Go Tell It On The Mountain is James Baldwin’s 1953 novel about a critical time in the life of a 1930s Harlem teenager. John is a bright boy, trying to come to terms with turbulent family life, and the expectations of future leadership placed upon him by the local African-American Pentecostal church. We also hear much about the background of John’s father and mother and other close relations.
So what will John do? Will he become a preacher as his family expect, or will he embrace secular life? Whatever decision John might make, a biblical quotation hangs over him. One night, John goes to his church, to help out with an evening service. Only a few people turn up, which causes one of the devout congregation to complain about the lack of commitment shown by youngsters these days:
‘The Lord ain’t going to bless no church what lets its young people get so lax, no sir. He said, because you ain’t neither hot or cold I’m going to spit you outen my mouth. That’s the Word.’
The Word seems to require that you settle on one thing or the other, but not wobble in the middle. Ironically, I’ve always thought the sign of a good novel is the way it wobbles in the middle. If you want hot or cold on their own, then you should maybe go for political or religious writing of the more fundamentalist kind.
Go Tell It On The Mountain prevaricates, in all kinds of novel-like ways. Just a few examples – preachers, who are supposed to be examples for their flock, are deeply flawed, hypocritical individuals, while ordinary people who lack outward respectability, running dodgy bars perhaps, have great qualities. There are graphic descriptions of injustice perpetrated by racists, set alongside the seemingly inconsistent theme that there is no black and white where justice is concerned. Fittingly, given the importance of that quote about God spitting fence-sitters out of his mouth, the word ‘mouth’ appears repeatedly, 47 times I discovered – excluding all the many additional mentions of lips and tongues. The mouth is an image of temptation, argument, communication, deception, peace – overall an image of contradiction, which runs throughout Go Tell It On The Mountain.
Go Tell It On The Mountain was an interesting, sometimes harrowing read, which demonstrates what good novels might give us – an appreciation of subtlety in the face of everything that wants to paint the world in black and white. Novels are really the antithesis of sermons, showing rather than telling it on the mountain.