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.
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