Go Tell it on the Mountain

by: James Baldwin

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

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

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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