Go Tell It on the Mountain

by James Baldwin

Go Tell It on the Mountain, tells the story of some of the first generations of the descendants of slaves to emigrate from the American South to Harlem. It is told via omniscient narration that shifts its focus among a few different characters, all within the same family. The story—when not temporarily shifted to flashback—is set in 1930's uptown.

The body of Go Tell It on the Mountain is sermon heavy. And given that the work is semi-autobiographical—the protagonist is being raised by a sanctimonious & abusive minister/stepfather, and so was James Baldwin—I get that said sermons are aimed with not a little irony. For every page upon page of preachy-sounding stuff, there is page upon page of backstory interspersed to show you that the people giving these sermons, or receiving them, aren't holy at all! Churchgoing elders are referred to as "The Saints" in this book. When we are made privy to their public histories and their private prayers, we would say—a la the emperor has no clothes—the saints have no halos.

It's hard to come down—after reading Go Tell It on the Mountain—squarely on one side or the other of religion, which I think only means that James Baldwin is a skillful & effective writer. The book makes an excellent case study for the role of religion as a fear-based social control—really laying that bare. Then again, a reader might land nonjudgmentally nearer the other end of the spectrum: Whether or not you are religious yourself, you should be thankful that religion is as useful a crutch as it is for those who apparently need it. The author's probable personal struggle with these very same issues is clearly the eloquent subtext here. But to get to that, one must slog through the text...which, again, is largely sermon.

Mastery of subtext abounds in the writing of James Baldwin. The casual mention of child molestation—on page one, no less; never to be taken up again—serves to underscore how overlooked it is in its banality. The omniscient narrator gives you the impression it is universally understood to be going on but not spoken about (art imitating life). Then there are a couple or few hints at homosexuality as well. But that's it for these topics! In their implied shame, they are dealt glancing coverage. Why should it be that preaching (of what is essentially myth) is over the top, but day-to-day TRUTHFUL reporting of actual goings on in a household is minimized? Perhaps that, per se, is a condemnation of religion.