In James Baldwin’s 1952 novel “Go Tell It On The Mountain” the characters in the novel each embark on a spiritual journey. Baldwin has dedicated a chapter to each member of the Grimes family, detailing their trails and tribulations, hopes and aspirations, as each one’s quest to get closer to God becomes a battle. I have chosen the character John because I admire the fierce struggle he endured to find his spirituality. I will examine how he’s embarked on his quest and prove that he has done it with integrity and dignity.
This novel is set in 1935 in Harlem, New York City. A small church congregation comes together for Sunday evening mass. The congregation is made up of close friends and family. The novel is centered around the Grimes family. They go to a Baptist church, “Temple of the Fire Baptized” and it is a very close congregation which every member has a personal bond with one another. This fact, I believe adds to the dynamics of the way they worship and ultimately the way they identify with god.
John Grimes, the eldest son of Gabrial Grimes whom was a former well-respected and dynamic preacher, is in search of answers to his unhappiness. John wants to find his place within the church, define his relationship with god, and wants to flush the dislike he has for his father out. His father favors John’s younger brother Roy over himself. Although Roy is a bad seed and has an impeccable ability for getting into trouble he undoubtedly remains the apple of his father’s eye.
John has been compared to another young man named Elisha, whom is a member of the church. Elisha is a few years older than John and has the respect of all the congregation members because he showed great interest in the church, is saved, and is already a preacher. Many of the congregation felt John would be a great leader of his people some day because of his intelligence. This added pressure consumed him and he knew on his 14th birthday, which was fast approaching, that the expectations to find his place would be great.
In the last chapter of this novel, “The Threshing-Floor”, Baldwin dedicates this chapter to John’s journey to his spirituality. In the opening chapter John describes a feeling of possession as he and his congregation is in pray. Baldwin narrates the events happening to John, “And something moved in John’s body which was not John. He was invaded, set naught, possessed. This power had struck John, in the head or in the heart;”(193) As his mind is taken on this journey he feels like he’s lost mobility.
His body becomes weightless, but he does not want to subdue, he fights to rise up. He does not want to fall, because he feels like it’s a dungeon deeper then hell. In his trace he sees his family all about him and the congregation members. John does what I would do, he looks towards his father for help, when he looks into his face, what he sees is not light, but darkness. There was no warmth or compassion from his father. This is why he felt the way he did towards his father; he loathed him because that is what his father showed him. His feelings of hatred is depicted in this passage narrated by Baldwin,
“Yes, he had sinned: one morning, alone, in the dirt bathroom,
in the square, dirt-gray cupboard room that was filled with the
stink of his father. Sometimes, leaning over the cracked,
“tattle-tale gray” bathtub, he scrubbed his father’s back; and
looked, as the accursed son of Noah had looked, on his father’s
hideous nakedness. It was secret, like sin, and slimy, like the
serpent, and heavy, like the rod. Then he hated his father, and
longed for the power to cut his father down.”(197)
John has sinned many times, when he’s felt this way towards his father. To be saved John must forgive, and then cleanse himself of his sins. He must learn to hate the sin and not the sinner if he wants to be saved. But this was not going to be easy, its one thing to know it but he had to embrace it and live it. Through John’s journey he saw many people trying to get to the river, which I believed represented the place where one will be baptized and reborn. John described the scene as, “All struggled to get to the river, in a dreadful hardness of heart: the strong struck down the weak, the ragged spat on the naked, the naked cursed the blind, the blind crawled over the lame. And someone cried: Sinner, do you love my Lord?”(203-204) John had walked many miles to the river and came face to face with many demons and sins, and atoned for them. Baldwin described it so poetically.
“For his drifting soul was anchored in the love of God;
in the rock that endured forever. The light and the darkness
had kissed each other, and were married now, forever, in
the life and the vision of John’s soul.”(204)
He then heard the voice of Elisha, telling him to come through. He heard the singing of the congregation. Elisha said, “Rise up, rise up, Brother Johnny, and talk about the Lord’s deliverance”(205) John has been saved and exaltedly claimed, “Lord, I been introduced to the Father, and the Son, and I ain’t no stranger now!”(206)
John’s quest to be closer to God was phenomenal. I too have had a rocky relationship with my father and like John has had to fight the demons caused by that relationship and atoned for them. It is very important to practice forgiveness. I believe that John has done that. Hatred is a heavy burden to bare, and lead to destruction. I believe through his newfound relationship with God, he will forgive then rebuild his relationship with his father. And has proven to me that he’s embarked on his quest with integrity and dignity.