Reconnection as a Compromise in Go Tell it on the Mountain

In Go Tell it on the Mountain (1952), James Baldwin, constructs the edifice of ‘sin’ and ‘redemption’ put into one structure, – amalgamated, – and questioned at the same time. This complex construct results in a seeming redemption of the protagonist, John, which may not be redemption at all. The facts that indicate towards his redemption also indicate towards his falling prey to the pressures of his family and community and compromising with what he has at his disposal. Baldwin, in a very witty manner attacks the religious dogmas that strain on the adherence of the religious beliefs, in order to keep the people following them, through impregnation of “fear of sinning”. That “everything must go” in the name of sin and redemption, is forcibly internalized by the Church and its participants.

John, even though being highly unappreciative of the entire system, is finally compelled to give in and accept his father, Gabriel’s insistence of accepting the religious ways and becoming a preacher, in an act of taking away the father’s sins as well. John is used as a device for liberating his father of his sins from his past life. John’s opposition to what is forced on him is a major theme that the novel revolves around. And John’s revolt against it is through his sexuality that is considered a ‘shame’ and an ‘unforgivable sin’ by others who belonged to a faith that is perceived as a ‘protector’ from sin. He is forced to reconnect with his father’s choice of making him a preacher in the church.

There is a sense of ambiguity ingrained in the text, especially in the delineation of John. Though it seems that John was ‘saved’, ‘redeemed’, yet it looks quite unclear what his state of mind is. While talking to Elisha, the saved one, John asks, “Was you glad to see me at the altar?” (217), and when Elisha replies, “I was mighty glad to see little Johnny lay his sins on the altar, lay his life on the altar and rise up, praising God.” (217). Listening to this, Baldwin writes, “Something shivered in him as the word sin was spoken, […] I pray the Lord to make me strong, to sanctify me wholly and keep me saved” (217, 218). It seems he is speaking of being ‘saved’ because he feels the pressure of the people in his life, – and the pressure of ‘sin’. It seems as if he himself is not convinced of being ‘saved’. It is as if he is trying to get external confirmation from a priest who is supposedly ‘the saved one’. The fear of the sin is heavy on him and he is seen asking Elisha later, “if it costs my life – is that the price?” (218), and later requests Elisha, “Elisha, You pray for me? Please pray for me? For me, for me” (219), as if he lacks conviction of his own redemption. Probably, he knows that he still doesn’t believe in the concept of ‘sin’ and ‘redemption’ of it, and hence, is not ‘saved’ and so he wants an attestation from another person who is the ‘saved one’. He tells, “Elisha, no matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember – please remember – I was saved. I was there.” (220). By ‘anybody’, probably, he means his father. And then he moves in the direction of the path his father has chosen for him and, thus, reconnects as a compromise with that life. He finally states, “I’m ready, I ‘m coming. I’m on my way.” (221). He has finally given in to the religious pressures which may not be a matter of choice but may be a matter of not having any other choice. He is compelled to accept the life his father chooses for him – to reconnect with him.  

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