Go Tell It On The Mountain

This James Baldwin novel is an interesting story about John, a black boy in Harlem, and his family. He is a bright, non-confrontational kid, who lives in a relatively stable family with a preacher as a step-father. The book tells each person’s back story, and center’s around the preacher’s less-than-pious past and how he interacts with the family now. After finishing I came to find out it is a semi auto-biographical story as well. It’s a very good book, often referenced as one of the best novels of the 20th century, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in how the Christian faith can affect families and individual lives, for both good and bad.

John lives a relatively normal teenager life, in a fairly poor family. For his birthday, his mother gives him some money to go buy himself whatever he wants, and he goes to a movie. While he’s away, his stepbrother gets into a fight and gets stabbed with a knife. His step-father yells at John for having been away, even though Ron runs with a different group of kids and John would have had no way of preventing it. It’s a representative sign of how he takes his frustrations out on John, believing Ron to be the good kid who will do him proud. John eventually goes to an evening church service, where he helps clean up ahead of time. His father comes to preach, and his mother comes as usual; this time his aunt attends as well, which is unusual. During the service, John has a religious experience — traveling into the depths of hell, straining to get out, hearing a voice call him, and ultimately returning back in the church after having been prone for much of the night. His conversion and experience profoundly affects him, and the reader is left wondering how long that innocence and faith will last. For each of these characters, there is an extensive back story, and each back story helps culminate in the final scene, where the aunt confronts the father/preacher about a woman he had impregnated and left decades earlier. It put on full display the preacher’s indignation about having been granted resolution from God, while continuing to issue edicts on the lives and activities of others for much smaller incidents.

The story is interesting in itself, and I’ve left out quite a bit of the back stories of each person. There were also volumes of biblical references, interwoven into the story both explicitly and implicitly. He draws heavily on the bible for stories about punishment, and much of the conversation between characters is focused on what God wants, how happy or upset God will be with certain actions, how to praise God, how God has plans for them, and how God will lift them up on the final day. For those who were not raised in a religious family, it may seem extreme, but given my life experiences, I would fully believe the discussions and comments made are regular in millions of homes across America and the world.

It would be easy to read the book and say that it is a clear story about a hypocritical preacher, which is certainly true. However, there is also a lot of good that comes from the church and religious experience, and John and others seem to gain benefit from their relationship to the church, as well as their fellow attendees. It’s an interesting book that explores the benefits and drawbacks of the religious experience, and feels relevant for helping millennials and others figure out how they want to remain faithful without the baggage of religion. It is portrayed as a double-edged sword, and I think that is also the lived experience. Baldwin does a great job exploring the balancing act that each character deals with internally, as well as how that internal balancing act can be witnessed on the outside through interactions with others.