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  • Writer's pictureTerry Pace

Go Tell It On The Mountain

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

By James Baldwin

Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York. His first of many critically acclaimed books was the novel "Go Tell It On The Mountain" published in 1953 as a semi-autobiographical work. The story is a coming of age tale about a black boy seeking to find his way in life amidst a family full of trauma and thus secrets and a world full of ignorance, racism, violence and hatred. A world divided between the have and have- nots, where the haves were mainly white and the have- nots mainly black. A world also divided between powers, earthly powers, spiritual powers, powers of good such as love and humility and of evil such as unrecognized and abused privilege. The book is a marvel, it set the stage for writers of color, Black, Latinx, Native and others in American literature. It opened the door for not only honesty about racism in our lives but was one of the first books to begin the exploration of sexual orientation and the fear and hatred toward LGBTQ folks, including hatred preached from the pulpits of Christian churches. Baldwin explores intersectionality, how multiple identities interact to create who we are, decades before this became a well respected scholarly concept where our lives and our world exist in constantly changing multiply interacting dimensions, where both good and evil have room to grow or hide unless we seek and find enlightenment and grace. But in the end Baldwin seemed to still believe in redemption and in the hope for, maybe even the promise of justice - someday, the mountain will be reached and the hearts of humanity can sing and testify of understanding and love all together from the mountaintop. But that day is not here, we have a long way to go yet. The way may be provided, if you are Christian, the light has come into the world but we must each keep our own lamps trimmed and burning.

But I am not feeling much of this hope right now. It's May 2020, George Floyd was just suffocated by police on live TV, Ahmad Arbury was just shot down jogging on a public street. Breonna Taylor was just shot in her own apartment by police. All because these folks were Black and in this world and time, as Baldwin wrote so strongly of, Black lives often do not matter. So we have to say it, over and again and seek to live it out always, BLACK LIVES MATTER. I've listened as black writers have expressed how tired the black world feels, having to live in daily fear, beyond my capacity to know since I am white. But we can open our hearts, fight our own shame and fear, learn and write, speak, teach, protest; fight if we have to and VOTE! Baldwin sets the stage for all of this, all these feelings and experiences as he writes in his first novel in the early 1950's in Harlem. In the passage I am about to share, Baldwin has his main character, John, finally come around to seeking the spiritual redemption so viscerally sought by the Black congregants of his father's church. A salvation to free them from this unjust, harsh, bigoted, ignorant, alienated and violent world they experience as Black people. John finally relents to the spiritual encouragements of his father's church and finds himself lost in a spiritual trance with his elders all praying and singing over him during one long night. In his spiritual trance, John experiences this:

Then the darkness began to murmur - a terrible sound - and John's ears

trembled. In the murmur that filled the grave like a thousand wings

beating on the air, he recognized a sound that he had always heard.

He began, for terror, to weep and moan - and this sound was swallowed

up, and yet magnified by the echos that filled the darkness.

The sound had filled John's life, so it now seemed, from the moment he

had drawn first breath. He had heard it everywhere, in prayer and in

daily speech, and wherever the saints were gathered, and in the

unbelieving streets. It was in his father's anger, and in his mother's

calm insistence, and in the vehement mockery of his aunt; it had rung so

oddly, in Roy's voice this afternoon, and when Elisha played the piano

it was there, it was in the beat and jangle of sister McCandless's tambourine,

it was in the very cadence of her testimony, and invested that testimony

with a matchless, unimpeachable authority. Yes, he heard it all his life,

but it was only now that his ears were opened to the sound that came

from darkness, that could only come from darkness, yet that bore such

sure witness to the glory of the light. And now in his moaning, and so

far from any help - he heard it in himself - it rose from his bleeding,

his cracked-open heart. It was the sound of rage and weeping which

filled the grave, rage and weeping from time set free, but bound

now in eternity; rage that had no language, weeping with no voice, -

which yet spoke now, to John's startled soul, of boundless melancholy,

of the bitterest patience, and the longest night; of the deepest water,

the strongest chains, the most cruel lash; of humility most wretched,

the dungeon most absolute, of love's bed defiled, and birth dishonored,

and most bloody, unspeakable sudden death. Yet the darkness

hummed with murder; the body in the water, the body in the fire,

the body in the tree. John looked down the line of these armies of

darkness, army upon army, and his soul whispered: Who are these?

Who are they? And Wondered: Where shall I go?

James Baldwin, Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953) pp.203-204.

Vintage Books 2013 Edition.

From my own place of grief, I sadly offer the perspective that this same indwelling and surrounding racial horror remains with us, in us, today, almost 70 years after Baldwin wrote this.

Where shall I go? Where shall we go? Who are we? What shall we do?

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