James Baldwin: The Voice and the Image
23 Thursday Mar 2017
Listening to Adam Lazzare-White read James Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain, is as close to being in a Black Pentecostal church as most of us are likely to ever get. His voice, following and burnishing the rolling biblical lines of Baldwin’s prose, lifts to the incantatory. Listening to the closing moments, I could feel myself being saved, testifying, bearing the weight of revelation. Even reading the text of the closing pages, without a great reader’s help, can bring on such a feeling, as Edwidge Danticat says in her February 26, 2016 “New Yorker” piece.
“Baldwin … does such a great job capturing what it’s like to be enraptured that I always find myself trembling a little while reading.”
This was Baldwin’s first novel, ” a rite of exorcism” as it has been called, of his own young life, a father’s cruelty and piety, a community’s warmth and intimidating grip. Though it is about the religious-sexual experience of a youngster, I could also imagine Baldwin’s own, later experience of being “saved” as a writer. The sense of being overcome, the feeling the burden and solace of “being called” are surely the same.
The 1984 film of the same name, directed by Stan Lathan (a prolific director for television), is almost able to follow the contours and revelations of the family mysteries, as the novel itself, which sometimes confusing even in Baldwin’s talented hands. Though the novel begins and ends on one day, the day John is saved and also his birthday,the central part introduces, through chapters designated as “prayers” the three major characters –Florence, Gabriel and Elizabeth. We get the back story, the family saga and why what is happening in Harlem in the 1930s is happening, how the people got there and what their entanglements and obligations are. The film uses flashbacks to give a similar sense of discovery and history.
The revelations in the movie, however, are more difficult to follow than in the book. I doubt I would have understood them all had I not read it first. More generous editing and another couple of scenes might have helped — it runs only 96 minutes. Before you see the movie (it’s available on-line, at Amazon among others) I’d suggest at least a perusal of a summary or two of the book, to keep Roy, Royal, Deborah, Elizabeth and Ester connected. Gabriel and his sister, Florence, his step-son John and youth preacher Elisha have the time and lines to be clear without such help.
Though Baldwin’s prose wonderfully creates the feeling of the ecstasy of church service, and Lazarre-White’s reading adds to it, the film with its audio-visual strengths makes it even more easily available, clear and present. They are quite wonderful to hear and see these many years later. I imagine, however, it was difficult, in 1984, to decide to include so much of these scenes of devotion. Not only were films with an all Black casts almost completely unknown, such “holy rolling” was considered by many, including black Americans, to be outside the norm, and somewhat of a caricature of Black behavior.
Praying Mother Washington (Rose Weaver) and Sister McCandless (Linda Hopkins) lead a jubilant congregation pulling young John (James Bond III) “on through to the other side.” Paul Winfield plays Gabriel Grimes, the paterfamilias, fearsome and demanding, trying desperately to cover his own sinfulness under layer upon layer of holiness, and pointing out the sin in others.
Go Tell It On the Mountain should be on all lists, and must-reads, of great American family sagas. If The House of the Spirits, Roots, Little Women, The Godfather are praised as great family novels, if the Snopes and the Sartoris are included, why not the Grimes of Go Tell It On the Mountain?
Not only does it take readers to two cultures they likely don’t know – rural Black America and Harlem in the 1930s, it takes them into a church experience that is seldom, if ever, treated with such great complexity. Though Gabriel Grimes is the man “whose time it is to start paying for his sins,” he is not the thorough charlatan that Elmer Gantry or Hazel Motes are. There is much of the same oppression-of-others coming out of oppression-to-self that August Wilson writes of later in Fences. Though Baldwin himself was a young preacher who later left the church his telling of the story is not only of the bad. Go Tell It is a rich and textured recall of the warmth and uplifting strength of these small congregations as well as the rigid, unfounded belief system wearing away at youth and creativity
Edwidge Danticat says of it:
“This novel is not just a well-thought-out and well-crafted lyrical work but also a protest chant, a hymn, a rebuke, a memorial, a prayer, a testimonial, a confessional, and, in my opinion, a masterpiece.”
What’s most impressive about Baldwin to me, beyond his gift of story telling and well wrought sentences, is himself, the man. Seeing the recently released I Am Not Your Negro I was reminded of his work, and more importantly, his moral stature. Somehow, despite the turmoil of his own experience, the discrimination he faced, the cruelty he felt around him, he lived without reflecting the shadow. He took responsibility for his own life, and called on others to do the same. As he said in the film and here, as quoted by Edwidge Danticat,
“A country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become. Now, this country is going to be transformed. It will not be transformed by an act of God, but by all of us, by you and me.”
For a later revisiting of his youthful immersion in, and departure from, the church, his essay “Letter From a Region In My Mind” in the November 178, 1962 New Yorker, is a fine prologue or afterword to the novel.
Do read the novel. Do see the film. They are American stories and too little known for that.