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Identity struggle – The narrow and broad path in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain Essay

James Baldwin’s life was deeply marked by an identity struggle. A struggle to find out what it meant to be an American and foremost what it meant to be an Afro American. Like in other works he also deals with this topic in his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, where John Grimes confronts this problem on his fourteenth birthday. The following paper will therefore take a look at the possibilities offered to the Afro American characters in the story, especially to John, and what role the church plays in this context. Moreover it will outline John Grimes situation between a religious up-bringing in poverty and the longing for a better financial life by adopting white ways. Finally it will try to elaborate on the basis of two key scenes whether John’s decision is based on faith or hopelessness.

II. Imposed roles – Afro Americans in a dominantly white society

From the very beginning of the novel the possibilities of Afro Americans in American society are depicted as very remote, especially in John Grimes’ case: “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.” . His entire life and all the people in it are set in a religious environment, blocking out any kind of secular influence. As a matter of fact no other future option for him is ever mentioned in the novel. At some point though his teachers notice that he is very intelligent: “You’re a very bright boy, John Grimes […] Keep up the good work.” .His parents don’t seem to be aware of this or don’t consider this to be of importance for his future perspectives. This hopelessness can be traced throughout each character’s life in the novel.

Those who do not accept their role imposed to them by society tend to fail in life. For example Aunt Florence who sets out North in order to achieve a higher living standard, but ends up alone after driving her husband away from her due to her ambition to gain a higher social standard. Further, John’s real father Richard is crushed by the injustice against black men in a dominantly white society and consequently commits suicide. Hence, John and the following generations are taught to accept the circumstances and their status in American society. In order to cope with this they are advised to lead a highly religious life and to shut out all secular elements. It is this aspect that Baldwin criticizes mostly.

He blames the black people for accepting the myth of being inferior to white people without a struggle . Moreover he accuses them of copying white ways and replacing their own African traditions . Aunt Florence even takes a step further in the novel by trying to bleach her skin with beauty products, hereby rejecting her black skin and thus her heritage. At the same time he blames the Anglo-American society for depriving black people of all freedom and power to direct their own lives . This identity struggle is clearly visible in John’s case and will be discussed in detail in chapter three.

2.1. Black church as a helpful companion or a mere distraction from reality?

Since the current story evolving around John primarily takes place in a church and deals with his conversion it is important to take a closer look at the role of Black Christianity and the Black Church. The Temple of the Fire Baptized, family Grimes’ church, is presented to the reader as a place of redemption and as a shelter from all the sin in the world. John is confronted with this supposedly sin on his way to church every Sunday in the form of men and women coming home from bars and cat houses . The constant threats of damnation and hell itself, which Macebuh states as being part of the Black Christianity, also appear throughout the entire novel. Due to the permanent warnings of temptations and sin by his parents and the church community, John lives in abiding fear of God’s wrath, even in harmless places such as the movies:

He waited for the darkness to be shattered by the light of the second coming, for the ceiling to crack upward, revealing, for every eye to see, the chariots of fire on which descended a wrathful God and all the host of Heaven.

In return for refuge and brotherhood, the members are curtailed freedom and have to renounce all worldly pleasures. Especially this aspect of religion is irreproducible for John and even more for Roy, who openly criticizes his father for forcing them to obey:

Yeah […] we don’t know how lucky we is to have a father what don’t want you to go to movies, and don’t want you to play in the streets, and don’t want you to have no friends, and he don’t want this and he don’t want that, and he don’t want you to do nothing. We so lucky to have a father who just wants us to go to church and read the Bible […].

In the novel the church primarily seems to be a place of comfort for those in sorrow, such as Aunt Florence. She remembers having gone to church only once since she moved to the North and her visit to the Temple of the Fire
Baptized now is due to her cancer and fear of death. So it seems that people rather turn to God out of despair than out of strong belief. This assumption is also enforced by an ironic observation the narrator makes concerning the character’s habits of church going:

Tarry service officially began at eight, but it could begin at any time, whenever the Lord moved one of the saints to enter the church and pray. It was seldom, however, that anyone arrived before eight thirty, the Spirit of the Lord being sufficiently tolerant to allow the saints time to do their Saturday-night shopping, clean their houses, and put their children to bed.

Especially the younger people do not seem to go to church voluntarily to help out, leaving John usually alone to clean up the Temple, unless Elisha shows up to give him a hand: “Lord, Sister McCandless,” he said, “look like it ain’t never but us two. I don’t know what the other young folks does on Saturday nights, but they don’t come nowhere near here.” . Ironically, while Elisha says this, John thinks to himself that not even Elisha shows up frequently on Saturdays.

All these passages show that the so called “saints” in the novel do not go to church out of religious reasons but because they are desperate and consider the church as a “rallying point around which they sought to lessen their pain by sharing in one another’s joys and suffering” as Macebuh puts it . Peter Bruck interprets this similarly. He sees the Negro Church as the only available social space for the black society in history. But still this social field of activity does not help to change the inhuman conditions each character suffers and the prayers also do not improve their psychological and social circumstance . In this context, particularly in chapter two, “The Prayers of the Saints”, the reader gets an idea of what the prayer of each member consists.

During mass all of them reflect on their past and recall their sins, but they do not pray out of their love for God but out of fear that He might make them suffer his wrath, since He is not the “compassionate God of the New Testament” . Colin MacInnes goes even further in his essay by referring to religion as “a fierce and constant compulsion that never abandons them [the characters] a second” . Bone states that religion means refuge from the terrors of everyday life and God therefore represents safety: “God and safety became synonymous, and the church, a part of his survival strategy”. However, the price for this safety is renouncement of personal power of one’s sex and social power of one’s people . Overall Bone reckons that the church offers either the path of self-hatred or the path of self-acceptance, with Christ as a kind of spiritual bleaching cream. In this structure the Negro masses function as a ritual enactment of their daily pain .

Edward Margolies depicts the Negro Church as a “kind of community newspaper” which links the new immigrants to their Southern past and functions as an output for their rage, terror and frustrations . In addition to all the authors here mentioned, Margolies expands the church’s functions upon the field of masculine identity. The church exemplifies by means of the wrathful Old Testament God a masculine role model many Negro adolescences lack in their family environment . This can also be applied to John’s case. Rejected by his father, or as the reader knows, his stepfather, he feels unloved and ugly. On the one hand he despises God, since he sees his father as God’s minister . On the other hand though, he longs to be saved and become God’s son, who would then protect him:

Then he would no longer be the son of his father, but the son of his Heavenly Father, the King. Then he need no longer fear his father, for he could take, as it were, their quarrel over his father’s head to Heaven – to the Father who loved him, who had come down in the flesh to die for him.

This passage clearly shows that the church provides John with some kind of psychic compensation for the love his father deprives him of and that he sees in God an ally against his father. This would become redundant if he were to find out that Gabriel is not his real father and that he has also sinned in his past life, namely in the form of his unclaimed firstborn son with Esther . As for Elisha, who also tries to bring him closer to God, John sees in him a brotherly and fatherly figure he looks up to, but he also feels attracted to him in sexual ways. Elisha somehow represents the earthly protection and guidance John needs in order to find his identity.

He is also the one who shows him another side of God and religion. Instead of the wrathful God his father preaches him, Elisha speaks of a caring and blessing one who protects and saves . In general, the church is depicted as a kind of sanctuary for the characters, just as it was for James Baldwin himself. The black Church offered him in a similar way shelter and refuge from the terrors of the streets . Overall, true belief is disregarded in contrast to safety which now stands for Christianity.

III. In search of identity: Between secularization and clericalization

Given the background so far John Grimes is trapped between the clerical life his parents force unto him and the secular life that awaits him outside his home on the streets. The title of the novel, the first line of a Negro spiritual, refers to the good news of Jesus Christ’s existence. Additionally, the first chapter that introduces the reader to the characters is called “The seventh day”, a clear reference to the creation story of Genesis . Both function as allusions to biblical constructions. In a figurative sense, John’s fourteenth birthday can therefore be seen as a creative process, which marks his finding of self-identity, as well in religious terms as in worldly or sexual terms. The following chapters will take a closer look at two passages where John faces different paths concerning his identity, one characterized by a more material and white world and another leading to a strictly religious life.

3.1. John’s getaway to Manhattan – Denial of his black heritage?

On his fourteenth birthday John uses the money his mother gives him to buy a metro card and drive down to Manhattan. As mentioned before John feels attracted to the shining and sparkling world of white men and is not so “much interested in his people” . He cares more about what the white people think of him and feels very proud when they notice his intelligence in school . This intelligence symbolizes for him a special power the others do not possess and which he hopes will bring him the love he lacks: “Perhaps, with this power he might one day win that love which he so longed for.” . For John the white world represents power and success . Thus, once he arrives at Central Park and reaches the top of the hill, he feels as if he could counter the entire city:

He did not know why, but there arose in him an exultation and a sense of power, and he ran up the hill like an engine, or a madman, willing to throw himself headlong into the city that glowed before him […] Then he, John, felt like a giant who might crumble this city with his anger; he felt like a tyrant who might crush this city beneath his heel; he felt like a long-awaited conqueror at whose feet flowers would be strewn […] He would be, of all, the mightiest, the most beloved, the Lord’s anointed, and he would live in this shining city which his ancestors had seen with longing from far away.

There alone on the top of the hill he dreams of being part of the city and belonging to the upper white class, which would accept him unconditionally. But as soon as he recalls the people’s reactions to him he is pulled back into reality: “He remembered the people he had seen in the city, whose eyes held no love for him […] and how when they passed they did not see him, or, if they saw him, they smirked.” . Despite these incidents John still feels as part of the white social stratum due to his intelligence, but reality looks quite different and resembles more his parents’, especially his father’s warnings of the city and white men in general. As he walks along Central Park he keeps imagining what it would be like living in such an environment and being wealthy. The absence of God in this society is not a drawback for John, since he sees that the way of life according to the Lord has not really helped his parents with their everyday struggles:

In the narrow way, the way of the cross, there awaited him only humiliation forever; there awaited him, one day, a house like his father’s house, and a church like his father’s, and a job like his father’s, where he would grow old and black with hunger and toil. The way of the cross had given him a belly filled with wind and had bent his mother’s back; they had never worn fine clothes, but here, where the buildings contested God’s power and where the men and women did not fear God, here he might eat and drink to his heart’s content and clothe his body with wondrous fabrics […].

Despite the fact that he knows that “their thoughts were not of God, and their way was not God’s way” , he cannot believe how the white society, being so beautiful and gracious, could end up in hell. He himself had been witness of their capacity to do good when he was sick and one of his teachers had brought him medicine. Although John does not really know yet who he is and where he belongs, at this point he does know that he never wants to end up like his father. Due to his young age and inexperience it is more likely that he feels attracted to the white society on the grounds of a wealthier future it seems to offer and not because he tries to deny his black heritage.

His aversion to black people derives basically from the fact that his entire Negro environment characterizes itself by poverty and does not offer him a successful, strong or caring male role model. On the contrary, John’s self-hatred and accusation are a result of his father’s treatment. Hence, he tries to find an explanation for his father’s rejection in his own shortcomings, such as his desire to leave the ghetto or his intelligence which singles him out . Gabriel’s ongoing criticism of John’s outward appearance leads to insecurity and self-doubt:

His father had always said that his face was the face of Satan – and was there not something – in the lift of the eyebrow, in the way his rough hair formed a V on his brow – that bore witness to his father’s words? In the eye there was a light that was not the light of Heaven, and the mouth trembled, lustful and lewd, to drink deep of the wines of Hell […] two great eyes, and a broad, low forehead, and the triangle of his nose, and his enormous mouth, and the barely perceptible cleft in his chin, which was, his father said, the mark of the devil’s little finger […] he most passionately desired to know: whether his face was ugly or not.

By contrast, the white society stands for success and seems to offer him all the possibilities his father deprives him of. Most of all John associates access to knowledge with white people. Next to the incident at school, which was mentioned earlier on page three, John feels both attracted and frightened by the Public Library on 42nd Street. He believes books to be part of high culture and thus a white privilege. Scared he stands in front of the building not knowing how people would react to him if he dared to go inside:

He loved this street, not for the people or the shops but for the stone lions that guarded the great main building of the Public Library, a building filled with books and unimaginably vast, and which he had never yet dared to enter […] But he had never gone in because the building was so big that it must be full of corridors and marble steps, in the maze of which he would be lost and never find the book he wanted. And then everyone, all the white people inside, would know that he was not used to great buildings, or to many books, and they would look at him with pity.

This passage also shows that even though the big city fascinates John, it also seems to him as a kind of maze that terrifies him and brings back his father’s words of warning. Despite all these admonitions and the fact that John is aware of the Negro treatment and history in the United States , he believes that his knowledge is the key to white acceptance. His getaway to Manhattan also leads him to Broadway, which he automatically associates with the broad path to Hell and damnation: “Broadway: the way that led to death was broad, and many could be found thereon […]” . Still he immediately dismisses this image and decides to see a movie on Sixth Avenue, where once again he is plagued by thoughts of God punishing him for this supposedly sin . Inspired by the main character of the movie, whom he admires for her strength and independency, John tries to figure out whether there is a third path in life: “John thought of Hell, of his soul’s redemption, and the struggle to find a compromise between the way that led to life everlasting and the way that ended in the pit. But there was none […]” .

 This trip to Manhattan signifies for John an escape from his father’s religious world and one step closer to the life he wishes to lead, one that is characterized by financial security and social status independent of his skin color. As mentioned before, this tendency in John can be ascribed to a longing for a better life and not to an intended denial of his blackness. Still his desire to be part of the white society leads automatically to a negation of his ancestor’s past and hence to alienation from his own people. Therefore John’s desired white identity is only a mock identity which would never work.

The only way of finding his real identity is by accepting his own heritage and history and consequently his own father . Moreover, by attending the movies he does not only carry out an act of social participation but also an act of defiance both against morality and religion, since he identifies with the white heroine’s attitude, who “tells the world to kiss her ass” . Ironically, in the end John remains in his secular thinking as much a victim of his fears of God as those who are willing to accept God’s power . 3.2. John’s conversion – True belief or a mere survival gimmick?

The other path, the narrow one which is available for John, is the religious one his parents and his community offer him. Here the third chapter “The Treshing Floor” or rather the conversion scene in this chapter can be taken as a good example. Even though John mentioned before that “he did not long for the narrow way, where all his people walked” , in chapter three he engages in an ecstatic conversion. Therefore this experience is questionable and rather seems to be a flight from the quest for identity into the ostensible safety the black church offers . During his spiritual experience he encounters various obstacles, his father being the most difficult one. While John is lying in front of the altar he sees his father looking down on him without pity or love, but instead he keeps hearing him say: “I’m going to beat sin out of him. I’m going to beat it out!” .

As mentioned before the only way to God is through his father and by admitting his sin. Like the son of Noah, he too had made fun of his father’s bareness and was now cursed for it to the present just like Ham. By accepting this, namely that “all niggers had come from this most undutiful of Noah’s sons” and that “a curse was renewed from moment to moment, from father to son” , he embraces his black heritage. Some critics, e.g. Csaba Csapó, go even further by assuming that by doing so he also embraces his homosexuality, which comes to show in his relationship with Elisha . But this is altogether a different topic of the novel, which does not contribute to this essays matter and will therefore not be discussed at this point. His ongoing journey takes him into a grave, which symbolizes the past, isolation, death but also resurrection, where the collective singing and praying further strengthens his realization of his own history :

In this murmur that filled the grave […] he recognized a sound that he had always heard […] This sound had filled John’s life, so it now seemed, from
the moment he had first drawn breath. He had heard it everywhere […] It was in his father’s anger, in his mother’s calm insistence, and in the vehement mockery of his aunt […] Yes, he had heard it all his life, but it was only now that his ears were opened to this sound that came from darkness, that yet bore such sure witness to the glory of the light. And now in his moaning, and so far from any help, he heard it in himself.

This experience creates an identity in John which no longer separates him from his black environment but rather strengthens the feeling of solidarity. Nevertheless, this identity-shaping does not change John’s relationship to his father: “[…] the living word that could conquer the great division between his father and himself. But it did not come […]” . Peter Bruck explains this situation with the fact that John’s experience does not signify relief from his damnation, but merely constitutes a momentary ease from the existing situation, similar to the Noah and Ham network . This assumption is also supported by Gabriel’s comment after John’s conversion: “It comes from your mouth […] I want to see you live it. It’s more than a notion.” . He reminds John of the fact that his conversion is merely the first step and that he is still to be tested by the long, complex journey of life. This is also emphasized by the unchanged picture the saints face the morning after John’s conversion, which stands in contrast to the development he has undergone:

Yet the houses were there, as they had been; the windows, like a thousand, blinded eyes, stared outward at the morning – at the morning that was the same for them as the mornings of John’s innocence, and the mornings before his birth. The water ran in the gutters with a small, discontented sound; on the water traveled paper, burnt matches, sodden cigarette-ends; gobs of spittle, green-yellow, brown, and pearly; the leavings of a dog, the vomit of a drunken man, the dead sperm, trapped in rubber, of one abandoned to his lust.

This passage clearly shows the constant burdens of life and the unimproved reality awaiting John. The picture is characterized by decay and waste and thus depicts John’s hopeless situation in spite of his new found identity.

As his father mentioned to him he is still endangered by his environment and his relationship to yonder has not improved at all. The people will still confront him with the same pity and hostility as before, calling him “Frog-eyes” and other names . Hence the church only offers a temporary place of refuge without really creating better options for the future. It only partially illuminates things and merely hides or damns others . But in the midst of all this pessimism there also exists a spark of hope for John. He has now found a new ally in Elisha who already helped him through his conversion and will keep on doing so in the future. Further, he has introduced John to the love of God, instead of the theological terror of the false God his father preaches . As Robert Bone also hints at, the church can function as a “path of self-hatred” or as a “path of self-acceptance” . The following lines point to a new start and ongoing journey lying ahead of John:

The sun had come full awake. It was waking the streets, and the houses, and crying at the windows. It fell over Elisha like a golden robe, and struck John’s forehead, where Elisha had kissed him, like a seal ineffaceable forever.

Again, this kiss and the rising sun can be interpreted as John’s awakening homosexuality, which in the following works of Baldwin is also seen as a source of hope . The closing lines of the novel “I’m ready […] I’m coming. I’m on my way.” impart an open ending to the story, leaving out which path John is going to take after all.

IV. Conclusion

The ending of the novel leaves the reader wondering whether John has definitely chosen the “narrow path” he so long avoided, even despised. Only several hours before, he still dreamed of a wealthy life midst the white society, far away from his own people and poverty. The moment he realizes that “this world was not for him” and that “they would never let him enter” , as his father always kept preaching him, he turns to his only other option, the black church. Thus, it seems to be more a last desperate act to survive in the brutal streets of Harlem, than an act of religious belief. This step can also be found in James Baldwin’s own biography. After having served as a preacher for several years, he left the black church unsatisfied and misunderstood, still searching for his own identity as an American, better as an Afro American. In exchange for sanctuary he had to give up his sexuality and entirely isolate himself from the outer world, which might get him into conflict with the white power.

This meant exchanging the personal power of one’s sex and the social power of one’s people in exchange for the power of the Word, in Baldwin’s eyes the historical betrayal of the Negro Church . A similar pattern of behavior can be observed in John, who sees in religion also a survival gimmick. Although during John’s religious ecstasy the reader might get the impression that he is acting according to belief, his final words to Elisha on the way home evoke insecurity in this decision: “[…] no matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember […] I was saved. I was there.” . It seems as though he knows that his conversion is not the finish line and yet another journey awaits him that may lead him away from the church, as it did James Baldwin.

V. Bibliography

Primärliteratur
•Baldwin, James: Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Bantam Dell 1980.

Sekundärliteratur
•Bone, Robert A.: “James Baldwin” in: Keneth Kinnamon: James Baldwin. A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice Hall 1974, p. 28-38.

•Bruck, Peter: Von der „store front church“ zum „American Dream“. James Baldwin und der amerikanische Rassenkonflikt. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner 1975, p.24-36.

•Csapó, Csaba: „Race, Religion and Sexuality in Go Tell It on the Mountain” in: Carol E. Henderson: James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. Historical and Critical Essays. New York: Peter Lang 2006, p.57-74.

•Fabre, Michel: „Fathers and Sons in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain“ in: Keneth Kinnamon: James Baldwin. A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice Hall 1974, p.120-138.

•Jones, Beau Fly: „The Struggle for Identity” in: The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 17, No.2 (June 1966), p.107-121.

•Kent, George E.: „Baldwin and the Problem of Being” in: Therman B. O’Daniel: James Baldwin. A Critical Evaluation. London: AD. Donker 1977, p.19-29.

•Macebuh, Stanley: James Baldwin: A critical Study. New York: The Third Press Joseph Okpaku Publishing Company 1973, p.49-68.

•MacInnes, Colin: „Dark Angel: The Writings of James Baldwin” in: Gibson, Donald B.: Five Black Writers. New York: New York University Press 1970, p.119-126.

•Margolies, Edward: „The Negro Church: James Baldwin and the Christian Vision” in: Harold Bloom: James Baldwin. New York: Chelsea House Publishers 1986, p.59-76.

•Rosenblatt, Roger: “Out of Control: Go Tell It on the Mountain and Another Country” in: Harold Bloom: James Baldwin. New York: Chelsea House Publishers 1986, p.77-90.

•Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin: James Baldwin. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1980, p.27-44.

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