uncovering of Gabriel’s sexual sin and thus his hypocrisy, and John’s subsequent rejection of traditional, phallocentric, heterocentric Christianity, with its assumption that the spirit will forever be separate from the body, is symbolized by his rejection of his father: “And I hate you. I hate you. I don’t care about your golden crown. I don’t care about your long white robe. I seen you under the robe, I seen you!” (235). It is this rejection that finally allows John to embrace Elisha as a symbol of true spirituality, infused with the sublimity of erotic desire. John’s conversion culminates with orgasmic intensity when he is finally reunited with Elisha after spending a sweat-soaked night on the Church’s threshing-floor. Once John accepts God in his heart and calls on Jesus to “[t]ake [him] through,” he hears the voice of Elijah (241). At that moment, “a sweetness filled John as he heard this voice, and heard the sound of singing: the sound was him. For his drifting soul was anchored in the love of God; in the rock that endured forever. The light and darkness had kissed each other, and were married now, forever, in the life and vision of John’s soul. (241). The novel ends with the image of Elisha giving John a “spiritual kiss”: “The sun had come full awake. It was waking the streets, and the houses, and crying at the windows. It fell over Elisha like a golden robe, and struck John’s forehead, where Elisha had kissed him, like a seal ineffaceable forever” (263).
Baldwin’s portrayal of a young man making peace between his same-sex desire and his religious upbringing is by no means an entirely optimistic one. While John has achieved a kind of spiritual union with Elisha, John’s sexuality must, for a time, remain hidden, unable to be articulated: “John staring at Elisha, struggled to tell him something more—struggled to say—all that could never be said” (261). However, through a religious connection, John can finally enjoy a relationship with Elisha that, while not sexual, is at least fulfilling in its spiritual completeness and transcendence.Works Cited
Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006. Print.Morey, Ann-Janine. Religion and Sexuality in American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.New American Standard Bible. BibleHub, n.d. Web. 5 May 2017.
In Go Tell It On the Mountain, James Baldwin discusses the power that can be found in secularity and in religion. The novel starts with John Grimes waking up to his fourteenth birthday in Harlem, 1935. The entire novel spans a few days, but as the story progresses, Baldwin uses extended flashback chapters to recount the lives of John’s father Gabriel Grimes and his aunt Florence, detailing their experiences and how it turned them into who they are in the present time. As the novel advances, John’s experiences with the church and in the city, along with the memories of Gabriel and Florence, make it clear that there are two sources of power that can be found in the novel. Through their experiences, James Baldwin establishes that humans can achieve power and grandeur in secularism, not just through religion and God.
John’s observance of the congregants of the store-front church his father preaches at reveals to him the power that humans can wield. Every Sunday, after the school service ends, he goes to the Temple of Fire Baptized for the Sunday morning service. During one particular Sunday service: Brother Elisha starts a song on the piano and gradually the other clergymen begin to play on other instruments. The churchgoers start singing and as the service heats up, John observes as people moved by their passions would start dancing and singing: Someone moved the chair a little to give them room, the rhythm paused, the singing stopped, only the pounding feet and clapping hands were heard; then another cry, another dancer; then the tambourines began again, and the voices rose again, and the music swept on again, like fire, or flood, or judgement. Then the church seemed to swell with the Power it held, and, like a planet rocking in space, the temple rocked with the Power… (8) James Baldwin uses the pronoun “it” when describing the power of the church in conjunction with the powers of Biblical destruction: fire and flood, to show that the power of God resides within humans as well; the Church swelled with the power of the inhabitants in it, their music as powerful as God’s command of destruction.
Additionally, much like how God is capitalized, things in relation to God are also capitalized. “Power” in this quotation is capitalized, signifying that the Power that the worshipers wield is directly parallel to the divine Power that God wields. The name of the church as well is “The Temple of Fire Baptized”, which is a contrast to the use of word “Church” the characters in the novel refer to it as. A temple is generally a place for pagan worship, not for a single deity. The word temple is used in a way differing from the purpose it was made for; Baldwin’s use of Temple over Church in naming the place of worship implies that the churchgoers who are singing and dancing with such passion, believing that they are under the influence of God, are actually affected by their own communal power. The churchgoers and John are unaware of this power in this moment, but the world around them is affected by it.
Furthermore, John witnesses a character in a movie that makes him realize the potential of becoming powerful wholly unconnected to God. John spends a part of his birthday in the city, climbing central park hills and watching white people roam around. John, feeling rebellious and tired of his father’s condemnation of everything irreligious, sees a theater and hesitantly goes inside to watch a movie. As the movie trails on, John sees a woman on the screen that quickly captures his interest. She lives in England and has a terrible disease, yet she’s indomitable and runs circles around her many boyfriends, manipulating and taking money from them. Watching as she cruelly rejects a student that is in love with her he realizes: 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… She had fallen from that high estate which God had intended for men and women, and she made her fall glorious because it was so complete. John could not have found it in his heart, had he dared search for it, any wish for her redemption. (33) James Baldwin’s juxtaposition of the words “fall” and “glory”, a negative and positive word respectively, demonstrates his belief that humans can attain magnificence by doing the opposite of what was expected of them. She was untouchable and strong, despite her unwillingness to bend to another; she had rejected the distinct place for men and women planned by God, yet her fall was “complete”, signifying that it was fulfilling in a way that the other would not have been. Establishing that power can be acquired without “crawling along a dusty floor to anybody’s altar”, Baldwin also equates the disconnect to others’ kindness, scorn, hatred, or love, as a way to become strong. This is a direct contrast to how praying was described to Florence as “to forget everything and everyone but Jesus; to pour out of the heart, like water from a bucket, all evil thoughts, all thoughts of self, all malice for one’s enemies” (60). John says that he lacked “any wish for her redemption,” and liked the fact that she had all this power, but more specifically how her power came from no one but herself (33). Florence standing up to Gabriel reveals the power dynamics in religion and secularism.
After returning home, John finds his brother Roy being tended to by his Aunt Florence and his mother, having been had been stabbed in a knife fight. Gabriel pulls over John and tells him that this was caused by the “white folks you like so much” (40). Florence jumps to defend John, saying that it was as much Roy’s fault for also trying to cut the white boys’ throats as his own. Gabriel, incensed, threatens her: “‘I done asked you’ cried his father in a fearful exasperation, ‘to stop running your mouth…you want me to slap you side of the head?’ ‘You slap me,’ she said with placidity equally fearful, ‘and I do guarantee you won’t do no more slapping in a hurry’”(41). Gabriel is constantly described as the most important symbol of religion and faith: “God’s hand was on him, that he was the Lord’s anointed” (97). God’s power can be seen in Gabriel. James Baldwin uses the relationship dynamics between Florence and Gabriel to show that secularism is just as powerful as religion. This moment signifies something more than just an Aunt protecting her nephew. Gabriel is the Lord’s anointed, a man with power that few other characters in the novel have. Yet, Florence stops him easily and without care, showing that her power is equal to his. Florence is a woman steeped in secularism, she had not prayed for most of her life, but still she is still equal to Gabriel. Gabriel’s “fearful exasperation” was equal to Florence’s fearful placidity.
The use of the word “guarantee” also instills a feeling of confidence in Florence’s threat; she would undoubtedly make Gabriel regret his actions if he ever tried to raise his hand against her. James Baldwin demonstrates throughout the novel the conflict between power in religion and power in secularism, showing it through the lens of John, Gabriel, and Florence. As the reader follows the experiences of these characters, it becomes clear that power is not only found in religion, but can also be found inside humans and secularism.
The community the Grimes reside in desperately believes in God’s promise of an afterlife, not realizing that with their collective power, they can change their poverty-filled lives. John witnesses firsthand how a person can be so powerful that no other’s emotions or opinions affect them, and Florence herself as a character shows that it is possible to equal power from religion. Although religion is an integral part of many characters’ lives, they seem blind to the nonreligious side, politics and reforms for the betterment of the condition of their race is something that is done through a government that is separate in church and state. In Go Tell It On The Mountain, James Baldwin’s personal experience with the Christian Church shines through the characters in the novel. Being homosexual, he could not become a member of the church, making him unable to find salvation from the racism and lower social of the era from religion. In the novel, only until the African Americans in John’s community accept that religion is not the only path for a better life, can they leave their era of white dominion.
John’s Only Escape: Church as a Way Out
James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on The Mountain is an autobiographical look into the corruptible nature of the black male condition as it relates to the church. John Grimes is a young boy but his narrative suggests that his existence is shaped by forces outside his being. These forces are institutional, familial, and ultimately forms internalized racism in John. The ending of Go Tell It on the Mountain suggests that John has been defeated by the overwhelming power of the secular and sacred because in the end he escapes to the one place that he believes has been cleansed from filth, sexual repression, and racialized hierarchies.
Baldwin emphasizes the overpowering influence that cleanliness and filthiness play in the lives of the Grimes family. Certain spaces are limiting in the way that they are perceived whether it be as domestic or public, clean or dirty. Three different liminal spaces are represented in the twenty-four hour period that the text takes place in, the home, the secular world, and the church. All of these places make John feel constricted or free based on how clean they are and why. Gabriel experiences a provisional moment within the kitchen of a white family. Gabriel cheats on his wife and it is through this overpowering temptation that he, like Adam, falls. Baldwin writes, “how he worried, in some buried part of his mind, about the open door, about the sermon he was to preach, about his life, about Deborah; how the table got in their way, how his collar, until her fingers loosened it, threatened to choke him” (145). Baldwin synthesizes sex, violence, and power within this single moment as Gabriel yields to the temptation of a woman, the passion of the act, and the urge to regain power within a white space. It is in this space that Gabriel attempts to assert power and to diminish the oppression that he faces as a black man but in the end Gabriel becomes bitter and ashamed because his is constantly perceived as less than. Another moment within the narrative in which cleanliness and filth collide within the domestic sphere is in the description of the Grimes family kitchen. Baldwin explains, ““The room was narrow and dirty; nothing could alter its dimensions, no labor could ever make it clean” (14). Kitchens provide a dichotomizing aspect of the home. They are a place where food is prepared but also a place of intense violence as seen through Gabriel’s outbursts and they are a place which will never be clean. The pervasive infiltration of sex, violence, and dirt creates an unwelcoming atmosphere within the home and it is this precise atmosphere that John attempts to escape.
John’s home also provides a place of intense shame of his physical body. On the morning of John’s birthday he feels ashamed for masturbating in his bed, especially with the thought of his family in the house and his brother in the room with him. John sees a yellow stain on his ceiling and it morphs into the shape of a woman. This stain shows the traction of the shame that John’s sexuality brings out in him. On the seventh day the Grimes family eat in the kitchen and Baldwin writes that, “The pale-end of winter sunlight had filled the room and yellowed all their faces” (14). The light, which is usually a sign of holiness, becomes an indicator of shame and evil and it overcasts the Grimes family. The yellow light and the yellow stain demonstrate the inescapabilty of John and his family’s insecurity. They have no power over how the sun shines and therefore they have no power over the shame placed upon them by outside forces or even the forces of their very lineage.
In a pivotal moment in the text, John looks out over the skyline of New York City and marvels at the power he desires in his life. It is John’s repression at home, due to his inability to please his father and his overwhelming shame that causes him to want to destroy the city before him. In this moment on the mountain John, “felt like a giant who might crumble this city with his anger; he felt like a tyrant who might crush this city beneath his heel; he felt like a long awaited conqueror at whose feet flowers would be strewn, and before whom multitudes cries, Hosanna!” (32). This significant distinction between wanting power and wanting to destroy shows that within the secular space John feels just as hopeless as he does at home. In John’s domestic world his father represses his very existence and in the secular world racism and gender stereotypes restrict John completely. For John, there is no escape except when he feels an exultant liberation within the confines of the church.
Throughout the narrative John struggles with his budding sexuality and it is through this struggle that John’s desire for Elisha comes to the surface but only in the boundaries of the church. The overtly sexual language used to describe John and Elisha’s playful fight in the church demonstrates the clash of sexuality and religion in Go Tell It on the Mountain and this collision demonstrates John’s struggle to come to terms with his faults and expectations of manhood. Baldwin comments, “He saw the veins rise on Elisha’s forehead and in his neck; his breathe became jagged and harsh…and John, watching these manifestations of his power, was filled with wild delight” (48). This moment is laden with sexual tension but this fight also functions as a way for John to challenge his own masculinity. John measures himself up to Elisha in order to judge his own sense of power because he wants to be accepted by Gabriel, his father. John attempts to fight Elisha directly but fails and therefore he does the only other thing that he can do. John has a spiritual awakening to demonstrate that he is just as good as Elisha. Due to the fact that this fight takes place not only in the church but in a place that is clean, John’s step towards salvation is not muddled with institutional forces from the outside and it is the only tangible way of escape as John sees it.
Despite John’s anger and confusion regarding his race and expression of masculinity he is still able to find a sense of escape through a spiritual awakening. John’s journey on the threshing floor is an experience that all members of the congregation go through in order to be saved. This complete disregard of the material world and the power of the visions take John into a spiritual in-between and further into a place of liberation. John recounts that, “He knew, without knowing how it happened, that he lay on the floor, in the dusty space before the alter that he and Elisha had cleaned” (195). The idea of dust in this case does not connote filth because in this moment John is being born again like Adam was born from the ground. The church is a sacred and clean space and it is the only place where John can be delivered from evil. The rebirth of John is something erotic and something that mimics an ultimate killing off of John’s physical body and all of the turmoil and shame that it brings him. John sheds his pain and becomes a new man, one that is saved and will metaphysically live on forever. It’s vital to note that John, through his rebirth, has killed off his old self. Like Royal, he voluntarily commits a type of suicide in order to escape the filth of the domestic and secular world and to unite himself in a movement of saints. John is ultimately defeated as he returns to the only clean and safe space that he knows, the church.
Though Baldwin writes Go Tell it on The Mountain as a coming of age tale, this narrative is also a story of how overwhelming oppression can be and the ways in which people seek to escape that oppression. John feels that he has no power so he uses religion as a way to regain a sense of self and destroy the anger, shame, and disappointment that he expresses early in the text. Though John’s story is significant, it is not explicitly unique to his or even Baldwin’s experience. James Baldwin suggests through his text that black people, and black men specifically, seek refuge in the church and use their spiritual awakenings as a tangible system of rebirth and escape.
Gabriel’s Creative Process
God’s Apostles Bring Redemption In Every Life.
Shame, blame, all the same.
Good Artists Breathe Reality Into Existence, Lies.
Shame, blame, all the same.
This is Gabriel’s creative process.
Gabriel’s creative process is one that dwells in shame, blame, and his inability to release the weight of his sins. In “The Creative Process”, Baldwin argues the importance of artists being vulnerable to themselves. For an artist to achieve this vulnerability, Baldwin explains that the artist must understand himself and the kind of person he wants to be, thus, the kind of impact he wants to make in the world. In Go Tell It On The Mountain, Baldwin’s character Gabriel is a preacher whose calling as a born-again Christian was sparked by a dream he had, where God promised him a son that would eternally dedicate his life to God. This dream controls the rest of Gabriel’s life, causing him to shame anyone who sins, but fails to hold himself accountable for the sins he has committed. Per Baldwin’s view on vulnerability, Gabriel’s character demonstrates what can happen to a person if they do not allow themselves to be vulnerable. Using the framework Baldwin provides in “The Creative Process,” a character analysis of Gabriel reveals that his destructive behavior is not rooted in his lack of understanding of himself, but because of his lack of self-acceptance.
Baldwin takes a closer look at artists as individuals in “The Creative Process” to create an understanding that artists find their purpose through seeking out aspects of life that others are unwilling to expose, and by doing this, artists make society a little bit more liveable. In “The Creative Process”, Baldwin discusses the personal process an artist must go through for their art to change the world. He says, “The role of the artist, then, precisely, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest; so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place” (669). The “darkness” that Baldwin refers to is the depths of an individual that someone can only find in solitude, and because of this, is often an untapped piece of the individual’s soul. Artists must be exposers of things that lie in the dark, people, places, or ideas that are undiscovered because the non-artist is too afraid to uncover them. By doing this, they make more space for people to express their flaws and create a more fitting environment for “humans” than we have now. Gabriel, from Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain, is a preacher, which makes him, arguably, an artist; the purpose of preaching is based off of a written work, The Bible,–which can be viewed as a type of art– but preaching is also incredibly performative, which in itself is an art form. Gabriel is keen on shining a light on the sins of people around him, but instead of revealing sins to provide guidance on how to be better humans, thus fostering a community that would promote Baldwin’s definition of an artist’s role, Gabriel holds these sins against those who have committed them. Gabriel’s use and exploitation of women’s bodies proves this. Every woman in Gabriel’s life, including his two wives Deborah, then later Elizabeth, his mistress, Esther, and the hooker he sleeps with prior to his revelation to be a “holy” man, is taken advantage of and used by Gabriel for his personal gain, only to then be shamed by him after the fact. His need to control every woman in his life connects with his ignorance of his abusive and controlling behavior. In doing this, he actually make the world less “human dwelling”, because he isn’t allowing people to be human. Gabriel fails to ever hold himself to the same level of accountability as he does with everyone else, and in turn makes the world more liveable for him, but not for others.
Baldwin proposes that creating a more human world begins with coming to terms with an individual’s self; Gabriel’s character, though he does identify as a sinner, continues to damage himself and other. In “The Creative Process”, Baldwin says, “We do the things we do, and feel what we feel, essentially because we must– we are responsible for our actions, but we rarely understand them…if we understood ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less” (671). Baldwin’s description of humans doing and feeling things “because we must” implies that there is a lack of control that humans have when acting on something or expressing a feeling. Therefore, Gabriel, who demands control at all times, struggles to cope with his own feelings and actions and thus, damages himself. Understanding oneself “better” is relative, and it is unclear how much “better” Baldwin suggests one should understand himself to not damage himself. In Gabriel’s case, there are multiple times in the text that prove that he understands himself very well, but still damages himself and others for his/their “sins”. Following his affair with Esther, Gabriel becomes tormented by his failure to keep to his standard of following in the steps of the Lord. He describes that each church he enters, he feels the weight of his sins hanging over him. However, instead of taking the steps necessary to heal himself of these sins outside of the context of God– he knows he has a son out there and he feels a connection and innate desire to care for him, but knows that it isn’t Godly to do so because the child is a bastard– he turns to the congregation, and finds sinfulness and ungodliness in all of them. He does this to compensate for his sins; finding that his whole congregation has fallen makes him less guilty for what he has done. This does not mean he has a lack of understanding of himself, but it is an indication that he uses other people’s sins to justify and absolve his own as a way of coping with his overall lack of control that he feels within himself. As a result, Gabriel ends up in a cycle of damaging himself and others, by not allowing himself to be vulnerable with himself or with others.
Gabriel’s inability to be vulnerable with himself damages him because it prevents him from accepting himself. To cope with his sins, Gabriel prays to God for repentance, but he continues to sin more. He tends to pass off the sins he has committed as just him going off course from God, but the real reason why he does this is because he does not want to discover the root of his sins. Baldwin talks about self-acceptance of the artist as necessary and a way to cope with the forces that work against him in “The Creative Process” when he says, “All we can do is learn to live with them. And we cannot learn this unless we are willing to tell the truth about ourselves and the truth about us is always at variance with what we wish to be. The human effort is to bring these two realities into a relationship resembling reconciliation” (671). According to Baldwin, “Telling the truth about ourselves” is a way to “understand” ourselves. Gabriel’s root of his sins is his inability to accept himself and accept other people as they are. Gabriel’s habit of engaging with women who are not “saved”, and him trying to “save” them is what he thinks is his version of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. He takes people on as projects to prove himself as a man of God, when in reality, he evades taking responsibility for his role in their sins. He is always trying to change people so that they can become who he wants them to be, but never takes a hard-enough look at himself to realize that he needs to change to truly be forgiven for his sins. Baldwin’s use of the word “reconciliation” is relevant in the context of Gabriel’s life, because as a preacher, his purpose is to be the provider of reconciliation for the congregation and their faith. Gabriel literally does not practice what he preaches when he refuses to accept people, and himself, for their mistakes. In this way, being a man of faith is the force that works against him. Instead of being an outlet for Gabriel and a place where he can feel accepted, his faith makes him feel patronized. Gabriel does not learn to live with this forces, because rather than working on becoming a better Christian, he becomes defensive and blames others for his actions. If Gabriel told the truth about himself, he would be able to accept himself because he would recognize his faults and take responsibility for them. Baldwin’s suggestion that a person’s truth reflects the person they want to be is interesting, because this means Gabriel may not know the truth about himself because he does not know the person who he wants to be. Furthermore, if Gabriel fears the truth about himself, then this may be an indication that he is also fearful of the person he wants to be. Though the torment Gabriel experiences because of his sins is an indication that he does understand himself because he recognizes his wrongdoings, he doesn’t allow this understanding to manifest into acceptance, because he spends so much of his time making sure other people are “saved”.
Gabriel often uses other people to lash out on when he feels the weight of guilt for sins he has committed, because his lack of acceptance for himself bleeds into his relationships, leading him to fail to accept others. This overall inability to accept and tolerate the people in his life is what causes Gabriel to damage them the most. He often uses their sins as way to shame them, not necessarily because he wants them to repent and be “saved”, but because by illuminating the faults of others, he feels absolved for his own sins. When thinking about Gabriel and his wife Elizabeth’s son, Roy, Gabriel deduces that Roy’s refusal to connect with God and the church stems from Elizabeth’s sin of having her first child, John, out of wedlock. Although, Gabriel also has a bastard child who, unlike Elizabeth, he did not have any part of in his short life. What is ironic, is that Gabriel did not even consider that it was his sins that caused Roy’s misbehavior and rebellion. He does this because, like how he does not accept himself for his sins, he does not accept Elizabeth for hers. Elizabeth feels no shame for having John out of wedlock, but Gabriel is not understanding of this, though he somehow is understanding of the sin he had committed, because he is convinced he has been forgiven for them by God because he married Elizabeth regardless of her bastard child. Gabriel sees himself as completely absolved of sin, but sees Elizabeth’s sin as what is preventing their son from wanting to follow in his footsteps to lead a life in the church. Gabriel’s inability to not let go of other people’s sins is why he is so damaging to the people in his life. He uses his relationships as ways for him to feel like he is in control of others. Gabriel is very often unable to control himself, and things that happen in his life, such as the death of his first son and the racism that he is surrounded with, so his sole comfort comes from his relationship with God, when he fails at this relationship by sinning on his own, that is when he attacks others.
Gabriel anchors his guilt and resentment toward himself in controlling other people, seemingly because he is bitter, but it is actually because these people are reminders of his sins. The people who he tries to control the most are the ones who have control over him, because they are the ones who have tempted him into sinning, such as many of the women in his life, or are results of his sins, such as his sons. Gabriel refuses to acknowledge that these people play a role of control in his life, because this would mean that he is a weak man. But, it is clear that Gabriel does not want to form any kind of relationship with these people that would involve him acting weak or vulnerable with them. At the end of the chapter, “Gabriel’s Prayer”, John and Gabriel exchange looks, while John is attempting to pray, and Gabriel is secretly hoping that John is not “saved”. Gabriel does not want John to be “saved” when his own son(s) are not, another example of his failure to accept others. In the scene, Gabriel sees that John is staring at him, and recognizes the look in his eyes and registers it as a look he’s seen before. It seems that the “other eyes” Gabriel is remembering are those that belong to people who have brought out the worst in Gabriel, those that have accused him of being a source of oppression and have bore the brunt of his guilt. This is why Gabriel blames everyone for his problems and fails to face his sins as his own, he simply points the finger right back at those who do it to him. In “The Creative Process,” Baldwin talks about the necessity of an artist being alone because it is a way for the individual to explore himself and to discover things about being human. Baldwin writes, “The aloneness of which I speak is much more like the aloneness of birth or death. It is like the fearful aloneness which one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help” (669). Gabriel is never alone. He never allows himself to be alone, even when he is physically, he sees himself with God, and so he never experiences this kind of “fearful” aloneness that Baldwin says is needed to uncover the dark parts of ourselves. Contrarily, when Gabriel looks at the people who he blames for his sins, he feels alone. John says he sees “the bottom of Gabriel’s soul” in the moment where they are staring at each other, which proves that when people use these eyes on Gabriel, they catch him in a moment of vulnerability and it forces him to expose a weak part of himself to others. He can’t even look at this weak part of himself when he is alone, let alone around other people. Gabriel feels alone when he looks at these people because he knows they blame him for pushing his resentment and guilt onto them, or for not taking responsibility for his actions that have affected them. Again, Gabriel understands this but doesn’t want to accept it, which is why he continues to have the same problems come up repeatedly.
Connecting Baldwin’s “The Creative Process” and his character Gabriel together to understand the depths of the “true” self help us understand that it takes courage to reach these depths. Being frightfully alone and shining the light in the darkness of his own darkness is what Gabriel could never do, but through his cowardice the people around him find strength. Roy rebels against his father, John gets “saved”, and the women in Gabriel’s life live unapologetically with their conditions and sins. It is through Gabriel’s failures that these people illuminate the darkness inside of them. Though Baldwin’s statement is profound in that it encourages self-analysis and coming clean to oneself to help him heal, Gabriel’s story shows that through other’s ignorance of themselves, one can find this same healing.
Interrelation between Black Piety and Racial Oppression in “Go Tell It On The Mountain”
Religion and spirituality are significant facets in the African-American communities as the church has been an emblem of power and freedom from the period of slavery into the civil rights era. Go Tell It on the Mountain as a fictional autobiography by James Baldwin covers themes of religion and race and expounds on the role of the church in the black community both destructively and positively. The story revolves around John’s relationship to his family, the church, and his struggle with his sexual identification and spirituality. Moreover, biblical references are a constant occurrence in the novel, and the language in the book resembles that of the King James Bible. Baldwin utilizes the religious experiences of the characters to examine the connection between issues of race and African-American faith tradition, and subsequently its impact. Racial oppression of minorities has been part of the social struggles in the African-American community especially during the period portrayed in Go Tell it On the Mountain. Though the church imparted the notion of deliverance from slavery and poverty through biblical narratives, it was also used by slave-owners to control African-American slaves to emphasize compliance and docility. Henceforth this subjugation reflects in the Pentecostal Holiness faith and interpretation of the Christian doctrine, as biblical allegories and the redemptive suffering consistent in the scripture are parallel to racial oppression. Furthermore, the devoutness act as a form of liberation from the hostile racial tension in society. Baldwin’s illustration of African-American faith tradition in the novel is a commentary on the practice that is primarily both a reflection and reaction to the racial oppression in the society.
Through the narrative, Baldwin discerns how the overzealous sense of Black devoutness is rooted in the equivalence of biblical references to racial oppression in America. In biblical allegories, black people have been alluded to be the descendants of Ham, Noah’s son who was cursed for seeing his father’s nakedness. The novel narrates “Then John knew that a curse was renewed from moment to moment, from father to son. Time was indifferent…but the heart, crazed wanderer in the driving waste, carried the curse for ever” (Baldwin, 1995). Referring to the Ham’s curse that the son will be servant to the others as long as they bear the mark of Ham as a translation of African-American blackness and subjection to slavery and racism. Baldwin refers to several other people and stories from the Bible, at one point alluding to the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, and drawing equivalence to that exodus and the need for a similar departure for African-Americans out of their oppressive state in which white supremacy has kept them. This interpretation of the Christian doctrine, in that racial oppression, is understood from the perspective of society in connection to divinity or God, has been ingrained in the black faith tradition. The dual contextualization of the African-American experiences and the Biblical writings of Noah’s son and salvation of Israelites fuels the black devoutness to the Christian doctrine in the novel.
Furthermore, Baldwin emphasizes the link between redemptive suffering in the biblical context and racial oppression of black people fosters destructive devoutness to the church. Elizabeth reacts to the protagonist utterance “Yes, Mama. I’m going to try to love the Lord.” At this, there sprang into his mother’s face…and seeing on that road a traveler in perpetual danger. Was it he…or was she thinking of the cross of Jesus” (Baldwin, 1995). Denoting to the repression that comes with extreme devotion to religion as it calls for redemptive suffering in the fashion of Jesus’ suffering. As represented in the novel, Baldwin illustrates how the Pentecostal Holiness doctrine imparts to adapt to suppression as it teaches endurance and redemptive suffering rather than retaliation or radical stance against injustice. Moreover as dramatized in the novel, John is physically and verbally abused by Gabriel, his stepdad, an evangelist who justifies this oppression according to what he defines as the connection between John and God through suffering. Baldwin does not outrightly dismiss the divine experiences of the characters or belief in the Holiness church. Rather addresses the effects the doctrine, which demonstrates God’s connection to suffering, has on the characters. Such rationale prompts diminished standards of satisfaction or expectations and encourage overstated adherence to religion and spiritual activities especially in the case of Gabriel.
The strong devotion to religion and salvation is a representation of the pursuit of liberation as an escape of the racial inequalities in the real world. As narrated in the novel, “…in her tribulations, death, and parting, and the lash, she did not forget that deliverance was promised and would surely come. She had only to endure and trust in God.” (Baldwin, 1995). Members of the black community relied on religion to seek freedom from their lives that have been mired in the injustices of the white society, both physical and spiritual freedom. The characters such as Gabriel find salvation and outlet in religion escaping the dark realities experienced as a child in a society that extremely marginalized black people in the South. Henceforth divinity is a form of endurance and liberation from the realities of the world. The church as an outlet, the frustration, and anger from repressed energy and emotions are released through worship, speaking in tongue, and evangelism. African-American Christians established that faith reinforced by scripture asserted their humanity in midst of racial injustice and also guided them on how to sustain that assertion. Salvation is illustrated as part of liberation, giving a sense of safety and deliverance, escaping the pressures the realities of racial oppression and injustices.
The novel displays the interaction amid the African-American devotion to the Christian doctrine and the racially oppressive society, demonstrating the faith tradition as both a reflection and reaction to the racial oppression. It focuses on the role of the Pentecostal Holiness church in the lives of black people, as a positive source of encouragement and community as well as a force of chaos comprising of moral hypocrisy and suppression. The racially oppressive environment manifests in the religious practice of the characters, as their piety is subject to the reflection of biblical allegories in racial oppression of black folks. Moreover, the devoutness in the church is a reaction to the injustices in that it acts as a form of liberation from the oppressive society. In the novel, Baldwin examines how doctrine and religious practice in the black community interacts with the racial oppression. However, the characters construe their divine experiences according to the faith tradition, Baldwin aims to identify distinct implications that uncover the potential harm the tradition poses for black people.
Baldwin, J. (1995). Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Modern Library.