Social commentator, novelist, orator. With the documentary based on him now in the Oscars discussion, why not get better acquainted with James Baldwin?
I first read Go Tell It On The Mountain when I was about 17. It was nothing short of a revelation. The story was bleak, the characters downtrodden, the descriptions desperate, the language gripping. Details faded over time and when I recently reread James Baldwin’s first novel, that sense of revelation—and deep admiration—returned. His characters are embittered, sorrowful, trying to make the best of intolerable situations. Baldwin tells their stories with breathtaking power and exceptional skill.
Published in 1953, Go Tell It On The Mountain is set in the 1930s and centers around John, a 14-year-old black adolescent growing up in Harlem. His father, Gabriel, is a stern preacher, constantly spouting The Word of the Lord; he has some serious skeletons in his closet and although he maintains he’s at peace with his past, in truth he’s bitter and resentful about every aspect of his life. He dislikes John who isn’t his biological son—although John doesn’t know this. John both hates Gabriel and is desperate for his love.
An unforgiving Old Testament God pervades the lives of the book’s protagonists; they’re wracked with guilt, whether or not they deserve to be. Everyone is seeking salvation and they attend the Temple of the Fire Baptized to find redemption. John himself finds a moment of peace after experiencing a kind of convulsion; others throw themselves on the church floor and speak in tongues, crying out for mercy. Religious conversion is a physical act even more than a spiritual one.
The themes of this brilliant novel are guilt (so much guilt), father-son tension, sexual awakenings, and spiritual crises. Underpinning these is the ugly omnipresent reality of racism. Although John’s experiences with white people are mostly positive, he lives in a white world and he’s used to being looked down on. Being black means you’re less than a second-class citizen:
“He remembered the people he had seen in that city, whose eyes held no love for him. And he thought of their feet so swift and brutal, and the dark grey clothes they wore, and how when they passed they did not see him, or, if they saw him, they smirked.”
“She looked out into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all – the white city, the white world. She could not, that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world. She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, whom they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humor, had hearts like human beings too, more human hearts than theirs.”
Sad to say, racism is still very much alive and well across the world. We like to think of ourselves as progressive, open-minded, open-hearted, tolerant, egalitarian—and most of us aspire to be just that—but the unfortunate truth is that there are many millions who harbor irrational hatred and xenophobia for those not of their “tribe.”
Baldwin was deeply angry about racism. He grew up in a situation much like John’s in Go Tell It On The Mountain. Born in 1924, he had a strict unloving stepfather, a preacher who ran a tight ship. Young James embraced religion, becoming a preacher himself at 14, but within a couple of years he was questioning the validity of his Christian faith.
Why, he asked, were black people so eager to immerse themselves in a religion that had justified slavery (Baldwin was the grandson of a slave), a religion that approved their oppression, one that kept them in the ghetto living in fear? Why were black kids excluded from regular schools? Why did blacks have to sit at the back of the bus? Why should they have to enter workplaces through the back door?
In Go Tell It On The Mountain, John thinks about going to the New York Public Library to read, to improve himself. He knows he’s allowed to go in, but he also knows that he’ll be suspected of being up to no good once he walks through the door.
This was one of the earliest novels written from a black perspective, that spelled out the myriad injustices suffered by African-Americans in all walks of life. It made a huge impact not just on the American literary scene—it is a masterful work of art—but also on the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Baldwin had plenty to say on the matter. He had moved to Paris in 1948, a city known for its tolerance. Living there gave him the freedom to explore his own life, including his homosexuality, as well as the freedom to write from a distance about his homeland. His collections of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), were serious examinations of black and white race relations in America.
“I’m terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country.”
In The Fire Next Time (1963), he addresses his fellow African-Americans, spelling out the disgraceful inequities he’d witnessed across America. It’s very in-your-face but he’s not merely ranting. He offers a way forward, emphasizing that the two cultures must work side by side. Baldwin urges black Americans to be agents of change and white Americans to examine their past and present to work towards a better, morally viable future.
His eloquence and passion made him a powerful advocate for civil rights. The 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, is an account of racism in America told through Baldwin’s own powerful words.
Baldwin broke new ground by telling black stories through black eyes, but he also shocked the literary establishment when he published Giovanni’s Room (1956), tackling the very taboo subject of homosexuality. There was a hint of homoerotic emotion in Go Tell It On The Mountain; in Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin addresses it directly. He writes of shame, of having to section off emotions, of the fear of loving.
Homosexuality is also a theme in Another Country (1963). That book created an immense stir with its depiction of a black jazz musician in love with a white woman. Racism is never far away, but the novel also explores bisexuality and mental illness.
Baldwin never shied away from making a stand. He spelled out the misery of his youth, the obstacles facing gay people, the “apathy and ignorance” of white America. He aspired to be an “honest man and a good writer,” and in this, he succeeded. He said: “The questions which one asks oneself begin, at least, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others.”
James Baldwin died in 1987. He was a voice not just for his own time, but for all time. If you haven’t read any of Baldwin’s works before, I suggest that now’s the time to put that to rights.