Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819

In Go Tell It on the Mountain , James Baldwin writes in the tradition of the African American male authors before him, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. Each of these authors wrote autobiographical works while communicating the rich experience of African American social life....

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In Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin writes in the tradition of the African American male authors before him, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. Each of these authors wrote autobiographical works while communicating the rich experience of African American social life. Since the publication of Go Tell It on the Mountain, succeeding writers such as Eldridge Cleaver, Claude Brown, Nikki Giovanni, and Alice Walker have also emphasized personal perspectives and events while detailing the African American community’s social conditions, hopes, and difficulties. Each considers his or her own story to be a story of a community rather than an isolated event or an aberration. Each identifies himself or herself as a communal person.

Baldwin’s works are often termed “psychological realism.” Go Tell It on the Mountain successfully explores the emotional depths of all of its main characters. However, these explored emotions are surrounded by social aspects. People are seen as emotionally functional or dysfunctional as a result of the community to which they belong, the larger society in which it is placed, and the institutions to which they attempt to give allegiance or attempt to reject. The realism in Baldwin is never merely an apt description of the character’s feelings; it is always a detailed description of these feelings within a social context. That social context is a primary rationale for why people think, feel, behave, and live as they do. The psychological realism of the author is encompassed in a larger “social realism.”

There are two predominating social institutions in Go Tell It on the Mountain. The first is the African American church. The impact of distinctively African American religion is more than explicitly expressed in the Pentecostal rituals described by Baldwin. The event of salvation and attempted salvation through public confession is only an indicator of how important the religious institution is in people’s lives. It is through the teachings of the church that one gets an idea of how a father, for example, should be. John evaluates his stepfather as unforgiving, unmerciful, hateful, and biased. These are not the descriptors, however, that are used for God the Father and should not be present in human fathers. Conversely, Elizabeth’s tenderness toward John is more reflective of the nurturing acts of God toward people. The African American church is the channel through which one gets ultimate values; it is the institution that shows religious people how life should be on earth. Its God and prophets exemplify and admonish what human relations should be. As the source for final meaning, the African American church is, along with the family, the social institution that has the most impact on the African American community. A family’s dysfunctions are somewhat counteracted by the church’s functionalism. John does find love and a role model in his young preacher friend.

The second predominating social institution in Baldwin’s novel is racism. By implication, Baldwin is claiming that racism is institutionalized, a part of society’s ongoing functioning. This goes beyond the inability of characters to adjust to a hostile society or their being involved in race-oriented confrontations. It emphasizes that the uniqueness of African American experience in America is in their sense of community as they rely on one another in order to survive oppression. They identify with each other because they share a common historical and contemporary experience of rejection by the larger society. Baldwin uses words and phrases such as “melancholy,” “bitterest patience,” and “humility most wretched” to reveal how painful this institutionalization of race prejudice is for African Americans. Their lives are lived in specific ways because the external society oppresses; their options are limited because of this oppression. Individual and family dysfunctionalism is a symptom of this situation. The psychological realities of Baldwin’s characters are, again, the product of social realities.

While the author described Go Tell It on the Mountain as a kind of love song, it is neither sentimental nor romantic in its expression of love. Instead, it is a song about love and its absence. The primary character, John, does succeed in finding love in two other characters, his mother and the young preacher. Most of the other characters, however, experience either love that is denied to them or love that cannot be acted out in acceptable, religious ways. Even John realizes that his hostile stepfather, Gabriel, is the man for whom he should feel the most affection and admiration. John’s potential love for Gabriel, however, is rejected, indicating that a love song does not guarantee loving relations; it includes defeats as well as victories. Baldwin’s own life has sometimes been compared to that of the character John. Although he rejected the idea that this novel was autobiographical, Baldwin did acknowledge that it paralleled his attempts to experience love as a writer, a homosexual, and an African American man.

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