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.
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