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Go Tell it on the Mountain

James Baldwin

Part Three: "The Threshing-Floor"

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

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Summary

John undergoes a terrifying hallucinatory experience of spiritual rebirth. In his visions, he struggles with his father, with his doubts and sins and fears, with strange sounds and horribly vivid, imagined sufferings. At last the ordeal ends when John catches what he believes to be the briefest glimpse of the Lord Himself. It is morning; he is saved. Brother Elisha and the saints, as well as his family, have been with him all through the night.

The saints rejoice. John cries. His mother and aunt are proud and encouraging. His father, however, remains cold; when John tells his father that he knows that he is saved, Gabriel is skeptical: "It come from your mouth," he says. "I want to see you live it. It's more than a notion." The congregation heads out into the dawn.

Elizabeth walks with the praying women of the congregation who rejoice and congratulate her on her son. She cries, overcome with emotion. The women think she cries because her heart is full of gladness, but there is a bitterness to her tears that they cannot appreciate.

Florence walks with Gabriel. A lifetime of mutual resentment and enmity bubbles over. Florence challenges Gabriel's pretensions to holiness, interrogating him, "Who is you met, Gabriel, all your holy life long, you ain't made to drink a cup of sorrow?" She shows him Deborah's letter, which she has carried with her all these years. "I know you thinking at the bottom of your heart," she tells him, referring to Elizabeth, "that if you just make her, her and her bastard boy, pay enough for her sin, your son won't have to pay for yours. But I ain't going to let you do that."

John walks with Elisha. The avenue looks changed irrevocably in John's eyes. He asks Elisha questions; Elisha comforts and encourages him. John implores Elisha to pray for him, to help him so that he will not falter. Elisha promises that he will look out for his little brother in the Lord. They arrive at John's house. Florence and the praying women wave from the street corner. John's parents come up to the house, and Elisha gives John a holy kiss on the forehead. The sun comes up as Elisha walks away down the avenue. John smiles at his father, but his father does not smile in return. John's mother is waiting for him in the doorway.

Commentary

In Part Three the father-son conflict is reformulated into another Biblical parallel: the story of Noah and Ham. John, like Ham, happens to see his father naked. For Ham, this event led to a curse upon him: "A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." It is this curse that proponents of slavery have invoked as the "Biblical justification" for slaveholding. John fleetingly wonders if it is true that this curse has been handed down from generation to generation, that black people are the bearers of it; however, he soon realizes that the curse, if there is one, is borne by all humans.

The ending may strike many readers as deeply ambiguous. Some great transformation has seemingly taken place, but what does it really signify? On the one hand, we might say that John has undergone, and emerged victorious from, a spiritual trial; he is saved. By the same token, he has unquestionably succeeded in his father's field, the holiness game; he has struggled with his father and won. Lastly, he has completed the rite of passage from boyhood into manhood, entering the society of the blessed and earning a new name in God's big book.

But is the ending truly a celebration? If the rebirth and salvation of the soul must be a perpetual struggle, as the saints claim, then what has John really achieved? He may still fall; each day remains a great battle that he might lose. And he certainly hasn't won his father's love; the war with Gabriel continues. John feels elevated for the moment, but his father has not admitted any defeat. Perhaps the real achievement lies simply in an alteration of the struggle; it is now a matter of man against man—no longer of man against boy.

A broader question regards the ultimate value or significance the book places on any religious awakening. Elisha may have bestowed an indelible seal on John's forehead, but this merely places John in the company of men like his father—men who look to heaven and "run from the destruction falling on the earth." Is this a novel that celebrates the redemptive power of a religious experience? Or does it demonstrate the bankruptcy and injustice of a society that offers its young black men a hollow choice between the perdition of the street and a retreat from reality? Is it a condemnation both of the whites who maintain this society and the blacks who try to avoid it through religion? John avows his desire to be unlike his father and his father's fathers, valuing his own intelligence and potential instead. However, we cannot but wonder how long such a person can afford to look forward and ahead, ignoring the earth and its pitfalls. The novel itself provides no definitive conclusion. In the life of James Baldwin himself, this optimism lasted a mere three years.

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