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Go Tell it on the Mountain

James Baldwin

Part Two: "The Prayers of the Saints" - "Florence's Prayer"

Part One: "The Seventh Day"

Part Two: "The Prayers of the Saints" - Gabriel's Prayer

Summary

Florence has come to her brother's church for the first time. She senses that Gabriel rejoices in her presence not because it proves her entry onto the path to salvation, but rather because it signifies that some hardship has come to her. She subdues her pride before him, sings, and kneels with the saints before the altar. Fear has led Florence here, to the place her mother tried to bring her so long ago. A message has come to her repeatedly: "Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live." She is ill; she has seen death standing in a dark corner of her room, waiting for her. This terrifying specter sends her journeying back mentally through the scenes of her life.

She remembers her mother leading them in prayer the night after Gabriel's first wife, Deborah, was violently raped by a group of white men. Florence's mother was a slave for more than 30 years before being freed by Northern troops. In Florence's mind, her mother was always an immeasurably old woman telling stories of slavery and Exodus in the family's cold cabin, interweaving the Bible with her own life. Florence's father had left for the North soon after Gabriel's birth, and such an escape became Florence's dream.

Although Florence was five years older than Gabriel, it was the boy's future that mattered more to their mother. She made Florence do most of the work, forcing her to wait on Gabriel. While she encouraged Gabriel's education (though to no avail, for he was wild and unstudious), she denied Florence any schooling. Praying for him fervently, their mother tried to beat the wickedness out of the boy; she did not seem to trouble herself so much about Florence. Although Gabriel became a hard-drinking, sinful young man, he was still the center of everything. Florence hated him. In 1900, at the age of 26 and with her ancient mother on her deathbed, Florence walked out the door and headed north.

The narrative shifts briefly to John's perspective as he surveys the church and worshippers. It then returns to Florence's recollections of her marriage to Frank and of their life in New York. Frank was an excessive drinker, an impractical and irresponsible man, extravagant with money; Florence tried in vain to change him. When they fought bitterly he would go on long binges and return penitent, pathetic, and broke. He eventually left her, lived with another woman for a while, then died in France during World War One. Florence remembers a night during their marriage when she and Frank talked about a letter from Deborah. Deborah suspected that Gabriel had a bastard child whom he wouldn't acknowledge. Florence now wonders whether Deborah ever confronted Gabriel. She is carrying the letter in her handbag, having guarded it all these years as a weapon against her brother. Now that it seems that he is winning out—she imagines he will outlive her, be saved, smile over her grave—Florence wonders whether tonight might be the night to present him with the letter.

Commentary

"Florence's Prayer" takes us back to the South and even 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.

Florence's mother teaches Florence that the way to pray is "... to forget everything and everyone but Jesus; to pour out of the heart... all evil thoughts, all thoughts of self, all malice for one's enemies; to come boldly, and yet more humbly than a little child, before the Giver of all good things." At least one critic has fixed on this lesson as a way to interpret the failures of Florence, Elizabeth, and Gabriel in the three "Prayer" sections of Part Two. Florence clearly has not succeeded in forgetting malice; she hates her brother, she hates "common niggers," she ultimately hates her own blackness (she claims she uses skin whiteners for her husband's sake, although he has never asked her to and tells her that "black's a mighty pretty color"). Elizabeth's failure is that she does not come boldly—she is too humble, too broken, too unsure of herself and her worth in the face of Gabriel's holier-than-thou example. Gabriel, for his part, does not come humbly before the Lord; he is too proud, too sure that his way is the right way and that his sins are forgiven.

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