on 19 March 2015
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked this book 39th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time Magazine included the novel in its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
People in our group said that it was very well written and challenging, ‘absolutely brilliant’, ‘the most rewarding book I have reads for some timer’ ‘strong characters’ but also ‘hard going.’
I have read it twice, the second time after an interval of about forty years. The first time was when I knew little about racism and felt that black people ‘had a chip on their shoulder’.
The novel takes place in 1935, only 73 years after Emancipation so the characters are only slightly removed, by one or two generations, from their slave ancestors. John has internalised this racism, directing it against his own people and hence himself.
It jumps about, using flashback episodes to recount the lives of John's parents and aunt and to link this urban boy in the North to his slave grandmother in an earlier South.
There is an obsession with what is perceived to be ‘sin’. John "sinned his hand" (masturbated) and, in his eyes, his home is dirty, irredeemably filthy. The air of the church reeks permanently of "the odour of dust and sweat"; the family surname, Grimes, connotes a dirtiness handed from one generation to the next.
Musing on his father’s hatred of white people, he thinks that they surely do not read their Bible every night or go to a holy church; yet he has difficulty imagining them burning in hell for eternity. Some white people have been friendly to him at school, including teachers. Thus, he feels certain that white people are kind and will honour him when he distinguishes himself. His father, however, claims that all whites are wicked and deceitful and that God will "bring them low." However, he recalls reading about the atrocities committed by whites against blacks in the South. He realizes that, in fact, he doesn't dare enter any of the shops from which white ladies emerge, that this is not his world—that he could grow to hate these people.
John is illegitimate and Gabriel loves his own son, Roy, more. John thinks, there must be something wrong with him that causes his father to hate him so. His reaction is natural: he returns his father's hate but also hates himself for doing so and further hates himself for provoking his father's hate. Did Baldwin write this as therapy?
John’s wrestling match with Elisha echoes Jacob's wrestling match with the angel of the Lord in the Bible. To wrestle with the Lord's anointed (Elisha has been saved) is a portentous experience for John yet the struggle is also coloured by the attraction John harbours for Elisha. Its overtones are as erotic as they are religious.
John's "cruel choice" to follow the narrow path, renounce the things of this world and join the saints, or to strive for worldly success is linked to his conflict with his father. John feels the pressure to follow his father, to please him and to prove himself by virtue and piety. But he despises his father deeply. He realizes that his father is "God's minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven," and that he, therefore, cannot "bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father." We read, "On his refusal to do this had his life depended...."
One reviewer suggested that its structure was like sonata form in music, with the first part equivalent to the exposition, the tarry service/reminiscences/religious transformation as development, and the post-service elements as the recapitulation, with some of the tensions now resolved or altered; the novel's being split into three parts, the middle one its most complex.
All of the major characters, Florence excepted (effectively a heathen in Gabriel's eyes, who has not attended church in years before the night of the tarry service), have biblical names though it's difficult to view his calling the least angelic character Gabriel as anything other than ironic.
Churchgoing was an all-day affair then, as it is still is in many of what we now call ‘black-led churches’. Sunday school, morning service and the rest of the day are taken up. They provide a solid bedrock that can help anchor family life but they also foster an escapist, otherworldly of “pie in the sky,” which distracts people from taking actions that would remedy the injustices that society imposed, as the legacy of slavery lingered.
I was surprised to hear a pastor with the title ‘Father’.
On his fourteenth birthday, he fears that the awakening of his sexuality might lead to him being left behind at the Rapture.
I still find it odd when black people call their hair ‘kinky’.
"Florence's Prayer" takes us back to the South into slavery times, establishing ties between the action of the present (1935 New York) with a larger history of bondage, Reconstruction, and the Great Migration northward. John and his siblings are grandchildren of slaves and have uncles they will never know, born into slavery and separated from their mother. John is the first member of his generation to be born in the North, to know nothing of the South but what he has learned from stories. Baldwin himself, when he wrote Go Tell It on the Mountain, had never been to the South.
Just as Abraham viewed Ishmael, Gabriel saw John as an illegitimate usurper to the legitimate son, Roy’s, rightful inheritance. A nearer Biblical parallel is Jacob who usurped brother Easu's place.
Gabriel was the fatherless son of a freed slave; his own biological sons are either betrayed by him or betray him like the prodigal son. John was the son who accepted the Christian faith and later rejected it. Gabriel’s life hasn’t been easy so it’s possible to have some sympathy and not judge him too harshly if you haven’t grown up having had to watch our friends and neighbours raped or lynched. His hatred of white people has some justification.
I didn’t like the bit where the older preachers were leering at Deborah.
When Gabriel sees the castrated black soldier, hew feels impotent. Race touches on sexuality. White people’s obsession with the sexuality of black men is also echoes in Royal’s taunt, I bet he’s got a big one.’ The emasculation of the black man is part of a lynching as is the rape inasmuch as white men know they can have their way with a black girl and get away with it. In the short story,
No wonder that some black people internalise their hatred.Florence hates her brother, she hates her own blackness and uses skin whiteners despite her husband telling her that "black's a mighty pretty color".
Others externalise it. Gabriel tells his family that white people can never be trusted, that all white people are "wicked," and that God will "bring them low." Richard nurses an abiding hatred for white people and educates himself so that no white person will be able to talk down to him.
The final chapter, the threshing floor, is difficult because it portrays some sort of psychological and/or mystical experience and uses imagery from the Book of Revelation.
What is the value of this religious awakening? Is the only choice available to young black men between the perdition of the street and a retreat from reality? John wants to be unlike his father but how long will he look forward? The novel doesn’t say but for Baldwin himself this optimism lasted merely three years.