By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: James Baldwin
Narrated by: Adam Lazarre-White
Go Tell It on the Mountain because God is not there. Go Tell It on the Mountain because no one listens. Go Tell It on the Mountain because no one cares. James Baldwin rages against culture that makes one, what one is not. Baldwin wins fame from a book that defines the chains of discrimination. He explains why and how culture is a curse. Baldwin tells a story that explains why being different denies equal opportunity.
Go Tell It on the Mountain is partly auto biographical. It tells of the author’s remembrance of childhood and formative years. In broad perspective, Go Tell It on the Mountain shows how Americans are born as equals but deprived of potential by culture. Though published in 1953, the truth of Baldwin’s observations about culture are institutionalized in America.
Baldwin writes a story about three economic opportunities for early 20th century black Americans. Black opportunities are announced by Baldwin as robber, pimp, or preacher. Today, some believe blacks are still not suited for more. Baldwin’s story is about two fathers of the same boy. One is the natural father; the other is a stepfather. The birth father is characterized as naturally smart. He moves from the rural south to the urban north with a woman he does not marry. The father is arrested for being at a store when two black men rob it. Because the father is in the wrong place at the wrong time, he is sent to jail for trial. The father is accused but not convicted. He is so shaken by the experience; he slits his wrists and dies. What would this father have become if he had not been arrested and jailed? The innate skill of a human being may be a combination of genetics and environment but if one’s color says you can only be a robber, a pimp, a preacher, a sports star, or an entertainer; being smart is not enough. Only when human beings are treated as equal, will stereotypes disappear.
The second father of the same boy, a stepfather, also gravitates from the rural south to the north but he is older and has tasted relative success as a preacher. He is not characterized as particularly smart but he believes in God and talks the talk of a good man who will rescue an unwed mother and her child from a life of despair. However, the stepfather is a martinet that severely punishes his wife and children for what he considers sin or disrespect. The irony of the preacher’s abuse, he is as sinful as most human beings. (In retrospect, knowing Baldwin is gay, one surmises how abusive a religious stepfather might be.)
What makes Baldwin’s book important is its reflection on a part of American culture that denies equal opportunity for all. A smart man kills himself because he is black and has experienced the hate and inequality of discrimination. A preacher beats his wife and sons because he believes he has a right, given by God, to assay sin and punish those who violate his limited understanding.
Being smart or being religious is not enough; particularly if you are a minority or a woman because cultures stultify individuality and restrict opportunity. Women, in Baldwin’s novel, are at once the saviors of black men and unwitting abettors of an unjust culture; i.e. women support their mates while accepting the delusion of a vengeful God that will punish evil; if not now, in an afterlife. The consequence in this earthly life is the perpetuation of inequality.
Individuality and opportunity are hindered by poor education and biases that are eternally engendered (institutionalized) by discrimination. Blacks have shown they are more than criminals, preachers, sports stars, and entertainers. And women have shown they are more than child bearers and housewives but America continues to struggle with equal opportunity for all. Baldwin exemplifies America’s struggle in Go Tell It on the Mountain.