Reading James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain is like watching Alvin Ailey’s dazzling choreography in “Revelations.” There is the intelligence, the talent, the hard work of making art, of making a shape to hold the breadth of human hurt and history, of indomitable spirit. The book is a hymn and a cry, woven of preaching, pain, scripture, desolation, wild hope, the desperate light of faith, the bitter dregs of racism.
Baldwin first published Mountain in 1953. It is the story of a 14-year-old boy’s struggle to reconcile his stepfather’s rigid faith and coldness, his own nameless longings and overpowering rage, the dark inheritance that shadows his young life, the centrality of a storefront Harlem church in his community, and the sexual confusion that has no precedent in his 1935 world.
Sections of the book are told in the incantations and recollections of John, the protagonist, his aunt Florence who fled her oppressive home in the South and despises her spoiled willful brother Gabriel, John’s stepfather Gabriel who prizes and loses two biological sons and creates havoc and misery in the lives around him, John’s mother Elizabeth who is scarred by her own losses.
Who and what is saved in Baldwin’s story is debatable but salvation has its own imperatives and music, its own fierce ritual and language of bonding. Go Tell It on the Mountain is almost too powerful to read. James Baldwin pries open souls, minds and hearts with a sharp scalpel and achingly lyrical prose. His novel is richly symbolic but it feels deeply personal and almost too intimate. It’s just brilliant, as Baldwin was, and evocative and illuminating as any indisputable masterpiece. I have always treasured his work. I’m glad I finally read Go Tell It on the Mountain. It’s humbling.
Go Tell It on the Mountain James Baldwin | 1995 Modern Library Edition