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Go Tell it on the Mountain

James Baldwin

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

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


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.

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