In 1998, the Modern Library ranked this book 39th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time Magazine included the novel in its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
People in our group said that it was very well written with powerful prose and challenging, ‘absolutely brilliant’, ‘the most rewarding book I have read for some time’ ‘strong characters’ but also ‘hard going.’
I have read it twice, the second time after an interval of about forty years. The first time was when I knew little about racism and felt that black people ‘had a chip on their shoulder’.
The novel takes place in 1935, only 73 years after Emancipation so the characters are only slightly removed, by one or two generations, from their slave ancestors. John has internalised this racism, directing it against his own people and hence himself.
It jumps about, using flashback episodes to recount the lives of John’s parents and aunt and to link this urban boy in the North to his slave grandmother in an earlier South.
There is an obsession with what is perceived to be ‘sin’. John “sinned his hand” (masturbated) and, in his eyes, his home is dirty, irredeemably filthy. The air of the church reeks permanently of “the odour of dust and sweat”; the family surname, Grimes, connotes a dirtiness handed from one generation to the next.
Musing on his father’s hatred of white people, he thinks that they surely do not read their Bible every night or go to a holy church; yet he has difficulty imagining them burning in hell for eternity. Some white people have been friendly to him at school, including teachers. Thus, he feels certain that white people are kind and will honour him when he distinguishes himself. His father, however, claims that all whites are wicked and deceitful and that God will “bring them low.” However, he recalls reading about the atrocities committed by whites against blacks in the South. He realizes that, in fact, he doesn’t dare enter any of the shops from which white ladies emerge, that this is not his world—that he could grow to hate these people.
John is illegitimate and Gabriel loves his own son, Roy, more. John thinks, there must be something wrong with him that causes his father to hate him so. His reaction is natural: he returns his father’s hate but also hates himself for doing so and further hates himself for provoking his father’s hate. Did Baldwin write this as therapy?
John’s wrestling match with Elisha echoes Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel of the Lord in the Bible. To wrestle with the Lord’s anointed (Elisha has been saved) is a portentous experience for John yet the struggle is also coloured by the attraction John harbours for Elisha. Its overtones are as erotic as they are religious.
John’s “cruel choice” to follow the narrow path, renounce the things of this world and join the saints, or to strive for worldly success is linked to his conflict with his father. John feels the pressure to follow his father, to please him and to prove himself by virtue and piety. But he despises his father deeply. He realizes that his father is “God’s minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven,” and that he, therefore, cannot “bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father.” We read, “On his refusal to do this had his life depended….”
One reviewer suggested that its structure was like sonata form in music, with the first part equivalent to the exposition, the tarry service/reminiscences/religious transformation as development, and the post-service elements as the recapitulation, with some of the tensions now resolved or altered; the novel’s being split into three parts, the middle one its most complex.
All of the major characters, Florence excepted (effectively a heathen in Gabriel’s eyes, who has not attended church in years before the night of the tarry service), have biblical names though it’s difficult to view his calling the least angelic character Gabriel as anything other than ironic.
Churchgoing was an all-day affair then, as it is still is in many of what we now call ‘black-led churches’. Sunday school, morning service and the rest of the day are taken up. They provide a solid bedrock that can help anchor family life but they also foster an escapist, otherworldly of “pie in the sky,” which distracts people from taking actions that would remedy the injustices that society imposed, as the legacy of slavery lingered.
I was surprised to hear a pastor with the title ‘Father’.
On his fourteenth birthday, he fears that the awakening of his sexuality might lead to him being left behind at the Rapture.
I still find it odd when black people call their hair ‘kinky’.
“Florence’s Prayer” takes us back to the South into slavery times, establishing ties between the action of the present (1935 New York) with a larger history of bondage, Reconstruction, and the Great Migration northward. John and his siblings are grandchildren of slaves and have uncles they will never know, born into slavery and separated from their mother. John is the first member of his generation to be born in the North, to know nothing of the South but what he has learned from stories. Baldwin himself, when he wrote Go Tell It on the Mountain, had never been to the South.
Just as Abraham viewed Ishmael, Gabriel saw John as an illegitimate usurper to the legitimate son, Roy’s, rightful inheritance. A nearer Biblical parallel is Jacob who usurped brother Easu’s place.
Gabriel was the fatherless son of a freed slave; his own biological sons are either betrayed by him or betray him like the prodigal son. John was the son who accepted the Christian faith and later rejected it. Gabriel’s life hasn’t been easy so it’s possible to have some sympathy and not judge him too harshly if you haven’t grown up having had to watch our friends and neighbours raped or lynched. His hatred of white people has some justification.
I didn’t like the bit where the older preachers were leering at Deborah.
When Gabriel sees the castrated black soldier, hew feels impotent. Race touches on sexuality. White people’s obsession with the sexuality of black men is also echoes in Royal’s taunt, I bet he’s got a big one.’ The emasculation of the black man is part of a lynching as is the rape inasmuch as white men know they can have their way with a black girl and get away with it. In the short story,
No wonder that some black people internalise their hatred.Florence hates her brother, she hates “common niggers,” she ultimately hates her own blackness and uses skin whiteners despite her husband telling her that “black’s a mighty pretty color”.
Others externalise it. Gabriel tells his family that white people can never be trusted, that all white people are “wicked,” that none of them have “ever loved a nigger,” and that God will “bring them low.” Richard nurses an abiding hatred for white people and educates himself so that no white person will be able to talk down to him.
The final chapter, the threshing floor, is difficult because it portrays some sort of psychological and/or mystical experience and uses imagery from the Book of Revelation.
What is the value of this religious awakening? Is the only choice available to young black men between the perdition of the street and a retreat from reality? John wants to be unlike his father but how long will he look forward? The novel doesn’t say but for Baldwin himself this optimism lasted merely three years.
Nothing but the darkness, and all around them destruction, and before them nothing but the fire–a bastard people, far from God, singing and crying in the wilderness!
‘You children is young,’ their mother said, ignoring Sarah and sitting down again at the table, ‘and you don’t know how lucky you is to have a father what worries about you and tries to see to it that you come up right.’
‘Yeah,’ said Roy, ‘we don’t know how lucky we is to have a father what don’t want you to go to movies, and don’t want you to play in the streets, and don’t want you to have no friends, and he don’t want this and he don’t want that, and he don’t want you to do nothing. We so lucky to have a father who just wants us to go to church and read the Bible and beller like a fool in front of the altar and stay home all nice and quiet, like a little mouse. Boy, we sure is lucky, all right. Don’t know what I done to be so lucky.’
He stood for a moment on the melting snow, distracted, and then began to run down the hill, feeling himself fly as the descent became more rapid, and thinking: “I can climb back up. If it’s wrong, I can always climb back up.
It’s a long way,” John said slowly, “ain’t it? It’s a hard way. It’s uphill all the way.
It was not only colored people who praised John, since they could not, John felt, in any case really know; but white people also said it, in fact had said it first and said it still.
Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself.” Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.
He awoke on this birthday morning with the feeling that there was a menace in the air around him – that something irrevocable had occurred in him.
He lived for the day when his father would be dying and he, John, would curse him on his death-bed. And this was why, though he had been born in the faith and had been surrounded all his life by the saints and by their prayers and their rejoicing, and though the tabernacle in which they worshipped was more completely real to him than the several precarious homes in which he and his family had lived, John’s heart was hardened against the Lord. His father was God’s minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven, and John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father.
Once he and Roy had watched a man and woman in the basement of a condemned house. They did it standing up. The woman had wanted fifty cents, and the man had flashed a razor.
“Your Daddy beats you,” she said, “because he loves you.”
Florence was a girl, and would by and by be married, and have children of her own, and all the duties of a woman; and this being so, her life in the cabin was the best possible preparation for her future life. But Gabriel was a man; he would go out one day into the world to do a man’s work, and he needed, therefore, meat, when there was any in the house, and clothes, whenever clothes could be bought, and the strong indulgence of his womenfolk.
There was sin among them. One Sunday, when regular service was over, Father James had uncovered sin in the congregation of the righteous. He had uncovered Elisha and Ella Mae. They had been “walkin… disorderly”; they were in danger of straying from the truth.
Every Sunday morning, then, since John could remember, they had taken to the streets, the Grimes family on their way to church.
“She was in a terrible state, for she found that she could neither take her eyes off him nor look at him.”
“Looking at his face, it sometimes came to her that all women had been cursed from the cradle; all, in one fashion or another, being given the same cruel destiny, born to suffer the weight of men. Frank claimed that she got it all wrong side up: it was men who suffered because they had to put up with the ways of women—and this from the time that they were born until the day they died.”
“all that befell: in her joys, her pipe in the evening, her man at night, the children she suckled, and guided on their first short steps; and in her tribulations, death, and parting, and the lash, she did not forget that deliverance was promised and would surely come. She had only to endure and trust in God.”
“She, who had descended with such joy and pain, had begun her upward climb—upward, with her baby, on the steep, steep side of the mountain.”
“The woman on the bed was old, her life was fading as the mist rose. She thought of her mother as already in the grave; and she would not let herself be strangled by the hands of the dead. “I’m going, Ma,” she said. “I got to go.”
“You going North,” her mother said, then. “And when you reckon on coming back?” “I don’t reckon on coming back,” she said.
He smiled, watching her, and felt a great tenderness fill his heart. ‘You just stay in the Word, little sister. The windows of Heaven going to open up and pour down blessings on you till you won’t know where to put them.’
When she smiled now it was with a heightened joy. ‘He done blessed me already, Reverend. He blessed me when He saved your soul and sent you out to preach His gospel.’
‘Sister Deborah,’ he said, slowly, ‘all that sinful time–was you a-praying for me?’
Her tone dropped ever so slightly. ‘We sure was, Reverend. Me and your mother, we was a-praying all the time.’
And he looked at her, full of gratitude and a sudden, wild conjecture: he had been real for her, she had watched him, and prayed for him during all those years when she, for him, had been nothing but a shadow. And she was praying for him still; he would have her prayers to aid him all his life long–he saw this, now, in her face. She said nothing, and she did not smile, only looked at him with her grave kindness, now a little questioning, a little shy.
‘God bless you, sister,’ he said at last.
“For the rebirth of the soul was perpetual; only rebirth every hour could stay the hand of Satan.”
stiffness…that would be hard to break, but that, nevertheless, would one day surely be broken.
“‘Praise the Lord,’ said his father. He did not move to touch him, did not kiss him, did not smile. They stood before each other in silence, while the saints rejoiced; and John struggled to speak the authoritative, the living word that would conquer the great division between his father and himself. But it did not come, the living word; in the silence something died in John, and something came alive.”
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
“Yes, Mama. I’m going to try to love the Lord.” At this there sprang into his mother’s face something startling, beautiful, unspeakably sad—as though she were looking far beyond him at a long, dark road, and seeing on that road a traveler in perpetual danger. Was it he, the traveler? or herself? or was she thinking of the cross of Jesus?”
“And her smile remained unreadable; he could not tell what it hid. And to escape her eyes, he kissed her, saying; ‘Yes Mama. I’m coming.'”
“John and his father stared at each other, struck dumb and still and with something come to life between them – while the Holy Ghost spoke. Gabriel had never seen such a look on John’s face before; Satan, at that moment, stared out of John’s eyes while the Spirit spoke; and yet John’s staring eyes to-nigh reminded Gabriel of other eyes; of his mother’s eyes when she beat him, of Florence’s eyes when she mocked him, of Deborah’s eyes when she prayed for him, of Esther’s eyes and Royal’s eyes, and Elizabeth’s eyes to-night before Roy cursed him, and of Roy’s eyes when Roy said: ‘You black bastard.’ And John did not drop his eyes, but seemed to want to stare for ever into the bottom of Gabriel’s soul.”
“But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road; the perspective to say the very least, changes only with the journey; only when the road has, all abruptly and treacherously, and with an absoluteness that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is one able to see all that one could not have seen from any other place.”
“There are people in the world for whom “coming along” is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive.”
“The morning of that day, as Gabriel rose and started out to work, the sky was low and nearly black and the air too thick to breath. Late in the afternoon the wind rose, the skies opened, and the rain came. The rain came down as though once more in Heaven the Lord had been persuaded of the good uses of a flood. It drove before it the bowed wanderer, clapped children into houses, licked with fearful anger against the high, strong wall, and the wall of the lean-to, and the wall of the cabin, beat against the bark and the leaves of trees, trampled the broad grass, and broke the neck of the flower. The world turned dark, forever, everywhere, and windows ran as though their glass panes bore all the tears of eternity, threatening at every instant to shatter inward against this force, uncontrollable, so abruptly visited on the earth.”
“Elisha,’ he said, ‘no matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember – please remember – I was saved. I was there.”
“And the darkness of John’s sin was like the darkness of the church on Saturday evenings[…] It was like his thoughts as he moved about the tabernacle in which his life had been spent; the tabernacle that he hated, yet loved and feared[…] The darkness of his sin was in the hardheartedness with which he resisted God’s power; in the scorn that was often his while he listened to the crying, breaking voices, and watched the black skin glisten while they lifted up their arms and fell on their faces before the Lord. For he had made his decision. He would not be like his father, or his father’s fathers. He would have another life.”
“And his mind could not contain the terrible stretch of time that united twelve men fishing by the shores of Galilee, and black men weeping on their knees tonight, and he, a witness.”
“It was he who had told her to weep, when she wept, alone; never to let the world see, never to ask for mercy; if one had to die, to go ahead and die, but never to let oneself be beaten.”
“On the threshing-floor, in the centre of the crying, singing saints, John lay astonished beneath the power of the Lord.”
“Then John knew that a curse was renewed from moment to moment, from father to son. Time was indifferent, like snow and ice; but the heart, crazed wanderer in the driving waste, carried the curse for ever.”
” ‘Elisha,’ he said, ‘no matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember – please remember – I was saved. I was there.'”
return to the home page