20 November 2011

Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

This is a thundering, intense sort of book about God and sin and race and misery. It's framed as the story of a 14 year old kid and his spiritual awakening (or rather, un-awakening?), but interpollates the stories of other people in his life and their pasts. Curiously enough, that central story wasn't especially interesting to me - the character, Johnny, was strangely hollow, and the scenes of his (awful) family life weren't all that engaging. I was starting to wonder why people love this book so much, and then the perspective shifted to his aunt's story - and I was spellbound.

Perhaps it's uncharitable of me, but I was astonished at how well Baldwin wrote the women in this book. The stories of Johnny's aunt and mother and other women they knew were unbelievably powerful and somewhat devastating. For its bitterly insightful portrayal of black women's experience, the novel deserves to be a feminist classic.

Although the book often, I think, gets read as an indictment of Christianity, I don't think that's quite right. Certainly, it's a pretty harsh critique of the church - especially as institution, but also as this force that essentially serves to further humiliate and degrade people who already have it pretty rough - but I don't think that's the entire story. There's also a kind of acknowledgement of its ability to raise people up, a transformative power of faith. What is more, a large part of the novel's force derives from a rhetoric that is undeniably indebted to religion.

Overall - pretty intense stuff. Baldwin hasn't let me down yet.

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