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    Lit:Go Tell It In The Mountain

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    Rahma Sboui Gueddah

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    Age : 32
    Localisation : kairouan,Tunisia
    Registration date : 2006-12-09

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    Lit:Go Tell It In The Mountain

    Post by Rahma Sboui Gueddah on Sat Mar 10, 2007 3:12 pm



    1953's Go Tell It On The Mountain is a symphony of the post-great migration black family, their interior lives, interconnection with their southern past and ability to survive through tremendous pain. Mountain is a novel brave enough to study and examine the wounds that black people have instead of using them to either browbeat a white audience or ask them for pity. It is also a novel of ecumenical ecstasy and pathology, showing the bind religion has on the scope of African American lives and history, how it helped black people survive during their darkest hours and how black people can barely live its ruthless orthodoxies. Mountain is also a prose tour-de-force to end all prose tour-de-forces, revolutionizing the American syntactical landscape by bringing together a stunning grasp of English prose with the language, rhythms and cadences of the black church. Quite simply, Go Tell It On The Mountain is one of the finest novels written in American history.
    The story revolves around the Grimes Clan, 5 members of a highly religious black family. There is Gabriel, the father who is a noxious mixture of pallid sanctimony and moral squalor. He married a woman named Elizabeth, who he treats sadistically because she had a son out of wedlock, although he's done the same thing earlier in his life. Elizabeth's "bastard" son John is the main character of the novel, a perceptive, bright and insightful young boy when he is not being Gabriel's punching bag. Gabriel gives more love to Roy, the son he has with Elizabeth, who is more like the childlike thug Loeb to Gabriel's fatherly Leopold. Gabriel's sister Florence serves as his personal Jeremiah, one of many biblical references in the novel, reminding him of all the dirt he's done in his life. Their lives are centered around the church in Harlem and their own demons, wounds and unresolved family issues.

    The first part of the book, chronicling John's observations about his everyday life, describing the ritual and ceremony of the black church and showing John's status as an outsider in New York, establishes the template for the personal insight and the lyrical beauty of the novel. But Mountain really starts to pick up when Roy comes home after being beaten up by white kids after deliberately trying to pick a fight. Filled with a potent but emotionally hollow indignation, Gabriel goes on a rant about whites and the ugliness/cowardice of his son John, bickers bitterly with his sister Florence and slaps his wife around until Roy cusses him out, which prompts Gabriel to give him a brutal beating.
    From then on the novel progresses to a Saturday night prayer meeting where their life story is told in disorientingly gorgeous flashbacks, nearly biblical in moral scope, told in a language that's ornate, biblical, poetic and beautiful. The bulk of it centers around Gabriel and how he became a combination of Dostoevsky's Stavrogin and the reverend Ike. What makes Gabriel such a chilling character is that Baldwin doesn't present him as a cardboard archetype of evil, but shows the circumstances that made him who he is, and the consequences of his actions that spread that evil about. Baldwin's creation serves as his finest retort to Bigger Thomas, the famous psychopath as victim of Richard Wright's Native Son, not his essays on the subject, which are petty, overwritten, off-the-mark and highly overrated. Unlike Wright's creation of Thomas, which he used as a indicator to damm the evils of racism, Baldwin's Gabriel, while not free from the brutal damage of bigotry, is a monster primarily of his own volition.
    After spending his teenage years and early adult life drinking, fighting and carousing up a storm, Gabriel finds religion and becomes a minister, and for a while it soothes the demons inside of him. He finds a devoted wife and tends to a congregation. But his lust overtakes him and he has an affair with a local "heathen," which results in her getting pregnant. Instead of facing up to it, Gabriel steals money from his wife to help send her away, pretends that nothing happened and acts like he is the same moral figure. It is the first of many scenes in which he uses a fake piety to buffer the memory of one of his actions, and the results, as the novel progresses, are deceit, heartbreak, treachery and death, although not directly by Gabriel's hands.
    Gabriel's sister Florence and his wife Elizabeth are two sides of the same coin. Both left the south to escape the pain, madness and cruelty of their environment in search of a better life up north. Both didn't find it. Florence married a down-on-his-luck lazy drunk, and Elizabeth married a poor, yet sweet, bright and decent man, who was broken down by the police and the system. Few male writers, regardless of color, have ever written as multi- dimensional female characters as both of these women. Like Jean Toomer's beleaguered goddesses in Cane, an avant guarde modernist masterpiece of the Harlem Rennaisance, they are somewhat holy figures who have great obstacles mounted against them. Unlike Toomer, Baldwin doesn't sentimentalize and fetishize them, giving real stories to their lives and basic human wants and needs.
    But in the end it comes back to John, a bright, sensitive, heartbreakingly beautiful soul, on which nothing is lost. Devoted to his mother and emotionally scarred from the viciousness of his father and environment, he distances himself from religion and buries himself in movies and school. But in the end the nightmare of the Grimes' history weighs on him and he has to either break away or join in the sadomasochistic family dance with Jesus. Seeing all the, to quote Yeats, "Terrible Beauty" of the revival meeting, he undergoes a wildly surrealistic conversion to God, bringing the story full circle. An the end the novel leaves you with so many questions. Can John brave his pains through prayer and praise? Can Gabriel reconcile his holy side with his evil side, or is that holy side just a sophisticated front to smoothen that evil out? Will Elizabeth, the Fantine of Harlem, ever find happiness with Gabriel and reconcile the death of her first husband? Can Florence find an emotionally comfortable space between the personal hell of society and her personal hell of her family? Unfortunately, or in this case not, the novel isn't particularly a vehicle to wholly answer questions, it's there to tell a story, and what a great one Mountain is.
    Along the way of telling the stories of the Grimes family, the novel works magic on so many levels. Baldwin is one of the most successful disciples of Henry James, because he knew the master's power lied in his exquisite imagery and ability to find and illuminate subtle truths in his examination of the human soul. And you can see that in beautiful scenic montages that show the joy, pain, exaltation and horror of being in the spirit, the anguish one has to have to want to go through such a state, the stream of conscious power of a sermon, the horrific, all too real and all too damaging father/son dynamic between Gabriel, Roy and John, the tragic ethos of Elizabeth's first love with Richard, his subsequent frame-up by the police and suicide and the wounded yet beautiful daughter/son dynamic that Elizabeth has with John. Here Baldwin takes subtle shared experiences of African American life and makes them beautifully human and undeniably powerful. Another way Mountain was revolutionary was in the way it almost singlehandedly transform the American language. Toni Morrison said it best in her eulogy of him:
    You made American English honest - genuinely international. You exposed its secrets and reshaped it until it was truly modern dialogue, representative, humane. You stripped it of ease and false comfort and fake innocence and evasion and hypocrisy. And in place of deviousness was clarity. In place of soft plump lies was a lean, targeted power. In place of intellectual disingenuousness and what you called 'exasperating egocentricity,' you gave us undecorated truth. You replaced lumbering platitudes with an upright elegance. You went into that forbidden territory and decolonized it, 'robbed it of the jewel of its naivete,' and un-gated it for black people so that in your wake we could enter it, occupy it, restructure it in order to accommodate our complicated passion - not our vanities but our intricate, difficult, demanding beauty, our tragic, insistent knowledge, our lived reality, our sleek classical imagination - all the while refusing 'to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize [us].' In your hands language was handsome again. In your hands we saw how it was meant to be: neither bloodless nor bloody, and yet alive.

    Reading Mountain again I am struck on how, for all Morrison's influences, she and Baldwin are parallel bookends to each other; each showing the best that postmodernist black fiction has offered in the past 50 years. Like Baldwin did in Mountain, Morrison's best work highlights the universal in the African American experience by focusing on the personal and interior of black life. Mountain's greatest triumph is exactly that, as John Grimes and his struggles don't belong only to the scope of African American history, but also of the narrator of In Search Of Lost Time's finite descriptions of his life and world, Stephen Dedalus, the hero of James Joyce's Portrait of The Artist as A Young Man, struggling to search for self and make sense of his life, and in the end Joseph, hero of the Old Testament, desperately trying to come to terms with the nightmare of his family.
    Did he ever top Mountain? No, but one titanic novel is enough. Did his work falter once he dedicated himself to being a civil rights activist? Somewhat, but only in comparison to the standards he set for himself in his early work. But in 2004, where a fragmented America is distancing itself from its common culture and therefore its soul, we need to hear James Baldwin's voice. In troubled times like these, Americans need to fall back on the voices that have, throughout history, emboldened its democratic ideals. James Baldwin is one of those voices, and once again I urge you to read his body of work. Go Tell It On The Mountain is the best place to start.

    lol! HaVe A nIcE dAy afro


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