Go Tell It on a Mountain: Disillusioned Promises

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Many of James Baldwin’s peers had been disillusioned with the promises made by Christianity which they considered to be unscientific or delusional. Despite this, Baldwin draws several parallels with the Bible, while at the same time quoting and paraphrasing scripture in his novel Go Tell it on the Mountain. The title itself brings to mind a biblical hymn which instructs us to evangelize the birth of Christ. Gabriel and Deborah Grimes, parents of John and Roy, take their parallel from Abraham and Sarah of the Old Testament. In addition, Gabriel’s favored son, Roy, is equated to Isaac’s favorite son, Esau while John is comparable to Jacob. Finally, Gabriel and John experience a moment similar to that of Noah and his son, Ham, when John sees Gabriel without any clothing.

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In the first parallel, Gabriel and Deborah Grimes, parents of John and Roy, resemble Abraham and Sarah of the Old Testament. Near the beginning of the novel, Gabriel receives a prophetic promise from God through a dream. In this dream, God promises Gabriel a royal heir even though his wife at the time is sterile. Gabriel uses his religion as a way of dealing with reality, a characteristic later acquired by John. Gabriel does not truly believe his dream is a message from God, rather, he wants to have an extramarital affair and is able to justify it in this way. Gabriel and a woman named Esther bear a child and name him Royal. Later, Royal is killed in a fight, similar to Ishmael who was dismissed from Abraham’s family.

In the next parallel, Roy, like Esau, does not appreciate his rights as firstborn son. This is because he is younger than his brother John. Additionally, the Grimes brothers are unaware that they are half-brothers, and that John has come from another man’s blood. Roy has little to no religious calling and no motivation to follow in the footsteps of his father, “For he had made his decision. [Roy] would not be like his father, or his father’s fathers. He would have another life” (Baldwin 12). On the other hand, John experiences a level of spiritual enlightenment much higher than that of Roy through the dramatic events described in “The Threshing-Floor.” Finally for John, “his drifting soul was anchored in the love of God; in the rock that endured for ever” (Baldwin 119). Unlike Roy, John is saved. Even if he cannot earn Gabriel’s love, at least father’s disdain is lessened.

In the final parallel, Gabriel and John experience a moment similar to that of Noah and his son Ham, when John sees Gabriel in the nude. While John “scrubbed his father’s back,” (115) he freely looked at his nude father with a possible homosexual undertone. After he looked, John felt “as the accursed son of Noah,” (114). Knowing that Noah placed a curse upon his son in the Bible, John feared that his father knew his sin and would place a curse upon him. John is now using biblical references to relate back to himself, similar to what his father did earlier.

James Baldwin willingly and courageously incorporates both biblical parallels and scriptural references into his novels. In doing this, he addresses the contemporary American issues of faith, sibling rivalry, and sexuality. Baldwin was inspired from writers such as Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Stevens who gave him the courage to incorporate intense scripture comparisons into his novels. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby has an extraordinary gift for hope which points to a Jesus-like figure. Further, the protagonist, Nick Carraway, clearly has homosexual desires for Gatsby. The chain of American writers continued in the work of James Baldwin who courageously went against the status-quo. His hard work and dedication will continue to inspire many other American writers for years to come.

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