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Go Tell it on the Mountain

James Baldwin

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

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

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

Summary

Now it's Gabriel's turn to revisit his life through memory. He remembers his dying mother's eyes watching him through his drunken nihilism. He recalls the awesome moment of his rebirth in God, in his twenty-second year, walking home after a night of drunken lust. This was the beginning of a new life for him. He began to preach and soon gained renown for his sermons and his righteousness. Guided by a powerful dream, in which the Lord told him that His seal would be on Gabriel's descendents, he married Deborah, whom nobody else would think of marrying after her defilement (her rape).

Brother Elisha breaks the silence in the church and brings Gabriel briefly back to the present. Gabriel is suddenly worried that John is under the power of the Lord, but then she is reassured that it is just Elisha speaking. Gabriel does not want John, who is not his real son, to come under the power of the Lord when his own sons have not. These sons, however, are not here tonight; one is dead; the other is at home cursing his father. John is the bastard son of Elizabeth and was an unnamed infant when Gabriel married her. Gabriel sees John as the product of a weak young woman's sins. Elizabeth does not and will never regret having John. She insists that Gabriel make no distinction between their children, but Gabriel feels there is a difference. John is not the son that God promised Gabriel in a dream—this son is Roy, conjugally conceived and as wild as Gabriel himself once was.

He remembers Esther, the mother of his first, now deceased, son (also named Royal). Esther began working for the same white family as he did soon after he and Deborah were married. She was young, vibrant, mocking, beautiful, irreligious. He pitied her impiety and so invited her to attend his sermon. She came. Later on, on an evening when the family was out of town, he began chastising her for her sinfulness and ended up in her arms, on the kitchen floor. Their affair lasted nine days before he ended it. Months later, she told him that she was pregnant with his child. Gabriel would not think of leaving Deborah for Esther. He considered Esther a harlot, an evil woman sent by Satan to tempt him. He had fallen, but he was repentant and back on the true path. He stole money that Deborah had been saving and gave it Esther so that she could go away and have her baby.

Gabriel never knew if Deborah noticed the money missing or knew of the affair. Esther sent him a damning letter from Chicago, where she died giving birth. Before she died, she named her son Royal. This is the name Gabriel had once told her he would give his son because the descendents of the faithful are a royal line. She had died mocking him, cursing his hypocrisy.

Gabriel watched Royal grow up, his unacknowledged bastard son. Although Gabriel and Deborah were in contact with Royal, it seemed that no one knew of Gabriel's blood-ties to the boy; if Deborah knew, she gave no indication, no opportunity for him to make a cathartic confession. Royal was wild as Gabriel had been wild. One day, as she lay sick in bed, Deborah gave him the news: Royal had been killed in a knife fight in Chicago. Gabriel began to cry, and Deborah asked him if the boy was his. He said yes. At this point Deborah revealed that she knew, she had known, and she had been waiting for Gabriel to confess the truth. She had seen through him; she knew the depth and endurance of this sin. She declared that she gladly would have taken the boy in and raised him as her own—no matter what anyone else said—since she herself was barren. She told Gabriel that he had better pray to the Lord and keep praying until the Lord made it plain that he was forgiven.

John, meanwhile, is struggling with his own thoughts and emotions. He tries to pray, hears voices speaking about salvation, struggles with his hatred for his father and his father's hatred of him. He feels that great seas are churning within him. Gabriel sees John staring at him and reads in the boy's eyes the same accusation that he has felt issuing from all the people in his life. He commands the boy to kneel down.

Commentary

Clearly, Gabriel is not so holy as he would have everyone believe. He looks down on Elizabeth because she has not truly repented for giving birth to John, whereas in his view he has repented for siring Royal. In truth, however, Gabriel has never faced up to his own transgression. He believes God has forgiven him, that God has given him a sign. For God has promised him, as He promised Abraham, that his will be a royal and fruitful line of heirs, bearing the mark of God. By caring for the souls of Elizabeth and her bastard son, Gabriel thinks he has made amends. This divine heritage is Gabriel's ticket to salvation, he thinks, and Roy is the first in this royal line.

Gabriel's sin, though, is not his affair, but the cowardice he exhibited in dealing with its repercussions. He is cowardly in his treatment of Esther, cowardly in his silence to Deborah, cowardly in his inability to acknowledge his illegitimate son, and now cowardly in his holier-than-thou stance to Elizabeth, who does not know of his past. Perhaps God did promise Gabriel a royal line, but in his arrogance Gabriel has misread the signs. He is horrified that "in the womb of Esther, who was no better than a harlot...the seed of the prophet would be nourished." Deborah, unable to have children, would gladly have raised Royal as her own if only Gabriel had acknowledged him. He did not. He watched his son sink into ruin and early death without a word. Later, he sees Elizabeth as his chance for redemption. As Abraham views Ishmael, Gabriel views John as an illegitimate usurper to the rightful inheritance of his legitimate son, Roy. But Roy, despite his name (Royal, in full) is not destined to be holy man, and, as critics have noted, the real Biblical parallel is to Jacob and Esau. Jacob took his brother's place as the heir despite his father's preference for Esau. John is Gabriel's best chance for a holy line, but Gabriel, in his blindness, does not accept his stepson.

Gabriel is not an entirely unsympathetic character, however; his life has not been easy. Those of us who have not grown up having had to watch our friends and neighbors raped or lynched with impunity have a difficult time understanding the effects of this experience on one's heart and mind. Deborah cannot bear children because she was brutally raped as an adolescent by a group of white men. Gabriel has a terrifying vision of his illegitimate son, Royal, killed by whites in the aftermath of a gruesome lynching. His hatred of the white world is, thus, not unwarranted.

The image of the castrated black soldier stands out in this section. Issues of race in America inevitably touch on issues of sexuality, and both are central to Baldwin's writing. The white obsessions with the sexuality of black men and women appear separately in Go Tell It on the Mountain. In Baldwin's later short story, "Going to Meet the Man," they are linked. In both stories we see the emasculation of a black man as part of the lynching ritual. In the novel, the rape of Deborah is unrelated to the lynching—just another act by white men who know they can have their way with a black woman (or girl, in this case) and get away with it. In the short story, a white Southern police officer in the 1960s overcomes his impotence by linking three psychological events: the memory of his beating and electrically shocking a black protester the previous day, a childhood memory of a lynching at which a black man was publicly castrated and burned, and a flight of imagination that transforms the wife in his bed into an invented black prostitute. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, castration is presented only through Gabriel's response to it, even though the emasculation is total and community-wide. Though he imagines crushing a white man's forehead with his show (despite his attempts at prayer), Gabriel does not act. No one acts; to do so would be suicide. Gabriel is an adult man who bullies his stepchild, and as such is a hateful character. Yet we cannot but soften our opinion of him (at least partially) in light of what he has had to suffer.

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