An intense, burning eloquence marks James Baldwin’s searing Go Tell It On the Mountain, an emotionally powerful semi-autobiographical novel first published in 1953.
Unrelenting in its rage, Baldwin’s first novel focuses on the role of the Pentecostal church in the lives of African-Americans, and the Harlem-living Grimes family in particular. Based on his own personal experiences of growing up in Harlem with a strict disciplinarian preacher as a stepfather, Baldwin speaks primarily through John, a wise, sensitive 14 year-old struggling with his sexuality, his beliefs and his faith in family.
Yet Go Tell It On the Mountain is as much a commentary on Afro-American history as it is about the repression and moral hypocrisy of the church. The novel provides the back history of John’s parents and paternal aunt – of terrible Deep South poverty, of alcoholism, deprivation, the rigid and unrelenting role and judgement of the Church and religion on the lives of the saved and the sinners, the fallen and the raised.
But while aggressively critical in places of Pentecostalism; ‘If God’s power was so great why were their lives so troubled?’ asked John of the adults around him, Baldwin has a sneaking admiration for the church’s positive source of inspiration for people – even if he’s not wholly convinced. The fact the novel ends with John’s soaring force of redemption and conversion on the night of his birthday, dust rising from the very floorboards he lies convulsing upon is some indication. But even then, not all is what it seems, his preacher father, Gabriel, himself wise to tricks of the fallen through personal experience, is not wholly convinced.
Go Tell It On the Mountain – in spite of being banned on publication in New York State and Virginia – has established itself as something of an American classic. Whilst not an easy read, it is a remarkably sincere, magisterial novel that captures an essential aspect of life in America at the time, its contradictions and seductions, that bittersweet mix of love and hate, its overt racism and prejudice.