Although the way we run the book club has always worked a treat when it comes to introducing ourselves to new genres, authors and just generally fabulous bookish folk, what everyone always seems to miss out on is a good old classic. With that in mind the Manchester Book Club made an informal decision over Christmas to start a bit of a classics club every January to get us all off on the right foot.
With some excellent inspiration from the lucky lady tasked with choosing such an important selection of books for the month, we finally plumped for the least known of the offerings; Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin.
Having only ever heard of (and not yet read) Baldwin’s seminal classic of gay literature; Giovanni’s Room, the prospect of introducing myself to the author through his first novel instead was hugely attractive, particularly understanding that this snapshot of evangelical life in 1930s Harlem is effectively a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Baldwin’s own difficult upbringing under the cosh of his preacher father;
In the moment that these words filled the room, and hung in the room like the infinitesimal moment of hanging, jagged light that precedes an explosion, John and his father were staring into each other’s eyes…his eyes were so wild and depthlessly malevolent, and his mouth was twisted into such a snarl of pain.
In one short, intense thunderclap of a novel, we follow a day in the life of the Grimes family; namely the fourteenth birthday of John Grimes; a clear reflection of Baldwin’s younger self. In five, well-defined chapters we experience the hardships and hang ups of present day life for the Harlemites, three ‘prayers’ that explore the repressed background of the adults and their former lives living in the Southern states, and a finally bewildering chapter spent writhing on the ‘threshing floor’.
I was very lucky to have a couple of days off and a particularly relaxing weekend to take full advantage of this powerful book and let the ebb and flow of the language simply wash over me. Whereas other members of the book group found the unrelenting preaching and ‘god-speak’ exhausting and somewhat impenetrable, I dived in with enthusiasm, riding the waves of devotion and becoming morbidly fixated on the tragic scenes of these characters’ disadvantaged pasts.
Gabriel, the spectator of Baldwin’s paternal past, is a dreadful character; repressive, hypocritical and totally unredeemable. Ordinarily this would spell the nail in the coffin for me with any book however it is testament to Baldwin’s sheer skill that I could stomach him, his behaviour becoming the necessary vehicle for the tragedy (usually female) and religious fervour that makes this story so poignant.
Novels dealing with slavery in the United States are popular and I’ve had the opportunity to read a few. Novels, however, dealing with the next generation down; the sons and daughters of slaves, their lives and the legacy of their parents’ bondage, is something I haven’t had the chance to explore quite as much. Whatever tragic ends they may eventually meet, following these folk to the North and witnessing the fierce expression of the faith that was born down in the Southern plantations is thought-provoking wherever you come from. Although John’s muddled, fanatical final performance in the Church stopped this classic scoring top points with me (knocked to a modest 4/5 on Goodreads) and put some book groupers off all together, this slightly forced end-sequence did not spoil what is, for me, the perfect, impassioned introduction to James Baldwin. Why go for the obvious choice after all?
Have you read any James Baldwin? How do you feel about the way African American experience is portrayed in literature?