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Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else. I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal, above all, with my father. “, James Baldwin said of his autobiographical debut novel, published in 1953. 

14-year-old John is the son of the preacher Gabriel Grimes. Formerly a womaniser, now a moral authority in 1930s Harlem. Baldwin describes a difficult relationship that is also intensified by religion. The Grimes family has come from the South to the North like millions of others who didn’t want to live under the Jim-Crow legislation. John’s father, his mother Elisabeth, his Aunt Florence – they all promise themselves a better future. Especially the women. They demand education and are searching for a life that is freer from the rules that they are forced into through a patriarchal understanding of religion. 

As I was reading, I thought a lot about the complex relationship between faith, the church, religion, society and community. The title of the book, Go Tell It on the Mountain, refers to a Spiritual. Baldwin prefaces the novel with a Bible verse from the Book of Isaiah. For John Grimes all of this is anchoring, and yet at the same time it never quite provides assurance and comfort. 

The novel begins on the day of John’s 14th birthday. He visits the world of the Whites, actually just a few streets over, stands by the stairs to the New York Public Library, and although he has a Harlem library card which would allow him entry, he does not go into the building. It would be clear that he doesn’t belong there, not just because of his skin colour, rather his entire habitus. The 14-year-old knows this already. He promises himself that he will go in once he has read all of the books in the Harlem branch. This is a big promise for a teenager to make, in which much of the impossibility of being able to participate fully in society is hidden.

Go Tell It on the Mountain is a novel which has not lost any of its relevance. The system of power, racism and discrimination in US-American society remains incredibly effective, which is shown today, for example, by the likes of historian Ibram X. Kendi. In New York, life has now become unaffordable, and precarious labour, housing and income ratios are still a reality, especially for Black people.

For Baldwin’s work, the novel is a key text, which is responsible for setting in motion his trajectory as an author and visionary of the US-Afro-American civil rights movement. Without this text, there might not have been any others, as can be understood by the quote above. Today, his works belong to the classics of 20th century literary history, among the likes of Patricia Highsmith, Ursula Le Guin, J.D. Salinger or John Steinbeck.

For those who are also interested in the voices of lesser-known authors, I would like to recommend Daddy was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether. The novel also takes place in 1930s Harlem, but in this case it is about a young girl. Baldwin wrote the novel’s preface, in which he emphasised the particular hardship that one has to experience as a Black girl and woman living in the USA, something that he had never before read about in those days.

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