Category Archives: Baldwin, James

Black History Month: Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

Go Tell It On The MountainGo Tell It On The Mountain
by James Baldwin
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: May 18, 1953
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 240
ReRead?: No
Project: back to the classics, Mt. TBR 2022

“Mountain,” Baldwin said, “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Go Tell It on the Mountain, originally published in 1953, is Baldwin’s first major work, a novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery one Saturday in March of 1935 of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a Pentecostal storefront church in Harlem. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle toward self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.

I’m still catching up on my Baldwin reads. This was a powerful book – it’s Baldwin’s first major work, published in 1953.  Set all on one day, it covers four separate perspectives: the main character, John Grimes, his step-father, Gabriel, a minister, his father’s sister, Florence, a woman nearly overcome with bitterness, and his long-suffering mother, Elizabeth. It’s semi-autobiographical, and reading Notes of a Native Son after reading this helped me to better understand the character of step-father – who comes off quite badly – and the relationship between the protagonist and his step-father.

Set in Harlem in 1930, it provides deep insight into the depression-era African-American experience in the (supposedly) more welcoming northern states.

“There was not, after all, a great difference between the world of the North and that of the South. There was only this difference: the North promised more. And this similarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other”.

It also pays attention to, in particular, the deep reliance on Christian faith possessed by many (if not most) African-Americans, in spite of their oppression and marginalization. Written in poetic language that echoes the King James Bible, I would count Go Tell It On The Mountain as essential reading for anyone who is interested in understanding the history of racism in the United States.

Black History Month: If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

If Beale Street Could TalkIf Beale Street Could Talk
by James Baldwin
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1974
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 197
ReRead?: No

In this honest and stunning novel, James Baldwin has given America a moving story of love in the face of injustice. Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin's story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions-affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

I am far behind on my book posts from February – I did a great job keeping up in January, but sort of fell off the wagon and now am in catch up mode.

This is the first of 4 additional books that I read for Black History Month, in addition to Jubilee, which I did manage to get written up before the end of the month – and I read two additional James Baldwin books: Go Tell it on the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son. The final book was A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a later Baldwin, published in 1974.

I’ve now read four of Baldwin’s books – last year I read The Fire Next Time for Black history month. He is an incredibly talented writer, and is equally proficient in fiction and essay/non-fiction. I think that I have slightly preferred reading his essays, but getting to understand his voice has really helped me to lean into his fiction as well. I feel like reading Baldwin is a life-long undertaking. Each book that I add to my personal experience enhances the books that I have read before. It would take endless rereads to absorb everything that is packed into his writing – the symbolism, the characters, the personal history, the perspective, the bone-deep understanding of what racism has wrought in America.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a good example of this, because, like Go Tell it on the Mountain, it exists on multiple levels. On the first level, it’s a very simple love story. Fonny and Tish are in love, and they are having a baby, and there are barriers to overcome. But digging below the surface, there is so much more. There is racism at this deeply institutional level, and injustice and hope, and there is also homophobia, and colorism, and misogyny. It was an easier read than Go Tell it on the Mountain, for sure, and I can understand why it is considered a “lesser” Baldwin – it is told in a more straightforward, linear fashion, and it lacks the symbolic, King-James-Bible inspired language and imagery that he used when he was a younger writer.

I haven’t seen the movie, and I’m not sure that I will, at least not right away. There is so much more that I have to learn from Baldwin.