Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953) – James Baldwin

This week sees me reading something a little different from my usual escapist fare. Recently LeVar Burton began a reading club on Fable, and while I can’t access it in Canada, they did list the first three books he was recommending, and Go Tell It on the Mountain was at the top of his list.

So I grabbed a copy of James Baldwin’s powerhouse novel, and settled in to read about a young boy growing up in Harlem. It’s his fourteenth birthday and like anyone his age (and older) he’s trying to figure out who he is, where he’s going, and how he fits into the world.

In an eye-opening read this powerful, heart-rending novel allows us glimpses of young John’s life as he struggles with his identity, and the providing us with a look into the lives of those around him in his family, from his mother, to his aunt, to his step-father.

The themes of identity, oppression as well as the hypocrisy and community provided by the church all come into play throughout the narrative. John struggles with himself, not only because of the relationships he has with his mother, and preacher step-father, who has dark secrets of his own, but because, it’s suggested that he may have questions about his sexual identity as well.

There are no answers for any of the characters through the course of the narrative, we are simply afforded a look into the lives of these residents of Harlem in the 1930s. It, for me, was a stunning read. Baldwin crafts his sentences, like his characters, layered, intricate, and powerful.

It’s curious the way the church plays such a large part in each of the character’s lives, but it feels like it means something different to each of them, and that each of them hides a darkness, that they are seeking forgiveness for, and will lay bare on the altar of their lord, but won’t necessarily turn to one another for help because of past grievances, or beliefs.

Baldwin shares stories within stories, and some of the are not just heartbreaking but leaves you to wonder how any human being could do that to another. Baldwin’s characters are real, breathing within the ink, and spring fully-formed from the sheaf of each turned page. Apparently, the story is semi-autobiographical, and consequently, reading it, opens one’s eyes to an experience that some of us have never had, and some of us have to live with every day, even now.

Thank you Mr. Burton for sharing this title, and I’ve already found more of Mr. Baldwin’s works I’m keen to dig into, and I look forward to seeing what other readings you suggest.

UNITED STATES – JUNE 01: Author James Baldwin (Photo by Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

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