Title: Go Tell It on the Mountain

Published: 1952

Author: James Baldwin

Challenge status: #36 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #24 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Challenged in Hudson Falls, NY (1994) and Prince William County, VA (1988) for various reasons including language, sexual themes, violence, and references to rape & degrading treatment of women.

First line: “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when  he grew up, just like his father.”

Synopsis: One of the things I liked best about this book, which is a dramatic but finely tuned depiction of the black experience in mid-20th century America, is that it is set in Harlem. Even though the roots of the family’s stories wind back down to the South, something about being set in NYC made the book feel more accessible to me than some of the other books I’ve read this summer working through similar themes. What was most striking for me in regards to the narrative was the multi-generational approach Baldwin employed: the parents and grandparents were living in the South – though slavery was over the shadow of that period still existed. And the children in the story are coming into their own decades later – in NYC – but cultural norms and expectations on them are still emerging and ambiguous. The over-arching uncertainty in the community heightens the tensions and increases the focus on the intra-family dynamics.

Besides the topics of race and status/income which were common topics of the books I’ve been reading coming out of this time period, I thought the book had an interesting perspective on religion/faith as well as gender dynamics. The family is involved in an evangelical (urban) church; the father (Gabriel) was a preacher down South, now acts as a deacon, but his son (John) is expected to follow in his footsteps. However John still needs to get saved, and as an adolescent his faith hasn’t quite bridged the gap yet. On gender, the book takes a round robin perspective between the main characters – first part is from the eyes of the eldest son John, then from the POV of the aunt Florence, the father Gabriel, the mother Elizabeth, and back to John. Viewing some of the same events and conflicts from additional perspectives lends some depth.

“No,” she said, “I ain’t changed. You ain’t changed neither. You still promising the Lord that you going to do better–and you think whatever you done already, whatever you doing right at that minute, don’t count. Of all the men I ever knew, you’s the man who ought to be hoping the Bible’s all a lie–’cause if that trumpet ever sounds, you going to spend eternity talking.” – Go Tell It on the Mountain (James Baldwin)

I think the round-robin device also provides depth (or bas-relief, anyway) to the key themes of the book: choices, consequences, and circumstance.  The choices may seem big or small at the time, but the consequences live far beyond that initial “splash” and ripple across lives and, in some cases, generations. Yet, the characters are constrained by their circumstances. Not so constrained that situations can be blamed on fate alone, but acutely constrained by the circumstances in which the choices are being made available. A subtle distinction.